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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Artificial Intelligence: Hype, Reality, and Real Dangers? (part II of II)

Part I, from yesterday.

Before jumping into part II, I note that Gene Veith has a piece up this morning about baptizing robots!

Here is part II then, taken from my library technology presentation from last year.

Lanier's wager, merely a "privatized humanism": “we are better off believing we are special and not just machines”

Lanier’s wager, merely a “privatized humanism”: “we are better off believing we are special and not just machines”

I think Therefore You Aren’t?: Philosophical issues

“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them”.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery[i]

I suggest we are slowly becoming one with the Mechanical Muse – surprisingly alluring – that like a physical automaton can serve as a symbol – a microcosm – of what the MSTM sees (at the very least as in practice)[ii] – as the cosmic machine, our “final frontier”. But we may question: is this really a bad thing? For example, Sherry Turkle may be warning us about the ways that machines can seduce us, but in a panel at a recent QUT Robotronica Event Dr Christy Dena spoke excitedly about such a phenomenon, stating: “All you have to do is put two eyes on a robot and people will treat it in a certain way”.[iii]

What is she really getting at here? Let me suggest this: when it comes to determining what is alive, what is a “person”, or what is at the very least equivalent to human being, all that is felt and thought to matter is what we notice with our senses. As one of the other distinguished panelists[iv] at this conference suggested, we as human beings will discern a robot to be an intelligent and self-aware entity when we say “I would have done that” (“What else do we have?”, even the sophisticated person today asks)[v]

Assuming this is true, what are the practical implications of this? I see two fundamental and related issues here: first, robots and how they “know” us. Second, and following from the first, how human beings are increasingly coming to “know” other human beings through technology.

How do robots really “know” us? Up to this point, I think it is easy to see how.   Recently, in an interview with the New York Public library Jaron Lanier, when asked to share seven words that might define him, answered in a joking but semi-serious way, “our times demand rejection of seven word bios.”[vi] Doing that, Lanier explained, is a form of disempowerment because “you are creating database entries for yourself [i.e. “putting yourself in standardized forms”] that will put you into somebody’s mechanized categorization system.”[vii] As stated in Don DeLillo’s award-winning 1985 fictional novel “White Noise”: “…you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”[viii]

bigdataNever before has the phrase “nothing personal – just business” been truer.

This is how robots “know” us. The “useful fiction” for the robot – or, more accurately, for the one programming the robot – is that through a combination of some information about yourself – culled from structured and unstructured data sources – and some workable mathematical models and algorithms, you can be understood insofar as necessary – for the goals they think best (and how can you doubt that they care?[ix]). Yes of course, maybe the maker can’t really understand you on a deep level, but the maker, through the robot, can see evidence of what you do – perhaps even noticing things about your behavior that neither you nor anyone else has.[x] And that is all he needs: taking account of this “works” for him regarding the things he wants to do: sell things to you, prevent terrorism, perhaps even genuinely help you, etc.

I simply note what happens to the maker – and the users – as this kind of technology is embraced more and more – we choose to understand others through the limitations of the robot. Anyone who knows something about the origin of computers should not find it surprising that some who use powerful computers are tempted to reduce what is complex into a false simplicity. Alan Turing invented the computer based on his own idea – his own model – of how the brain operated and how human beings communicated. After the computer begin to dominate our lives, it became more and more common to think about the brain – and our own communication as human beings – in terms of the computer itself and computer networks. As far as it pertains to academia, this happened in the sciences as well as the humanities. Jaron Lanier even talks about how words like “consciousness” and “sharing” have been “colonized” by Silicon Valley nerd culture.[xi]

froginkettleIs this a cause for concern? Is this perhaps a major frog in the kettle situation? Can we say that as we increasingly give ourselves to the technology, we see that it is not so much that the robots resemble us, but we that resemble the robots?[xii] Why am I wrong to suggest that technology – perhaps particularly computer technology – offers us powers that appear to enable us – like never before – to not have to really know and love persons and things – or at least to not know them very well?[xiii] Rather, with other human beings, we are ever more tempted to operate by force – applied more lightly or heavily as the case may be, aiming to attain what we want now in a “good enough” fashion – and supposedly with few or no consequences.[xiv]

To many, this evidently does not seem to be something to be overly concerned about. After all, perhaps it is only fair – at the very least it makes sense that robots might be people to (another “useful fiction” for now?)! And even though you don’t necessarily understand them, you do, after all, use their services which “work” for you.[xv] Do onto others as they do onto you, you know.

But if “good enough” increasingly becomes the one ring to rule them all, how will our human relationships be affected – and will we be able to keep going on like this? Perhaps that is the question for us. As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, we see more and more “smart technology” leading up to more and more things automatic and robotic. What does this mean for each one of us? “Thank you for becoming a part of the machine?” The evisceration of our souls?

Is it not clear that those who give themselves over to the lure of these kinds of “power tools” – seeking the powers afforded by the technology apart from technology’s rightful purposes – in fact yield to the same pragmatism and reductionism those wielding them are captive to? In other words, are they not ultimately nullifying themselves philosophically, politically, and economically – their value increasingly being only the data concerning their persons… and its perceived usefulness?

The MSTM seems to increasingly be the water in which we swim – are we concerned?

Lanier’s wager and privatized humanism

Jaron Lanier is concerned and here is where his ideas again come into play. I see his book You are Not a Gadget, for example, as very much going against the flow – even the flow of what is generally thought to be knowledge.[xvi] In a recent interview with KCRW’s Matt Miller, Lanier stated that “we are better off believing we are special and not just machines”.[xvii] I see this point as critical in addressing another point he has made: “Clout must underlie rights, if rights are to persist”.[xviii]

Harry Bates’ “Pandora”.

Harry Bates’ “Pandora”.

And I will call this “Lanier’s wager”, drawing the analogy from Pascal’s more famous one. For me, hearing such words from Lanier resonate with my soul, but are, in the end, only slightly encouraging to me. It seems to me that he is fighting a losing battle with weak weapons.[xix] For these are not the days where most persons know of any real grounding for “the inalienable rights of man” or even the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thorough when transcendentalism held some sway in the land. After all, even Lanier says, “we are the only measure that we have of the world”.[xx] These are the days where it is at least somewhat reasonable to talk about rights for animals[xxi] (is Lanier a “speciest”[xxii]?), plants, and yes, even robots.[xxiii]   These are the days when there are movements headed by serious intellectuals among the elite of the elites that go by the name of “posthumanism” and “transhumanism”[xxiv].

For in the end, it comes down to this: Jaron Lanier’s humanism, as better as it might be compared to the views of many, is only a “privatized humanism”.

I submit that the fight cannot be won with a “privatized humanism” but can only be won when hearts and the habits of the heart are fundamentally changed.[xxv] Certainly, there are many who still believe that there is something more foundational about life’s essence than the simplest particles of physics and nature’s laws.[xxvi] That said, even here, the temptation is great even for those who try to hold onto traditional views. For example, in his review of the new book The Second Machine Age, David Brooks says “essentialists will probably be rewarded” in the machine-dominated economy. But whatever Brooks might mean by “essence”, it does not seem to be connected with any classical notion of permanence – i.e. something that is intrinsic, real, and lasting: “creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.”[xxvii] Sounds rather violent and un-conservative to me![xxviii]

The firm conviction that there really are essences in the world that ought not or cannot be changed – i.e. that there are some boundary lines that should and in some cases cannot be crossed (at the very least in the long run) – may certainly be seen as confining and suffocating.[xxix] But on the other hand, it can be comforting as well to know that that there really are some things we all have in common – and that we can count on.[xxx]

Along these same lines, reading about the all-important topic of education, I recently came across these wise words from one Robin Lewis: “Appreciating some artifacts are good in themselves, and not merely because of what they do for us, is the first step towards a proper appropriation of the liberal arts”[xxxi]

Indeed. And if that goes for things in general, it really does double in importance for other human beings in particular. Big data[xxxii] and information technology must bow to higher principles – held by human beings who sincerely believe in them. “Good enough” is not good enough for the library’s soul.

So let’s talk now about libraries, technology and the classical liberal arts…

FIN

 

Notes

[i] Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 249.

[ii] Again, historically it has not been uncommon to see the universe, or cosmos, as a machine – early on in the days leading up to modern science as a clock and later on as an automaton. See Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, pp. 76-78. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear serious physicists talking about the possibility of the universe being a computer, or a quantum computer, or a computer program. The trasnhumanist (note that Nick Bostrom is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University and is the chairman of the World Transhumanist Association) Hans Moravec believes that the whole of our reality is a simulation created by machine intelligences from the future. In the introduction to the book Is God a Mathematician? by Larion Lavio he talks about how the fastest way to get rid of most pesky persons who want to share their theory of the universe with him is to tell them that they need to be able to express it mathematically, because no theory of the universe is worth anything unless this can be done. It is said in jest, but there is much more to that I think. The mechanical and mathematical seem to go hand in hand to me.

[iii] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/morals-and-the-machine/4881302.

[iv] Professor Gordon Wyeth, Head of School Science and Engineering, Queensland University of Technology.

[v] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/morals-and-the-machine/4881302.

Hence the famous Turing test, a test in which those who participate discern whether or not they are dealing with a robot or another human being by taking part in a simple conversation by exchanging messages back and forth.

[vi] This can simply be summed up as imperfect models not representing the world well – or as well as the context demands that you should know it – but forced on it nonetheless. Google made some big claims not long ago saying that it could trace flu outbreaks with the big data that it had, but was humbled later on when they weren’t able to do it in real-time. A man named Dr. Hansen said the problem was “data without context” and summed the situation up with a quote from the playwright Eugène Ionesco: “Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth.”   http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/disruptions-google-flu-trends-shows-problems-of-big-data-without-context/

I understand the power behind Ionesco’s critique and yet, as a Christian, my view of words is that they are meant to be living and active, life-giving and life-forming. Even when put on paper for safeguarding – perhaps then especially so. For I believe there is nothing less than human about the “technology” of writing. After all, one might memorize the love poems of the beloved, or even better, the Beloved. Yes, [living] context is key.

[vii] The New York Public Library. 2013. “Jaron Lanier | LIVE from the NYPL.” YouTube video, October 10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFW9qxKojrE.

[viii] “What is most unfortunate about this development is that the data body not only claims to have ontological privilege, but actually has it. What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body which dictates your status in the world. What we are witnessing at this point in time is the triumph of representation.” (Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, 1993 ; quoted in Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 121.

[ix]Are computers just not able to love perhaps because they do not have bodies – i.e. that they do not have an “embodied mind” – or is there something else that separates us from them? See http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/minds-and-computers/3290844

[x] If this sounds cryptic, read this short blog post by Phil Simon about “Big Data Lessons From Netflix”: http://www.wired.com/insights/2014/03/big-data-lessons-netflix/ In short, Netflix knows what kinds of colors are likely to get your attention in the movie and TV series posters they show you.

[xi] We can add the word “ontology” as well.

[xii] One might hope that when it comes to any technological development we would first focus on coming to deeply know and love the world – and to find the best ways to work with it to the mutual benefit of all. In other words, that we would exist in an environment where any technological development is slow, flexible, and constrained. “Permaculture” is a good metaphor here. More often than not however, it seems that we must operate in an environment where technological development cannot be slow. It cannot be flexible. It cannot be constrained.

[xiii] In an email message to the author from November 2013 from now retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade he commented: “If we reorient our understanding of knowledge to be what the lover alone knows of the beloved, and that precisely because that knowledge is freely and joyfully shared, knowledge as power is seen to be the lie that it is.” Compare this to Lord Kelvin: “When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.” (quoted on p. 57 Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton) Also note that if such scientism is a god of this age, it is eros, not phileo or agape (that is, that love which Bade spoke of above), that is another. See the highly insightly essay by philosopher Simon May “The irresistible appeal of the romantic ideal”, in this Financial Times article: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/bf810484-9255-11e3-8018-00144feab7de.html#axzz2w38ZEGCe ; also this fascinating piece featuring a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his 21 year old son: http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/11/from-father-to-son-j-r-r-tolkien-on-sex/

[xiv] Even seemingly more humanistic endeavors might seem to occasionally fall prey to language that, in effect, makes human beings and data about human beings equals : “Ribes and Jackson [chapter 8] show the surprising complexities in something as apparently simple as collecting water samples from streams, while they challenge readers to think of scientists and their data as evolved and evolving symbionts, mutually dependent species adapted amid systems ecological and epistemic”. Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 11 (introduction).

In a world where big data increasingly seems to rule I wonder if this kind of language helps…

[xv] It seems to me that many of us are like fish in the fish tank where all we know is “what works” and “useful fictions”.

[xvi] In other words, to say that the pragmatic approaches that we are discussing here are shortsighted is the least of our problems. Fundamentally, it seems to me that there is a crisis here in belief regarding any true knowledge.

Any real ontology (what is, period) and teleology are gone and even epistemology (the mind’s apprehension of reality… an analysis of the contents of consciousness… not what is but what is known and how), perhaps kept alive in a post-Christian age by movements like romanticism and historicism, has been eclipsed by a more or less pure and perpetually skeptical naturalism – which means we are left only with the pragmatism that must accompany this naturalism en route to our increasingly unreflective pursuits of happiness (and a little bit of social justice to of course).

[xvii] Miller, Matt. 2013. Will Google and Facebook Destroy the Middle Class? This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Jun 5. http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/lr/lr130605will_google_and_face

Lanier makes a similar, but not identical statement in p. 196 of his new book. There he states that while he can’t prove that people are special, “I can argue that it’s a better bet to presume we are special, for little might be lost and much more might be gained by doing so”. Lanier, Jaron. 2013. Who owns the future? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Here is where I must ask “how can this be enough”?   It seems what is being said here is that we simply need “useful fictions” in order to survive and thrive as human beings. Lanier’s wager seems to me a house of cards – not having the requisite foundation.   In other words, it seems to me that Lanier has some very good and true insights, but the intellectual superstructure that can actually buttress them at a deep and satisfying level has been removed. Lanier’s account – while perhaps being more compelling, personal, holistic, and “everyone has a voice”-ish than most – still seems to leave human beings in their position of being just another “a cog in the machine”.

I particularly find Lanier’s wager to be severely undercut by this statement from his book: “You are the reverse image of inconceivable epochs of heartbreak and cruelty. Your would-be ancestors in their many species, reaching back into the phylogenetic tree, were eaten, often by disease, or sexually rejected before they could contribute genes to your legacy. The genetic, natural part of you is the sum of the leftovers of extreme violence and poverty. Modernity is precisely the way individuals arose out of the ravages of evolutionary selection.” (p. 131)

Later on, he also makes this statement: “Belief in the specialness of people is a minority position in the tech world, and I would like that to change. The way we experience life – call it ‘consciousness’ – doesn’t fit in a materialistic or informational worldview. Lately I prefer to call it ‘experience,’ since the opposing philosophical team has colonized the term consciousness. That term might be used these days to refer to the self-models that can be implemented inside a robot.” (p. 195)

Lanier talks about predominant Silicon Valley forms of faith on pp. 193-195 of his book.

So some hard questions to think about: Other than getting some basic facts on the ground right to ensure survival, what is the non-transcendence-minded person’s strongest incentives (I would say Lanier seems to be a transcendence-minded person) to be as accurate as possible regarding all questions of significance persons have or care to have about what is true?

[xviii] Ibid, p. 205, This is the title of chapter 17 of his book.

[xix] Note that “the German philosopher Martin Heidegger developed the theory that technology, as it gradually comes to dominate our world, forces us to see the world in a defined way; a world view in which everything must necessarily be seen as a means to an end and where it is not possible to see anything as valuable in itself… This is in line with the German sociologist Max Weber’s view of development during industrialization. Here he speaks about more and more areas, beginning with working life, but with increasing ripples out to the ‘social’ work’, being dominated by a rational logic that stems from technology.” Danish Council of Ethics, “Technology in Human Development,” The Danish Council of Ethics, last date of modification not listed, http://www.etiskraad.dk/en/Temauniverser/Homo-Artefakt/Artikler/Kulturhistorie/Teknologien%20i%20menneskets%20udvikling.aspx, accessed Mar. 13, 2014. I have heard about and listened to lectures on both of these men, but have not read any of their works. I am not aware of whether or not they used the same arguments that I have used to arrive at their conclusions. In any case, I note that in spite of the power of Heidegger’s critique, there really is nothing positive – not to mention firm and confidence-inducing – that he has to put in its place. One wonders whether or not that could explain why a man like Heidegger – widely recognized as one of the most influential and brilliant philosophers of the 20th c. – ended up throwing in his lot with the Nazis, a fact that has only come to light in recent years.

[xx] Miller, Matt. 2013. Will Google and Facebook Destroy the Middle Class? This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Jun 5. http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/lr/lr130605will_google_and_face (with guest Jaron Lanier)

[xxi] To consider human beings no differently than animals seems to me an extreme position to take. Even radical environmentalists in effect treat human beings as special because they believe we are uniquely responsible to for being responsible stewards of the world. In any case, perhaps one looks closely at the practices of various kinds of factory farming, such an extreme position becomes, at the very least, more understandable.

[xxii] See the works of the highly regarded and respected Princeton ethicist Peter Singer.

[xxiii] Serious technologists talk about robots having rights. In the Robotronica conference mentioned above, most all of the panelists talked about how we must be forward thinking about his from a legal point of view. Yes, there were those who simply talked about this from a legal perspective: one noted that for liability reasons ships and companies are defined as legal persons and another pointed out that we have laws that protect companion animals for sake of owners (because they are attached to them) and therefore should also have that for companion robots. And yet another panelists argued that insofar as robots have the potential to be like human beings, they should be afforded that kind of status. We should think about them as a new kind of species. Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/morals-and-the-machine/4881302.

[xxiv] “In posthumanism, the association of humanity with a “natural” (unenhanced) mind and body is reduced to an ‘accidental’ ‘biological substrate.’ Elsewhere, Hayles argues that be viewing the human as an existence without essence, ‘as a pattern rather than a presence,’ the body can be disposed of, and the mind uploaded to a database; the body, replaced with a cybernetic prosthesis; the mind, enhanced and ‘improved’ using computer software. The line that separates humans and machine, mind and computer is dissolved, and can become anything the designer wishes it to be.” Justin Everet, “The Borg as Vampire in Star Trek”, in Browning, John Edgar, and Caroline Joan Picart. 2009. Draculas, vampires, and other undead forms: essays on gender, race, and culture. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 79. For more on transhumanism, see this excellent web article from the Danish Council of Ethics: http://www.etiskraad.dk/Temauniverser/Homo-Artefakt/Artikler/Kulturhistorie/Transhumanisme.aspx

[xxv] Here is where I can only point to something outside of ourselves: transcendence, and particularly the Christian faith centered on the grace of God (I suggest a good study bible, and you can read my blog, theology like a child, for more from me – or feel free contact me using the “about” page there). At the very least, I am sure that many would agree that we should be curious about the nature of being and consciousness!

Here’s a start in that direction:

In the dawn of life we sense with a perfect immediacy, which we have no capacity or inclination to translate into any objective concept, how miraculous it is that—as Angelius Silesius (1624-1677) says—”Die Rose ist ohne warum, sie blühet, weil sie blühet”: “The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms because it blooms.” As we age, however, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things. Thereafter, there are only fleeting instants scattered throughout our lives when all at once, our defense momentarily relaxed, we find ourselves brought to a pause by a sudden unanticipated sense of the utter uncanniness of the reality we inhabit, the startling fortuity and strangeness of everything familiar: how odd it is, and how unfathomable, that anything at all exists; how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event. … One realizes that everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery. In that instant one is aware, even if the precise formulation eludes one, that everything one knows exists in an irreducibly gratuitous way: “what it is” has no logical connection with the reality “that it is”; nothing within experience has any “right” to be, any power to give itself existence, any apparent “why.” The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same. In that instant one recalls that one’s every encounter with the world has always been an encounter with an enigma that no merely physical explanation can resolve. Hart, David Bentley. 2013. The experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. New Haven, Yale University Press, pp. 88-89.

This sounds rather intelligent, reasonable and erudite, does it not? And yet, nowadays it seems to me that it is becoming ever more fashionable to speak as Charles Blow does in this New York Times op-ed:

“I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others.”

He goes on: “But some people see our extreme religiosity itself as a form of dysfunction.  In a 2009 paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul, an independent researcher, put it this way: “The level of relative and absolute societal pathology in the United States is often so severe that it is repeatedly an outlier that strongly reinforces the correlation between high levels of poor societal conditions and popular religiosity.” Charles M. Blow, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” The New York Times, January 3, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/opinion/blow-indoctrinating-religious-warriors.html?ref=charlesmblow&_r=1

[xxvi] There are many who hold to sincere materialist / reductionist positions, and even for many who don’t believe this – or perhaps hold to these beliefs lightly (keeping it as one of their spheres of knowledge that may or may not overlap that much with the others) – it is easy to act like a “functional” reductionist. What I mean is that we start functioning largely with a view to assert ourselves over and against all those we must deal with because we feel we can’t trust them to be all that concerned about us – even if we don’t believe that life’s fundamental essence can be reduced to the smallest individual particles physics is able to discern.

FDR said, “No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order”, quoted in Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press, p. 65. I would say that there is an even greater menace that but a few realize and take seriously – even as all manner of social science can be drawn upon to support this assertion. That is that having strong natural families – nuclear or extended – is absolutely critical to having a healthy society. Christianity has bequeathed to us an understanding of the individual as having an infinite value, and yet the Enlightenment, stealing from Christianity, made the individual important in its own way, and it seems clear to me the natural family has been dissolved largely in the light of this Enlightenment acid. The individual replaces the family as the fundamental unit of social organization, and society cannot ultimately bear such atomization.

[xxvii] Brooks, David. “What Machines can’t do.” New York Times, Feb 04, 2014, Late Edition (East Coast). The full quote about essentialists is this: “essentialists will probably be rewarded. Any child can say, “I’m a dog” and pretend to be a dog. Computers struggle to come up with the essence of “I” and the essence of “dog,” and they really struggle with coming up with what parts of “I-ness” and “dog-ness” should be usefully blended if you want to pretend to be a dog.”

I note that Nicholas Carr talks about essence (actually substance) in his review of Andrew Keen’s book, Digital Vertigo, cleverly noting that “substance is more important than being transparent”. And yet here to, in this context, substance, or essence, does not necessarily talk about stable things that last, but rather the matter of personal integrity.

This quote from a Stanford humanist is telling: What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot (Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. 2004. Production of presence: what meaning cannot convey. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, quoted in Armin Wenz. 2013. “Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism.” Logia 22, no. 3: pp.?

This is someone who is in the belly of the beast so to speak, and these seem to be his conclusions about what is necessary to counter the more pernicious and reductive aspects of what has been called the “technological imperative” (if it can be done, it will be done, should be done).

[xxviii] “In his essay ‘Farewell to the Information Age,’ linguist Geoffrey Nunberg notes the shift in the nineteenth century from understanding information as the productive result of the process of being informed to a substance that could be morselized and extracted in isolated bits.” Nunberg, Geoffrey, in The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 103-138, quoted in Garvey, Ellen Gruber, “Facts and FACTS : abolitionists’ database innovations”, in Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 91

[xxix] Can we at least agree that all people everywhere are universally endowed with at least some shared concepts: e.g. “thirsty”, “clouds”, “tears”, “sad”, “food”, “mother”, “father”, etc. – and that this has great significance for us as human beings?

[xxx] This is similar to the dilemma faced by the secular Jew, Andrew Leff, who said the following:

“I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoratively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.” Leff, Arthur Allen. “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”. Duke Law Journal. 1979 (6): 1229-1249, p. 1229.

And Nicholas Carr talks more about matters of essence, or nature, in a different, but perhaps related, context: “One of the advantages of embedding culture in nature, of requiring that works of reason and imagination be given physical shape, is that it imposes on artists and thinkers the rigor of form, particularly the iron constraints of a beginning and an ending, and it gives to the rest of us the aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological satisfactions of having a rounded experience, of seeing the finish line in the distance, approaching it, arriving at it. When we’re in the midst of the experience, we may not want it to end, we may dream of being launched into the deep blue air of endlessness, but the dream of endlessness is only possible, only has meaning, because of our knowledge that there is an end, even it is an arbitrary end, the film burning in the project…

The inventors and promoters of hypertext and hypermedia systems have always celebrated the way they seem to free us from the constraints of form, the way they seem to reflect the open-endedness of thought itself and of knowledge itself. Said Ted Nelson: ‘Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial.’ He did not mean that as a compliment.

But even though we read ‘forced’ and ‘artificial’ as negative terms, there’s much that’s praiseworthy about the forced and the artificial. Civilization is forced and artificial. Culture is forced and artificial. Art is forced and artificial. These things don’t spring from the ground like dandelions. And isn’t one of the distinctive glories of the human mind its ability to impose beginnings and endings on its workings, to carve stories and arguments out of the endless branching flow of thought and impression? Not all containers are jails. Imposing form on the formless may be artificial, but it’s also liberating (not least for giving us walls to batter).”

Nicholas Carr, “No Exit,” Rough Type (blog), October 29, 2012, 10:28 AM, http://www.roughtype.com/?p=2019.

[xxxi] Phillips, Robin. 2014. “More Than Schooling: the Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts”. Touchstone, Sep, Oct 2013, accessed Mar. 2014, http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-05-028-f

[xxxii] When it comes to big data, Lanier sees the fundamental issue as one of honesty: we can’t really be honest about what all the big data out there means when the powerful Siren servers that control that data have a vested interest in using that data for their own purposes. Barclay, Paul. 2013. Jaron Lanier: Reconstructing the Digital Economy. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, July 10. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/minds-and-computers/3290844 I think that is a noteworthy point, but also think that there is something even deeper going on here as I have argued – something to be aware of, and honest about.

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Posted by on May 29, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Artificial Intelligence: Hype, Reality, and Real Dangers? (part I of II)

Not much theology today, just what I hope are intelligent musings informed by theology….

On Gene Veith’s blog he talks about an article titled: Nara: Algorithm will refine the web using neuroscience:

MEET my new friend Nara. We’re recently acquainted, but she knows me pretty well.

She thinks I’d enjoy American Gangster because I’m a fan of Goodfellas, anything directed by Ridley Scott and drama and crime movies.

She also knows I like seafood, steakhouses and a “chic atmosphere” — although I never told her that — so she’s able to make some spot-on restaurant recommendations. She can recommend the perfect hotel for my travels, too.

The only thing is, Nara’s a robot, designed to connect me to places and things that “matter to me”.

Designed by a groups of scientists, artists and entrepreneurs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nara collects information about your interests and tastes to create a “neural network”.

Nara picks out a movie based on my preferences.

While anyone can try out the beta version of Nara, it’s not designed to be the next popular social network. “From the get-go, our mission has been to help humanity find what matters across the swelling oceans of information we face today,” reads the website.

“The first two years of Nara were spent in stealth, as our neuroscientists and computer scientists from MIT began building our brain-like algorithm. In the two years since then, we’ve achieved a number of notable milestones and continue to push the latest in artificial intelligence into the business world.”

[Keep reading. . .]

Dr. Veith asks: “Find what matters?”  Restaurants?  Movies?  Is that what artificial intelligence is reduced to?  Is that what we are reduced to?”

Part of me thinks, “well, yes”.  Today Albert Mohler also reported how chimpanzees literally got their day in court in New York. Chimps as persons… why not “Nara” to?  Aren’t we probably just “meat puppets” anyways?

Yes, maybe it is crazy and everyone will realize that. But a part of me wonders about the general population at large… first of all, to set the stage, you might want to see the post I did entitled: Salvation and damnation by technology: introducing the MSTM (modern scientific and technological mindset).

This post, along with others I have done, is a part of a library technology presentation I did last year that deals with these topics.*  Today and tomorrow I will do a couple other parts from that presentation, “Why Don’t You Marry It?”: Seduced by the Mechanical Muse (part I) and I think Therefore You Aren’t?: Philosophical issues (part II).  Here is part I of II

“Why Don’t You Marry It?”: Seduced by the Mechanical Muse

“When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or prophet would have dared complain.” — science fiction writer Simon Ings [i]

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle

In the same talk mentioned above Alister Croll stated that “24 months ago, the average person was still afraid of IT. Today, the average person is terrified of being without it.” [ii] Exaggeration or not, Croll hits on a critical point here: we are increasingly becoming more comfortable with digital technologies, particularly the youngest among us. This is the case to some extent in most all of us, whether or not we strongly identity with the MSTM [again: modern scientific and technological mindset].

MIT professor Sherry Turkle has done research in the area of “companion robots”, interviewing hundreds of people for her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She finds that, out of a sense of disappointment with each other, several persons have turned to robots as a substitute for human interaction. What Turkle meticulously charts in Alone Together are robots used by lonely, isolated human beings as lovers, best friends and caregivers.

robotspeopletoAccording to her, in the world of sociable robotics, nurturance is the killer app – we nurture what we love, but we also love what we nurture. After studying every “digital creature” that asked for our care, Turkle concluded that we attach to things and want to love them. The “robotic moment” that she talks about is when we begin to think robots care about us and consider them as candidates which can be put in the place of human beings. There is a gradual slide from “better than nothing” to “better than anything” – while a robotic puppy might not seem so good at first, the robotic puppy will never die.

Hence, we are very vulnerable to what technology affords. Turkle’s evaluation: “We are toast”.[iii]

Can one identify a similar phenomenon occurring with regular web applications? It might seem a real stretch to say so – the Star Trek Next Generation “Holodeck” would seem to be a few years from production – but consider this: as computer environments become more immersive – fueled by all the shaping power that Big data will be able to provide – the temptation to regularly inhabit them will likely become much greater. And we will no doubt find ourselves desiring – at this or that level – what they offer.   In a recent edition of the KCRW (an NPR affiliate) news program “This is Interesting” Matt Miller described his experience of having his brains electrical signature extended out into a beautiful picture he could manipulate: “cool, surreal, otherworldly”.[iv] And surely, more is to come.

Heard of her?

Heard of her?

Of course, even now, we are being courted and wooed.   The internet – rather, those running the web applications on the internet – offer us all manner of things without much commitment on our part (just the way we like it these days!) – giving us promise that it can, in part, fulfill our dreams and desires: pleasure, intimacy, and a sense of vital connection.[v] And it can give us other things, that while lesser wants, are still very highly sought after by us. Jaron Lanier talks about the “candy” being offered: “insanely easy and cheap mortgages; free music, video, Web search and social networking: all are examples of the trinkets dangled to lure initiates into answering the call of a Siren Server.”[vi]

Again, services like Google become more powerful by giving us what we want – by leading us to things Google did not create – so that, ultimately, we might more and more become their product – as they sell our interests, our attention, and increasingly, our data (anonymized of course) to others.[vii] And, besides the occasional uneasy feeling about the whole thing, we generally love it! And the one courting us is a powerful and attractive partner indeed! As Lanier explains, “Google ad is guaranteed to work, the overall Google ad scheme by definition must work, because of the laws of statistics. Superior computation lets a Siren Server enjoy the magical benefits of reliably manipulating others even though no hand is forced.”[viii]

Of course you read this…  Amazing what we put up with for those we love.

Of course you read this… Amazing what we put up with for those we love.

And this game being played is even more sophisticated still. Lanier also talks about how Steve Jobs learned from Eastern gurus that sometimes, it can be very effective to more or less give someone what amounts to a public beating. For example, by berating an employee in front of other employees, Jobs would not necessarily cause someone to quit, but instead to become more loyal to him – and to work even harder for his approval. In like fashion, companies like Google will try to increase your addiction – your “attraction” – by using something called a “noisy reward”. A noisy reward is a reward that is not always doled out in a consistent fashion.   Because this is the case, it has the paradoxical effect of generating repetitive behavior on the part of the user. The idea is that you “fall in love” with what you have to struggle for, and social networks only tend to exacerbate this effect.[ix]

Seduction per se does not need to be evil. One can certainly argue that there is a proper context to woo and to win. That said, this is decidedly not the case with the player who seeks only to get into our pants, our pocketbook, or our playbook (i.e. all of our personal data). Modern internet companies seem more akin to the player than the genuine lover. One is reminded of a quote from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Profess, quoted by C.S. Lewis in his book the Abolition of Man. Lured in by earthly pleasures, Pilgrim realizes what has become of him: “It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me to his house, he would sell me for a slave.”[x]

Japanese companion robot for the elderly.

Japanese companion robot for the elderly.

Here, one cannot help but think of the many companion robots being enlisted to help the elderly in Japan – many of the persons stuck in these situations are genuinely sad that this is their plight. Does it occur to us, as Turkle says, that we would have people to do these jobs if we respected this type of work – if we respected our elders who need this kind of work – enough to pay them a decent wage?   But we do not – first they are consigned to nursing homes and then they are banished to live with robots performing the cheapest labor possible.[xi]

It is true that family life – and especially village life! – was never perfect and is easily romanticized, but at least here persons beyond our immediate family knew us, loved us, and depended on us. Maybe there were even small business owners who we never could doubt for a minute really did care about us on a personal level.[xii] And for many of us, when our parents gave us a toy, there was of course a genuine love behind his actions, and not motives like those of which we have been speaking.

Why do I bring up toys? I note that automated functions began in toys – a la “candy” – before moving into industrial machinery. This looks to be taken to a whole new level as automation moves into the realm of “cognitive machinery”.   At this stage in the game, who are our electronic devices and online accounts really there for? While I must admit it seems a bit extreme for me to say it, here I go:   “Become one Big data…become one with it…. Welcome to the machine….”

Are we slowly becoming that which we want to be and that which we don’t want to be? Are we all increasingly awash with facts, figures, data….and readily contributing to the same, but with no real grasp of who we are? I think this is clearly the case, and will argue just that in the next section.

FIN

 

Turkle and robot images from Wikipedia.

Notes:

*….some other posts with content from a library technology presentation I did last year that deals with these topics: Goethe said that in science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being ; C.S. Lewis’ prophecy regarding man’s abolition ; What’s not so good about internet technologies.  Here is also the info I had in that presentation – based on a good deal of research – about the new industrial revolution that many are saying is upon us: “Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress”.

[i] Quoted by Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York : Thomas Dunne Books, p. 210. Again, I do not believe that real AI is possible, but we certainly can use machines more than we ought and in ways we ought not.

[ii] OCLCVideo. 2013. “Alistair Croll: Implications and Opportunities of Big Data.” YouTube video, March 13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ic_BlPesEls. For more on how our views of computers have changed over the years see Atkinson, Paul. 2010. Computer. London: Reaktion Books, pp. 201-231.

[iii] Keen, Andrew. 2011. MIT Professor Says Robotic Moment Has Arrived, and We are Toast. Keen On. television program. Silicon Valley: Tech Crunch TCTV, February 14. http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/14/keen-on-sherry-turkle-tctv/ ; Keen also refers to this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/10/roxxxy-sex-robot-photo-wo_n_417976.html

[iv] Miller, Matt. 2013. Thought-Controlled Computing. This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, July 31. http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/in/in130731thought-controlled_c (with guest Ariel Garten)

[v]I am not talking about dating and relationship matching sites. That said, Lanier has some really interesting comments about that as well: “technological solutions not embraced by Silicon Valley: For all the extolling of AI and the like, Apple would not leave the design choices for its products on an algorithm instead of Steve Jobs…. Lanier: has to do with the ‘nerd supremecy’ problem – people are being encouraged to leave to algorithms pretty person decisions – what music we listen to, who we date, what movies we see, etc…. Silicon Valley ‘knows that these algorithms don’t do anything’… ‘we aren’t going to believe that crap’….. ‘we don’t live by them ourselves, and so that is something worth noticing’.” Miller, Matt. 2013. Will Google and Facebook Destroy the Middle Class? This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Jun 5. http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/lr/lr130605will_google_and_face

[vi] Lanier, Jaron. “Fixing the Digital Economy.” New York Times, Jun 09, 2013, Late Edition (East Coast).

[vii] “An old-fashioned exercise in power, like censoring social network expression, would reduce the new kind of power, which is to be a private spying service on people who use social networking.” Ibid.

[viii] And again, where is this going in the relative short-term? Lanier says the following: “Siren Servers drive apart our identities as consumers and workers. In some cases, causality is apparent: free music downloads are great but throw musicians out of work. Free college courses are all the fad, but tenured professorships are disappearing. Free news proliferates, but money for investigative and foreign reporting is drying up. One can easily see this trend extending to the industries of the future, like 3-D printing and renewable energy.” Ibid.

[ix] The New York Public Library. 2013. “Jaron Lanier | LIVE from the NYPL.” YouTube video, October 10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFW9qxKojrE. Lanier connects all of this to social status concerns due to evolution. It seem to me that here we have “coercion by the machine – the seduction machine that carries us away (no autonomy). This is more akin to Brave New World than 1984. This notion of seduction seems doubly powerful to me when one consider the crazy fact that most of the technical advances that are developed on the internet are pioneered by persons involved in the pornography industry.

What happens here, it seems to me, is that this “hard truth” of everything being mechanical, is balanced with softer, more humanistic notions, more so I think in the latter than the former, and yet, the “hard truth” put forth here has a unrelenting power it seems, to pull us towards itself and into itself to drive our thinking and conversation.

It seems to me akin to the old notion of fate, updated with all of our scientific knowledge…and minus some classical virtues even.

[x] John Bunyan, quoted in Lewis, C. S. 1996. The Abolition of Man, or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 63.

[xi] Of course, then there is also the fact that they no longer lived in a society where having more than a couple children was honored.

 

[xii] Capitalism has also always encouraged us to give business to those who offer the lowest price – and can still be trusted – but now, even here, the idea that it makes sense to support local businesses – people you know and you know what they are doing – is even further drowned out.

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Why “We are All the Duggars” is Not a Good Christian Response

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, parents of Joshua Duggar

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, parents of Joshua Duggar

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“For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” — C.S. Lewis

I have been catching up on all of the news and controversy surrounding the sexual abuse scandal involving 19 Kids and Counting star Josh Duggar.

Yesterday, I came across a provocative post at Pastor Tullian Tchividjian’s Liberate website entitled “We are all the Duggars”.

I appreciate what the authors of the piece were trying to communicate – namely, as I said in a comment, “None of us can stand before God by our righteousness. Christ is our only hope. This is the message by which the church lives and breathes.” (you see, I would have appreciated their piece more if the two comments I had left on the post would have made it up on the site!).

I am always eager to communicate the radical grace that Jesus Christ has for sinners – Josh Duggar included. We can be sure that whatever happens to us in this life – however much the world may condemn us – we can have peace with the God of the universe now and forevermore through His own blood (see Romans 8).  Through Jesus Christ, death, sin, and the demonic are all ultimately find their deserved end.

That said, in the piece the authors assert: “We are no better than the world is. Nor should we claim to be.” Elsewhere, one of the authors says that “He is not making us better people but unveiling how bad we are that we may find in Christ the riches of our Father’s goodness.”

That sounds like humility and a welcome lack of self-righteousness. There is a glaring problem here though and that is that it is completely discounting the work that God has done through good Christian people. People who, according to the 17th century Lutheran saint John Gerhard, say to their sweet Lord Jesus: “Sins were sweeter to me than honey and honeycomb. That they are now pungent and bitter, I owe to You who gave me spiritual taste…”

bakkeCould it be that the condemnation of Josh Duggar’s sins would be unthinkable apart from Christianity’s influence?  I think so.

This becomes very clear as one examines the historical evidence of how Christianity has changed views about children. In an article at “The Week,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says:

“Today it is simply taken for granted that the innocence and vulnerability of children makes them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care…[but] this view of children is a historical oddity.”

Jumping off of Gobry’s article, Eric Metaxas says:

Gobry points to the work of historian O. M. Bakke, whose book “When Children Became People” documents how radically Christianity altered the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, and what the world before Christ looked like.

Children, he says, were considered nonpersons. In the cultures of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Pliny the Elder, society was organized in “concentric circles,” with the most valuable (freeborn, adult males) in the center, and the least valuable (women, slaves, and children) on the fringes.

From the moment of birth, a child in ancient Rome was as likely as not to die. If disease or injury didn’t end a young life, very frequently the parents themselves did, “exposing” any infants deemed inconvenient. Such children usually fell prey to wild animals or the elements. But as Gobry points out, a few were rescued only to be raised in one of the ancient world’s most lucrative industries: sex slavery.

Today, sexually abusing a child is a serious crime. Not so in the pre-Christian world, writes Gobry. During that time it was legal, and even considered good form, for a married Patrician to keep children—particularly young boys—to exploit sexually in his free time. “[M]ost sexual acts were permissible,” Gobry explains, “as long as they involved a person of higher status being active against or dominating a person of lower status. This meant that, according to all the evidence we have, the sexual abuse of children…was rife.”

Into this world came Christianity, with its condemnation of abortion, infanticide and child abuse, its glorification of faithful marriage, and its teaching that children come first in the Kingdom of Heaven. “Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble,” said Jesus, “it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.”

This ethic, which the Western world takes for granted today, is a direct heritage of Christianity. It rests on the very same beliefs as traditional marriage, chastity, and the sanctity of all life. And secularists who want nothing more than a world free from these constraints of Christian morality, warns Gobry, had better consider—or rather remember—what that world looks like.

(hat tip to Gene Veith)

Were these first Christians perfect then? With perfect families? They were not perfect – and it does us no good to put up a facade that they were…. And yet, the point is this: they were good… better, than most…

jesus_and_children_window_QWTPMPFHIn other words, it was these Christian people who made it possible for persons like the unbelieving C.S. Lewis, for example (see quote above), to begin to realize the depth of his sin. Not only this, but they have helped people around the whole world realize – and deeply feel – that this way of living is good, and that what came before was darkness. It is even in part because of them that there are a lot of non-Christian families that don’t have child abuse or any other number of problems in them.

I would hope and pray that families that worship Christ would continue to be, in general, the most loving and holy places on earth. I grew up in one of these.

That is why, five years ago, I supported some of Richard Dawkin’s statements against the Roman Catholic Church – because that “cultural Christian” (as he has even called himself) was at least getting this one very important thing right.

I’ll admit that I think that Christians like Matt Walsh have important points to make here. That said, I think it is time for traditional Christians to stop circling the wagons and to deeply reflect on these matters – making some of the same points in a way that will genuinely bring more light (no, we can’t avoid the heat).

FIN

 

Duggars image: Wikipedia ; Jesus and children image: http://catholic-skyview-tremblay.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-child-is-born-to-us-when-children.html

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

We are Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Why All of Us Need the “Good” Death Penalty

“This passage [Gen. 9:6], therefore, solves the problem that engaged the attention of Plato and all the sages. They come to the conclusion that it is impossible to carry on government without injustice… For if [the emperor] is like other men, it is the height of wrong and injustice for him not to want to be like others but to place himself at the head of others through despotism. —Martin Luther (AE 2:142)

The Boston Marathon bomber Tsarvaev Dzhokhar

The Boston Marathon bomber Tsarvaev Dzhokhar

This past weekend, the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was dealt the death penalty by a Federal court jury.

This jury made up of Bostonians all decided that in this case the death penalty was necessary (see a nice summary by Al Mohler here). By doing this, did these persons violate the law of God?  And if any of the jury were Christians, were they required, according to the commands of Scripture, to show mercy?

Some evidently think so. In a recent post on his Jesus Creed blog here at patheos, Scot McKnight writes:

The reason Christians should oppose the death penalty is because they believe that (1) humans are Eikons of God who, because of the redemptive work of the trinitarian God in the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost, (2) can be restored to union with God and communion with others.

I agree with his points but do not agree this means Christians should oppose the death penalty.

Those like myself who argue for the death penalty insist that it actually does show compassion: for the victims of violent and heinous crimes.* It sends the message that, because of the harm it does to others, certain kinds of behavior are simply intolerable and cannot be allowed to stand.

That said, is it possible that an overuse of the death penalty**, for example, might lead hearts that should otherwise retain compassion into an overly callous state? I certainly would not deny this. And yet, I note with interest that in the West in recent years, the argument has been shifting from when or how the death penalty should be applied to whether it should be applied at all.

And it has in many cases been prominent and respected Christian leaders leading this charge. Arguing that such violence is inherently against the character of God, leaders like Pope Francis have said that “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” (see here)

But what do the Scriptures say? In Genesis 9 we read:

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

In the N.T. this is re-iterated in the book of Romans, chapter 13:

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (see also John 19:11 and I Peter 2:13-14)

What does this mean? (strangely enough, even we American Chrsitians have a real hard time dealing with Romans 13)

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist: Right office, wrong action.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist: Right office, wrong action.

First, “God himself is at work when man punishes his fellow man for murder by taking his life in retribution. God ‘seeks a reckoning’ from man by the agency of man. God is the one who kills and makes alive (1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7).” The government is ordained by God to do what individual Christians are commanded not to do: wield the sword.***

Second, although God does not desire the death of the wicked, in this temporal realm, the death penalty is a qualified good – while “not the way it is supposed to be” it is “good” in that it counters the effects of the fallen world, also “not the way it is supposed to be”.

Third, it, like natural marriage, points to something greater beyond itself: it is an icon indicating the realities that transcend this earthly life. Natural marriage is a sign of the peace and joy that comes with the church – all believers – being united to Christ. The death penalty serves as an icon not of earthly punishment by death, what the book of Revelation calls the first death, but rather what it calls the “second death” – which is the final judgment and punishment of those who reject Christ and His word. In sum, there is a “final cutoff” and judgement for wickedness.

Of course, talking about hell is becoming less acceptable these days. But we dare not forget that there is indeed a final judgment, executed by God Himself. The thief on the cross experienced a final earthly judgment (“the due reward for our deeds” [Luke 23:41]) – and was in the process saved from the eternal judgment. Undoubtedly, this pleased God! After all, we can never say that God is pleased with the death of the wicked in an unqualified sense – for He does not desire their death – but He especially does not desire the eternal death of the wicked!

The death penalty helps us to take that threat seriously.

And that goes for all of us – the wicked (see Romans 4:5 and surrounding verses). For all of us are implicated in the high treason of our first parents, Adam and Eve. As John Bombaro notes, treason means “cooperating in the usurping… the sovereign’s rule”, or “consciously and purposely acting to aid and abet” his enemies. (p. 129, Making the Case for Christianity, ed. Maas)  Further, “humanity has a specific problem, not just sins – the treacherous things we think, say, and do – but a treacherous disposition, a nature given to rebellion. No one is exempt. In this humanity is unified. It is this nature and the fruit of our nature that leaves us condemned for treason before the great King.” (p. 130, see more here)

And we all know the penalty for high treason.

And here it will do us no good to insist that it really isn’t our fault – but that we were influenced by others and came under their sway. That argument did not work for the Nazi War criminals and it most definitely did not work for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I have some real sympathies for Christians who feel they must oppose the death penalty. With that said however, are not persons like Pope Francis wrongly binding the consciences of good Christian people in insisting that “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed”? Not only this, but I think the matter here is even more serious. Does support of the death penalty by some Christians not need to be retained? Not in order that man may have His desire for “revenge” quenched – and not even because there is no other way to protect innocent victims in this or that case – but simply in order to point out that the God who is love could not be such without His wrath?

If this message is lost, the entire need for Christ’s death is thrown into question. Why did Christ have to die? The idea that Christ in any sense died because of our sins or for our sins is lost when the utter seriousness of our crimes is lost.****

Further, is not cursing the enemies of the faithful is built into the very fabric of the promise – salvation from sin, death and the devil?  Can there be salvation without corresponding damnation?  Can there be gospel without law?  Can there be deliverance and mercy without justice?  Simply put: can darkness exist with light or must evil and its offspring ultimately be dealt with forever?

Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in Him! [Psalm 2:12]

Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in Him! [Psalm 2:12]

But thanks be to God – for His anger lasts only for a moment, and God’s justice and vengeance – being his “alien work” – always operate for the salvation of His people.

Pastor Holger Sonntag says it well:

“When Christ died, he served others by giving his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). He paid their debt toward God in full; he redeemed them with his holy blood as the spotless Lamb of God (John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:18-19). He absorbed God’s curse over sinful mankind when he hung on the cross, so that man might inherit God’s blessing (Gal. 3:10, 13, see Deut. 27:26; 21:23). He became sin, so that man might become righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). He reconciled the world to God: for Christ’s sake, God does not count man’s sins against him (2 Cor. 5:19). God’s reconciliation in Christ is the unilateral end of God’s war against sinful mankind. It is the end of God’s wrath in Christ stirred up by our sin. Christ is now man’s peace with God (Eph. 2:14); Christ is man’s salvation and righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30).” (The Death Penalty: a Lutheran Position)

And this goes even for the enemies of Him and His people if they will come. As there is still time and the “final cutoff” tarries. As He desires the salvation – and not the death – of every human being…

Again, we have all committed high treason. And we all know what the price for such treachery is. God is perfectly just. And yes, God is perfectly loving. None of us are both. We, being human, can not say “Vengence is mine, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30), and do so perfectly. Only the Lord can, for only His anger – and not the anger of man (nevertheless to be enacted in capital punishment through “official anger” or “just anger”) – is in perfect alignment with what is good, true, and right. Only His anger is perfectly driven by perfect love – that love that aims to restore all to union with Himself and communion with all others.

… if for only a brief moment in this life then for an eternity in the next.

Finally, I close with this from Martin Luther, “describing the restrained and decidedly not self-righteous deliberations of a Christian judge prior to his resolute action”:

When dealing with a wicked person, his thoughts are to be: “Oh, my God, how gladly I would die for this man, if it could be done! *****

FIN

 

Notes:

* W. B. Reynolds, “The Death Penalty Is not Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” in The Bill of Rights: Original Meaning and Current Understanding, ed. E. W. Hickok, Jr. (Charlottesville, London: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1991), 327-330, esp. 327f.: “[Anger] is a normal, healthy feeling, and one that, among others, makes us human and sets us apart from mere animals. Indeed, if we should ever stop feeling anger (strong, deep, disturbing anger) at senseless, premeditated crimes of violence against individuals or society, we ourselves have then surrendered a measure of our own humanity. For our anger displays a certain, essential level of caring for our fellow human beings. It shows that we are not indifferent to the fate of those who share – or who once did share – life with us.” …Reynolds wishes the anger to be administered, not by individuals, but in an orderly process of justice. (quoted in his Pastor Holger Sonntag’s unpublished paper, The Death Penalty: a Lutheran Position)

** “… at that time, putting to Death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions, and not least of all with Tellson’s [Bank]. Death is Nature’s remedy for all things, and why not Legislation’s? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson’s door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death. Not that it did the least good in the way of prevention – it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly reverse – but, it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else connected with it to be looked after.” —–A Tale of Two Cities (Running Press: Philadelphia, PA, 1986), 46. (quoted in Sonntag)

*** Pastor Holger Sonntag,: “God here gives man a share in his own authority over man’s life and thereby over man’s bodily existence as a whole: for if you can take a man’s life then you can take everything that pertains to this life. And this is the establishment of the government of men over men by God, not by minimalist mutual contracts among men emerging out of distrust, war, and enmity, as envisioned by Beccaria and other social contract theorists.”

**** Pastor Holger Sonntag writes: “How would a justice system look like in which retributive (distributive) justice were not the basis of the entire legal system? How could the justice of a given punishment be ascertained? Why does one crime merit a 2-month sentence on probation, why does another merit community service, while another is punished by a life sentence?” and “Reflecting on the purposes of punishment in general, we can say, then, that the chief factor in the death penalty is retribution. This is not to say that, for murder and other offenses, the bible does not know other purposes as well. E.g., it knows of the deterrent power of punishment (general prevention), according to Deut. 13:11 etc. It also knows of the defensive function of punishment, according to Ps. 82:4. It also knows of the “pedagogical” function of punishment by parents, according to Prov. 13:24. It knows of the power of punishment to bring a person (or group of persons) to change their ways (special prevention, “repentance”), according to Lev. 26:14-45. In the case of Israel, the death penalty has the further purpose of rooting evil out of God’s holy people, according to Deut. 21:21 (In the NT age this purpose of punishment is retained as excommunication [by the word, not by the sword], see 1 Cor. 5:13 where Paul quotes from the OT law). All this is true and good; yet the fact remains: as far as God is concerned, the chief factor at least in capital punishment is retribution that lets the capital deed fall back on the doer. What has by and large become a historically outdated and morally questionable byword in the discussion on (capital) punishment turns out to be the primary purpose of punishment according to God’s unchanging word and order.” (Again, quoted in unpublished manuscript, The Death Penalty: a Lutheran Position, Holger Sonntag)

***** Ibid.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Charles Taylor’s “Social Imaginary” and the Bible’s “Social Illusionary”, circa 2015

Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?

Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?  More on this here.

“Progress.” “The right side of history.” ….and, as obliquely addressed in my previous post, the ubiquity of thinking of reality merely in terms of social construction – with concerns regarding “limits” and “barriers” being put to rest at an ever faster pace.

Oh, the utter certainty and confidence of so many of our contemporaries!  It puts so many of us Christians to shame!

St. Augustine and the churches of the 16th century Reformation talk much about the inborn nature and power of sin – where sin is an evil infection (leprosy was a common image) of our [very] good human nature, created in God’s image. Hence, for example, while marriage and the natural bond of love between parents and children is intrinsically good and desirable (oye), the inborn self-centeredness, selfishness, tainted love, and even incipient racism in even very young children is not (more detail about the nature of sin in this post).  In short, we are not conceived desiring to fear, love and trust in God – and therefore desiring to love our neighbor as ourselves. Rather, there is in fact a passionate hatred of God – that unless checked by the faith-creating and life-giving word of God – will burn within us. We can call this the fire of sin.

But if sin is a fire there is also proud human reason’s stoking of that fire.

Charles Taylor, in his magisterial work A Secular Age, says of what he calls “scientific materialism”:

“…the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality” (p. 365, p. 77 in James K.A. Smith).

(note that epistemology basically means the study of knowledge: how and/or why do we know what we know?)

taylorJames K.A. Smith, an interpreter of Taylor attempting to popularize his work, says the following of Taylor’s epistemological geneology:

“’Descates, Locke, and Hume…carved [experience] into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty’…In fact, Taylor points out, undergirding this epistemological theory is actually a moral valuation: ‘There is an ethic here, of independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of disengagement which brings control’. So the theory is value-laden and parades itself as ‘a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses” (pp. 559, 560) … That is a story, not neutral data, and Taylor has been contesting such self-congratulatory stories all along. (pp 559, 560; in 99, Smith)

Read that above quote one more time.  Note that this is not just a post-Darwin thing. This has been going on for a long time – note the 3rd century debates between Origen and the pagan critic of Christianity Celsus.

I think we can sum things up in the following way: at root, what is deemed immature by the highest of men is not belief in God per se, nor that the world is designed, nor that there is true right and wrong, etc., but rather that God – particularly that nasty and psychologically abusive O.T. God – would dare judge us elite men – we who exercise such scientific, effective, and responsible control over his universe… (yes, and as regards exercising “responsible control” that even goes for the-longing-for-re-enchantment Romantics who want to put the brake on the worrisome reductionistic tendencies they see… but not too much!)

Daniel Dennet: “Hardly anybody today believes in—or would want to believe in—the wrathful, Old Testament Jehovah, for instance. A God who commands our love is a nasty piece of work by today’s perspectives.”

Daniel Dennet: “Hardly anybody today believes in—or would want to believe in—the wrathful, Old Testament Jehovah, for instance. A God who commands our love is a nasty piece of work by today’s perspectives.”

The nerve!

Of course, this is what is the Scriptures would tell us is going on…

“… the prophets who prophesy to you, [fill] you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.” (Jer. 23:16)

“…although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:21, 25)

“God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false…” (II Thes. 2:11)

…but that is not the story that any elite wants to hear! They have to make up something else and so they do (and really believe it with all their heart!):

’growing up’ to ‘face reality’ are [real] stories of courage – the courage to face the fact that the universe is without transcendent meaning, without eternal purpose, without supernatural significance. So the convert to unbelief [from the biblical view] has ‘grown up’ because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place.” (77, Smith)

Ah, the pure motives are saved… and so they are saved…! And so man is justified!  But not so fast. Taylor adds the following, raising the spectre of the Greek philosopher Epicurus:

“’At the same time, there can be something exhilarating in this loss of purpose and teleology, because if nothing matters, and we have the courage to face this, then we have a kind of Epicurean invulnerability. While such a universe might have nothing to offer us by way of comfort, it’s also true that ‘in such a universe, nothing is demanded of us’ (p. 367) Now the loss of purpose is also a liberation: “we decide what goals to pursue.” God is dead; viva la revolution. (in Smith, p. 77, 78)*

This is the “reasonable man” every sophisticated modern westerner thinks they are. And as I noted in a recent post….

“it seems to me that all of this is pointing in a certain direction which is this: when it comes to Reason’s march in the battle of ideas, those ideas that are true will work and those that work will be true. While it may take time to play out in history, the Reasonable persons know that the best will rise to the top – leaving those who refuse to be enlightened and progress in the dustbin of history. For those who have inherited Christianity’s moral capital, they now think they can be most “Christian” by leaving Christianity behind.”

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate "physical pain and mental disturbance" (particularly the fear of the gods and death), resulting in personal happiness.

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate “physical pain and mental disturbance” (particularly the fear of the gods and death), resulting in personal happiness.

Getting more specific about what is going on here in more intellectual terms: their novel view is based purely on what is today called the “coherence theory of truth”, that is the idea that that view is closest to the truth which best takes into account all of the facts. Note the “practical” (pragmatic?) view here: it “works” the best (one can see here how the idea of “useful fiction” can become the one ring to rule them all). The coherence theory of truth certainly sounds like wisdom on the face of it. But here is an important key: as regards this secular worldview of which we are speaking, it is also supremely important that it “work” well as regards how one wants to, or thinks they should live – in fact, as Taylor argues, this is the primary consideration (sex is involved here, but at root is a rebellion against the God who judges*), even though this is almost never recognized or explicitly stated.**

And, this is where the idea of the “correspondence theory of truth” must inevitably come back into the picture: the prevailing “coherent” modern/secular picture or view is only imagined to be “coherent” because of what is suppresses – it does not take into account all of the facts that should (note “should” is a word of morality) be recognized to be important… (for example, see this from Hans Fiene) In other words, “coherence” in this sense really means “what’s true and what is false is in part a function of what our standards of truth and falsity are.” And one might add the following, which certainly need not be conscious: “if we see fit to ignore this or that…so be it.” Nevermind the fact that, in the long run, society as a whole is not going to be able to live the way they do, essentially ignoring what they think is all the “apparent” design – and corresponding purpose – in the natural world. (thanks Mr. Kant, for lulling us all to sleep in thinking that it was OK to think that this purpose in nature could not be considered knowledge but “practical reason” that we could only have strong convictions about…)

In short, the “social imaginary”, as Charles Taylor calls it – the water that even we Christians to some degree swim in, feel, and might come to reflect on (depending on how we raised by our families and churches) – is aptly called the “social illusionary”.***

So consider this a call to repentance – to the church of God (non-church folks are welcome to – Christ’s blood does avail for all).  For our own complicity in the modern social imaginary due to our own lack of confidence in His word as that which is reliable, true, life-altering…which lasts forever.  We need a renewed appreciation for the wisdom of God’s word – and the folly of man.

FIN

 

Notes:

*“Taylor thinks ‘there is no escaping some version of…. fullness,’ our debates are really about ‘what fullness consists in’ (p. 600). He suggests that what’s really at issue here is the telos of human life, ‘the ends of life’ (p. 602). In other words, the debate about ‘real fullness’ is a debate about how to understand our ‘ethical predicament’: What counts as ‘fulfillment’ (playing on ‘fullness’)?…. It is here that Taylor’s argument seems to take a decidedly ‘apologetic’ turn….[can “closed” takes on the immanent frame really offer satisfying accounts?]….” (pp. 104-105, Smith)

**And now, it is not so much about secular morality as it was envisioned during the early Enlightenment, but rather the authenticity of our moral choices…. In the 1992 Planned Parenhood vs. Casey decision of the Supreme Court these amazing words were uttered: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

***At the very least we can say this: in short, we should all be asking to what extent the sense of morality that we feel convictions about (often based on our personal experiences with others and our evaluations of the shorter or longer term consequences of our actions) drives or at least influences our consideration and evaluation of various kinds of evidence and their significance (correspondence theory of truth considerations) as well as various kinds of worldviews and their significance (coherence theory of truth considerations).

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

“Render Unto Caesar”….Our Knowledge?: What “New Knowledge” Requires that Religion Must Be Changed?

“Render unto Caesar…” our knowledge?!

“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them.”

— St. Augustine

“There is in everyone a quest for truth and also a rebellion against its demands, and a doubting of the truth when it is discovered….there are many partial truths.  Jesus is the truth, the whole truth.”

— Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs

+++

Just last week, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made news by talking about how religious views, when it comes to the matter of abortion, need to be changed. Further, laws opposed to people’s religious beliefs would “have to be backed up with resources and political will.” (for more, here is a matter of fact take and here is a more feisty and entertaining take). And as it takes a village to raise the children that actually are “wanted”, I’m guessing she’d be on board with this kind of advocacy as well.

In one of the online classes that I teach, I think a student of mine hinted at the reasons for Mrs. Clinton’s confidence:

“One of the biggest areas of struggle [between faith and politics is that] I see is that many governments are moving forward and developing and growing, examining their rules and regulations and adjusting them to reflect what they know today instead of relying on rules based on information from over 2,000 years ago. Religions and churches have not been as quick to develop and reexamine their stance on social issues that affect everyone. So this “living in two different times” means discord.” (italics mine, quoted with permission)

I’d say Mrs. Clinton and my student are simply reflecting the Zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) that prevails today among the vast majority of our elites. I work as a university librarian, and one of the more interesting things I have come across recently in my profession is the new Information Literacy Framework”, constructed with college and university libraries in mind.  It features six key points, one of which dovetails with our discussion here: “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”.

Is this a helpful way of introducing and discussing authority?

Explained more fully in terms of sources and resources of information, the Framework goes on to say:

“Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.” (bold italics mine)

There is more explanation provided, and I bold and italicize the parts that are most important for the focus of our inquiry:

“Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations. An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the current information need. Thus, novice learners come to respect the expertise that authority represents while remaining skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it. Experts know how to seek authoritative voices but also recognize that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. Novice learners may need to rely on basic indicators of authority, such as type of publication or author credentials, where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.”

Of course, looking at this more full explanation, there are some things here that Christians can agree with along with these “experts” the Framework speaks of (even as much of this explanation is vague and creates more questions than it answers). For example, of course there are always contextual elements to questions of authority (but more discussion is needed here).  I also really appreciate the point that “unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on the need”. In addition, I think that the “Framers” of this Framework and all of us could agree that authority is, at least in part, “power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience”, as one definition states.

That said, what is missing here in the Framework, is just that: the important idea that the concept of knowledge – and along with this truth – are basic components to any understanding of authority. As John Somerville has noted, “Even Nietzsche and Foucalt, who sought to reduce the human to power and desire, couldn’t help pressing the truth of their views.” (The Decline of the Secular University [Oxford U. Press, 2006], 37)

And of course, when it comes to these matters of knowledge and truth, Christians have always insisted, on the basis of the Scriptures, not only that “[the] divine nature… [has] been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1), but that “all authority is established by God” (see Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-17). Further, this means that we should, as far as we are able to do so, obey and respect human authorities.  Whatever “constructed” might mean, it would clearly seem to undermine this important truth.

That one might continue to believe such a thing in this day and age might seem remarkable to many – I didn’t even qualify, saying “for the Christian, this is true…”! – but it does us well to exercise critical thinking about the advice of this new Information Literacy Framework as well (that even non-believers can track with).

Here are just a few questions to get started:

  • Just what might be involved in the process of “determin[ing] the validity of the information created by different authorities”?
  • And, more importantly, how can we even start to do that if – rightly acknowledging that we all have biases – our “worldviews” and “privilege” inevitably blind all of us (or is it only some of us?)?
  • After all, if this is the case, how, exactly, could the “novice learner[‘s]” seeking out evidence be helpful?
  • Primarily so they can ask “relevant questions” that might undermine unjust power structures? (that is all the Framework seems to allow for)

Again, what is the problem here? As I said above, I submit that it comes down to the question of what knowledge is – and what truth is. The Framework mentions neither of these in this section (“true” and “truth” are not in the whole Framework*), much less gives definitions. Of course, these are questions that have given heady philosophers headaches for thousands of years. That said, can we at least still agree that it does not all come down to power – i.e. that our words are not primarily “power tools” we use to manipulate our environment or others, but are something far more deeply significant?  Further can we agree that not all facts and concepts are hopelessly in dispute – due to their being “impregnated by culturally constricting conceptual schemata” born of rivalry and power?** And can we agree that it is not necessarily true that religious persons necessarily make “uncivil conflict resolution strategies” necessary? even if the idea seems to be growing in popularity?

Or is this now unreasonable?  I steadfastly maintain that there are ways for intelligent persons of good will to discover “common ground” in these areas, even if many valuable resources that might assist here are no longer known to many of us. Unfortunately, the Framework itself does not provide any sort of framework (that is intellectual argument for) for recognizing common ground that might potentially be realized due to assumptions that most all human beings might share. Rightly or wrongly, the careful reader is left with the impression that everything really must come down to using information to exercise power, and importantly – everything comes down to who holds the power.  In sum, “knowledge”, whatever it is, is strictly related to what it does for us – or, more accurately, what we do with it in our “knowledge practices”. As Mr. Francis Bacon insisted “Knowledge is power” – and now, it appears, it is only power (in short, all “knowledge” essentially deals with bodies in motion, and is purely heuristic).***

Ergo (therefore), “what works” is true and what is true is what “works”, and the rightful fury many of those who support the Framework undoubtedly felt – and rightly felt – over Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s desire to remove the following words from the UW-Madison mission statement:

  • “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus….
  • serve and stimulate society…
  • Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” (see here)
Yeats: “The center cannot hold.”  But in Christ…

Yeats: “The center cannot hold.” But in Christ…

…ring hollow. Very hollow. Do you see what I am talking about?

I would submit that persons like Mrs. Clinton, my student, and those who composed the new Information Literacy Framework go back to the drawing board – and try to exercise more critical thinking in the matter.  I am not just trying to be condescending (I know it sounds like this) by saying this but think that there is serious philosophical reflection that needs to occur here.  With all of us being children of the modern scientific and technological mindset – with method and technique being everything – this is the water in which we swim… even as we might subconsciously and/or consciously be looking for ways to “re-enchantment”… trying to escape what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame”!  For instance, I think that very few of us ultimately want to adopt the view of philosophical naturalism (at least insofar as this intellectual foundation convinces us, as I believe it inevitably does, of the need of some kind of “social Darwinism”, right-wing [might – physical, social, financial, or “rational” – makes right] or left-wing [fighting all forms of social privilege and hierarchy makes right]), which can, in truth, be reduced to “believing that we have believed things only so that the beliefs are spread” (as the point of beliefs is only to be useful to survival, the passing on of genes, etc. – for this is the core Truth).  For if we do this, “we have”, as Stephen R.L. Clark says, “already stopped believing” (see here). And with this traditional notions of truth leave the building. In any case, all of these folks have my assurance that I will, thankful for my undeserved educational blessings (“privilege”, indeed), continue to exercise “informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought” (particularly toward their viewpoints!).

…just like I once did with my Christian faith – which I am thankful to God that I ended up keeping (especially in these days, where Yeat’s “Center [that does not] hold” seems to be accelerating with each passing day), having found nothing to earn my distrust… As I like to say, thank God it is Jesus who is God!

…and before you write me off as unreasonable for saying this, note that, for example, David Hume essentially argued that practically every belief we have about the universe comes from the eyewitness testimony of others and yet excluded, a priori, taking seriously what the Creator purportedly considers proof, through His servants Luke and Paul (see Acts 17, particularly v. 30 and 31). How is that reasonable? How is that not a faith of its own?

In sum, I give thanks to God for this historical knowledge – and am not aware of any “new knowledge” that requires me to change my belief that I am, really and truly, Jesus’ little lamb – and that my Shepherd is Lord of Heaven and Earth. As Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica has put it “What I know is what I have yet to be shown is false”.   

FIN

[Note: when I initially posted this article, I had misinterpreted part of the Framework and had implied something about it that was not true. I have fixed that mistake, which does not affect my core argument. I also adjusted a sentence, added a sentence above, and added the 1st footnote below]

*I note that in the “Knowledge Practices” part of the “Frame” about authority, it does says persons “developing their own authoritative voices” should “recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability.” The question however, is “why”? Is it simply about consequences, i.e. one should do this not to discredit one’s self and those one associates with? Or is it because it is important to be true and to seek truth and the truth? Given the whole context of the Framework, I do not get the impression that the latter option is what is meant. It’s difficult to imagine that “knowledge is constructed” could have a meaning that is compatible with traditional notions of truth when gender, the identity of the unborn, marriage, and parenthood for example are now all commonly seen as “constructions” – that is, “social constructions” historically imposed by an intolerant Western majority.

** Even if it is true that “power operates through knowledge production”, “knowledge production is…historically situated and embedded in power relations” and it’s production “never occurs outside power relations” (Seale) – whatever might be meant here by knowledge – is there not more to what knowledge is… to what it entails?

*** “..to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe…depends wholly on the arts and sciences… For we cannot command nature except by obeying her… Truth, therefore, and utility are here perfectly identical.” – Francis Bacon (might that not help explain the confusion this N.Y. Times editorial pinpoints?)

P.S.by the way, here is my own attempt to introduce persons into this difficult question about the nature of authority. It is a video I produced at Concordia St. Paul for the library here called “How do I decide which sources are good to cite?”

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
 
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theologia crucis

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The Boar's Head Tavern

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Glory to God for All Things

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Eclectic Orthodoxy

"I'm a blogger, dammit, not a theologian!"

Jonathan Last Online

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Steadfast Lutherans

An international fraternity of confessional Lutheran laymen and pastors, supporting proclamation of Christian doctrine in the new media.

www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/

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Surburg's blog

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Beggars All: Reformation And Apologetics

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Weedon's Blog

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First Thoughts

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Pastoral Meanderings

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