Should Thomists shun technology? At his blog, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser wrestles with the question of whether technology–playing with Promethean fire–is a good thing, and I think it’s telling that, by the end of his essay, his question shifts away from the human being’s relation to machines to whether human beings are themselves machines:
What is important to note for present purposes is that the more we modify ourselves — even when we do so legitimately — the less obvious is our status as “natural” objects in the relevant, Aristotelian sense. We can even start to take seriously the suggestion that we are “really” just “machines” of a sort — a machine being a paradigm instance of something having a merely accidental rather than substantial form.
In other words, once you become enmeshed in technology and body reshaping (boob jobs, sex change operations, etc.), are you a contingent cyborg with a fundamentally different nature or not? Are your tools and bodily transformations extensions of you or not? The obvious implication is that you never had an essence in the first place, except insofar as your essence as a human is to be a transformer. And nature itself has no nature, except to move, like a human, from one probabilistic and dynamic energy state to another.
Technology and evolution. Evolution–including technological evolution–challenges Thomism; it suggests that all is contingent and in some sense polluted with boundary issues (think, for example, of the Panda’s “thumb” and the fact that many Europeans have at least some genes that they share with a completely different species, Neanderthals). Insofar as nature has a nature, it is grounded in God’s desire–assuming that God exists–that nature should, paradoxically, have no nature; that it should be in a state of constant flux; of evolution. There are no essences, really. There are only contingencies. As the Buddhists sometimes put it, “No flower in the flower.” All is interconnection and context–and these are ever shifting.
But this will not do for a Thomist like Feser.
Language, essence, and morality. The Thomist, in posing the question, “Who are you, really?”, does not regard the idea of essence as merely a useful tool for language users–a way to keep subjects and verbs distinctly defined in the moment so that we can talk about them in pragmatic terms. No. The Thomist comes under the spell of language itself–taking our words and the definitions we give to them as revealing something eternal about things in themselves. Take away the language and the essences are still there. Things have real essences. A penis, for example, is first and foremost an organ of reproduction. That’s not just a pragmatic definition. That is its essence. It has potency that can be actualized when used in the manner it was made for (getting a woman pregnant). And people have souls and natural purposes. God has established these. Some things are essential to a thing, others are not. Technology fogs our ability to see what’s essential, and so leads us astray:
[G]ood and bad as objective features of the world are, for natural law theory, determined by what is “natural” in the technical Aristotelian sense of what tends to fulfill the ends toward which a thing is directed by virtue of its substantial form. To the extent that we lose sight of the “natural” in the sense of that which has a substantial form or intrinsic principle of operation — an intrinsic principle by virtue of which it is naturally directed to the realization of certain ends — we thereby also lose sight of “good” and “bad” as objective features of the world, and thus lose sight of the preconditions of an objective moral order.
Notice Feser’s emphasis on sight, as if one is always in danger, in a machine world, of losing the essence of oneself–and thus of losing one’s right direction. Feser’s Thomistic intellectual and moral dilemma surrounding technology and body shaping is thus grounded in an anxiety: Does the pervasive use of technology blind us to who we are? And can technology really be used to support conservative and traditional (read for Feser Catholic) notions of what it means to be human–or does it simply upend them?
Modernism vs. Thomism. When posed this way, we readily see that this is an old, old Jacob-wrestle between the Anglo-French Enlightenment and the anti-Enlightenment, which puts me in mind of Hans Werner Holzwarth’s definition of the modern (from his Preface to Modern Art vol. 1, Taschen 2000):
To be modern means to be innovative, forward-looking: modern technology, modern society–and Modern Art. Modernism began in the 18th century with industrialization and the French Revolution and brought fundamental change to all areas of society, causing a break with old traditions. It established itself as an explicit model of thought in the 19th century, and from that time on, the fighters in the vanguard, be it in science or the arts, had a new task: to be a motor, an avant-garde, often misunderstood by their contemporaries. They made history by dividing the normal run of things into a “before” and an “after.”
In other words, history is the new. It is the advance of industry and democratic social forms. The logic of the modern is to shun essence and “the given” for innovation, novelty, and choice. History is made by those who make surprises: new logics, new essentials, new art, new ways of speaking, of seeing, of being in the world–and these forms pass away in their turn through fresh flourishes of innovation.
No rest for the wicked. That’s Modernism. It gives history an arrow–a before and after that is assisted by relentless evolution, science, technology, and Promethean and democratic ideologies. It is not the arrow of a determinate theodicy–as provided, for example, by the Book of Revelation. It is participatory. We are not, if we are modern, watching God fight Satan from Coliseum bleachers. We are God. We are Satan. We are demiurges.
Feser preys upon Prometheus’s liver. Feser’s quixotic quest to revive Thomism with the use of Promethean technology (blogging, YouTube, the printing press, teaching at a modern college) is thus akin to trying to get history to line up in such a way that it fulfills the Book of Revelation. Not being essential, it’s simply not going to do that; it’s not going to cooperate. There are too many other interesting (and logically possible) ways for history to be. It will thus always run past the essentialist’s control. The center does not hold. Like a vampire bat or vulture, Feser can feed on the body of the Beast he would like to see destroyed, but he cannot really change its general course of existence.
The future of Thomism outside of its natural mileau. Thomistic medievalism as a revived ideology for 21st century people is highly unlikely to ever be more than a passing shadow on a much larger, more dynamic, more participatory stage because nobody modern really cares all that much what the pope, or any other essentialist-guarding authority, says about, well, anything. Technology and Modernism bear the logic of pluralism and anti-essentialism, and support it, not medievalism. Thomists are, therefore, fighting a sharply uphill battle.
So Marshall McLuhan was right–the medium is the message. You can’t readily separate the logic of a thing like medieval Thomism from its ecological context–medieval Europe–then plop it down in a very different world. If you really want to thrive as a Thomist, you’ve probably got to withdraw from the world psychologically and physically and live as the medieval scholastics and monks did, eliminating from your life the technologies of innovation and popular distraction that brought about Modernism and the overthrow of Thomism in the first place–industrialization and democracy. Good luck with that. It can be done, but narrow is that way. Feser, in combining Thomism and contemporary ways of being, is trying to have his essentialist cake and eat it too. And that’s not an essentialist, but a modern, thing to do.