Seeking the Truth-a Contemporary Disputatio

Wednesday evening recreation. The Sisters weren't outside for a walk or sitting in small groups talking and laughing while engaging in various handcrafts. No, this was the night of the Monastic Theological Studies Disputatio, the culmination of fours years of intense study by our newly professed sisters!

In the Middle Ages a disputatio was, to quote the venerable authority of Wikipedia, " In the scholastic system of education of the Middle Ages, disputations (in Latin: disputationes, singular: disputatio) offered a formalized method of debate designed to uncover and establish truths in theology and in sciences. Fixed rules governed the process: they demanded dependence on traditional written authorities and the thorough understanding of each argument on each side. "

A disputatio could and did go on for weeks but ours was a mere 45 minutes in length!

The topic for this disputatio was, "Whether it is fitting to pursue artificial intelligence (machines capable of imitating intelligent human behaviors) as far as possible?"

In the tradition of the disputatio the Sisters cited the authority of scripture, the Fathers of the Church, Popes, such Leo XIII and St. John Paul II and other experts including Bill Gates and yes, even Dilbert!

The two teams of sisters had been working hard the past week and a half formulating their arguments. By Wednesday night they were ready albeit a bit nervous! And since a disputatio is a public debate, we the community, were invited as "the public".

The objections came first. The first team presented theirs in the style of St. Thomas and the medieval schools with a little help from power point and Dilbert. We have to admit it—we were sometimes distracted by the cartoons on the screen!

Sr. Mary Jacinta presents an objection.

Sr. Mary Jacinta presents an objection.

Then the sed contra and respondeo were presented by the second team with Sr. Mary Magalene as the spokesperson. The respondio written by the entire team cited Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, Popes and other experts just as the first team had done.

After both sides had spoken the teams were given about 10 minutes to formulate objections to what they heard while the rest of us recreated. We then came back together and both teams shared objections to what had been presented by the opposing team.

Finally, those of us in the community were free to add to the discussion by asking questions and formulating objections. The teams as well as Sr. Mary Jeremiah and Sr. Mary Martin who served as the "Masters" and supervised the dispute, responded. 

Sr. Charia Marie and Sr. Denise Marie asks questions and clarify points of discussion.

Sr. Charia Marie and Sr. Denise Marie asks questions and clarify points of discussion.

What became clear in the discussion was that what is needed as Artificial Intelligence progresses is ethical guidelines. It is here the Church can do a great service to the world of technology and the Popes repeatedly encourage people to be missionaries in this new frontier.

In closing Sr. Mary Jeremiah as the "Master" representing the Schools and Sr. Mary Martin who represented the Church praised the Sisters for their hard work and clear and succinct objections and responses. There was no clear disparity between the two presentations, they were equally good. Both sides presented their points of view well with even a little bit of passion! Since a disputatio is not the same as a modern day debate there are no clear "winners". The aim is to come to a greater truth regarding the disputed question.

Our community greatly enjoyed participating in the student sisters disputatio and the evening ended with a sense that it was time well-spent for all. We all couldn't help be proud of all our young sisters as we saw how much they have grown in the four years they have participated in the Monastic Theology Studies! Well done, Sisters!