Restoration

Restoration

Posted January 24, 2011:
Technology and Man (Part 2)

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

In the previous article, we began to look at the Christian attitude towards technology. The key point running through our discussion is that technology is a human creation, and as such, is at the service of the human person.

Technology is good if it serves to make our lives more authentically human, more fully alive; it is evil if it diminishes them.

Last month I discussed how intellect and will are the essential human powers that distinguish us among material creatures, and how our use of technology has to be rational and free—a deliberate, thoughtful choice regarding what is good for us—rather than a mindless going with the techno-flow.

But there is more to human life than our minds and wills. Intellect and will themselves are at the service of the true and the good, which ultimately means they are at the service of God.

God created the universe and the human person in a structured, ordered way that allows us to pursue and embrace truth and goodness in all its manifestations.

In looking at the ways technology interacts with our humanity, I have come up with five different aspects of our God-created humanity, five ways God has ‘structured’ what it is to be human, that orient us towards the true and the good.

Over the next three articles, I want to explore these, and the way technology is affecting them. This month, we’ll look at the first two.

First, there is the body-soul unity of the human person. The 18th century philosopher René Descartes called the human person a "ghost in a machine." His idea was that the real person was the soul, the immaterial being, and the body was simply a machine, an instrument. This Cartesian view of humanity has been very influential in the modern world.

It is not our Christian vision. You are not some detached observer using your body for various purposes as a tool. Your body is you; your soul is you; you are body and soul together.

This is why the resurrection of the body is such an essential Christian dogma. We are not fully present to the glory of God in heaven until we are bodily present to it.

Furthermore, all human knowledge begins in the body. Everything we know began in the senses, as information entering our eyes and ears and noses and skin. The awesome power of the human soul is its ability to draw immaterial truth out of material sensations—truth about God, the soul, the nature of things, good, evil, etc.

But in all of this, there is a unity of mind and body that is essential to a fully human life. Knowledge begins in the senses, in the body, and terminates in the mind’s possession of truth.

This truth in turn guides our choices which are expressed in our bodily actions, so that we shape our material world according to the demands of truth and goodness.

This unity of mind and body is fragile, however, constantly imperiled by our fallen condition. Our minds tend to wander, even if (being weak!) they don’t get very far. I’m not thinking here of creative imagination or speculative intelligence–these are proper actions of our mind that bear fruit in the creation of beauty or in deeper possession of truth.

But there is that abstraction of the mind all too familiar to us, where it goes places that bear no good fruit. Fantasy, pointless speculation, idle curiosity—the mind’s flight from reality.

The body, meanwhile, has its own way of rejecting the mind. There is the indiscipline of the appetites, in which our bodies pursue pleasure to the detriment of the full truth and goodness. And there is physical laziness.

Our minds are made to embrace the whole of universal reality. Our bodies tend to resist this, rooted as they are in the immediate and craving the easy.

And so we can become very fragmented–our minds here, our bodies there. This is a diminishment of our humanity, ultimately. Neither mind without body or body without mind can bear fruit in the fullness of life that we are made for, which is the communion of love with God and neighbor.

So there is a problem here that is at least potentially made worse by information technology. For all the obvious benefits and potential for goodness of the internet, it is a way of being in the world that tends to be highly disembodied.

The internet tends to reduce our relationship to information to the bare physical minimum: words and images enter our mind through our eyes.

There is a tendency in modern communication technology to this same disembodied quality. Email and social networking sites like Facebook or chat rooms are inherently artificial environments where we meet one another primarily with text. Words appearing on a flat screen—but where is the person behind these words?

This disembodied quality of email and the internet doesn’t make it wrong or even harmful—just limited. We have to be aware of that. And it has to be kept in check. If your whole life is spent with your mind on the flat screen and your body elsewhere, the tendency of mind and body to fragment is going to be accentuated.

So, turn off the computer! Be where your body is. Try to spend the bulk of your time with your body and your mind in the same place, experiencing life directly, your whole person, body, mind, soul, spirit, living in the same reality at the same time.

That brings us to the second reality of our humanity, which is the quality of living in the here-and-now. We are by nature temporal, spatial creatures—we are here, we are now. This is obvious, but it’s very important.

Isn’t it true that we have an amazing ability to not pay attention to where we are, to absent ourselves from it, to dissociate, to shut down?

There may be all sorts of reasons for this, good and bad. Sometimes the present moment is too painful or confronting for us. We know that many people live in the past, in regret or guilt, while others live in the future, in anxiety and fear. Still others live in unreality, in fantasy and illusion.

A person who lives fully present to the present moment at all times is rare. But this presence to the present moment is so important. The whole point of life is to live in a totality of communion with God and, flowing from this, in communion with one another. God is eternal—outside of time, and infinite—outside of place.

But he is present to us where we are, here and now. God is the All-Real, and the only place we can find him is in reality. The only reality we have is that which is here and now.

Our communion with one another is equally a here and now event. The only love I can offer anyone in my life is my choice to be loving now, because it’s where I am, and I have no freedom except here. Strictly speaking, I can’t choose to love God or neighbor tomorrow, only now.

And so in regard to technology, we have the question of "virtual reality." Now, you can be on the internet, plugged in to a half dozen gadgets and gizmos and media devices, and not be in virtual reality.

And you and I can be in virtual reality right now, as you read this article and I write it! Virtual reality is about our choice to be present to God and to neighbor, or to go far, far away into a world of our own making.

If we can truly say that we are present to God and to neighbor, to the demands of charity and the action of the Spirit as we buzz about in our gadget-filled environment, then technology holds no problem for us in this regard.

Computer games present themselves here as a real question. What’s wrong with playing a game? Nothing, inherently, nor is there anything wrong with playing a game in which you are the only player: "Thou shalt not play solitaire" is not written anywhere in our holy books.

A bit more of a problem, though, are these hyper-simulated, stimulated video games which immerse you in another world of action and sights and sounds and colors and adventures.

All of a sudden five hours have gone by. Where have I been? What has this game done to me? Where has it taken me? Anywhere good? Am I here? Am I present? Can I be?

This is something to think about. Games are good for relaxation and recreation. But this good of relaxation has to occupy its proper place in life. We all know lots of people–young guys in particular—who get really addicted to video games, spending hours and hours in a fantasy world, more often than not a hyper-violent one.

Where am I? Where is technology taking me? Am I in my body? Am I present to you? To God? Is my heart quiet, my mind attentive to the demands of love and service in my little corner of the world?

If use of technology detracts from any of that, think about it. Perhaps you will choose to do something different with your time and energy.

to be continued

 

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