Thursday, December 18, 2008

Digitalis Personae: Tech and the New Gnosticism

Are we digital persons -- digitalis personae -- wandering through cyberspace, bodyless, connected yet unconnected? Is technology ushering in a new Gnosticism, wherein bodies are but crude shells, but virtual reality is superior? Do we need face-to-face interaction in a world of "avatars" and Nintendo Mii's?


Doug Groothuis said...

I sing the body cybernetic. It is a funereal oration.

Kevin Winters said...

If our relation to the world is representational, isn't our understanding 'digital' and 'disembodied' at a fundamental level? If it is an immaterial, unextended soul that understands, and the body is only a vehicle that gets us around, and, perhaps more importantly, if God's own understanding is essentially unembodied and is, by definition, that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then surely disembodied understanding is superior to embodied understanding.

While I agree with decrying the quality of digital relations and that the lack of embodiment is one cogent aspect of that critique, the prevalence of representational philosophies and the divination of un-embodied understanding makes this glorification of the digital almost inevitable and even fundamentally true.d

Robert Velarde said...

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God likes matter; he invented it. Hence, the material creation is deemed "very good" (at least initially), we have the Incarnation, and contrary to popular Christian belief, we will not live forever as spirits without bodies, but with glorified bodies.

No, our understanding is not "disembodied." The physical world is real and we interact with it directly, not unreal and indirectly as with a character on a computer screen.

The body is not just "a vehicle that gets us around." This is what concerns me -- technology is ushering in a new Gnosticism, thus diminishing the role and value of the physical, resulting in deleterious non-physical relationships.

We were made for personal, face-to-face interaction, though we can imagine and attempt to adapt to other forms of communication.

Kevin Winters said...

While I would agree that matter is "very good", God (in traditional theism) is much greater, and his understanding is essentially immaterial, so unembodied understanding must by definition (qua God's essence) be superior to embodied understanding. Even "glorified bodies" must be inferior to disembodiment, or else God would be embodied.

I share your concern, but I don't think you can make the claim that embodied knowledge is superior to unembodied knowledge given your theism. So the very ground of your argument is faulty, since the very ground of being itself is superiorly unembodied, even though I think the point is valid. Surely the relationship between the Godhead is not a "deleterious non-physical relationships."

Robert Velarde said...

I think we're wavering into a category mistake error here, Kevin, in that to compare disembodied human interactions via cyberspace to Trinitarian interaction in the godhead is a category mistake, perhaps even a false analogy to boot. That was not my original intention or goal.

In other words, I did not state that all forms of disembodied interaction are inferior to embodied forms. I grant that within the godhead such interactions are necessary and of course possible in a beneficial sense, but theologically speaking this is expected of a perfect being, but not of imperfect beings.

Consequently, my primary point remains that disembodied *human* interactions are inferior to embodied *human* interactions. In addition, in most instances virtual relationships are entertainment-driven, so there is definitely a difference in that respect, too.

Now a related point. If we were in face-to-face conversation, we could easily have cleared up this communication problem. We can do so via a blog as well, but it is not the same or as simple as my explaining to you quickly and directly what I meant.

Kevin Winters said...

While I am willing to say that I might be making a category mistake, that may not be the case. A big part of it depends on how fundamental representation is to your philosophy of mind. Within a dualistic conception it is the mind that understands and not the body; the latter is just innert matter. I imagine that this implies that understanding is also immaterial (which I believe is part of Moreland's argument for dualism). If that understanding is fundamentally representational, then our understanding and relationships are in a very real sense virtual. The issue, then, is that technology in its current state does not give our immaterial minds all the content that 'direct' (i.e. indirect through representations) embodied experience does, which is an indictment of the current state of technology, not technology itself or its virtual status.

Robert Velarde said...

Kevin, I think you are making more of my initial post on this topic than its intention warranted. Basic point: virtual and disembodied human relationships are often harmful, not helpful.

Moreover, your implicit suggestion that future technology will resolve many current online communication issues serves to support my contention that technology will help usher in a new Gnosticism.

Kevin Winters said...

I don't take my suggestion about technology seriously: I don't think technology will ever give us experiences as rich or as multi-faceted as real embodied experiences (see Hubert Dreyfus' discussion for a few reasons). However, I question whether most traditional understandings of the mind, particularly dualistic conceptions, can really provide a cogent reason why.

Yes, this wasn't the intent of your post, but your claim against a "new Gnosticism" only has strength if you can provide an alternative non-representational/non-virtual understanding of the human mind. Perhaps, I am 'implying', that new Gnosticism is already incipient in your own views (I think it is in Moreland's).

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks, Kevin, for some constructive dialogue on this topic. I will ponder your points. For now, though, my embodied life is calling. I grant that I have not quite "unpacked" what I mean by the new Gnosticism or its potential metaphysical implications. Perhaps I will leave that to a peer review journal article rather than a blog. :-)