It is part of the absurdity of American life that we decide questions of truth under the guise of settling contests of rights. Which means that we decide questions of truth without thinking deeply or even very honestly about them. Thus, while it is obvious to many that we are living through a profound cultural revolution, it is less than clear just what sort of revolution it is—though with Obergefell and the Obama administration’s recent decree abolishing human nature in response to North Carolina’s “bathroom law,” it takes a real effort not to see. The sexual revolution is not simply an overturning of sexual morality or family law, but a revolution in our fundamental view of human nature that promises to reshape who we are as human beings. What previous generations took for granted—for example, that man, woman, mother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marriage of man and woman is the foundation of human society—all this is now increasingly regarded as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted.
We will need new archetypes of these basic human realities. Language will have to be purged, education reformed. A concerted effort at stupefaction must be undertaken to ensure that reality does not impinge on thought. Thankfully we have modern education and global media, each rigorously committed to not thinking seriously about the nature of things. We will need new rights and a new morality, rigorous policing of the bounds of acceptable thought and speech, and new mechanisms of surveillance and enforcement for punishing transgressors of the emerging orthodoxy by legal and extra-legal means.
The most stunning thing about the rapid put-down of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation and the spotlighting of the proprietors of Memories Pizza is not the sudden shift in public opinion or the new alliance between big business and progressive politics, arguably the historical norm rather than the exception. Rather, it is the bare fact that it is now possible to amass and project such force almost instantaneously prior to and independent of any decision of the law. Who needs a Stasi when you have a neighbor armed with an iPhone and a Twitter account ready to ruin your life in real time? It is not clear that any actions of the courts or any amount of live-and-let-live tolerance would have sufficed to tame the furies once they were unleashed. The forces of this revolution, once they are set in motion, cannot easily be recalled or contained within the scope of law.
We are unlikely to withstand a revolution that we do not understand, and yet I worry that our American habits of mind leave us unequipped to comprehend this one. Despite our native suspicion of political power, Americans believe deeply in politics as such. Because we have no common faith, history, or culture outside the decision to found the nation on eighteenth-century philosophical principles, we have always looked to politics and the law to perform the work of faith, culture, and tradition in giving us an identity as a people. Politics is first philosophy for us. All real questions are political, and the liberal pretense of excluding questions of ultimate meaning from public deliberation only reinforces this habit of mind. We do not look or think beyond liberal order because for us there is no beyond. There be dragons. Yet the “priority of the political” places a voluntary limit on our thinking that becomes an involuntary limit on our vision, and so we remain mostly blind to the forces deeper than politics that threaten us. Indeed, to suggest that there might be “forces of history” besides those inspired by Adam Smith that govern us more deeply than the rule of law is to incur an anathema sit and branding as a Hegelian traitor to the American tradition of thought.
Yet technology, with its interminable dynamism, is just such a historical force. And the sexual revolution is at bottom the technological revolution turned on ourselves. Technology does not wait on politics, as the Indiana RFRA example shows. Yielding to no limit but the limit of possibility, technological order is essentially totalitarian, eliminating any order over which it does not preside. Technocratic totalitarianism is uniquely “post-political,” however, not because political order or political mischief is at an end, or because political action is no longer important. Post-political absolutism may even inflame the desire for a political absolutism that promises to restore control, a partial explanation for the Trump phenomenon. Technocratic totalitarianism is post-political because liberal order is itself reactive to—and, indeed, the instrument of—technological exigencies that it helps to unleash but cannot finally govern.
Technocracy does not dictate everything one can and cannot do. Instead, it becomes the all-encompassing whole beyond which there is nothing and within which various options are permitted to appear. It does not consist in the “rule of one” who consolidates all power in his person and controls the levers of state, though the Obama years have shown that one technocrat can cause a lot of trouble. It is, rather, the “rule of nobody.” This does not mean the absence of rule, but the rule of a self-perpetuating system with no controlling center, no levers to pull, and therefore no real bearers of political responsibility. Technocratic absolutism relies less on the police power of the state and the coercive force of law than on an unaccountable bureaucracy and ubiquitous media that mediate what counts as the real world. This is arguably a more perfect form of absolutism than any seen heretofore, for its mechanisms of enforcement are internal as well as external. In a perfectly absolute society, whose rule was indeed total, no one would ever know he was being coerced. There would simply be truths that could no longer be perceived, ideas that could no longer be thought, experiences that could no longer be had, and no one would ever know what he was missing.
Needless to say, technology, in the sense I am using the term, is more than an endless succession of ever more sophisticated tools and instruments, neutral and indifferent in themselves, that can be used badly or well. Certainly various technologies can be used badly or well, and certainly we should subject these technologies to moral judgment. Any honest evaluation of technology must acknowledge with profound gratitude its innumerable blessings and the many ways in which our lives depend upon it. I am grateful for modern medicine. Truth be told, I was even grateful for air conditioning before it was condemned. Even so, an evaluation of whether a given technology is good or bad does not tell us what technology essentially is. The point is not to reject or condemn technology, but to understand as deeply as possible the governing logic of our technological society and what it portends for the human future.
Technology, in this broader and more fundamental sense, is first a way of regarding the world, namely, as an artifact to be worked upon. The term itself, with its fusion of technê and logos, making and knowing, indicates this. This technological gaze upon nature has characterized modern science since the seventeenth century and precedes any real technological products generated by the new science. The technological manner of knowing is a knowing-by-doing which “takes experience apart and analyzes it,” as Francis Bacon described it, breaking down the unity of natural phenomena given in experience in order to reduce them to their simplest components. Nature, in this way of thinking, is the genesis and sum of those elements and their interactions.
Bacon famously equated knowledge with power. This is easy to misunderstand. It is not that we know nature for the sake of control, as if every scientist were really a Dr. Frankenstein in disguise. This interpretation leads to a moral suspicion of the intentions of scientists, when in fact most undertake scientific work out of genuine wonder and for the sake of noble and humanitarian ends. Instead, it means that we know nature by controlling it, and the truth of our knowledge is precisely identical to our success in replicating experiments, and in predicting, retrodicting, or unmaking and remaking these phenomena. This is why Bacon says that truth and usefulness come to the same thing.
If technology is a way of knowing the world, it implies a tacit preconception of its object. In other words, the technological outlook carries within it a metaphysics and philosophy of nature that conflates nature with artifice. For Aristotle and the larger tradition of the West, art imitated nature. In a positive sense, the organization, purposiveness, and beauty of human artifacts could help us to understand natural things. But in a negative and more fundamental sense, to say that art imitated nature meant that a thing existing by nature possessed something that an artifact lacked, or better, is something that an artifact is not. The distinction between nature and art signifies two different ways of being a thing. A natural thing has entelechia and energia: it has its being, its end, its purpose—and thus its own proper activity—within itself. A squirrel is its own project and has its own activity in virtue of what it is. Leon Kass calls it “squirrelling.” And this activity manifests an interior horizon that an artifact lacks and an interior depth that can never be fully exhausted or mastered by our knowledge. An artifact, by contrast, is not its own project but its maker’s. Its purpose is imposed upon it from without. The end or purpose of a wooden squirrel is not present in the wood but is given by the wood carver. Like all artifacts, its being is instrumental, and its horizon is purely external and only as extensive as the uses to which we put it. This is why it is “like something” to be a squirrel but not like anything to be an iPad.
With the seventeenth-century insurrection against Aristotle that gave birth to modern science, the analogy between nature and art was inverted and finally collapsed. Nature became artifice, and the immanence and interiority of natural things became invisible to the eyes of science. Through the eighteenth century, it was still assumed that this artifact was produced by the gracious hand of a contriving God who imposes order upon inert (Newtonian) matter through the legislation of the “laws of nature.” Such was the theological and ontological backdrop for “the laws of nature and nature’s God” invoked in eighteenth-century political thought, which emerged along with these broader transformations in the meaning of teleology, law, nature, and truth. But this sort of natural theology came with a sort of built-in obsolescence. For once nature is reduced to artifice and creation to contrivance, it suffices to know the laws by which artifacts are constructed. Knowledge of the contriver becomes superfluous. And so, by the mid-nineteenth century, the contriving hand of God was superseded by the gracious hand of history or natural selection.
With the technological conflation of knowing and making, the old distinction between contemplation and action becomes obsolete, not least because the conflation of nature and artifice, which ultimately collapses being into history, deprives contemplation of its object. Henceforth, there are no longer any depths to contemplate, only facts to analyze and synthesize. Consequently, much of modern philosophy, particularly in the Anglo-American world where philosophy imagines itself a handmaid to science, has sought to make the world safe for physics, either by supplying science with solutions it has not sought to problems it does not acknowledge or by bringing traditional philosophy to a suicidal end.
Meanwhile, nothing succeeds like success. If manipulating variable x produces result y, and if result y further enables experiment z, then the results validate themselves. It is superfluous to ask what a cause or understanding or explanation is, or even what x, y, and z are. Strictly speaking, there is no room within technological reason for asking or thinking about what anything is. As John Dewey put it, “Things are what they can do and what can be done with them.” Little wonder, then, that there is no such thing as a profound question in American public life or that we can do things to ourselves and our posterity that we do not know how to think about. There is a disincentive to understanding, an inducement to thoughtlessness, at the heart of our prevailing form of reason.
There is a final, more ominous sense of technology inaugurated by this philosophical revolution: technology as a kind of fate. If nature is essentially a machine or, in contemporary nomenclature, a system, then the knowledge of nature is essentially engineering. The task of science, as Bacon put it, is “to generate or superinduce on a given body a new nature or natures.” And if knowledge of nature is really engineering, then the truth of this knowledge is essentially whatever is technically possible. But since the ultimate limits of possibility can only be discovered by perpetually transgressing the present limits of possibility, a technological view of nature and truth commences an interminable revolution against every antecedent order or given limit. A thoroughgoing technological society will therefore establish revolution as a permanent principle, paradoxically giving it the stability of an institutional form.
Liberal political order is born amid this revolution in natural philosophy, though the American founders were themselves deeply influenced by classical sources and by thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment who valiantly attempted to unite a Newtonian conception of nature with traditional morality by refounding the latter on nonrational bases such as moral sentiments or sociality. Nevertheless, liberalism perpetuates technological revolution and is the political form par excellence of technological society. This is not because the founders intended a technocracy—an absurd historical suggestion—but because the concept of freedom enshrined in the modern notion of rights, even the negative rights of classical liberalism, is the logical counterpart to the technological view of nature.
Though America’s founding documents speak of “Nature and Nature’s God,” this has to be set against the backdrop of this metaphysical revolution and the radical transformation in the meaning of nature, teleology, truth, and law that it brought about. The classical and Christian understanding of freedom as enjoyment of the highest good was no longer available after the seventeenth century, for neither the summum bonum nor the intrinsic teleological ordering of intellect and will could survive the banishment of formal and final causality from the natural order. Freedom thus ceases to be a perfection: the fulfillment of our rational human nature realized in the enjoyment of goodness and truth. Freedom instead becomes the capacity to act or to refrain from acting—always an important dimension of freedom, but never the whole of it. Freedom, like truth and eventually nature itself, is open-ended possibility, which is to say, power.
We may still insist that people have a moral obligation to choose one way rather than another, to seek truth and to do good. Thus the founders, like Locke before them, distinguished between liberty and license. But this obligation is external to and indeed in competition with freedom as indeterminate possibility, which is tacitly opposed to every given limit. A life of freedom thus eventually becomes a kind of rearguard action against all those claims that threaten to define me prior to my choosing. To be free I must perpetually show, even if I have to carve it into my flesh, that I am the owner of my body, and that I—not God, or tradition, or another human being, or even my given nature—determine its meaning. We see this protest everywhere today: in the proliferation of tattoos and piercing, in gender reassignment surgery, in the euthanasia movement. Self-mutilation, in which I alone determine what my body says, becomes freedom’s highest creative act.
A political order premised upon freedom as possibility exists to protect us from all those prior claims that threaten our self-definition, which in the end means all realities, since nature, society, and other people always constitute a limit. In this way the liberal state becomes absolute, reserving to itself the power to redefine (and define away) everything—always in the name of defending freedom.
This power is illusory, however. For the tragic irony is that this revolution, like most others in human history, quickly overtakes the revolutionaries themselves and eludes their control. Technology does not wait on politics. Even the state cannot finally contain the forces it unleashes. This speaks to an important difference between modern technology and ancient technê. Generally speaking, the artifacts of the ancient world can be characterized as monumental—think of the Colosseum. It is in virtue of their permanence, as Hannah Arendt once noted, that ancient man could hope for a kind of worldly immortality. Monumental artifacts are like “unmoved movers,” communicating their form to the generations down the centuries who pass through them. In this they can be said to imitate nature conceived as substance. Certainly modernity has also produced its share of titanic artifacts. What is New York, after all? Yet for the most part, modern technology imitates nature as a process or system, either through the increasingly rapid cycle of obsolescence where one technological achievement is supplanted by the next, or because the artifacts themselves are processes or systems, with their own dynamic causal agency. It is impossible to foresee the end of a new process launched into the stream of history or to control all of its downstream effects. This is all the more impossible with interventions into living nature—as Hans Jonas says, you cannot recall scrap populations—and in a digital age where the cause and effect trains set in motion by technology do not follow a linear chain reaction but multiply “virally” in all directions at once.
As technological products extend their reach and their effects accumulate, this perpetual war on the limits of possibility takes on a life of its own, making servants of its would-be masters and determining the conditions of human thought and action. Jonas writes:
Control, by making ever more things available for more kinds of uses, enmeshes the user’s life in ever more dependencies on external objects. There is no other way of exercising the power than by making oneself available to the use of the things as they become available. . . . Tasks for theory are set by the practical results of its preceding use, their solutions to be turned again to use, and so on.
As these products and their exigencies succeed each other and accumulate, Jonas says, “the situation for later subjects and their choices of action will be progressively different from that of the initial agent and ever more the fated product of what was done before.”
The sexual revolution is the apex of this fate, the point at which the human being ceases to be just the subject of the technological revolution and thoroughly becomes its object. The sexual revolution is technological in at least two senses. Theoretically, it depends upon a dualism between a mechanistic and malleable body and the affective dimension, taken as the true locus of “identity.” The body thus ceases to be fully human or personal and becomes merely “biological,” an abstraction from the full reality of living nature. This bifurcated understanding undergirds the now canonical dualism of sex and gender, the one belonging to the meaningless mechanical realm and the other a construction of either society or the willful self.
The sexual revolution is also technological in the more mundane sense that the technological dominance of human biology is its practical condition of possibility. Same-sex marriage would have remained permanently unthinkable were it not for the technological conquest of procreation. Post-humanist biologists like Lee Silver clearly saw the connection back in the 1990s. And it would be impossible to imagine that a man might “really” be a woman if we did not also imagine it were technologically possible to transform him into one. Yet each of these technological exceptions has occasioned a radical rethinking of “natural” norms, resulting in the invention of new archetypes for the fundamental human realities of man, woman, mother, father, and child.
The same can be said for questions of life and death. There was no need to establish precise criteria for determining death within an instant of its occurring until it became technologically possible to hold people in a kind of limbo and to harvest their organs for transplant. This possibility has occasioned a controversial rethinking of the boundary between life and death and indeed of the nature of life itself. Similarly, were it not for our ability to dissociate, analyze, intervene in, and manipulate the stages of fetal development, there would have been no urgent need to isolate a discrete “moment of conception” within the continuum of events that includes the embrace of man and woman, the new embryo’s step-by-step development, and his eventual birth.
Such examples are endless. They are a constitutive feature of modern life. And they show not only how deeply technology has penetrated our conception of nature, but how thoroughly the exigencies of technology and technological reason determine what it means for us to think. I do not deny the need for precise moral analysis in these and other instances. But to tack moral assessment onto a problem defined in technological terms is to have arrived at the problem too late. The truth of human nature is at issue here, and this inevitably raises metaphysical questions of the first order. Yet these are excluded by technological and liberal order, which recognizes only pragmatic reason and functional truth on the one hand, and private, irrational religious convictions on the other. What is really excluded from public deliberation is not religious faith, which frequently functions as a useful foil to liberalism’s instrumental rationality, but philosophical reason, which is precluded by the unarticulated metaphysics of liberal and technological order. And so these fundamental considerations never enter into view, either because they are no longer intelligible to us or because their inclusion means a self-imposed exile from the public sphere.
The conditions for thinking “speculatively” about the truth of human nature are dictated by the practical and moral emergencies generated by our technology. Lives are at stake, after all. The situation demands a knowledge we can do something with, and this demand subsequently determines the form and content of our thought. The possible thus becomes the measure of the actual in the sphere of nature; the political good becomes the measure of the true in the public sphere. In either event, we end up short-circuiting understanding and settling for truths that are just true enough to achieve some technical, moral, or political good—until, of course, they aren’t. All the forms of reason at our disposal for thinking about technocratic society are generated by technocratic society, and so we tend to reproduce its problems in our efforts to overcome them. If that’s not absolutism, I don’t know what is.
If technocratic absolutism is deeper and more comprehensive than political absolutism, then the future of freedom is more than a political problem. The defense of political freedom remains indispensable. But let’s not pretend that it will provide more than a modest hedge against the cascading necessities of the technological revolution and the massive social and cultural upheaval that inevitably follows upon the abolition of human nature. No judge can protect us from a culture of intimidation that shames anyone who stands up for the reality of human nature. Moreover, the legal protection of religious freedom means little to the many Christians apparently unable to imagine why they might need their religious freedom in the first place. Our present moment calls for a deeper reflection than we are accustomed to undertaking, a reflection that is not in the first instance political.
It was a persistent theme of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that freedom ultimately depends on truth. The point is classical as well as Christian, and it is worth bearing in mind that in the classical view, the first and most intractable enemy of freedom was not tyranny but necessity. Our brave new world of technological necessity casts a fresh light on the ancient understanding. A society that is indifferent to truth or that reduces truth to technological possibility and pragmatic function cannot ultimately be a free society. Unable to see beyond the immanent horizons of liberal and technological order, its members will be unable to act in defiance of its necessities.
The perfection of totalitarianism consists not in the abolition of rights, but in the abolition of truth. Conversely, truth is the source of freedom—we might even say that understanding is the deepest form of freedom—because it enables us to see and to act beyond the horizon of immanent necessity. Truth therefore shares in the mark of creation, nature, and grace that Hannah Arendt called natality: the shoot of green that springs up as a surprise in the depths of winter, the new little world that appears in place of nothing with the birth of every child, the capacity for a new beginning, undetermined by antecedent necessity, which characterizes free human action. Yet only the affirmation of what is given rather than made, received rather than chosen, can liberate humanity from subjugation to a post-human fate masquerading as human progress.
The fate of Christian freedom, then, does not hinge on political power, which can neither give this freedom nor take it away, but on the renewal of the Christian mind. More than once in the history of the Church, moments of great crisis have been occasions for purification and renewal. But the purification required of us in this moment is intellectual as well as moral, perhaps more intellectual than moral. Needless to say, this makes the growing anti-intellectualism within the Church deeply worrisome. Sometimes this comes from the right and its disdain for impractical speculation in a time of moral and political emergency. At other times it comes from those on the left eager to move the Church “beyond intellect” into activism or affectivity. As if we got into this mess by thinking too much!
Generations of cultural assimilation and comfortable living, saccharine liturgies and therapeutic homilies, have left us unprepared in mind, in heart, and in our deeply compromised and decaying institutions, for the coming time of trial and the enormous labor necessary to weather it. And three years of “synodality” have made it clear that this revolution is not external to the life of the Church. Many of our institutions stand in need of drastic reform. Others will not be salvageable. New ones will have to be invented. Yet here, too, we can remain captive to the priority of the technocratic frame of mind, thinking principally in terms of the strategies needed to make things “work.” The needed renewal is not fundamentally institutional or programmatic.
There can be no renewal of the Christian mind unless we can liberate our imaginations from the tyranny of “use” and rediscover something like theoria in the old sense. Since this recovery cannot proceed as if the last five hundred years had not happened, it cannot merely be a matter of philosophical and theological archaeology—although that too may be necessary. To be sure, we need to redouble our critical engagement with the presuppositions of liberal and technological order to free ourselves from their claim upon our imaginations. But above all we must renew our tradition of speculative reflection on fundamental questions of being, nature, and human nature, and of truth and reason itself.
Only by rediscovering true theory and the contemplative dimension of reason can we hope to rediscover the “uselessness” of a truth, good first for what it is rather than what it does. And only by rediscovering a truth that is more than function can we hope to recognize and defend a nature that is more than historical process and a freedom that is more than the power to dominate and manipulate that process.
By its very “uselessness,” truth liberates us from the tyrannical necessities of use. Truth is thus the source of a freedom more basic than political freedom, though there can finally be no political freedom without it. Even so, useless truth hardly promises political effectiveness in a society inoculated against reality. Thus the freedom that truth gives is no magical escape from fate, like Aphrodite restoring Paris to his bedchamber. Rather, truth promises a freedom within fate, if only the freedom to make our fate a gift by suffering in witness to it. Thus Benedict XVI taught us that “the freedom of the martyrs, who recognize God precisely in obedience to divine power, is always the act of liberation through which Christ’s freedom reaches us.”
At a time when so many of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world are dying for the faith, it seems obscene to invoke the specter of martyrdom from within the safety and prosperity of the liberal West. Yet we face an absolutism that poses an unprecedented challenge to Christian faith and witness precisely because technocratic order diffuses its power quietly, almost imperceptibly, without spectacle or responsibility, slowly bleeding its victims by ten thousand bureaucratic paper cuts rather than by the sword or lions in the Colosseum. Not the least of these challenges is the very real possibility that in a world mediated by media, this witness may be visible only to God. If a tree falls in the forest and the New York Times doesn’t hear it, does it make a sound?
Only the truth of Christ, and not religious liberty as liberalism understands it, can finally secure our freedom. We can contemplate that mystery and everything else in its light, for it is now apparent that only by faith in this truth is belief in nature and reason and even truth itself still possible. Or we can turn away. This is Christian freedom. And therein lies the freedom of the Church, which is neither the sum total of the freedom of individuals, nor a gift from the state, but belongs to the very nature of the Church as the sacrament of Christ and the sign of God’s universal intention for humanity. Let us turn then toward the One for whom the world has no use, not only for our own sake and for the coming time of trial, but for the sake of the world. For if freedom from an inhuman technocratic fate depends upon our ability to glimpse a transcendent horizon beyond its immanent necessities, then the renewal of Christian freedom is the key to the future of human freedom as such.
Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.