Yuval Levin has a clever post at National Review in which he discusses three different senses of “nature” at work in Laudato Si’:
The meaning of “nature,” which is obviously of particular importance to this text, is taken up in a variety of profoundly contradictory ways—most notably the Hebrew idea of a created order that can only be understood in relation to its creator, the Greek idea of a rational order in which the meaning of each part and of the whole can be best understood by contemplation of its end or purpose, and the modern idea of a sum of knowable causes that can be not only understood but mastered (and so given purpose) by a knowledge of those causes.
The first of those two have long been in a creative tension, explored and made creative above all by Christianity itself, and the third arose out of a kind of impatience with the inability of the products of that tension to take the world in hand and make it do what we please. Francis certainly wants to reject the last of these, yet he still cannot help (quite rightly) admiring what it has achieved in the world and even what it can tell us about what harm we might be doing to the world.
I disagree with Levin that the first two senses of nature are “contradictory,” but he is certainly right about there being a “creative tension” between them.
The third sense of nature— the reductionist, mechanist modern sense— is certainly highly problematic considered as a primary way of understanding nature. But arguably, the modern approach to nature could fruitfully exists alongside the other understandings if it were subordinated to them. Indeed, something like the modern approach to nature did indeed exist alongside natural philosophy as the ancient art of mechanics, which the peripatetics saw as a fairly trivial pursuit compared to “science” of nature. As I point out elsewhere, both Galileo and Bacon were deeply influenced by the Aristotelian Mechanica. Bacon repeatedly refers to the following passage:
One wonders about…what comes to be by technology [διὰ τέχνην] contrary to nature for the benefit of human beings. Nature often does the contrary of what is useful for us. […] When, therefore, we have to do something contrary to nature, the difficulty of it causes us perplexity and we need technology. For this reason we call the technology that helps us in such perplexities mechanics. […] Instances of this are those cases in which the less has power over the greater, and where what has small weight moves great weights—in fact, practically all the problems which we call mechanical problems. They are not quite identical nor yet entirely unconnected with physical problems. They have something in common both with mathematical and with physical theorems; for while mathematics shows ‘the how,’ physics shows ‘the concerning what.’
The translation is by my father, who is, I think, perfectly justified in rendering techne (usually rendered “art”) as “technology” in this case.
But is a subordination of the “mechanical” science of nature to a richer natural philosophy possible after Descartes? Heidegger was skeptical. George Grant refers to Heidegger in his dismissal of the possibility of having modern technology without its attending world view in Lament for a Nation:
Like most other human beings, Canadians want it both ways. We want through formal nationalism to escape the disadvantages of the American dream; yet we also want the benefit of junior membership in the empire. […] This general position has been put most absurdly by the Liberal leader in Quebec, M. Bourassa: “American technology, French culture” – as if technology were something external (e.g. machines) and not itself a spirit which excludes all that is alien to itself. As Heidegger has said, technique [i.e. Technik, technology] is the metaphysic of the age.
If we could choose one I think it obvious that we should not choose technology. Unfortunately, I doubt we will have the choice. But Pope Francis does seems to think that it is possible to have it both ways. And he thinks that the postmodern disillusion with power gives him an opening to make the case. Levin analysis is quite insightful here:
[Pope Francis] seems to want to capitalize on [the tension] resulting from the differences between how the modern Left tends to think about nature and how modern science tends to think about it. The scientific outlook has always sought something like (in Francis Bacon’s characteristically terse formulation) “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” Rene Descartes put the point even more bluntly: the goal of the scientific enterprise he envisioned was to make human beings “masters and possessors of nature.” Conquest, mastery, and possession—the expansion of human power—has been the goal of modern science, and it has been a goal well achieved, and to our very great benefit. This has been the goal because, in this view, nature deserves such harsh treatment for how it treats us: It is a merciless oppressor and killer of innocents and needs to be tamed.
But for the modern Left, which wants to think of itself as the party of science, this goal is actually quite problematic. Over the past century or so, the Left in the developed world has come to take a rather complicated view of power. It has become highly suspicious of certain kinds of power in particular: the power of nations, of corporations, of the rich over the poor, and also of man over nature (or as it has been renamed, to make it passive and therefore a more believable victim, “the environment”). This suspicion has somehow tended not to extend to the power of the state in domestic affairs or, generally speaking, to the power of science (which is, after all, a power over nature). But important as these blind spots are, it still seems fair to say that the modern left, at least when it is at its best, frequently concerns itself with abuses of power. […]
It seems to me that Francis sees something of an opening in this peculiar (and often nonsensical) attitude—that he sees in it an admission of uncertainty by elite and mostly secular liberals around the developed world about the larger worldview of the Left, and wants to show them where their doubts might lead in areas well beyond ecology.