A Theological-Philosophical Expert Seminar in Oxford
One of our staff members, Gábor Ambrus delivered a paper on Nov 2nd at the Las Casas Institute (Blackfriars Hall), at the University of Oxford. This paper was a contribution to an expert seminar entitled “Theology between Information and Language”. The seminar was co-organised by Prof. Helen Alford OP, vice-rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, Rome, and Prof. Richard Finn OP, director of the Las Casas Institute, Oxford. This event figured as the third one in a sequence of expert seminars, through which the so-called “FoRe project” developed and presented its research. “FoRe” is an acronym for “Foundational Reflections on Theology and Technology”; the project runs at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas with Prof. Alford as project director and Gábor as lead researcher. With respect to the wide societal relevance of the seminar’s theological-philosophical focus on “information” and “language”, the collaborators of the FoRe project initiated a co-operation with the Las Casas Institute in organising it, given the latter’s specialisation on current social and economic issues in the light of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition.
The seminar featured talks by Prof. Luciano Floridi (Oxford Internet Institute), Prof. Oliver Davies (King’s College, London) and Gábor as main speakers; the scholarly community of Oxford University provided a keen and welcoming audience, a group of participants, including six respondents who were explicitly invited to share their ideas about the three main speakers’ talks. The event took place in the historic setting of the centre of Oxford, on the Beaumont Street premises of Blackfriars Hall.
As it is often the case with such events, the actual talks of the seminar opened up vistas which proved to be somewhat different form those envisioned by the seminar’s original script.
The organisers proposed a seminar on what they called a “metaphysics of information” and on the related ambiguous concept of language, and on the theological underpinnings of these concepts. They expected the seminar to explore the possibilities of a metaphysical God in relation to a reality whose most basic particles – the most fundamental elements of all beings – are items of data or pieces of information. It was in contrast to such background that speakers and respondents were supposed to elaborate on biblical-historical revelation in which God speaks to human beings and enters into dialogue with them. As a matter of fact, the distance and conflict between these two understandings of God were clear from the very beginning, yet the seminar was expected to suggest connections between the two perspectives (with respect to the simultaneous tension and affinity between information and language) or at least put them into the conceptual framework of the age-old conflict between a biblical and a metaphysical God.
In the end, the speakers’ talks brought a shift of emphasis from the doctrine of God towards anthropology.
In his talk entitled “Technologies of Hope”, Prof. Floridi delved into that sort of hope (a hope for relentless progress) that motivates human behaviour within the field of information- and communication technologies. By contrast, he then set about describing, as incomparably superior, another kind of hope, that is, the hope inherent in religious faith. What made his presentation so striking is that he attempted to present this contrast by means of the logical apparatus of analytic philosophy.
Prof. Davies’s talk (“Theology, Language and Love: God in Information”) took the seminar’s discussion into the field evolutionary and cultural anthropology. He introduced the concept of the “social cognition system” as “the high speed bodily exchange of information through reflexes, rhythms and phase symmetry”. From pre-historic times onward, human behaviour has had this system with the “face” as well as advanced tool-making with the “hand” at its centre. This duality corresponds to homo socius and homo faber, and it was their combination that led to natural languages and finally to information- and communication technologies. At the same time, the task of theological anthropology is to envision “how homo socius reaches out to homo faber, through renouncing control and objectification”.
What Gábor’s paper explored was “Information, Language, and the Human Self in the Play of Biblical Revelation”. He put forward the idea that pieces of information, while deriving from or being dependent on language, are necessary fragmented (like “fragments of reality”) as compared to the flow of language which constitutes the unity and continuity of self-understanding. Then he moved on to spell out the paradox that the Christian Good News can be as such, a piece of information, which nevertheless safeguards the unity of the Scriptures. Indeed, in his opinion, it is the piece of Good News about Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection that propels the biblical grand play between the understanding of God and human self-understanding.
The interesting responses to the talks and especially the lively conversations during the breaks, when the happy participants were enjoying the generosity of the Las Casas Institute serving exquisite sandwiches, delicious biscuits and superb coffee, were marking out possible tracks for an eventual follow-up after the FoRe project. One of them was pointing towards a promising theological reflection on artificial intelligence research. Such a future quest for further channeling the dialogue between theology and technology might bring about an intensified co-operation between the technologists in Oxford and the theologians in Rome.