In June 2001, exactly 20 years ago, a friend of mine and his wife attended a meeting in Washington, D.C. It was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was cosponsored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The theme was “Supercomputing and the Human Endeavor.” My friend took part on behalf of the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican embassy to the United States.
He later described the meeting as “useful” for two reasons. The first was the meeting’s rich discussion of supercomputers, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies. One talk focused on computer modeling of the physical universe. Another, the ecosystem. Others, social and economic outcomes, and the biological processes of life.
The second reason the meeting had been useful, or at least instructive, was its scant discussion of what the human endeavor actually was. There was little focus on what being “human” might mean or imply. There was little focus how and why the new tools of technology might undermine human identity. The agenda was thick with science, its possibilities, and its commercial implications. It was razor thin on ethics and religion. God was not among the invited guests. One inoffensive talk by a retired cleric focused on “the influence of supercomputing on cherished beliefs.”
There’s a lesson in my friend’s experience that has stayed with me over the years. Americans, at least until recently, have never shared Europe’s curse of political extremism rooted in utopian fantasies. In America, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, religion has functioned as the bridle in democracy’s mouth. We value ideas like freedom, law, and individual rights. But we’re a pragmatic people. We venerate our tools. We make tools to solve practical problems, and we get excellent results. That’s one of our strengths. We’re skeptical of ideologies. We’ve resisted, until now, squeezing life into any straightjacket of elitist theory. But our strength, our pragmatism, is also our Achilles heel.
My dictionary defines the word tool in some interesting ways. A tool is “an instrument like a hammer, used or worked by hand.” A tool is “a means to an end.” And — more sardonically — a tool is “someone who is used or manipulated by another; a dupe.”
Humans have been making tools for a very long time. It’s a skill that sets us apart as a species. We’re thinking creatures. We use our brains to extend our physical abilities. Our ideas give birth to tools. Language itself is a tool. It allows us to understand each other. It also vastly increases our ability to observe, reflect on, and communicate our experiences of the world. The Roman alphabet has just 26 letters. But we combine those phonetic symbols in millions of ways to express all the nuances of sorrow, joy, love, culture, and genius.
Our talent with tools makes science and technology possible. Science is simply a method of acquiring knowledge about the world. That’s what the original Latin word means: Scientia means knowledge. And technology is the application of science to solving real-life problems like landing on Mars or moving a ton of bricks. The word “technology” comes from the Greek words techne, which means craft or skill, and tekton, which means carpenter or builder. Put simply, science and technology are the language that shapes the modern world. And only a very foolish person would deny that scientific advances in medicine, energy, communications, commerce, transportation, and education have greatly improved our lives in countless ways.
And yet: Isaac Asimov, the great biochemist and author of prophetic science fiction, warned that “science acquires knowledge faster than humanity acquires wisdom.” Which is unhappy news, because while the tendency to forget our limits as creatures is not new to human history, the cost of our forgetting has gone up radically. We already have the power to turn ourselves into radioactive vapor. Very soon we’ll have the skills to reprogram who we are at a genetic level. We’re the first generation in history with the capacity to change what it means to be “human” at a biological level. And that power comes at exactly the moment when we seem least willing to think morally and modestly about our own power.
To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail: It’s an old saying. But that’s where we are today as developed societies: Science is reshaping our morality and social thought, when a genuinely sane culture would have it the other way around. Human beings use tools, but in using them, our tools also use and change us. They shape our choices and channel our perceptions. They modify the way we think, what we think about, and the way we live our lives. Not every human problem, though, can be solved with a hammer. And not every human need or longing can be met by the tools of science or technology, because both lack the vocabulary to respect, or even to understand, those qualities about being “human” that are most unique and precious, and can’t be materially measured.
The fatal flaw in our modern idolatry of science is that scientism’s idea of man is too big and too small at the same time. We’re less than gods but more than smart monkeys. And the glory that God intends for each of us can only be found one way, through one Man.
It’s worth remembering that Joseph, the husband of Mary and guardian of Jesus, was a tekton; a carpenter and builder. So was Jesus himself. Jesus would have known, from a very early age, the feeling of sweat and stone and wood, the sting of splinters in his hands, and the satisfaction of shaping raw material to human need. He would have learned from Joseph real skill at his labor and a respect for the ingenuity of his craft. But he also would have learned the proper place of his work and tools in a genuinely human life; a life shaped by prayer, study in the synagogue, love for his family and people, and a reverence for the Torah, the Word of God. He also would have understood the treasure of silence, and Scripture tells us that Jesus sought it out.
But that’s not where we’re heading in 2021. Americans love their tools. Tools are ideas made tangible and useable; ideas instrumentalized. Given our character as a nation, it’s no surprise that most popular news coverage of cutting edge technologies like artificial intelligence is positive. Tech news has the sunny quality of a well-crafted commercial — which is exactly what it is, because technological society, by its nature, is permanently restless and dissatisfied with limits of any kind.
We’re sold a future bright with leisure, community, family time, travel, robot servants, and working from home in comfort. Some of it will come true. Much of it will have the same vaporous unreality as the state withering away in Marxist fantasies. But what will certainly come true is a massive increase in the ingenuity of war-making, surveillance, privacy invasion, social conditioning, censorship, and genetic experimentation. Because it’s already happening.
Where we actually may be heading is sketched in “The Great Decoupling,” a chapter in Homo Deus (“Man-God”), a book by the best-selling Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari. In Harari words, “Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority.” But in the coming decades, the logic of our scientific progress will tend to undermine the very convictions that set that progress in motion. “Liberal habits such as democratic elections” writes Harari, “will become obsolete, because Google will be able to represent even my own political opinions better than I am.”
At first hearing, Harari’s views can easily sound extreme and outlandish. But we laugh at our own expense. There’s a reason the New York Times noted that “tech CEOs are in love with their principal doomsayer,” and follow Harari’s thinking with keen interest. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this might lead if only a fraction of it were to come true.
Here’s the moral of these observations. The next time we hear someone tutor us about “the rightful place of science” when it comes to conflicts over bioethics, genetics, Big Data, and other sensitive matters of human behavior and dignity, we’d do well to examine who — or what — shaped his or her ideas, and where the ideas lead. Ideas have consequences. In “following the science,” it’s good to first ask where, and how, and why.
As Scripture says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19). We are the subjects, not the objects, of God’s creation. But, of course, we need to believe that and then act like it, and then work to ensure that our culture does the same.
(Note: This essay has been excerpted and adapted from Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living, published by Henry Holt)
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