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Conference Review: Technology and Human Flourishing

The following post is from Karl Aho, a graduate student  at Baylor University studying ethics and the history of philosophy.  Karl received a B.A. in philosophy from Valparaiso University and an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College.  He is also a member of the Third Cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows.  Karl reports on the 2012 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Technology and Human Flourishing, held Thursday, October 25-Saturday, October 27.

100 miles north of Austin—the technology center of Texas—scholars gathered at Baylor University in Waco for a conference on Technology and Human Flourishing.

During the conference I was able to speak with its organizers, Darin Davis and Jason Whitt, who emphasized the diversity of conference presentations.  Over 400 undergraduates, graduate students, professors, and professionals attended over 100 presentations, on topics ranging “from astrophysics to theology, and everything in between.  You don’t always get that kind of variety under one roof,” Davis said.  Whitt commented that the breadth of disciplines reflected the unity of truth.  Interdisciplinary work helps get us out of our academic silos and gives us new perspectives on truth.

Here are some specific insights I gleaned from the conference:

Technology discloses our values:

Many presenters argued that we should study technology because technology reflects our values.  Responding to technology requires considering our understanding of human flourishing.

For example, Patrick Deneen compared political theory to a computer’s operating system, and technology to programs that may be run by that operating system.  To change our understanding of technology, we cannot simply run different programs.  We need to change the operating system first.

Ian Hutchinson discussed scientism, the view that scientific knowledge is all the real knowledge there is.  He contended that our current uses of technology often reflect scientism, citing the ways we search for technological solutions to social problems as evidence for this claim.

We have resources for questioning technology and values:

Many presenters appealed to authors known for their views on technology, like Neil Postman and Martin Heidegger.  But one of the strengths of the conference was its focus on religious responses to technology.  Religions offer principles with which to answer questions of values, principles that are more substantial than arbitrary choices or accidents of evolution.  For example, many religions remind us that our focus must be on finding the truth, not merely pragmatic solutions.

Several presenters focused on insights from authors writing in the context of religious traditions, e.g. Wendell Berry, Jacques Ellul, and Walker Percy.  Other presenters highlighted that our responses to specific technologies need not always be negative. For example,

  • Peter Kilpatrick surveyed the positive impact of many 20th century technologies.
  • Nancy Murphy, an advocate of “non-reductive physicalism,” discussed how contemporary neuroscience confirms biblical understandings of personhood.
  • Rosalind Picard suggested ways that technology can help those who face challenges processing emotional information.

R.R. Reno closed the conference by arguing that technology cannot replace face to face education: “The main engine of the scholarly life is found in conversations with friends and co-conspirators.”  But—and this goes beyond the scope of Reno’s paper—perhaps technology can supplement such conversations.

Questions Concerning Technology and Human Flourishing:

I’ll close with questions inspired by the conference, that I hope will lead to further discussion:

  • What values inform our uses of technology?
  • How should we respond to values like scientism that can prompt bad uses of technology?
  • What resources could particular religious traditions use to reflect on technology?
  • How should technology supplement face to face education?
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