Sunday, June 17, 2018

Robots and Wisdom

It may well be that the time has come to make three fictional laws, actual laws in our world. Perhaps the United Nations could be given authority over Artificial Intelligence and could enforce Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Two articles in the news today bring to mind the need for greater regulation in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and “outer space frontier development."[1] We now need the “laws of robotics.” You may not remember these famous literary laws from Asimov’s short-story, “Runaround.” Allow me to refresh our memories:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.[2]

These laws would prevent the kind of military drones now being contemplated by the Pentagon as they discuss policy with Google and other leading AI industrialists.[3] It would be very easy for drones and AI drones to take over conventional warfare. Such laws, if written into international law, would have the potential to demilitarize the AI and Space frontiers and prevent us from reverting to a “wild-west” mentality in these spheres of influence. The UN (including the little known United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs [UNOOSA]) would need to be given authority to oversee and gain cooperation from member nations - and therein lies the difficulty. The recent launch of a swarm of private artificial intelligence satellites, each about 10 centimetres across, demonstrates how difficult it is to enforce the laws. These recently launched satellites are so tiny that they cannot be tracked and could pose a navigational hazard for the International Space Station (ISS) and other satellites encircling the globe. Swarm Technologies was denied permission to launch these satellites from within the United States, so they found a carrier in India willing to send them aloft.

So, if we can’t enforce the rules, laws, and guidelines already in place, how could we enforce the three laws of robotics? Yet, it seems we must try. My recent Bible readings addressed the topic of “good judgement.” What does good judgement look like in some of these recent developments? I leave that for the reader to meditate upon as we read the following excerpt from the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs 4:4-9
My father taught me,
“Take my words to heart.
    Follow my commands, and you will live.
Get wisdom; develop good judgment.
    Don’t forget my words or turn away from them.
Don’t turn your back on wisdom, for she will protect you.
    Love her, and she will guard you.
Getting wisdom is the wisest thing you can do!
    And whatever else you do, develop good judgment.
If you prize wisdom, she will make you great.
    Embrace her, and she will honor you.
She will place a lovely wreath on your head;
    she will present you with a beautiful crown.”

[1]See, “How we can prevent outer space from becoming the Wild West?”; Nicole Mortillaro, CBC News, Jun 17, 2018,
Also see, “Is Google's new set of principles enough to calm fears over militarized A.I.?”; Ramona Pringle, CBC News,  Jun 16, 2018,
[2]Asimov, Isaac (1950). "Runaround". I, Robot (hardcover) (The Isaac Asimov Collection ed.). New York City: Doubleday. p. 40. ISBN 0-385-42304-7. This is an exact transcription of the laws. They also appear in the front of the book, and in both places there is no "to" in the 2nd law.
[3] See, “Is Google's new set of principles enough to calm fears over militarized A.I.?”; Ramona Pringle, CBC News,  Jun 16, 2018,

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Chromosome 2

Human Chromosome 2 is an interesting example of evidence that suggests God used evolution to create humanity. Darrel Falk has made a series of YouTube videos that explain why he believes that Chromosome 2 is evidence for God using evolutionary processes.[1] Here I will explain the basic concepts and leave it to the reader to investigate further.

To understand this evidence, we must first understand a little bit about genetics, chromosomes, and DNA. Chromosomes are the structures that keep our DNA organized. In every cell of our bodies there are strings of 3 billion base pairs of DNA. DNA is a string of adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T) molecules strung together in a variety of combinations that can be represented like this:

(Click on images to enlarge)

Notice that the strings of molecules can be put together in many permutations and allow for an amazing amount of information to be stored in this format. The image shown above is a representation of one side of the DNA ladder. DNA pairs in such a way that A pairs with T and C pairs with G, so the two sides of a DNA double helix can be represented in the following way:

Chromosomes organize and constrain this DNA into discreet packages that allow the DNA to be copied, moved around, and accurately passed from one cell division to another and from one generation to the next. The ends of the chromosomes have distinct DNA structures called telomeres. In humans, the sequence of these telomeres is a number of repeats of TTAGGG and these telomeres prevent DNA from unraveling, much like the tips on the end of shoelaces prevent our shoelaces from fraying. Chromosomes have centromeric structures near the centre of the chromosomes where proteins look for specific conformations or shapes of DNA on the chromosome to grab the chromosomes and pull them in a specific direction when cell division such as mitosis or meiosis occurs (two forms of cell division in which the appropriate amount of DNA must be segregated into each cell).

Most humans have 23 pairs or a total of 46 chromosomes that look something like this when painted with fluorescent dyes:

Telomeric structures would be at the ends of each chromosome and centromeric structures would be at the darkened and pinched-in point generally toward the middle of the chromosome.

Different species of animals have different numbers of chromosomes. Here is a list of some animals and their chromosome number. I will continue to speak of the number of pairs of chromosomes in the typical animal, rather than the total number of chromosomes.
Mice have 20 pairs of chromosomes;
horses, 32 pairs;
donkeys, 31;
cows, 30;
tigers, 19;
lions, 19;
orangutans, 24;
gorillas, 24;
chimpanzees, 24;
and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), 24 pairs.

These last four entries represent the great apes and are especially interesting to the rest of this article and we will pursue this topic more in the next few paragraphs. But before we get there, let me remind the reader that plants also have distinct numbers of chromosomes and we could list some of those as well. The coffee plant has 22 pairs of chromosomes whereas the pineapple has 25 pairs. The number of pairs of chromosomes is one mechanism that acts as a boundary between species and prevents the crossing of one species with another. There are a few rare exceptions such as horses and donkeys in which cross-breeding is possible despite different chromosomal numbers, but for the most part, such crossings fail. This is sufficient background regarding our DNA and its packaging into chromosomes to remind us that our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made and that there is still much to learn about how the mechanisms of genetics work.

Now we come to the interesting instance of human Chromosome 2. As noted above, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes while the great apes have 24 pairs. If we look closely at and compare the chromosomes of humans and the great apes, a good deal of similarity is noted. G-banding patterns are a crude method of looking at the overall structure of chromosomes, but they are instructive in showing the similarities of chromosomes. Traditionally, this G-banding technique has been used to uniquely identify and arrange each of our 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Of particular note is the similarity between human chromosome 2 and ape chromosomes 12 and 13. The picture below shows the similarity in banding patterns of the human chromosome 2 compared to the banding patterns of two chimpanzee chromosomes.

What becomes immediately apparent at a crude structural level (and is further borne out in the actual DNA sequence of the chromosomes) is that human Chromosome 2 looks like a fusion of two chimp chromosomes. In fact, as we analyse the DNA sequence of human Chromosome 2, we find telomeric repetitive structures in the middle of Chromosome 2 (when they should only be at the ends of the chromosome) and a second, non-functional, centromeric structure where one would expect it would be if the chromosome resulted from a fusion event.

What this suggests is somewhere in the evolutionary development of humans, a fusion event occurred which resulted in the reduction of the number of chromosomes to 23 pairs for the humans and human-like species, while the great apes continue to have 24 pairs. The following diagram represents the phylogeny (or family-tree) with regard to this one feature (note, this diagram speaks of 46 and 48 chromosomes rather than 23 and 24 pairs). The question mark next to Neanderthals in the diagram represents the fact that, although the chromosomal number for humans and Denisovans has been experimentally confirmed, we do not presently have DNA of sufficient quality from Neanderthals to experimentally confirm that Neanderthals indeed had 23 pairs of chromosomes.[2]


Such evidence supports the idea that God used an evolutionary process to create species including the human species. It would indicate that we share a common ancestor with the great apes and that at a certain point in the evolutionary process our line diverged from the family tree of our ape cousins. It does not detract from God as creator and does offer insight into the mechanisms he used as he created.

A blog of this nature can only whet the reader’s appetite for further investigation into such topics. As previously stated, Darrel Falk’s YouTube videos may be the next place to turn for further understanding. The BioLogos website at is always a great resource. Perhaps this blog might also open doors for respectful conversation, logical analysis, and a hunger and thirst for truth wherever it may be found. God is indeed the great creator and the mechanisms of biology are no surprise to him. We can continue to be confident that he is guiding the universe and guiding his revelation to those who seek him.

[1] Darrel Falk series of YouTube videos regarding the human chromosome 2 fusion:
[2] See “Denisovans, Humans and the Chromosome 2 Fusion” September 06, 2012, BioLogos Blog, Dennis Venema,
[3] The diagram is from “Denisovans, Humans and the Chromosome 2 Fusion” September 06, 2012, BioLogos Blog, Dennis Venema,

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Really Comfortable

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
–C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Crucifixion

I am tempted to create a blog post by simply stringing together a series of Fleming Rutledge quotes. The words she uses are often adequate to spark the mind and generate combustion. However, I shall do more than that; I shall interact with some of her writings on the atonement rendered by the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Much of what I write here will stem from my reading of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge, Eerdmans, 2017. But, some thoughts will have their origin in other writings and interviews with Rutledge.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian Priest in the grand tradition of preacher, theologian, author, and scholar. She has written much, preached much, and said much in interviews for many publications, but her greatest work is The Crucifixion, published in 2017. She says that it has taken her a lifetime to write this book. Others consider it a landmark book and it has given Rutledge a significant platform from which to speak. The most significant theme of the book is stated this way,

“From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 127.

She goes on to say that,
“If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the cross in its fullest dimension.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 131.

Her theology is not one that suggests we can achieve human happiness or self-actualization through human achievement. She is clear that the only hope for humankind is the cross of Christ and the intercession of God. God has clearly entered into history in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Rutledge sees this as the only hope of a world gone wrong.

“The New Testament writings all presuppose that the fallen human race and the equally fallen created order are sick unto death beyond human resourcefulness.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 141.

And yet, our deeds are not without hope, and one sees in her words, threads of other conversations heard in other places. Rutledge says,
“Here is an important distinction with far-reaching implications for Christian behavior. The deeds of Christians in this present time — however insignificant they may seem, however “vain” they may appear to those who value worldly success — are already being built into God’s advancing kingdom.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 14.

Tolkien had words like Rutledge in The Silmarillion, when he said,
I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, p. 15-18.

What they are both saying is that, even our flawed, or sinful, or poorly aimed actions are capable of redemption, and can be woven into the tapestry of the will of God. The crucifixion, though not necessary at the creation of the universe, was required because of the sinful propensity of every human alive and every human that has ever lived. God saw this propensity, and saw that our actions had created the need for the cross; so, he sorrowfully wove it into the pattern of the universe such that,

“The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of the Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed. … we can assert that the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened. The resurrection, being a transhistorical event planted within history, does not cancel out the contradiction and shame of the cross in this present life; rather, the resurrection ratifies the cross as the way “until he comes.”
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 44.

In The Crucifixion, and also in her other works, Rutledge even goes so far as to say that Jesus’ descent into Hell was a necessary aspect of his death on the cross.

"The Old Testament God" is the one who has come down from his throne on high into the world of sinful human flesh and of his own free will and decision has come under his own judgment in order to deliver us from everlasting condemnation and bring us into eternal life. He has not required human sacrifice; he has himself become the human sacrifice. He has not turned us over and forsaken us; he was himself turned over and forsaken. This is what the Old Testament prophet Isaiah says: Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (53:4-5)”
Fleming Rutledge, And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament, p. ?

Notice Rutledge’s carefully chosen words here. She is purposely saying that it was God who died on the cross. She distinguishes an important concept by saying this rather than speaking of God’s Son dying on the cross. This does indeed differentiate the crucifixion from child-abuse (some have disparagingly suggested such an explanation of the cross) and Rutledge emphasises how it was God, who came to earth as a human; it was God who suffered; it was God who died; it was God who paid the price; it was God who descended into Hell to set free the captives.

Rutledge goes on to say that,  

“We have to come to terms with what seems to be godforsakenness in the world. Many people find that difficult or even impossible. And people who find it difficult or impossible will probably not come to church on Good Friday and will concentrate on the happy aspect of the faith. But I think that’s too bad, because the real depth and strength of the faith is its facing of the worst, and the fact that Jesus faced and endured the worst is ultimately, for many, the only comfort we have in the extremities of the kind of situations that I’m talking about.

The only comfort we have is that Jesus was there before us and that somehow, he wrested away the power of death and sin precisely in his abandonment. How that happened, I can’t say. But the entire proclamation of the church, of the New Testament witnesses, is that that is what happened. Precisely out of the abandonment, he descended into hell.”
Fleming Rutledge, “Interview with Rev. Fleming Rutledge”[1]

Rutledge is a gift to the church at this time in history. I encourage all to read her writings and particularly her latest, The Crucifixion.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, “Interview with Rev. Fleming Rutledge,” Religion and Ethics News Weekly, April 19, 2013,

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Ubiquitous Nature of AI

The definition of a Turing Test, as developed by Alan Turing, is an interaction in which “a human evaluator judges natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate human-like responses.”(1) The human evaluator would see if they could distinguish which voice was human and which was machine. Google just revealed their new Duplex AI systems. You can see a video here. Listen in on the conversation between human and machine and see if you could tell which was which if you were not “in on the charade.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent. Take for example, the little ads at the bottom of an or .com page. When I look at my page, it has a section entitled, “Inspired by your shopping trends.” In there I see a selection of books it is suggesting I might like to buy. I don’t just use Amazon for books, but apparently that is what I have mostly done in recent weeks. As I look through the suggestions, Amazon has done a good job of selecting books for me. I don’t own any of those books and many of them are ones I would like to read. Those were all selected by an AI. AI is presently capable of keeping inventory of what is in my refrigerator and keeping the shelves stocked by placing the orders. I don’t presently have a fridge hooked up to the internet, but there is a good chance that the next one I buy will come equipped with wifi capability whether I plan to use it or not.

Don Pittis at CBC News makes the point that it is only a matter of time before AI will simply suggest that we should purchase something, and we will comply. Amazon is already looking at having certain items delivered to our homes before we order them just in case we want them. They rely upon our heightened interest in the product and can afford to have us turn it down and send it back.

All of the biggest tech companies in the world are investing the majority of their money and energy into developing AI. Much of this will be a great help to humanity, but, we all know that AI has a dark side. There is a potential for AI to take us places we should not go and as some writers and thinkers have warned, has the potential to make us its slave (either figuratively or literally). If you want to see more on what some are predicting, check out here “Robotic Laws”, here “Ex Machina”, here “Her”, here “Elon Musk”, here "Sam Harris", or here “The Matrix”.

How do you feel about the ever-expanding presence of AI? What sorts of boundaries would you like to see put in place?

(1) See Wikipedia, Turing test, 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Music of the Ainur

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion is widely recognized as a great writer. He was also a faithful Catholic whose theology appears in his writings in poetic ways. His description of the way evil came into the world, as seen in the opening chapter of The Silmarillion is a work of art infused with theology. Here I quote a portion of Tolkien's creation story:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in the gifts of all the gifts of his brethren. He had often gone alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.(1)

I should leave the words of Tolkien to themselves and allow the reader to grasp the beauty and complexity of the theology that is revealed in these poetic words. Yet, the words are old enough and strange enough to require some explanation and so I will do my best to enlighten the logic that is contained in Tolkien’s creativity. 

In this account of how evil entered the world, it is through the pride and self-promotion of one of the Creator’s created beings. Melkor, here one will draw parallels to Satan, becomes impatient with the creation timeline of the Creator and begins to imagine himself creating Beings and things. He does not have the power to create things on his own, but he begins to weave his ideas into the songs rather than content himself with the themes of the Creator. He creates discord and disharmony and begins to pull more of his brethren along with him.

The Creator allows the discord for just a moment and then stops the music. He tells the Ainur - his created beings who were charged with singing the music of creation - that he will allow their songs to come into being. Even Melkor’s songs will be represented in the creation. Yet, the Creator’s theme shall be sung, and his will shall be done; the Creator will use the songs of Melkor to devise things more wonderful than Melkor or any other Ainur could imagine. For the Creator is the source of all and his will shall prevail.

Tolkien knew that poetry and metaphor were better suited to explaining the great themes of God than pure logic. May his words and further poetry continue to help us as we struggle to understand the great mysteries of God and the universe God created.

(1) Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, p.15-18.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Arc of Evolution

“The arc of evolution is long and bends toward human beings.”[1] When I speak of evolution, and my conviction that God used evolution to create our universe, I am not speaking of a godless or deistic process. I am suggesting that “in the beginning” God created the heavens and the earth, and that he created all that we see and do not see. I am saying that God started this process over 13 billion years ago and continues to shape and mould the entire universe by processes that, from our perspective, seem slow, appear random, often resulting in dead-ends and extinctions, and may even look inefficient. Yet, God, the Master Creator, in his great wisdom, is behind it all and the three persons of the Godhead or Trinity were all there from the beginning in their creative work (Colossians 1:15, 16; Genesis 1:2, 26, 27). 

The arc of this process spans a vast time scale that is beyond our comprehension. We struggle to imagine what life on earth would have been like, 100, 500, 2000, or 4000 years ago. Our minds are much better suited for the comprehension of a few decades at a time. When we drive west on the Trans-Canada Highway from Winnipeg to Vancouver, we do not notice the curvature of the earth as we drive the ups and downs of rolling hills and mountain roads, but it is there none-the-less. The same could be said of our perception of the long arc of evolution. Many billions of years ago it started with what has been described as the Big Bang or Primordial Atom. Father Georges Lemaître (a faithful Catholic Priest) was the first to describe this dramatic start to the universe. According to this understanding, it took several billion years for the universe to develop to the point where our solar system and its planets would be recognizable and several billion more before life would develop on Earth. The earliest life would have been something like self-replicating membranes, bits of ribonucleic acid (RNA), and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). These would change over time and go on to form primitive viruses, single celled bacteria, multi-celled organisms, plants, animals, and humans. 

Through this entire process, and including developments going on in our present time, the trinitarian God of Genesis was there making sense of it all. God was there ensuring that the arc of evolution would continue to be bent toward the creation of the most advanced being in all of creation, humans. He had a plan toward which the arrow, which He had released billions of years ago, was gliding. He allowed the processes to reach their ultimate end of a creature created by Him, for communion with him.

As Douglas Wilson has said,
God knew that we were going to need to pick up dimes, and so He gave us fingernails. He knew that twilights displayed in blue, apricot, and battle gray would be entirely astonishing and beyond us, and so He gave us eyes that can see in color. He could have made all food quite nourishing, but which tasted like wadded up newspaper soaked in machine oil. Instead He gave us the tastes of watermelon, pecans, oatmeal stout, buttered corn, apples, fresh bread, grilled sirloin, and 25-year-old scotch. And He of course knew that we were going to need to thank Him and so He gave us hearts and minds.
Douglas Wilson, Is Christianity Good For the World: A Debate, Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson, 2008.

This is the God, and this is the kind of evolution, of which I am convinced. 

[1]Here I have created a variation on a statement made by Martin Luther King Jr. He said,“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King Jr., Baccalaureate sermon, 1964, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. King, in turn had abbreviated the words of Theodore Parker, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” sermon, 1853, in which he said, "Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."