Whether or not BP finally manages to seal the well in the Gulf of Mexico, putting an end to the millions of gallons of oil that have already spilled into the ocean, there’s a much greater question at stake.
To be sure, debates about social and political economy will continue: How should federal and local governments cooperate in resolving such catastrophes? What kinds of regulations and pressures are needed to prevent them? Are there not other energy resources available?
But even these questions do not address the most fundamental issue.
On the one hand, our society suffers from a contrived dependence upon technology. BP did not know how to manage the hazards involved with their drilling depths because it did not calculate them beforehand. It did not do so because such calculations were not relevant to the overall enterprise. And they were not relevant because the use of reason was circumscribed only by what was technologically possible, which itself translated into what was potentially profitable.
If our modern sense of reason is limited to a practical, fix-it kind, it is because our scientific-technological projects are all that count in the pursuit of truth. (Alternatively, many of our liberal arts universities still wallow in the relativism of rewriting history and re-describing reality, having surrendered the objective terms of truth for subjective ones of power.)
Indeed, the most characteristic American school of philosophy is “pragmatism.” And, as one of its founders, John Dewey, famously defined, “Truth is what works.” But we do not simply find ourselves at the self-contradictory end of the Enlightenment project to liberate man through scientific measurement and profitable invention.
On the other hand, the stirring technological advances that drive the world market and galvanize the populace’s confidence are able to do so not simply (or even mainly) because of their apparent utility, but also because of the diversion and entertainment they provide. It’s no small irony that ours is not only the most technologically advanced and most professionally frenetic society in the world; it’s also among the most entertainment-driven. Our universities are iconic of this inebriating complex of technology, work, and play. (Similarly, we are both one of the most health- and image-conscious nations, but also one of the most obese.)
What’s being decried here is not free-market capitalism or the use of technology. The tragic phenomenon that demands attention is the way in which secularity’s reverence for merely “scientific” reason has created a schizoid culture of the mind and spirit.
Pope John Paul II spoke of this problem in his encyclical Fides et Ratio:
He continues, “Regrettably, it must be noted, scientism consigns all that has to do with the question of the meaning of life to the realm of the irrational or imaginary” (88). But the question of the meaning of life is irrepressible. Thus, as the great pope noted, the spirit travels from scientism, to pragmatism, to postmodernism . . . and ultimately, to nihilism.
At one end of the contemporary spectrum, enlightened modernity has made scientific and technological reason absolute. But when modernity closes its over-long workday, the nightlife of postmodernity takes over, preoccupied with trendy diversion and ever-new experiences. With good reason, the most successful computer company in the world is also the most fashionable. Utility and chic co-opt one another spectacularly.
Our statesmen — if true “statesmen” they be — ought to reckon with their responsibility as public intellectuals. They should take this opportunity of social and environmental catastrophe to think on a grand scale, and not merely functionally.
Perhaps it is not too Romantic to suggest that we need to think about the way we think, and the way our thought — or our spirit — advances society. Does not the reduction of reason to its practical potential engender an arbitrary and fleeting life of pleasure-seeking? Does it not lead us to seek transcendence in abject or at least rather inane ways? And does it not subject us to unmanageable technological catastrophes that wreak profound social, economic, and environmental damage?
If reason is the natural human instrument by which the species fuels its advancement and refines its conclusions, just where and how will it all end?