“The unexamined life is not worth living.” This dictum that Plato ascribes to his master in the “Apology of Socrates”, presenting his final testament, could be used to summarize the climate, the spirit and the amplitude of the days dedicated to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture on the theme: “The future of humanity: new challenges to anthropology” (Rome, November 15-18). Cardinal, bishops, men and women religious, theologians, philosophers, scientists, scholars and experts in new technologies, Catholics and non-Catholics, gathered for a three-day meeting featuring panel lectures, debates and reflections. The “mapping” of new anthropological models was followed by three panels during which scientists and experts in medicine and genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, presented the state of research and the potential applications of latest advances, highlighting potentials, risks, and future prospects. Socrate’s dictum by Plato was mentioned by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Vatican dycastery, in the closing address of the meeting on Saturday morning, before the audience with Pope Francis. His Eminence’s speech set the seal on the Plenary meeting by recalling the limits of science and its ethical responsibilities. “This meeting was not conceived as an assessment or as point of arrival, nor as a beginning: it’s simply a path that guides our research and that we continue to follow”, said Cardinal Ravasi. It’s an open horizon, for “the unexamined life is not worth living. This is true for scientists and it should be true for us, driven by the eschatological tension.”
Your Eminence, although there were no definitive conclusions, what impressed you the most in the proposed scenarios?
These are fundamental, urgent questions from the cultural, theological and pastoral angles. This will be the future of humanity, that is partly already present. To a certain extent, situations that until recently seemed to be confined to literature and science-fiction movies, have become a reality. DNA is altered to “repair” genetic defects, but there is a risk of manipulations aimed at creating a new enhanced genotype to the extent of envisaging a new human phenotype. There is a disturbing possibility of neuronal interventions to avoid feeling pain (e.g. in sports medicine) or to increase cognitive faculties and memory. The mind-brain system, underlying the major issue of responsibility and moral coscience, risks being exposed to functionalist reductionism. The problem of the self-consciousness/autonomy of robots is being raised in the area of artificial intelligence, that has unquestionable positive effects on our daily life. Are we really sure that one day the neural networks created to mimic our cerebral processes will not escape the control of their inventors?
How can these challenges be addressed?
First of all it’s important to understand that this is the veritable aeropagus we are not fully conscious of today. The risk is that only an elite group of scientists and technologists will be aware of the challenges linked to the impact of technology and science on the future of humanity, while its repercussions involve us all at an extremely deep level, and should therefore attract the attention of a broader audience. Bionic vision to enhance night vision in the military field, or subcutaneous microchip implants, are not board games but signs of deep changes that directly impact humanity; yet many still lack the tools to understand it. This realm involves scientists, philosophers, and theologians, each with their own epistemological statute and vocabulary. The risk, once again, is that the scientific domain may include a sorcerer’s apprentice and that among us there may be religious figures that are still tied to deprecatory, deriding visions. These two models must be purified: it’s a matter of statute, method and identity. In general terms,
Culture and science should proceed in equilibrium – to use the image of a contemporary philosopher – along the admirable and delicate physical, historical and transcendent rope guiding human life.
Is it therefore a primarily cultural challege?
In many cases, when the Church expresses her views on these themes she is silenced before taking the floor, accused of standing against progress. It is necessary to adopt a style that draws inspiration from the criteria of intelligence (intus legere), namely, from critical analysis, evaluation, and thinking. True intelligence seeks to penetrate, it is open to scientific advance, without fears or disdain. With underlying trust marked by a critical approach that says No to forms of scientific reductionism that expect to explain everything according to natural sciences and says No to theological reductionism that risks confining Christianity to the world of fairytales. The next step is an interdisciplinary approach, or, better still, a transdisciplinary approach, preserving one’s own epistemological statute whilst acquiring the contributions of other disciplines. The Church must be ready, prepared to address the “Fourth Revolution.”
What do you mean by this?
After the Copernican, Enlightenment-Darwinistic, and socio-psychoanalytical revolutions, we are now experiencing the “Fourth Revolution” that involves the infosphere that changed the environment and of which, in addition to digital natives, we too, digital immigrants, have become an integral part of. But digital platforms are not neutral. Today the real power is in the hands of mega corporations like Google or Microsoft. They have the power to influence opinions and create new myths, fundamental reference objects. Young people are those who are most exposed to this. Where do they find the criteria for discernment today?
How is theology and pastoral care involved in these evolving scenarios?
The Pope is very sensitive to these new scenarios – genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence and linfosphere – and he recently expressed his intention to address this issue with the heads of all dicasteries. We can’t afford to consider them processes that in some way will be resolved and that traditional common sense is more than enough. There still is a form of pastoral ministry that only takes into account my own generation. It must be updated in the light of the ongoing anthropological and cultural “revolution.” We are witnessing a widespread demand for deeper understandings. We need to be open to listening and try to find the answers. However, we should reflect on our language. While we shouldn’t relinquish it we ought to develop a new narrative.
Mention was made of the “prevailing technocratic paradigm” delineated by Pope Francis. Yet a few days ago Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator mundi” was auctioned for 450 million dollars …
In this scenario of exasperated functionalism the masterpiece par excellence of human genius, of aesthetics, of useleness, suddenly becomes the object of desire. Henry Miller used to say that the purpose of art, like religion, is to show the meaning of life. That’s why it should not be lost: Steve Jobs said that you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. This helps us understand that as men of religion and culture we don’t walk naked on the streets of science and technology that appear to prevail. According to the spiritual will of the founder of Apple, who was rather skilled in technological sciences, the heart sings with the blending of sciences and humanities.