Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Technology and Wisdom : Metaphysical stakes of the Information Society

Louis Chammings
July 1999


The goal of the encyclical "Fides et ratio" is to recall the nature and the conditions of a true Christian wisdom, which depends on reason, as well as it depends on faith : "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." (F&R, preamble)

The question of the specific kind of wisdom the new age we come in is requiring, is obviously one of those "Fides et ratio" asks us. In such an issue, we can hear in this document an explicit echo from "Redemptor hominis", the first encyclical letter of John-Paul II, which was itself in continuity with "Gaudium et Spes" [1]

Developing some consequences of "the drama of the separation of faith and reason", John-Paul II writes :

"It should also be borne in mind that the role of philosophy itself has changed in modern culture. From universal wisdom and learning, it has been gradually reduced to one of the many fields of human knowing; indeed in some ways it has been consigned to a wholly marginal role. Other forms of rationality have acquired an ever higher profile, making philosophical learning appear all the more peripheral. These forms of rationality are directed not towards the contemplation of truth and the search for the ultimate goal and meaning of life; but instead, as "instrumental reason", they are directed -- actually or potentially -- towards the promotion of utilitarian ends, towards enjoyment or power." (No 47)

I would like to confront this statement to some metaphysical implications of the powerful development of communication and information technologies, as constituting the basis for the prospect of Information Society.

More specifically, I would like to examine how far, and in which way, this so-called information society entails an "other form of rationality" which deserves the qualification of "instrumental reason", and then the need for info- ethics.

I. Some quotations from "Fides et ratio"

I.1 "The man of today seems ever to be under threat from what he produces, that is to say from the result of the work of his hands and, even more so, of the work of his intellect and the tendencies of his will." (No 47) (Quotation from R.H.)

I.2 "To be consonant with the word of God, philosophy needs first of all to recover its sapiential dimension as a search for the ultimate and overarching meaning of life. ( . . . ) This sapiential dimension is all the more necessary today, because the immense expansion of humanity's technical capability demands a renewed and sense of ultimate values. If this technology is not ordered to something greater than a merely utilitarian end, then it could soon prove inhuman and even become potential destroyer of the human race." (No 81) (Reference to R.H. through a footnote)

I.3 "The two requirements already stipulated [i.e. 'sapiential dimension' and 'capacity to know the truth'] imply a third: the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth." (No 83)

I.4 "Science would thus be poised to dominate all aspects of human life through technological progress. The undeniable triumphs of scientific research and contemporary technology have helped to propagate a scientistic outlook, which now seems boundless, given its inroads into different cultures and the radical changes it has brought." (No 88)

I.5 " This leads to the impoverishment of human thought, which no longer addresses the ultimate problems which the human being, as the animal rationale, has pondered constantly from the beginning of time. And since it leaves no space for the critique offered by ethical judgement, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible." (No 88)

I.6 " The consequences of this are clear: in practice, the great moral decisions of humanity are subordinated to decisions taken one after another by institutional agencies. Moreover, anthropology itself is severely compromised by a one-dimensional vision of the human being, a vision which excludes the great ethical dilemmas and the existential analyses of the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, of life and death." (No 88)

I.7 " it remains true that a certain positivist cast of mind continues to nurture the illusion that, thanks to scientific and technical progress, man and woman may live as a demiurge, single- handedly and completely taking charge of their destiny." (No 91)

I.8 " Philosophy moreover is the mirror which reflects the culture of a people. A philosophy which responds to the challenge of theology's demands and evolves in harmony with faith is part of that "evangelization of culture" which Paul VI proposed as one of the fundamental goals of evangelization. I have unstintingly recalled the pressing need for a new evangelization; and I appeal now to philosophers to explore more comprehensively the dimensions of the true, the good and the beautiful to which the word of God gives access. This task becomes all the more urgent if we consider the challenges which the new millennium seems to entail, and which affect in a particular way regions and cultures which have a long-standing Christian tradition. This attention to philosophy too should be seen as a fundamental and original contribution in service of the new evangelization." (No 103)

I.9 " Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith. The current ferment in philosophy demands of believing philosophers an attentive and competent commitment, able to discern the expectations, the points of openness and the key issues of this historical moment." (No 104)

I.10 " A philosophy in which there shines even a glimmer of the truth of Christ, the one definitive answer to humanity's problems, will provide a potent underpinning for the true and planetary ethics which the world now needs." (No 104)

II. What is at stake with the Information Society ?

" We are living through one of the most fundamental technological and social changes in history. The revolution in information technologies that took shape in the early 1970s, and diffused throughout the economy, society, and culture in the last quarter of the twentieth century, has profoundly transformed the way we live, work, produce, consume, communicate, travel, think, enjoy, make war and peace, give birth, and die. It has also transformed, as have all major technological revolutions, the material foundations of human life, time, and space;" (Manuel Castells [2]).

II.1 What is information society ?

"Information society" means the latest stage of an economically developed society, the main activities and institutions of which are based upon use and development of information and communication technologies : "By informational city, I understand an urban system with sociospatial structure and dynamics determined by a reliance of wealth, power, and culture, on knowledge and information processing in global networks, managed and organized through intensive use of information/communication technologies." (Manuel Castells, ibid.)

Since communication as well as information is involved in the definition of information society, there are two main dimensions to be considered in it : a social one, related to the communicational aspect, and an intellectual one, related to the informational aspect.

II.2 What is communication ?

SHANNON's Model Diagram

• Transmission is not communication itself, but only its material support

• Rational animal

Man needs society not only for his material wants, but furthermore for his spiritual existence and development. People need communication to exchanging the soul goods. Communication, as expressing the spiritual nature of person, is oriented to its development. In any philosophy of communication, there is an anthropology of person.

• Language is the archetype and the basis of social communication means.

Now sign (or symbol) is the central concept for linguistics, hence sign (symbol) is a central concept for communication study.

"Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words" (Aristotle, On Interpretation, 1).

Signs and symbols can be material, but the sense or meaning of "mental experience" is definitely immaterial.

• Definition of "communication" :

- exchange of mental experience

through articulated signs or symbols.

- communication is exchange of


II.3 What is information ?

        • Information analogically means both :

• Information in sense 2 is sign (or symbol) of information in sense 1.

Computers and networks are materially dealing with something immaterial. Here is the reason of their power.

• Definition of "information" :

To "in-form" means to give form. As a matter of fact, information is related to Aristotelian form. But we must keep in consideration the two modalities of existence of the form :

1/ "entitative" form, as the immaterial part of the existing thing ;

2/ "intentional" form, or, say, "cognitive" form, as constituting the content of the concept abstracted from the thing through the knowing process.

        • Definition :

- as the immaterial content of communication, or as knowledge (sense 1), information is intentional or cognitive form.

- as the material object of computing (sense 2), information is the sign (or symbol) of cognitive form.

III. Anthropological and Metaphysical Consequences

III.1 The deepening gap between "info-rich" and "info-poor"

"Prevailing trends, however, cloud what could be an exhilarating moment for humankind, opening up extraordinary possibilities for material prosperity and spiritual fulfillment, with the inducement of social exclusion in parallel to social development, deepening existing patterns of sociospatial segregation. These trends are rooted in powerful processes of economic globalization and capitalist restructuring that use to their advantage the potential of new information technologies, conditioning the social trajectory of technological change." ( . . . )

"Thus, the emerging, informational city is by and large a dual city. ( . . . ) By dual city, I understand an urban system socially and spatially polarized between high value-making groups and functions on the one hand and devalued social groups and downgraded spaces on the other hand. This polarization induces increasing integration of the social and spatial core of the urban system, at the same time that it fragments devalued spaces and groups, and threatens them with social irrelevance." (Manuel Castells [3])

III.2 Dematerialization or Desubstantialization ?

John Perry Barlow :

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. ( . . . )

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. ( . . . )

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here." (John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, Davos, 1996 [4] )

Howard P. Kainz, Jr. :

" In this paper, I would like to take a look in particular at Aquinas' theory of separate substances. With this theory, we bypass the old question of the reducibility or irreducibility of consciousness to its material conditions, and we also find, in my opinion, some interesting analogies to contemporary computer technology. It would be too much to hope that these analogies, even if substantial, would instigate a revival of interest in Angelology among technophiles. But those interested in the metaphysics of the mind-body problem may find them suggestive :

        • Microprocessors and Angelic Self-possession

        • ROM and Innate Ideas

        • RAM and the Negative Active Potency of Separate Substances

        • Hard Drives and Intellectual Memory

        • The Operating System and the Reception of Information

        • Software and Habitually Acquired Species

        • "Downward Compatibility" and Proportional Universality

        • Multitasking

        • Modems and the Ability to Transfer Information

        • Networks and the Transmission of Ideas, via Hierarchies

        • Speed-caches and the Effect of Immateriality

It should be mentioned, however, that there was considerable disagreement among medieval and patristic authors concerning the "immateriality" of angels. Augustine and Origen had speculated about the possibility of angelic bodies being composed of matter, albeit a more "subtle" matter. Duns Scotus gave lip- service to the received doctrine of angelic incorporeality, but challenged his readers' imagination by theorizing that angels must have some kind of "incorporeal" matter; and, consistently with this theory, Duns Scotus thought that angels must reason discursively in some fashion. If there were any kind of matter in angels -- subtle or "incorporeal" -- the leap from completely immaterial beings to partly material beings would be less formidable, and the analogy between angelic spontaneous instananeity and the linear, sequential operations of computers would be even closer." (Artificial Intelligence and Angelology,Howard P. Kainz, Jr., Marquette University [5])

Pierre Lévy :

" La Communication tous-tous ( . . . )

Le point capital est ici l'objectivation partielle du monde virtuel de significations livré au partage et à la réinterprétation des participants dans les dispositifs de communication tous-tous. Cette objectivation dynamique d'un contexte collectif est un opérateur d'intelligence collective, une sorte de lien vivant tenant lieu de mémoire, ou de conscience commune. Une subjectivation vivante renvoie à une objectivation dynamique. L'objet commun suscite dialectiquement un sujet collectif. ( . . . )

" L'hypercortex

Un des caractères les plus saillants de la nouvelle intelligence collective est l'acuité de sa réflexion dans les intelligences individuelles. Les actes du psychisme de l'humanité deviennent presque directement sensibles aux personnes. Certaines formes de mondes virtuels permettent quasiment d'exprimer, de visualiser en temps réel les diverses composantes de psychismes collectifs.

Tout autant que la recherche utilitaire d'information, c'est la sensation vertigineuse de plonger dans le cerveau commun et d'y participer qui explique l'engouement pour Internet. Naviguer dans le cyberespace revient à promener un regard conscient sur l'intériorité chaotique, le ronronnement inlassable, les banales futilités et

les fulgurations planétaires de l'intelligence collective. L'accès au processus intellectuel du tout informe celui de chaque partie, individu ou groupe, et alimente en retour celui de l'ensemble." (Pierre Lévy, L'intelligence collective et ses objets [6])

III.3 Depersonalization :

The virtualization of cyberspace, i.e. the delocalization and dematerialization of the social space of communication, leads to some disincarnation in social relationships.

Return to the ancient Greek Theater, where "persona" meant a mask : person can be reduced to a part played by clones or avatars.

III.4 Modern Idolatry : Overvaluation of Images substituting for Things

Conclusion :

By means of information and communication technologies, information society materially manage the specific immaterial objects of human soul. This fact is not bad in itself, but it is both powerful and dangerous. In any case, it creates by itself an urgent call for the contemporary man to reach a true wisdom including a much higher sense of reality metaphysically grounded in "intuition of being" . . .


[1] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution "On the Church in the Modern World".

[2] Manuel Castells : "The Informational City is a Dual City: Can It Be Reversed?", on the Web : http://web.mit.edu/sap/www/high-low/1castells.html

Cf. Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Volume I: The Rise of the Network Society. Volume 2: The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.

[3] Ibidem

[4] http://users.aol.com/mrjeffchlg/cyberind.htm

[5] http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Meta/MetaKain.htm

[6] http://www.t0.or.at/levy/plevy.htm ; cf. : Pierre Lévy, l'intelligence collective, La Découverte, 1994