GRAFO: Catch Them As They Fall

20130916-172402.jpg The days are getting shorter and the air is growing crisp. I love that word, crisp. Want to know a word I don’t like? Autumn. What a useless, unromantic, pseudo-sophisticated sounding word. “Spring” so perfectly captures the essence of the sudden gushing forth of life following its long, dreary winter dormancy, and in a way that “autumn” can never even approach for the season properly known as the Fall. Ah, there we go: the Fall; life’s realization that winter’s encroach is nigh and then its slow, symphomic tumble to the Earth below in peaceful resignation. Sure, the leaves are dying, but have you ever appreciated how happily they do it? They deck themselves in such gay colors as to make my queer heart approach jealousy and glimmer so glamorously as to make even the sternest curmudgeon soften if only a little. If only all life were as beautiful at the moment of death, then maybe we wouldn’t dread it so.

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Artificial Intelligence, Genuine Overreaction

Human beings are abject professionals at coming up with intricately bizarre doomsday scenarios. In fact, we excel at making things far more complicated than they need be.

I finished the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica yesterday… all I can say is, “Wow.” I mean, I liked Lost and all, but that show tested the limits of my imagination. Galactica, however, was superb throughout and the ending couldn’t have been better; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more genuinely tender moment between two on-screen characters than that shared by Bill Adama and Laura Roslyn as she died.

You can watch it below, but, trust me, you really need to know the full story before it can really touch you:

But, I digress.

In case you aren’t familiar with Galactica, the premise of the series is a war between humans and a race of robots they created called “Cylons.” The Cylons were created to be robotic slaves of Man but they evolved, developing consciousness, and eventually rebelled, waging war against their creators. In case you aren’t aware, this is a common meme in modern popular culture—that is, artificial intelligence greater than human.

From the more benign robots in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to the deranged VIKI of I, Robot (2004), the idea that one day, artificial intelligence will surpass that of human beings and eventually rise up and destroy us is certainly nothing new.

Similarly, the idea of a convergence between man and machine was the subject of a Time cover story a few weeks ago.  The subject of that article “2045: the Year Man Becomes Immortal,” by Lev Grossman, was the Singularity…

“The word singularity is borrowed from astrophysics: it refers to a point in space-time — for example, inside a black hole — at which the rules of ordinary physics do not apply. In the 1980s the science-fiction novelist Vernor Vinge attached it to Good’s intelligence-explosion scenario. At a NASA symposium in 1993, Vinge announced that ‘within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create super-human intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.’”

Essentially, the idea is that computer intelligence will become so advanced, that scientists will be able to—among other things—make man immortal; “perfect,” as it were, the human genetic code; and transfer human consciousness into a computer, thereby defeating death.

Raymond Kurzweil (the subject of sorts of this Time story) explains the Singularity a bit better than I can:

“We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. [Scientist and Singularity-proponent Raymond] Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.”

Anecdotally speaking, it seems that my fellow Christians are the first to pooh pooh such talk as the nonsensical ramblings of deranged scientists. How can machines, they might say, become smarter than human beings? After all, God created us in his image and to be in charge of Creation, didn’t he?

From the outset, my warning to people who feel this way would be not to confuse intelligence with humanity. In other words, we aren’t human because we’re intelligent, nor are we intelligent because we’re human. That line of reasoning would deny the humanity of people with low IQs and elevate to personhood chimpanzees who can communicate through sign language. It just doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny.

So, what about all the other stuff? Will we eventually be able to transfer our minds into robots and escape death? Will we eventually be able to manipulate the human genetic code to completely eliminate disease and defect? Will most aspects of our daily life one day be managed by sentient robots? I’m not saying one way or the other, I’m just admonishing the Church to not completely write it off as impossible… like we did, say, for the concept of the Earth not being the center of the universe. At best it’s a risky gamble.

“Singularitarianism is grounded in the idea that change is real and that humanity is in charge of its own fate and that history might not be as simple as one damn thing after another. Kurzweil likes to point out that your average cell phone is about a millionth the size of, a millionth the price of and a thousand times more powerful than the computer he had at MIT 40 years ago. Flip that forward 40 years and what does the world look like? If you really want to figure that out, you have to think very, very far outside the box. Or maybe you have to think further inside it than anyone ever has before.”

The Problem with “Certitude”

Yes, I know all I’ve written about so far is “Love Wins;” it’s just that I’m pissed off by the unbelievably childish backlash and attention the book has seen since it first hit bookshelves and digital download last month. That said, the vitriol had been flowing for a long time before—ironically so since no one had even been able to read the book.

Naturally, as I said in my previous post, the backlash reveals something about evangelical Christians: they aren’t a very tolerant lot. Nor, as it would appear, are they terribly open-minded. But, ultimately, I think the uproar points to something which is more than mere reactionism.

Time’s cover story this week is about Rob Bell. Take a look at what the author writes in the piece:

“Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus’ atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.

From “Is Hell Dead?,” Jon Meacham. My emphasis added.

I think the last line is rather poignant. I have long thought that the accepted mainline Evangelical understanding of eschatology was insufficient; not wrong, mind you, but insufficient.

Why?

Because certitude excludes the truth that salvation is part of the divine mystery, something which human beings, no matter how advanced or educated, will never be able to fully grasp.

More specifically, I can’t accept the teaching that only those who pray to “ask Jesus into their heart” will be redeemed without following the logic of that assertion to its conclusion. I can’t accept that only those who pass a church’s litmus test for salvation will be saved, not the least because the Church can’t even agree on what such a litmus test should be.

I also can’t accept the idea that people who might have a warped understanding of who Christ is will experience continuous, conscious suffering eternally (in the English meaning of the word) after death because they didn’t say “The Prayer.”

Argue with me all you want, but I just cannot—and will not—accept those arguments as valid.

I’m going to avoid rehashing all the arguments for and against this line of thinking as they’re as old as the Church itself and such a post would run far longer than what most would care to read. The problem that exists will all of the points of view, however, is that the people who hold them take passages of Scripture and attempt to use them to say that their view—and only their view—is the correct one all while ignoring those passages that say otherwise.

On “Love Wins,” there are some people who’ve written interesting pieces about the book—pointing out its flaws while lauding its strengths—that I highly recommend. In an article for Christianity Today, Mark Galli presents the problems with the Christus Victor position, which is apparently what Bell’s teaching is. As well, Ryan Hamm’s review of the book for Relevant recognizes the truths Bell writes while also acknowledging the holes in his claims.

Both of these people succeed in making substantive arguments while avoiding the childish character assassination you might find being written about Rob Bell on the Christian blogosphere, such as labeling him a “universalist”—a label equivalent to “racist” in the Christian subculture.

On that note, it might be worth hearing what Rob Bell has to say in his own words:

At the end of the day, I don’t know how God’s plan of salvation works in every circumstance. I don’t know what will happen to a Bushman who’s never heard the name of Jesus, but loved his God with all his heart, mind and spirit and loved his neighbor as himself.

I don’t know what will happen to the woman who refuses to believe in Jesus because her pastor father molested her as a child. Thankfully, neither do those who claim they do. And, to be quite honest, I don’t have to know.

That, I think, is a problem with modern Christianity: we’ve stopped being comfortable not knowing. Like it or not, there are some things we can’t know and the danger lies in requiring an inadequate and imperfect understanding of transcendent truth to be “true” in every circumstance. Life, as it turns out, is anything but black and white and Christian doctrine has to reflect that. At best, we are flawed creatures using flawed reason and language to discuss things elusive to full human comprehension.

“Certitude,” as Meacham points out, leaves no room for the mystery that is God.