Thursday, April 24, 2014

Borgmann Lecture III

The third talk by Professor Borgmann was I have to say rather difficult to follow, in a category all to itself. While the first two lectures were problematic largely because I disagreed with so much of them and because Borgmann's discussion of cyberspace was to me the equivalent of someone who can't read trying to describe a book. Much as he might use a computer or that internet thing - his descriptions of the technology were often baffling - mixing reality with SciFi as to how placeless and distance-less current cyberspace really is in a continuous seemless flow. However, his third lecture was confusing on a whole other level, and that after listening to the tape a couple of times. My otherwise reliable and useful Borgmann commentators, Ryan Munn and Tim Boland over here, come up a bit short this time as well. The point is simply it was a sidetrack into philosophy of matter and spirit but with little application into the world of technology.

Borgmann on Ontologies

What is the 'reality' as in the world as it is, reflected in the gospels. According to Borgmann it is a 'unity of matter and spirit'. Much of the early part of the lecture was devoted to the nature of miracles, feeding the hungry, healing body and mind. Jesus embraces matter and spirit simultaneously. In the middle ages with the newly available Aristole texts, there was a turn to Greek philosophy. One articulation of this in the real world was the Cathedrals.

According to Borgmann people in the modern world are ignorant to 'reality'. Prof Borgmann then went into a long side track about Newtonian physics of gravity and mass. Are we lost because modern physics of time and space (relativity theory) is not reflected in culture.  Nevertheless we have dematerialised the world - first seen in the transcontinental railway. We changed the feeling of space - shrinking and softening of space. The telegraph did the same. The radio, aircraft, television and finally internet / cyberspace have all shrunk space and time.

This dematerialisation of physical life has de-spirited life. Burdens are frustrations and blessings merely pleasures. Physics is complete - you can't de-construct matter and find spirit eventually. But on the other hand there is not a orderly logic to the world of matter and spirit.

This led to the tangent of the brain and mind example - even with a map of the brain - the connectome - do we comprehend it - not really. 

In this rather rambly talk of the unity of the Spirit and Materiality Borgmann makes the point that there is no encompassing order - however, it is because of the complexity of matter that there is room for the spirit. Christianity is a religion of events. The uncertainties get resolved but not at our discretion.

One problem with this talk is there is the merest hint that if we could go back at least to Newtonian physics if not earlier it would be a benefit. There is nothing in this talk that the theory of relativity is currently our best attempts to date to capture how God has created the world. If the world is increasingly confusing and difficult to comprehend - it is not our fault, it is not even the fault of modernity and current philosophical trends - that is how the world seems to be made, by God. 

It this entire talk apart from the few examples of technologies dematerialising distance there was barely a mention of technology, so it is unclear exactly what the point of the tour through philosophy and modern physics was all about. 

So over to Rikk Watts - what was he saying in response

After the first two responses to Borgmann's lectures Professor Watts third response took and unexpected turn. Whereas the first two had addressed technological design issues and the materiality of life even when engaged in cyberspace the third one diverted from this path.

In the third response Watts focussed on Jesus as a human standing between spirit and materiality. The word became flesh. Word - one who was Spirit became flesh and blood. The one who now sends the Spirit of God to speak to us for him.

Christians have to face up to many uncertainties of their faith which are resolved in Jesus but shrouded in mystery. God, man, spirit, flesh, saviour, sacrifice - a King who died that we might live. These are not neat categories, 'we are not in control' to make neat summaries and definitions of our God. So when we talk of technologies and ontologies we must still remember to put Jesus at the very heart of that conversation.

In some ways you might think that this was no response at all, perhaps Rikk had troubles as well [  :-)   ]. However, what I glean from the talk is that a philosophy of technology that gets too entangled with philosophy as a discourse needs to be reminded that at the heart of the Christian faith stands a man and EVERYTHING is measured against him. Further, Christians have a unifying world view - our vision is Jesus. 

We can have great discussions of ontology but we must be reminded that these are terminated with Jesus - the word made flesh.

Question time

In the first question response Borgmann redefined his point saying cyberspace can be useful but it can't be the centre of our lives. To which can only be said Amen - of course it can not be the centre.

However, in the very next question response he says that as technology becomes more complex, the technology becomes more concealed - and thus it produces in us commodification and eyeballing. We are designed to be fully engaged in the world - walking, the sun on our face . We can't engage with the physical world mediated through technology.

The next question provided an opportunity for Prof Borgmann  to complain about technology. For example at one point Prof Borgmann responds that technology impoverishes the experience of going to school to good teachers and the bad teachers.

The last question was what is the difference between cyberspace and for example writing and printing. Prof Borgmann responses that the first two led to the preservation of what are now the classics and the second to democracy and Protestant reformation. Has cyberspace helped the culture become more vibrant - NO. There is a decline in the ability to write and listen. BUT BUT BUT the timescales of these events are hugely different - the printing press took centuries to have effects Prof Borgmann attributes to them.

One thing struck me listening again to the Borgmann lectures. He argues from the basis of philosophy yet when challenged responds with 'lets see the data'. I am not saying that these should be adversarial but it is trick to get get out of answering. Of course data allows for some cherry picking of question and answers in matters sociological. You can see somebody else's take on him saying this here (agreeing with Borgmann).

A final word on the Borgmann & Watts blog series

 It is clearer and clearer to me that Heidegger has been hugely influential on Christian philosophers of technology.  However, I'll make one observation. Those who are rather negative to technology are fond of pointing out that technology is not neutral, however they fail to apply the same observation to themselves. Philosophy is NOT neutral. It is not purely neutral and analytical and Christians of all people should know that. So I leave this challenge, what if Heidegger is simply wrong from a Christian point of view?

Philosophy sets itself up as the social science that commentate on everybody else but its time to ask are Philosophers really only ones who can ask the RIGHT questions about technology.