Sunday, February 26, 2012

Technological Advances, AI, and Religion


Artificial Intelligence, like so many other developments in science and technology, does cause some ethical and theological concern. I asked myself plenty of times while reading Tamatea's article, "is AI a good idea?", and I couldn't come up with as answer. I believe that, as humans, we are created in the "image of God," as Peterson's article states. If so, then, why AI? It's an advancement, yes. It does have some positive aspects, yes. But, how far is too far? This idea of technological singularity terrifies me a little bit, especially after having watched Battlestar Gallactica. (I had nightmares for weeks after watching I, Robot.) Though I highly doubt machines will ever evolve and try to destroy the human race, I do believe that it is dangerous to develop computers that think for themselves. In a way, it's "playing God." In a way, it's creating a life of some sort. The Radiolab we listened to about AI really helped me understand that. I remember being terrified of Furbies as a child, and until I listened to this particular radio show, I could never place why. It's because I felt that I was actually responsible for a life, even thought it was only a toy. I don't want to say that we should eliminate AI fully, but we should definitely be more cautious of it. I don't think its smart for us to create something smarter than we are. 


I think that there are legitimate ethical and theological concerns about AI. In my opinion, one of the primary concerns is that computers will soon be as intelligent as humans, also referred to as the “singularity.” I think this gives rise to concerns about human’s ability to control technology. The idea of the “singularity” reminds me of the movie Eagle Eye when the supercomputer at the department of defense begins blackmailing certain individuals with the intended goal of killing the president and his cabinet. Do you think that it is possible that technology could advance past that of human intelligence in a similar manner as to what happened in Eagle Eye? Also, should AI have rights if it does gain the same level of intelligence as humans?
William Bainbridge suggests that as AI progresses there will be no more gaps for God to fill, creating an increase in religious resistance. I think that this is clearly a theological concern for AI because as technology progresses, religion could become viewed as less important and for lack of better words, believable. Do you agree with Bainbridge’s opinion that AI will lead to an increase in religious resistance?


There are multiple issues that certain technological advances, such as Artificial Intelligence, bring to the table. I found the difference in Buddhist and Christian responses to be symptomatic of the broader incoherence of opinion regarding technological advances in general. For example, the Amish responded to technological advances by functionally saying, "Actually, we don't want to continue advancing technologically. We think everything is perfect just the way it is." Yet many people, religious and nonreligious alike, view technological advancement as the main goal of the human enterprise. After all, advances in agricultural technology or infrastructure are what allowed the human race to flourish and develop. There are many opinions on the subject, and they are not necessarily dictated by a person's religion. What are your opinions on technological advances in the field of Artificial Intelligence? Is it possible that if computers/robots became too intelligent the result could be a Terminator-like apocalypse? What about all the predicted benefits that will come in the fields of medicine or transport?

I also had some thoughts regarding the conversation at the end of class on Thursday, in which we discussed the fact that technological advances require our participation and, to some extent, our willingness to sacrifice. I saw an interested documentary the other day about advances in Quantum Physics which discussed the possibility of teleportation. The narrator explained that teleportation is possible, but that it involves disassembling an object or person and reassembling it in a second location. He went on to address the question that arose from this discovery: Is the person or object the same  person/object when it is reassembled? The narrator believes the answer was yes, because it was the exact same composition of particles as the original. However, this does raise serious religious and philosophical questions. For example, if the object is really the same just because its particles are assembled in the same way, is there still room for the idea of a soul? I found this discussion ties into Bainbridge's belief that advancing technology could have serious negative impacts on religion. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"America's Darwin Problem"

I thought this was an extremely interesting article written by a biologist at Brown University. It is quite clear the position of conflict that he takes and assumes other people take as well.
--I do realized that it is the Huffington Post, if you look past the journalistic bias the author made some interesting points.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday in many Christian churches and the juxtaposition of this against our visit to the Human Origins exhibit last Friday and our conversation about human “specialness” struck me today. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, holds that humans have been made “in the image of God.” There is no theological consensus on what that means, though there are lots of ideas ranging from our ability to love and have relationship to our ability to reason to our capacity for self-awareness. But how “the image of God” is defined is not really what I want to talk about here. Instead, I bring this up to say that in Christianity there is a deep understanding that because humans are made in the image of God that we are special and somehow different from the rest of creation. But what struck me today is that there is a balance involved in this. On Ash Wednesday as the priest puts ashes on each person’s forehead (an ancient Jewish symbol of repentance) he also says to each person “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What struck me is that in a religion that holds to a deep distinction of humanity from the other animals, there is also this very profound reminder that we also came from the earth and our connected to it, a reminder of our own origins, and, I think, a call to be humble in spite of what may make us special. Because maybe we are made “in the image of God” whatever that might mean, but we are also made of the same dust, the same matter, that makes up everything around us, and Christianity thinks that is important enough to remind its followers once a year both with words and with symbols marked upon their bodies, made from this same dust.

Here's a short video explaining the practice a little more:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monty Python's Philosopher Soccer Match

This came up in another class that I teach and since so many of you are writing about philosophers I thought I would share it with you (though many of you are writing about the English philosophers). Anyway, this is one of my favorite things in the world. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful

When I was a little girl my favorite place to go was the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry. Even though I grew up near Orlando, my family did not have season passes to Disney World or Busch Gardens; we had season passes to MOSI (the above-mentioned museum). So my early memories of science are filled with what it was like to walk as a very small person and look up at enormous dinosaur skeletons, to watch as my father, an electrician, explained the way a current climbed up a Jacob’s ladder, to send a giant pinball though an equally giant pinball machine to learn about kinetic and potential energy, and to sit still and in awe as galaxies swirled above me in a planetarium. And this is also the place where I first fell in love with the world and learning about it…and so with science…well that and my home in the Florida countryside with its lizards and fiddler crabs and an endless ocean. But all of that is to say that whenever I enter a science museum, I feel like I am five again—astonished by and in wonder at everything around me, ready to explore, and in love with the world.

The Hall of Human Origins is not different for me. I can’t help but be in wonder in front of the answer to one of the deepest questions of our existence: where did we come from? I love how the answer to that question shows our connectedness to every living thing around us and to the earth itself. I am looking at a bowl of fruit sitting on my kitchen table as I type and I remember that I am 60% similar to a banana. That knowledge changes how I approach that banana, how I approach everything…and that approach, which may be one that started when I was a child wandering through another museum, is one of reverence to everything around me, everything I am somehow genetically connected to, which is what I think Darwin felt as well. The last lines of The Origin of the Species get at this, and are very meaningful to me:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

“Forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Yes, that is what I felt as I walked through the exhibit this time. And that humanity is one of these most beautiful and most wonderful forms. Darwin’s text deals with brutal things: survival of the fittest, extinction, death, but this is how he chooses to end his text with beauty, wonder, and even hope.

And humanity too is a brutal story: war, genocide, slavery, and yet all of the answers to the question “What does it mean to be human?” throughout the exhibit were about what makes us beautiful: we write music, dance, and sing; we make sculptures and paint images; we have empathy and care for those who would die without our help; we use tools and language and write; we live in community.  The exhibit that most struck me in the Hall of Human Origins was an interactive film about Neanderthal burial practices. I was struck by this answer to what it means to be human: bury the dead, mourn, place flowers in a grave. The beautiful unnecessary practice of recognizing the meaning of a life, the importance of an individual, the passage of time and life and death. This is part of our own beauty, our gift to this universe in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the tension between religion and evolution hinges upon the idea that humans lose their “specialness” if we have evolved like any other animal and from animals. But, as a religious person, I see something else in our evolution. I see that we are unique and special among the species of the world precisely because we have come from other animals, precisely because we are connected to the world around us so profoundly and we are able to be aware of this and look with wonder at how we came to this place. We give a unique and unrepeatable beauty to this vast and stunning universe…but we could never do so if we were not a part of it, if we were not one of these “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”


Also, I promised a few of you that I would add this picture, which is me as a Homo Floresiensis:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Richard Dawkins and the Reason Rally

Over at there is a brief article up that more or less expresses how I feel abut Richard Dawkins, which has come up a few times in class. I also think he is a very poor religious scholar (though an excellent evolutionary biologist). I wanted to like you to it here, especially since it relates to the conversation about evolution and religion that you are already having here and that we have been engaging in class.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Can Evolution and Religion Coexist?

Hey guys,
I’m one of the moderators for today and just wanted to get the discussion going with a few questions. Do you think evolution and religion are opposing ideas? Or can the two exist in dialogue with each other? Another question I had, dealing with the discussion we had at the end of class on Tuesday, was whether you think accepting evolution is also a form of faith?
I personally do not believe in any form of creationism, but that does not mean that religion and evolution cannot coexist. For example, even though almost all scientists accept evolution to be true, many of them still believe in God. Even when strong proponents of evolution point to Darwin’s The Origin of Species, they often neglect to note that Darwin never mentioned the role of God. On the other end of the spectrum, many Christians do not necessarily reject the theory of evolution. This is where the theory of intelligent design comes into play. Proponents of intelligent design agree that evolution is true, but maintain that God set forth this process. Therefore, it seems that there can always be a relationship between evolution and religion. However, this is wholly dependent on the people involved. Some people are willing to objectively give both sides a chance, while others just cling to what they have been told and tentatively reject the other notion.
Of course there are conservatives on both sides. For instance, some people reject the theory of evolution because it contradicts the literal interpretation of the Bible’s text regarding the origin of the universe: that God created heaven, Earth, and all species in six days. On the other hand, conservative scientists may argue that religion should play no role in science. One point from earlier in the semester that I like is the discussion of the different realms religion and science are in. It seems that science serves to answer the “how” questions, while religion answers the “why” questions.
I personally think that evolution and religion can coexist as long as people are willing to give both sides a fair chance. To answer my second question, I would say that accepting the theory of evolution is not a matter of faith in terms of the religious way of thinking of it. Of course, accepting the scientific studies and experiments dealing with natural selection and evolution requires some sense of trust, but I think that the word faith does not really apply to this discussion.

Monday, February 13, 2012

When Myth Becomes History

Does the truth of historical events matter? Does the myth? Does it matter how we tell these stories in popular culture? Are we allowed to appropriate them for our own ends?
Hey guys,
Katharine, Jennifer, and I are the moderators for Myth and History.
Personally, we would say bias is inevitable because historical accounts differ based on who's writing it. Levi-Strauss mentions that if you take two historians w/different political leaning writing on the same subject like the American Revolution, you're bound to get two different accounts. We also were in agreement that every culture and country manipulates history for their own use, though in an ideal world, that would not be the goal of the narrator, and it strikes us as counterproductive to appropriate history for your own ends, although it's very common. Historical "truth" should matter, but even historical accounts are biased depending on who's writing, so it's difficult to not create a myth based on an event, unless we have archaeological evidence. Most myths have a basic structure that is probably historically accurate, but as Levi-Strauss says, the details of the content differ based on who's telling the story. An interesting detail we noticed is the way that Levi-Strauss defines a myth, which didn’t match what we think of as a myth, (how would you define a myth?). As it relates to popular culture, we definitely think the bias of these “myths” is important, because the way that the stories are portrayed will be how the younger generations will see and remember it. If a film, for example, is based on a true event but highly inaccurate, the viewers will still believe it to be true, and it will be rather difficult to replace that false information with the true history.
- Shazreh, Katharine, and Jennifer

Myth and History

There are two different approaches that can be taken with regard to the truth of history: (1) history is written by the victors, and (2) what happens in the past can greatly affect the future. The fact that history often takes the perspective of the victors can skew the perspective and very often is one sided (so it may not be the entire truth). The way people understand history can greatly affect their actions (i.e. Hitler's interpretation or mis-interpretation of historical events may have drove his actions) so it is important that when history is written that it is true. Myth does not necessarily matter if it is true because it can be allegorical.

As I said, people's actions can be affected by how they come to realize historical events--a sort of butterfly effect. Just because something falls into the category of popular culture should not give it a free pass for reporting falsities. You should not be allowed to appropriate the historical facts and myths for your own end. This is a slippery slope that allows you to only support your own point of view while completely ignoring the other. Unfortunately though, you can see this take place far too often with modern sensationalist journalism.