Technology: Demonstrating Our Detached, Disinterested Desire to Know

(This abstract was recently accepted by the Institute for Faith and Learning for the 2012 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture where this year’s conference title is: Technology and Human Flourishing. The conference will take place at Baylor University, October 25-27, 2012 where I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

Technology has become the most tangible proof for the validity of scientific knowledge owing to the prodigious complexity of its products and to our daily reliance on their efficiency and functionality. Whether or not we understand how a product works, we take for granted the credibility of the knowledge used to engineer it and expect it to function according to our needs. Technology’s products have been more than successful demanding that there must be something valid in the knowledge and method behind their creation. In other words, the method for producing technology works, because we can see its concrete results all around us. With the success of this method staring us in the face, our curiosity cannot help but be piqued. What kind of method is capable of producing such results? What catalyst is responsible for our great advancement in technology?

In this paper, I will explore the answers to these questions by drawing upon Bernard Lonergan’s work on method in Insight. We will begin by looking at the steps of the scientific method, which fuel the production of technology. Though the steps seem simple enough: asking a question, making a hypothesis, gathering and testing data and then reaching some kind of solution, they reveal something deeper about our humanity. Taking the first step, for example, we see that the method has to start with a human being asking a question; why do humans ask these questions? Certainly, some ask questions motivated by greed hoping that the results will turn out a product for their own financial gain. Others ask questions motivated by selfishness hoping that their findings will bring about their own glory. But, in order for the scientific method to be successful, these questions must come from a pure, unrestricted desire to know; a desire for knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself. The seeker must be open to the answer being different from what he or she expects and be willing to discover something that he or she has never even considered. Just as Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy while taking a bath and pondering whether the king’s crown was made of gold, we stumble across knowledge unexpectedly and often find answers when we are willing to think outside the box. Though our biases will obstruct us, every human does have this desire to know: we desire knowledge simply because we are curious and simply because we wonder.

Lonergan calls this uniquely human trait: a detached, disinterested desire to know. Any method, but especially the scientific method, can reveal this desire to know and thus, Lonergan’s formidable goal is to create a method, which will foster this desire to know and lead us to true knowledge. In our investigation, we will, first, see how our desire to know is the root of method, specifically the scientific method as demonstrated by technology; secondly, we will consider this human desire in depth by looking at its biases; and thirdly, we will learn how to cultivate this desire in order to find true knowledge in other aspects of our lives.

Good Decisions Made Without Good Reasons: Connaturality According to Aquinas

Reason clearly plays an important role in making good ethical decisions. Looking back at our own personal lives, we can trace the source of our poor choices to a lack of good reasons or even to complete irrationality. We only need to review the improper actions of governments to see the horrific effects of decisions made without good reasons. And yet, we experience another phenomenon when making decisions where we make a good ethical choice, not based on reason, but on our own natural inclinations. In these situations, we might say, “It just felt right, but I’m not sure why.” Thomas Ryan, a commentator on Thomas Aquinas, accurately describes these types of experiences: “feeling, thinking, willing resonate with each other that this particular response is ‘right’.”[ref]Thomas Ryan, “Revisiting Affective Knowledge and Connaturality in Aquinas,” Theological Studies 66 (March 2005): 58[/ref]

We experience this phenomenon in two types of situations: major life decisions and quick response decisions. First, in a major life decision, we may list all of our reasons, make a pros and cons list, and talk with our family and friends, but when it comes down to it, we rely on our intuitive feeling of what seems right. For example, in choosing a spouse, though we avoid certain characteristics that we know will be harmful to a healthy marriage, we choose someone based on a ‘feeling of love’ for that person, which may be inexpressible in words. In regards to quick response decisions, we may also act, not based on carefully thought out reasons, but on our (hopefully) good intuitive sense in the moment. If we see someone about to walk in front of a moving vehicle, we will quickly shout to alert them without taking the time to contemplate the reasons for the most virtuous response in that situation.

So, what’s happening here? How are these decisions ethical? Thomas Aquinas offers his concept of connaturality to account for these experiences. Connaturality simply means a natural inclination or bent toward something. When Aquinas uses the term though, he is often referring to a natural inclination toward divine things, and ultimately, toward God. If we have a natural inclination toward the things of God, and thus to God, Himself, we will naturally choose the things of God. Aquinas discusses connaturality most explicitely in the Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2:

Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them . . .
Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: “He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit.” Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above.[ref]Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2 Online[/ref]

The first type of wisdom mentioned here is based on reason, but Aquinas calls our attention to another type of wisdom: wisdom which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This wisdom gives us the ability to judge things based on our relationship with God and our intimacy with Him. When we come to know God, we are joined with Him and, as a result, we have access to this wisdom. Even those who do not know God explicitly can still know Him though the natural law and thus, in a similar fashion, are also able to judge based on connaturality.

Connaturality springs out of the heart, a heart full of charity (love). The more that we love God, the closer we will be to Him; the closer we are to Him, the more His judgments will be our judgments. Thus, some of our decisions are made not based on a list of reasons but according to wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, this concept can easily be abused. A person can claim that he or she is acting based on ‘connaturality’, but the actions clearly only bring despair and dissatisfaction. If the person’s inclinations are bent toward a lesser good, a good that becomes an evil when made a priority, then the decisions will reflect that. Aquinas constantly calls us to seek after the highest good, the only true source of happiness, which is the eternal vision of God. If we consistently direct our hearts toward God, if we “set our minds on things above and not on earthly things”[ref]Colossians 3:2[/ref], then we can trust our inclinations, given by the Holy Spirit, when we are called to make ethical judgments, whether big or small.

Freedom in World Community: Lonergan and Arendt

Though they come from radically different backgrounds and presuppositions, Bernard Lonergan and Hannah Arendt describe a surprisingly similar need for world community. They both are concerned with the decline of society and the dangers of solipsism, materialism and totalitarianism; they both desire an environment where humans can speak and act in freedom. From this concern for decline and this desire for freedom, they postulate a notion of world community. Though Lonergan labels world community a ‘cosmopolis’ (i.e. a world city) and Arendt calls it the ‘public realm’, they are both promoting a world community established for the same purpose: to get rid of false judgments, biases and prejudices and to create a place for the discovery and advancement of true knowledge and meaning. In this post, I will highlight why freedom, for both Lonergan and Arendt, is necessary for world community.

Freedom, for Lonergan, means simply a space to ask questions; it allows the unrestricted desire to know free reign. In a world community, all questions are permitted; no one is restrained from pursuing his or her curiosity. Though many solutions may later be rejected, all of them remain possibilities at the beginning. Lonergan gives five characteristics of a cosmopolis and four of them relate to freedom. First, a cosmopolis is “not a police force” and is “above all politics.”[ref]Bernard Lonergan, Insight in The Lonergan Reader, ed. Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002), 148-149[/ref] Cosmopolis is not backed by any kind of force, whether from the police or a particular government or a powerful social institution, but rather by freedom which more powerfully promulgates the fruitful ideas of the cosmopolis. (See The Problem of Liberation: Lonergan and the Use of Force for more thoughts on the problem of using force to promote good principles.)

Second, cosmopolis “is concerned to make operative the timely and fruitful ideas that otherwise are inoperative.”[ref]Ibid., 149[/ref] Ideas, which are normally suppressed by dominant groups, have the freedom to be aired in the cosmopolis. Not only will they be discussed, but the ideas, which prove to be helpful, will be put into action.

Third, the cosmopolis is “not a busybody.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The cosmopolis does not try to manipulate others through false knowledge, but rather to stop “dominant groups from deluding mankind.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The cosmopolis hopes to free humans from the enslavement to delusion and rationalization.

Fourth, in a similar fashion, cosmopolis aims “to protect the future against the rationalization of abuses and the creation of myths.”[ref]Ibid., 150[/ref] The flourishing of all sorts of cultural entities protects against rationalization and myths, as Lonergan describes:

. . . it invites the vast potentialities and pent-up energies of our time to contribute to their solution by developing an art and a literature, a theatre and a broadcasting, a journalism and a history, a school and a university, a personal depth and a public opinion, that through appreciation and criticism give men of common sense the opportunity and help they need and desire to correct the general bias of their common sense.[ref]Ibid., 151[/ref]

From art to literature, from journalism to history, world community allows the freedom for all of these cultural products to develop. The cosmopolis rests on freedom and exercises freedom through its cultural products. This freedom is exercised within a “cooperating community” or a “matrix of personal relations.”[ref]Lonergan, The Method of Theology in The Lonergan Reader, 463[/ref] The complexity of the matrix reveals a tension in the cosmopolis between allowing the freedom of ideas and allowing the freedom of criticism. The freedom of the cosmopolis does not mean that all actions are permissible nor does it imply a relativistic view of values, but instead creates a space where all ideas can be presented and then critiqued by cooperative analysis.

Hannah Arendt also places freedom at the core of world community. To be free, for Arendt, means “both not to be subject to the necessity of life or the command of another and not to be in command oneself. It [means] neither to rule nor to be ruled.”[ref]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 32[/ref] Freedom begins by rising above the necessities of life. A human focused on survival and practical gain is a animal laborans, living in the private realm without freedom. But a human in the public realm is a homo faber or a craftsman. Craftsmen are not only connected to the products that they make, but also to the world of things to which they add their own products, and, indirectly, to the other craftsmen who are adding their products. A craftsman, whose work allows him to rise above survival, is free to engage in the public realm and thus free to be truly human.

Because freedom, for Arendt, goes beyond an individual’s survival, she finds it in a public space where humans come together on equal terms for the sake of common goals and where no one is ruling over anyone else. As a result, decisions are made based on words and persuasion. In order for equality of humans and freedom of ideas to thrive, Arendt, with Lonergan, denies the use of force in world community. She contends, “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided by words and persuasion and not through force and violence.”[ref]Ibid., 26[/ref].

At this point, we may perfectly agree with Lonergan and Arendt that our society is in decline and desperately needs a community founded on freedom. But, practically speaking, how is such a community possible? The practical steps are not spelled out by Arendt or Lonergan. Arendt realizes that she cannot even address the practical steps until she first convinces others that the public realm is not only beneficial, but completely necessary for humanity; we cannot, she claims, be fully human until we are part of the public sphere. Once we recognize our need for the public realm, then we can consider the practical organization for such a community. Lonergan, in a similar vein, believes that world community is only a starting place. And he recognizes that creating such a community is very difficult. In fact, his fifth characteristic of cosmopolis is that it is not easy.[ref]Lonergan, Insight in The Lonergan Reader, 151[/ref] He too, like Arendt, wants others to recognize the need for such a community, but he (unlike Arendt) asserts that for such a community to practically function, it will need some sort of higher viewpoint or standard to which it will refer.

Putting that aside for now, we can at least say, along with Lonergan and Arendt, that world community, not as the final measure for human actions, but as a way to move beyond mere practical survival is worth considering. World community could create a space where knowledge is pursued communally and has potential for reforming and changing a society. World community, then, may not provide the answer to our problems in society, but it can give us a place to start.