Technology’s Conquest of Man

November 1992By Joyce A. Little

Joyce A. Little is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

As Jeremy Rifkin notes in his book Time Wars, the philosophical foundations of the modern world were established back in the 17th century, when the idea of human prog­ress based solely on human reason began to assert itself. Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton supplied the basis upon which a scientific and technological mentality would ultimately tri­umph in the West. Although Newton had a theological purpose in mind in writing Principia Mathematics, to prove on the basis of the or­dered character of the universe that it must have its source in the intellect of God, his work actually had the effect of suggesting, first, that human reason need not advert to God at all in order to understand the world, and, second, that the world itself is a gigantic mechanism that has no need of God except as its Creator. Francis Bacon, almost 70 years earlier, in his seminal work, Novum Organum, had already insisted that, with the application of a truly scientific method, man could not only understand his world, but also turn that knowledge to his own advantage by taking “command over natural things.” This shift from a theocentric to an anthropocentric con­sciousness produced a world quite different from that of the Middle Ages. As Karl Stern has pointed out in The Flight from Woman, this brave new world would be characterized by an endless curiosity about nature and seemingly unquestionable advances in human dominance over nature.

Although today, in our scientific and technologically informed society, signs abound that has gone awry with this type of thinking, especially as regards current concerns with ecology, we are still to all practical purposes informed by human reason enlisted in the service of technological control over the world.

Man’s domination of nature has proceeded on the basis of two assumptions, both of which, from a Christian point of view, have been disastrous. The first has to do with what Bacon characterized as the scientific method. Many employing this method assume that knowledge of the world is completely objective and entirely capable of being comprehended by the human mind. In his Chance & Necessity, Jacques Monod insists that while science takes no direct interest in matters theological or moral, the scientific method itself undermines religious views of reality, inasmuch as it proceeds by denying to reality any purpose or teleology. So successful has this method been, Monod claims, that our society, thoroughly committed to the benefits of science and tech­nology, can no longer afford to accept religious views of reality which contradict the scientific attitude that the whole of the universe holds no purpose for us except that we expand our objective knowledge of and control over it. The problem here is not the scientific method itself, but the prevalent assumption that it offers our one and only access to knowledge.

The second assumption that constitutes a problem for Christian faith is bound up with the technological mindset which has arisen in the wake of science. This mindset assumes the world to be entirely at the disposal of human power and manipulation. This notion removes all sense of giftedness from our rela­tionship to nature. Nature is “a mere given,” not a gift. With the loss of the sense of the giftedness of this world, man necessarily be­gins to set himself against nature, as an adver­sary to be conquered, and thus to lose sight of his indebtedness and responsibility to the One who has conferred this gift.

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