Home»Features»The Use and Abuse of Science and Technology

The Use and Abuse of Science and Technology

Pinterest WhatsApp

In 1992, British novelist P.D. James departed from her usual genre of detective fiction to write a dystopian novel about the growing prevalence of what Pope St. John II later called “the culture of death.” This culture, wrote John Paul in the 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, is “fostered by powerful … economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency” at the expense of the human person.

James’ novel, The Children of Men, begins with a January 1, 2021, diary entry by Oxford University professor Theo Faron. He observes that 25-year- old Joseph Ricardo, the youngest-known person in the world, died that day in a bar fight in Buenos Aires. For unknown reasons, Faron explains, during the past quarter century, human beings had ceased to reproduce. And now, the last to have been born is dead.

Anticipating their own extinction, nations and institutions all over the world prepare for the human race’s imminent demise. “We are storing our books and manuscripts, the great paintings, the musical scores and instruments, the artifacts,” Faron notes. “The world’s greatest libraries will, in forty years’ time at most, be darkened and sealed.” Instead of children, people dress their pets in human clothes, push them in baby carriages and contrive elaborate baptism ceremonies for them. A world that didn’t want children is learning the despair of not having them.

Not surprisingly, Faron explains that the world is despondent. But the reason for its anguish is not that humanity faces impending distinction, as one might assume. Rather, he notes, “We are outraged and demoralized … by our failure to discover the cause.” For all human history, he observes, we have been beset by diseases and devastated by calamities. Until now, “[we] have always been able to explain why” through technological advancement and achievement. “Western science has been our god…. [I]t has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us.” While we may have been unfaithful from time to time, we lived with the knowledge that science, “this deity, our creature and our slave, would provide for us.” But now, he mourns, “I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died.” So, rather than be horrified by the demise of humanity, “we are humiliated at the very heart of our faith in ourselves” to find the solution.

Put another way, “science” as god was actually a proxy for “man” as god. We smugly thought, James asserts through Faron, that with science as our tool we are invincible and immortal; we are our own gods. We might be challenged by disease, pestilence and calamity, but we would always prevail. Every setback would be superseded by new advances. Why? Because as gods, we had gained control over nature. Even more, we vanquished nature. It would henceforth do our bidding, serve our whims and feed our hubris. And “science” would be our tool. Or so we thought.

P.D. James’ indictment of modern science’s hubris calls to mind C.S. Lewis’ famous essay “The Abolition of Man,” published some 50 years before The Children of Men. While James gives us a fictional account of the folly of thinking we can control nature through what we call science, Lewis provides a philosophical and theological explanation of what we really mean when we say we have conquered nature.

“‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science,” Lewis wrote in 1943. But the phrase is a hubristic myth. “What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by.”

As an example, Lewis refers to artificial contraception, which resonates with James’ novel and St. John Paul II’s encyclical. Contraceptives are not so much man controlling nature through science as they are present men asserting control over future men, using science as their weapon. “[A]ll possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those who already live,” Lewis explains. Simply, by “contraception … they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding they are … made to be what one generation … may choose to prefer.”

This contraceptive mentality, St. John Paul II explains, is “a war of the powerful against the weak.” A “life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected.” Or, as Lewis puts it, “Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

Neither James nor John Paul rejects the good uses to which science can be put. Their indictment, rather, is against a cultural hubris that presumes to control nature without any care for the transcendent and unique goodness of the human person. Science ordered toward the good may be beneficial to humankind. Science as a tool disconnected from any sense of the good becomes a weapon by which the strong control the weak. Thus, we all become its victims.

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is a Professor of Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and the author of Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America (OSV 2024).

This article appeared in the April 2024 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

Previous post

Making Space for Faith and Science at Roger Bacon

Next post

Washington archbishop: Biden ‘picks and chooses’ parts of Catholic faith