Summer 2011

Homo faber and/or Homo adorans : On the Place of Human Making in a Sacramental Cosmos

Michael Hanby

In our age, human work, and certainly human making, is overwhelmingly determined by technology, whose novelty with respect to premodern téchnê is no matter of mere degree. This novelty is signaled rather by its very name, which fuses téchnê and logos, making and knowing, in an unprecedented synthesis.4 Considered as instruments in the service of human freedom and flourishing, this synthesis and its products have brought such astonishing advances in transportation and medical science, improvements in production efficiency, and ease of worldwide communication, that it is virtually impossible to un-think them, let alone to oppose them. The Church, for her part, has praised and marveled at such advances, seeing them as the outworking of God’s command to till and keep the land and to fill the earth and subdue it.5 Pope Benedict therefore puts us on guard against any reactionary opposition to technology, proffered in the name of a falsely edenic adoration of nature, that would eliminate the human along with his art.6 But of course technology is not merely an instrument. It is not merely something we use to shape the world; rather it profoundly shapes us. One need only consider how transportation technology and the mind-boggling revolution in communications technology that has occurred within our own lifetime have dramatically reshaped culture, work, friendships, even written discourse and speech. Nor are these merely transformations in so-called “material culture.” As the very name suggests, techn-ology, as a certain kind of fusion of knowing and making, is not just a way of manipulating the world to our benefit. It is a way of understanding the world, of reflecting it back upon ourselves through our industry, and therefore of being in it. Technology, as Heidegger, Jonas, and George Grant all variously claimed, is the ontology of modernity.7

It is an ontology applied ever more exclusively to our own self-understanding. In a stunning prescription for confusing education with ignorance, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson, waxing effusive about the revolution occasioned by the publication of The Origin of Species, declares that all attempts to answer the profound questions of human existence “before 1859 are worthless and . . . we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”8 Or consider the remarks of Gregory Stock, a biophysicist and biotech entrepreneur who formerly directed the program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the School of Medicine at UCLA. These are from his 2002 post-humanist manifesto, Redesigning Humans.

Imagine that a future father gives his baby daughter chromosome 47, version 2.0, a top of the line model with a dozen therapeutic gene modules. By the time she grows up and has a child of her own, she finds 2.0 downright primitive. Her three-gene anticancer module pales beside the eight-gene cluster of the new version 5.9, which better regulates gene expression, targets additional cancers, and has fewer side effects. The anti-obesity module is pretty much the same in both versions, but 5.9 features a whopping nineteen antivirus modules instead of the four she has and an anti-aging module that can maintain juvenile hormone levels for an extra decade and retain immune function longer too. The daughter may be too sensible to opt for some of the more experimental modules for her son, but she cannot imagine giving him her antique chromosome and forcing him to take the drugs she uses to compensate for its shortcomings. As far as reverting to the pre-therapy, natural state of 23 chromosome pairs, well, only Luddites would do that to their kids. 9

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4. Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Vico, and Kant all contributed philosophically to the building up of this synthesis. For an overview see Robert Miner, Truth in the Making: Creative Knowledge in Theology and Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2004). For Machiavelli’s understanding of the successful prince as one who imposes form on fortuna, see J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

5. Caritas in veritate, 69; Laborem exercens, 4–10.

6. Caritas in veritate, 14.

7. Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology," in Basic Writings: from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964) (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 307-41; Hans Jonas, "The Practical Uses of Theory," in The Phenomenon of Life (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 188-210; George Grant, Technology and Justice (Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press, 1986), 11-34.

8. Simpson’s remark is quoted approvingly in Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1.

9. Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 76.