Monday, October 30, 2017

Art and Argument

“Any authentic work of art must start an argument between the artist and his audience.”
- Rebecca West

This sentiment is one to which I want to pay close attention as I write a second book. Since the author provides one half of the conversation and the reader provides the second half, I would do well to create an interesting exchange.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Idea of the Necessity of God

“And what's strange, what would be marvelous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

AI and NT: What makes us human?

Two recent developments in science could leave us asking the question, “What does it mean to be human?” First, the October 19 edition of the journal Nature reports on a remarkable computer program that taught itself how to play the ancient game called Go. Programmers set up the algorithms which included the structure and rules of the game and then turned the Artificial Intelligence (AI) program loose on playing the game against itself. In a matter of days, the computer had become skilled enough to beat human champions and other computers. This is unique because all previous AI programs have learned the game by studying the moves of expert human players. AlphaGo Zero, as this latest program is called, achieved mastery of the game without human training. The implications of this program go far beyond the world of gaming. Might we one day be able to give an algorithm a list of circumstances and resources and set it off to find the best solutions to complex mathematical, engineering, and biological health questions? Might artificial intelligences one day solve such problems as how to build a better airplane, how to solve famine in places of high need, how to understand gravity and its complex relationship with time and space, or might AIs one day give us world-wide peace?

We will come back to the significance of the AlphaGo Zero accomplishment in a minute; now let’s turn to another remarkable report from the October 5 edition of the journal Science. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have discovered that “about 1.8 to 2.6 percent of DNA in non-Africans is from … ancient human-Neandertal interbreeding.” That is approximately “10 to 20 percent more Neandertal ancestry” than previously estimated. The researchers went on to discuss human behavior and health risks which may be mediated by this significant amount of Neanderthal (NT) DNA.

Both papers bear closer reading and are significant in a number of ways; however, today, I would like to focus on the one question disclosed in the title of this article: “What makes humans human?” If artificial intelligence programs can, “on their own,” learn to play human games and master them better than the best human players, and if we humans of European descent are an interesting admixture of human and non-human (Neanderthal) DNA, what is it that truly sets us apart as human?

This will become a more and more critical question as we consider ethical questions of the future. Are AI programs conscious? What happens when we turn off or destroy AI hardware? If humans add to or subtract from DNA in the human genome using CRISPR technology, are the resulting humans still human? What if we were to add animal DNA or plant DNA to the human genome? How far would we have to go before people began to question the humanity of the resulting persons?

For years, philosophers, scientists, and theologians have discussed, argued about, and looked for answers to questions about the nature of the Imago Dei, the image of God in humans. Science starts with pieces of scientific data and assumptions about the limits of human understanding relying only on empirical data. Philosophers allow for the influence of ideas beyond scientific datum that flow out of the consciousness of humans. Theologians welcome scientific, philosophic, and revelatory information and believe that God speaks through the book of Nature and the book of the Bible.

As AI programs become more and more sophisticated, and we learn more and more about the nature of our humanity, it will be important to remember the ancient words of God found in the Bible. Christians and theologians will certainly wish to make this a starting point for any discussions on the nature of humanity:

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:27 (NLT)

In the midst of great change, in a time when the foundations of humanity seem unstable, these words provide an anchor point for the discussions to come.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Stop and Think

Part of my morning routine is to read my Bible. This morning I read Job 4, Psalm 20, and 2 Corinthians 5. There is a natural progression to the words I found this morning.

“Stop and think! Do the innocent die?
    When have the upright been destroyed?”
- The words of Eliphaz to Job (Job 4:7, NLT)

“Will you discredit my justice
    and condemn me just to prove you are right?
Are you as strong as God?
    Can you thunder with a voice like his?
All right, put on your glory and splendor,
    your honor and majesty.
Give vent to your anger.
    Let it overflow against the proud.
Humiliate the proud with a glance;
    walk on the wicked where they stand.
Bury them in the dust.
    Imprison them in the world of the dead.
Then even I would praise you,
    for your own strength would save you.”
- The words of God to Job, Eliphaz, and all who will listen (Job 40:8-14, NLT)

“For the king trusts in the Lord.
    The unfailing love of the Most High will keep him from stumbling.
You will capture all your enemies.
    Your strong right hand will seize all who hate you.
You will throw them in a flaming furnace
    when you appear.
The Lord will consume them in his anger;
    fire will devour them.”
- The words of God to all who would trust in Him (Psalm 20:7-9 NLT)

“I know that you can do anything,
    and no one can stop you.
 You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’
    It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about,
    things far too wonderful for me.”
- The words of Job to God (Job 42:2, 3, NLT)

“So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. For we live by believing and not by seeing. Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord. So whether we are here in this body or away from this body, our goal is to please him. For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.”
- The words of God to all (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, NLT)

“So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”
- The words of God to all who would follow Him (2 Corinthians 5:20, 21)

In Job 4, Eliphaz is saying that Job is missing a point because “God never allows the innocent to die or the upright to be destroyed.” God’s words to Job and Eliphaz, in Job 40, make it clear that God is a God of justice. God will always be on the side of the innocent and upright; but this does not mean that the innocent and upright will not suffer or die. In Psalm 20, God makes it clear that, one day, all will be made right and the enemies of the innocent and the enemies of the upright will be judged. In Job 42, Job recognizes that his understanding is limited and that no one can know the complete mind of God. God’s mysteries, still hidden from humans, are like the mysteries of the depths of the ocean and the far reaches of the universe.

The New Testament passages remind us that even when the innocent die, they are only trading their earthly bodies for eternal bodies. We can trust that all will receive justice and those who have trusted in the sinless Son of God will be made right in Him. That is good news worthy of telling a hurting and broken world. Praise be to God.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Finish Line

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.- 1 Timothy 4:7-8

Each day we run a race toward the finish-line. Sometimes the pace is slow; sometimes very fast. We cannot lose sight of the goal. Our goal is nothing less than forward motion, all the time, toward the finish. It is not a difficult goal but anything less will not be sufficient. Sometimes it feels like the forces of darkness are conspiring against us to keep us from attaining our goal. The mud sucks at our soles and threatens to take away our shoes; but a word scatters our enemies and restores us to the path.

This is the mood of a song written by Steve Taylor for the Squint album.        
The Finish Line
(Words and Music by Steve Taylor)
Once upon an average morn
An average boy was born
For the second time

Prone upon the altar there
He whispered up the prayer
He'd kept hid inside

The vision came, he saw the odds
A hundred little gods
On a gilded wheel

"These will vie to take your place,
But Father, by your grace
I will never kneel"

And I saw you, upright and proud
And I saw you wave to the crowd
And I saw you laughing out loud
At the Philistines

And I saw you brush away rocks
And I saw you pull up your socks
And I saw you out of the blocks
For the finish line

Darkness falls, the devil stirs
And as your vision blurs
You start stumbling

The heart is weak, the will is gone
And every strong conviction
Comes tumbling down

Malice rains, the acid guile
Is sucking at your shoes
While the mud is fresh
It floods the trail, it bleeds you dry
As every little god
Buys its pound of flesh

And I saw you licking your wounds
And I saw you weave your cocoons
And I saw you changing your tunes
For the party line

And I saw you welsh on old debts
I saw you and your comrades bum cigarettes
And you hemmed and you hawed and you hedged all your bets
Waiting for a sign

Let's wash our hands
As we throw little fits
Let's all wash our hands
As we curse hypocrites

We're locked in the washroom
Turning old tricks
Deaf and joyless
And full of it

The vision came, he saw the odds
A hundred little gods
On a gilded wheel

"These have tried to take your place,
But Father, by your grace
I will never kneel
I will never kneel"

Off in the distance, bloodied but wise
As you squint with the light
Of the truth in your eyes

And I saw you, both hands were raised
And I saw your lips move in praise
And I saw you steady your gaze
For the finish line

Every idol like dust
A word scattered them all
And I rose to my feet
When you scaled the last wall

And I gasped
When I saw you fall
In his arms
At the finish line
Lord help me each day to reach for the goal; and, at the beginning of all days ever after, may I reach the finish-line.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Glory or Horror

“Each day we are becoming a creature of splendid glory or one of unthinkable horror.” 
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, 1952.

“The internal struggle continued. Who was it that had killed him? Well, first he had to decide who he was himself. Was Ray the good guy or the bad guy in this TV series? Was he the victim or accused? Indeed, he was both, and eventually that is how he answered.”
The Great Beyond, Keith Allan Shields, 2017, pp. 84, 85.

“I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, 'with backward mutters of dissevering power' --or else not.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 1945.

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Key of Zed has recorded a new song. (Check it out here.)

(Lyrics and Music by Mike Charko and Keith Shields)

I called you up to see how you were
So you think that I still care
Don’t get me wrong, I’m movin’ on
With a part of me still there

Asheville’s pretty this time of year
And I want to be there with you
But you left me at the altar
With tears in my eyes, feeling just like a fool

Said you needed some more time
Just a little bit more time
To live on the wild side of life
But you’ve got me going out of my mind
Getting you off my mind

Carolina in the spring time
I don’t want to be someone’s fool
Carolina in the spring time
I don’t want to be on my own

Asheville’s pull is calling me back
Like a magnet to the north
I hope that guy is good to you
If he knows a violet’s worth

(Instrumental bridge)

I hear there’s a job in East Tennessee
With a bunch of working men
A foundry is good for singing the blues
When your heart is cracked and bent

Maybe I need some more time
Just a little bit more time
To find a new kind of life
But you’ve got me going out of my mind
I can’t get you off my mind

Carolina in the spring time
I don’t want to be someone’s fool
Carolina, scent of Jasmine
I don’t want to be on my own

Carolina with the flowers
I don’t want to be someone’s fool
Carolina in the spring time
I don’t want on my own

(Registered with SOCAN and SAC)