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 Amazon.ca 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, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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."

Friday, May 11, 2018

Fool for You

In 1 Corinthians 4:10, Paul, the Apostle for Christ, states that his dedication to Christ makes him appear to be a fool to those who consider themselves wise. This is a common theme for many today. On the one hand, we often demand physical proof for the statements of others and, on the other hand, have a tendency to trust whatever we read on social media. We are of mixed minds and our inner struggle shows itself in our faith, science, and psychology. Adrian Newman wrote a song which speaks of the struggle we experience as we seek to live by faith. Nichole Nordeman gives voice to the song here. Did Paul truly capture our plight or is this an example of his tongue-in-cheek rhetoric? Do you consider yourself a “fool for Christ?” Perhaps these questions will cause us to “tremble” before an all-powerful deity, give appropriate reverence, and go out in the grace of Jesus.

Fool for You
(Written by Adrian Newman; Performed by Nichole Nordeman)

There are times when faith and common sense do not align,
when hard core evidence of you is hard to find,
and I am silenced in the face of argumentative debate, and
it's a long hill it's a lonely climb. Cause they want proof,

They want proof of all these mysteries I claim. Cause only
fools would want to chant a dead man's name. 

Maybe it's true, yeah but....
I would be a fool for You, all because You asked me to.
A simpleton who's seemingly naive,
I do believe, You came and made Yourself a fool for me.

I admit that in my darkest hours I've asked what if,
What if we created some kind of man-made faith like this,
Out of good intention or emotional invention,
and after life is through there will be no You.

Cause they want proof of all these miracles I claim,
Cause only fools believe that men can walk on waves.

Maybe it's true, yeah but...
I would be a fool for You, all because You asked me to.
A simpleton who's seemingly naive,
I do believe, You came and made Yourself a fool for me.

Unaware of popularity,
and unconcerned with dignity,
You made me free.
That's proof enough for me.

I would be a fool for You (fool for you)
Only if You asked me to,
A simpleton who's only thinkin' of
the cause of love.

I will speak Jesus' name (fool for you).
If that makes me crazy,
they can call me crazed,
I'm happy to be seemingly naive,
I do believe, You came and made Yourself a fool for me.
A fool for you.

Songwriters: Adrian Newman
Fool for You lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group

Monday, May 7, 2018

Show Your Glory

The band I am in, Key of Zed, just released a new song. Because we don't write a lot of worship songs, we teamed up with Pete Justine from Hazel Grey. It is a call to worship and you can listen to it on ReverbNation here.

Show Your Glory
(Peter Justine, Mike Charko, and Keith Shields, January 2018)
(Key of E)

Show your glory oh God
Show your glory in this place
We are waiting for you
To show your glory and your grace

We are waiting for your Spirit
Waiting for power
Come like a mighty wind
Fill us with your fire

Show your glory oh God
Show your glory in this place
We are waiting for you
To show your glory and your grace

Father to the lonely
Vision to the blind
Healer of the broken
Gracious and kind

Show your glory oh God
Show your glory in this place
We are waiting for you
To show your glory and your grace

God of glory
Show your works in the heavens
God of glory
Show your works in our lives

Show your glory oh God
Show your glory in this place
We are waiting for you
To show your glory and your grace

Chord Chart:



Sunday, May 6, 2018

Imagination and Logic

Bethany Sollereder, Ph.D., is a fellow graduate of Regent College and a Christian who has spent much time exploring the relationships between Science and Faith. She has written a helpful paper entitled, “Evolution, Suffering and the Creative Love of God,” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.[1] It is a philosophical and theological paper that is technical enough that I will not try to analyze it here in this post. Her logic and conclusions speak for themselves and the paper is a valuable read for anyone who would like to explore these topics more deeply than is often done in this blog.

What I will note here in this space is the interaction between logic and imagination. Sollereder and I met once when I was at Regent working on the Comprehensive Exam for my Master of Arts degree. I was wrestling with the question of the historicity of Adam, and my supervisor, Ross Hastings, Ph.D. had suggested that I should interact with Bethany Sollereder on this topic. I found her to be an exceptionally brilliant and logical mind and knew that she would make significant contributions in the literature regarding Faith and Science, and Theodicy (a technical term for the theological study of why we have evil in a world created by a good God). In the paper to which I am referring today, Sollereder is not only extremely logical but also, at points, imaginative, creative, and poetic. One sentence in particular caused me to pause and think carefully: “In describing divine action, then, our compassionate imagination—rather than our logic—may be the more reliable guide.”

Here is an especially logical young mind arguing for the inclusion of a “compassionate imagination” in the technical fields of theology, philosophy, and theodicy. For a person like me who writes poetry, creative novels,[2] songs, science papers, and religious journal articles, this statement by Sollereder was an encouragement of the highest degree. It would seem to me that she is calling for an application of all aspects of the mind. For such interesting and difficult subjects as the relationships between science and faith, we must apply every aspect of our mental faculties. We do not simply use logic in one conversation and poetry in another. We use both to help us understand the intricacies of the universe in which we live. Indeed, the very consciousness with which we think, is capable of a variety of methods for coming at difficult topics. Sometimes, imagination and poetry are the only ways to adequately explain a concept and they may open other avenues of thought leading to a greater logical understanding. 

In her paper, “Evolution, Suffering and the Creative Love of God,” Sollereder uses creative thought experiments and metaphors of life to logically explain possible explanations for the workings of God and our universe. The logic is exemplary, but her logic would not stand as well if it were not for the helpful images that bolster the logic. Perhaps this makes even more sense when we read Sollereder’s bio which states that she “enjoys hiking, horseback riding, [and] reading novels (particularly those of “the Inklings”).” This paper encourages me to continue to use creativity, logic, poetry, and metaphor to explore the universe and the explanations which help us live in this amazing place in which we find ourselves. May the spirit of writers such as Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald (some of the writers known as The Inklings) live on in the works of Sollereder and others.

[1]Sollereder, “Evolution, Suffering and the Creative Love of God,”Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith68, no. 2 (2016): 99-110, http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2016/PSCF6-16Sollereder.pdf
[2]See the novel, The Great Beyond for an example of how I have dealt with complex questions of life and death, punishment and reward in a metaphoric fiction. https://amzn.to/2HUGeF5 or, in the USA, https://amzn.to/2ro8Lb2.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Theology in Transition

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.[1] The Bible, although not always viewed this way, is a fixed canon that does not change.[2] The Church endures through all the ages.[3] Jesus Christ died once for all so that all might live.[4] Therefore, it may sound like a bold statement to say that Christian theology changes; but it does. We could find several more examples, and I am only seeking to highlight some of the less controversial, but here are a few ways in which our theology has changed in the short 2000-year existence of the Church of Jesus Christ.
     1. The early Christians believed that the return of Christ would occur within their lifetime,
2.    Early Christians also thought that they should not eat meat that had not been drained of blood. I hardly think anyone has been thrown out of the church for eating blood sausage in the last several hundred years,
3.    Stipulations about hair length that were thought to be blatantly evident within “the very nature of things” are now disregarded. Christians are now comfortable with all fashions of hair on men and women,
4.    It was once thought that the sun travelled in the sky relative to the earth and this was verified by statements in the Bible such as that in Joshua 10 where “the sun stood still in the sky,”
5.    Those who got divorced were once barred from membership in the Church,
6.    Before the Reformation, people required a priest to mediate between them and God,
7.    And women were once required to wear head-coverings when they attended church or prayed.
The point is, the Bible doesn’t change, but our understanding, or theology, of the Bible does change.

We now live in a time when many of our cherished understandings of the Bible are being challenged by the science of the day. Luke J. Janssen, in an article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith,[5] says,
The scientific data now at hand pertaining to human evolution conflict with any theological worldview that is dependent upon the following:
(1)  a “young earth,” or a timeline of less than ten thousand years….
(2)  there being a primal pair.... [from whom all people have descended]
(3)  the human species receiving a discrete command regarding what God expects, and all humans having broken that command.
Instead, we should account for hard evidence, such as
(1)  Homo sapiens appearing a couple hundred thousand years ago;
(2)  Humans being nearly genetically identical to other hominids who can be tied together on an evolutionary tree of life extending back millions of years;
(3)  Interbreeding between humans and other species (Neanderthals and Denisovans);
(4)  The evolution of religious thinking and practices long predating the biblical texts; and
(5)  A gradual evolution of morality and awareness of God.

With all of this scientific evidence to deal with, is it not time that we set our theologians to the task of once again re-thinking how we understand our biblical texts? Some, such as Scott McKnight[6] and N.T. Wright have indeed become friends of Biologos[7] and have begun to seek to understand the Bible in light of the current scientific and genetic revolution. We need not fear such theological processes. If science is truth, and theology is truth, and indeed, if all truth is God’s truth, then such thoughtful processes can only lead to a greater understanding of that truth and greater understanding of our God. Those of us who love God and follow Jesus must not find ourselves in a battle with the science of the day. For the sake of our faith, we must embrace all of God’s truth.

[1]Hebrews 13:8
[2]See, for example, “The Canon of the Old Testament,” at Catholic Faith and Reason, http://www.catholicfaithandreason.org/the-canon-of-the-old-testament.html
[3]Ephesians 3:21; Psalm 145:12-14
[4]2 Corinthians 5:14-16
[5]‘“Fallen” and “Broken” Reinterpreted in the Light of Evolutionary Theory,’ Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 70, Number 1, March 2018, p. 44.
[6]See Adam and the Genome, by Venema and McKnight, Brazos Press, 2017.