Last night (Friday evening) the distinguished philosopher Albert Borgmann, Regents Professor of Philosopher at the University of Montana, opened the “Contemplation in a Technological Era: Thomas Merton’s Insight for the Twenty-First Century” conference at Bellarmine University. Borgmann is the author of several books. The most recent looks very interesting, although I haven’t yet read it: Real American Ethics: Taking Responsibility for Our Country (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007). The book of his that I am most familiar with is Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology (Brazos, 2003).

His keynote address, titled “Contemplation in a Technological Era: Learning from Thomas Merton,” was interesting for several reasons, not the least of which was some of the statements Borgmann made during his talk and during the question and answer section. The first thing that was striking about Borgmann’s lecture was that he invited the audience to come closer, moving from various points in the auditorium toward the front of the space. The reason he did this was because he wished to move from on-stage to stand at floor-level to address us.

He did not use a single note or piece of paper. He simply stood in front of us and offered his comments for the forty or so minutes he said he would talk.

The other thing that was interesting was some of the statements that were included in his presentation. A central current throughout his talk, which is something I can also see in the work of Thomas Merton, is that Merton recognized technology as a cultural force. This is the philosophical interest of Borgmann’s academic work, that is the cultural force of technology. Borgmann explained his interpretation of Merton’s view of technology:

He [Merton] was clear about the effects of technology as a cultural force and could see that the effects were both dynamic and stultifying at the same time. It was an energetic and transforming force, but in the end it leaves us with experiences that are ultimately joyless.

Borgmann critiqued technology as a genus, suggesting that it, as it progresses, leads to detachment and disconnection. Nevertheless, toward the end of his lecture, after lightly addressing contemplation as an exercise and force, Borgmann suggested that one could see the active life (technology) leading to inspirational reflection (contemplation) or the process reversed, inspirational reflection (contemplation) leading to the active life (technology).

Perhaps my favorite line of Borgmann’s last night was: “The thing about contemplation is that it centers your life in the best possible way, but not the only possible way — there are others such as the arts, gardening and so on.”

I have two critiques to offer to Borgmann’s address. The first is what came across during the questions and answers session as an unfamiliarity with Merton’s more explicit work on contemplation in response to a question from a young woman in the audience who asked if he could define contemplation for her. Earlier in his presentation, Borgmann gave a nice overview of the Aristotelean definition of contemplation, which seemed to guide his own reflection on the subject, which predates and is rather different from the Christian tradition’s (albeit variegated) understanding. I might have simply referred the questioner to the first few chapters of Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.

The second point of critique is something I also found interesting during the Q/A portion of the evening when Borgmann was asked again about technology, its ubiquity and its future. At one point Borgmann insisted that computers and/or the Internet would never have consciousness. He claimed such a science fiction was impossible. This was something that he and I discussed later in the evening privately and I suggested, as I wished to during the Q/A but was not called on because they were seeking just one more question before ending, that history has demonstrated that consciousness has arisen from non-sentience. Our planet is more than four billion years old and homo sapiens as we exist today have not always existed as such. I do not dispute that we are indeed God’s plan, but the reality of evolution cannot be overlooked as one attempts to respond to counterfactual claims about the future. My beef, in other words, was with his adamant defense of his position that such a reality could never happen. My position is that we simply do not know and cannot claim such certainty one way or another.

All in all, it was an interesting evening and the weekend has kicked off with a great start. The conference continues through today with several speakers, including myself. I’ll be delivering a paper titled, “Digital Natives and the Digital Self: The Wisdom of Thomas Merton for Millennial Spirituality and Self-Understanding.”

Photo: University of Montana

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