Roundtable Series 2021–22: Technology, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Updated: Mar 7

See overview of series here.

 

Session 1: Specialization



With the movie Free Guy (2021) and Mary Midgley's book chapter "Moon Monsters and Free People" (1991), academics gathered at Lumina College to discuss the nature, purpose, and inter-connections of knowledge, humanity, and technology. Particular attention was given to specialization, which was acknowledged as both individual and communal, as well as capable of good (when used to strengthen a community) and bad (when used selfishly).

Speakers raised the idea that knowledge only becomes knowledge when it is absorbed by a mind (i.e. a book is not knowledge itself), and by extension, a mind enacting knowledge may be considered wisdom. Speakers also used the term "algorithm" to describe the broad logic of technology, as opposed to a mere machine. Meanwhile, the defining of other terms, such as artificial intelligence (AI), personhood, or consciousness, remained elusive in this session, yet important for continuation of the topics at hand.

Contemplation of philosophy is an imperative for Christian scholars in all fields, and questions were raised in particular for the technology of gene editing. Would this be, as some Christian scientists view it, like "playing LEGO with God," an extension of modern medicine, or would this game be too dangerous for mere mortals? Some participants expressed that science could describe reality, but not prescribe what humanity ought to do. For Christian scholars, that prescription ought to come from God's will for earthly flourishing — and yet, even this is subject to our interpretations of what that looks like.

Session 1 was led by Dr. Leung Wing Tai of Lumina College and Dr. Jonathan Chung of the City University of Hong Kong.

 

Session 2: Integration


What do we gain and what do we give up when we humans integrate with machinery? What is the essence of being human? Is ageing a natural phenomenon or a disease? These were some of the questions explored in the second session of the series, guided by the movie Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Brent Waters' book chapter "Whose Salvation? Which Eschatology? Transhumanism and Christianity as contending salvific religions" (2011).


Humans are made in God's image, designed by the Creator to love and be loved, unique from the other animals and the machines we make. Does our technological transformation change that? We contemplated the rise of cyborgs like Neil Harbisson, who overcame his colorblindness by integrating his body with a machine that allows him to see colors beyond the typical human eye's abilities. While enhanced performance holds its appeal, such technology also carries a bias toward functionality and efficiency, which may de-emphasize real manifestations of humanity and personhood.

We also considered how our limitations themselves contribute to our human, creaturely identity. Scripture gives us the examples of Jacob's limp after wrestling with God and Paul's mysterious thorn in the flesh. In both cases, God's divine strength shines through human weaknesses. Likewise, our humanness involves dependence, ageing, and eventually dying, which may even be thought of as an act of mercy. In closing, a question was raised: "Do we need integration with machines, or unification with God?"


Session 2 was led by Dr. Winnie Fung of Lumina College and Dr. Irene Fan of SCALE InnoTech.

 

Session 3: Separation



If we spend our days hopping between virtual reality and the offline world, are they equally real? Can we invent a world better than what God has made? Guided by the film The Matrix Resurrections (2021) and T.J. Gorringe's book chapter "God, nature and the built environment" (2002), the third session of the series explored separation from technology — if such a thing is possible.


Human use of technology has evolved from being a tool, to changing the landscape, to changing people, and now, possibly, replacing humanity altogether. Our human desires for dominance, power, and growth have been accelerated by our reliance on technology to do our bidding, and at what cost? Modern lifestyles of convenience and consumption have led to a climate crisis that demands our scrutiny. On the other side of our shiny stores stocked with international goods are endless piles of cardboard and the smoke of greenhouse gases rising up to choke our planet. Is it need or greed?


We considered how the philosophy of many businesses is to bring maximum satisfaction to consumers, which leaves out the question of whether such a process can be sustainable. Faced with the rapid pace of technological advancement, have we paused to wonder where it is leading us? We may be tempted to turn to technology to free us of our limitations, as in the case of the genetically modified babies Lulu and Nana, born with resistance to HIV. Yet whether we are living embodied on earth or in the metaverse, worshiping in Jerusalem or Samaria, Jesus reminds us that God must be worshiped "in the Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). However much or little we become entangled in technologies may not be entirely up to us, but what we do have is the choice to live authentically as participants in God's creation.


Session 3 was led by Dr. Leung Wing Tai of Lumina College and Dr. Agnes Chan of the University of Hong Kong.

 

Session 4: Centralization



People do things, and states end up doing those things. This premise kicked off the fourth session of the series, which considered the film The Circle (2017) along with Jacques Ellul's book chapter "Technique and the State" (1954). As Ellul points out, the transition from humans doing things relationally to the state taking up such business for its own ends has happened with many aspects of life, among them violence, trade, government, and education. And as The Circle predicts, this is now happening with interpersonal relationships. It is not inconceivable to think that in the not-too-distant future, friendships may only be formed with the push of technology.

Considering the example of education, its shift from individual to centralized seemed unnatural until it did not. State-run education requires information to be public, centralized, and standardized. This made new options available, but would also be burdened by inefficiency and ineffectiveness. In this process, the state adopts, but also repurposes, old ways of doing things. The same is happening with human relationships being lived increasingly in the public sphere of social media. Is such sharing performative, and can we still be genuine? Participants considered the need for both centralization and decentralization in social technology and in the marketplace, balancing both individual freedom with limiting freedoms for the benefit of those around them.

Echoing Ellul's observation of technology as a total process more than mere tools, speakers considered how ideology may be mattering less and less, with moral issues sidelined for the sake of advancing society, such as in weapons or gene editing. States may perhaps be understood as organizations that seek their own survival and efficiency, rather than embodiments of the general will of the people. Yet ideologies still matter, as seen in different personal and national responses on issues like handling a pandemic. Without God's spirit, we risk being enslaved to either the state or the self.

Session 4 was led by Dr. Mike Brownnutt of the University of Hong Kong and Rev. Dr. Kin Yip Louie of the China Graduate School of Theology.