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“A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God”*…

A scan of the workings of an automaton of a friar, c1550. Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano (c1500-85), probably Spanish.

The wooden monk, a little over two feet tall, ambles in a circle. Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. Throughout his supplications, those same lips seem to mumble, as if he’s quietly uttering penitential prayers, and occasionally the tiny monk will raise his empty fist to his torso as he beats his breast. His head is finely detailed, a tawny chestnut colour with a regal Roman nose and dark hooded eyes, his pate scraped clean of even a tonsure. For almost five centuries, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but before that he resided in that distinctly un-Catholic city of Geneva. His origins are more mysterious, though similar divine automata have been attributed to Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs. Following Philip II’s son’s recovery from an illness, the reverential king supposedly commissioned Turriano to answer God’s miracle with a miracle of his own. Scion of the Habsburgs’ massive fortune of Aztec and Incan gold, hammer against the Protestant English and patron of the Spanish Inquisition, Philip II was every inch a Catholic zealot whom the British writer and philosopher G K Chesterton described as having a face ‘as a fungus of a leprous white and grey’, overseeing his empire in rooms where ‘walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin’. It’s a description that evokes similarly uncanny feelings for any who should view Turriano’s monk, for there is one inviolate rule about the robot: he is creepy.

Elizabeth King, an American sculptor and historian, notes that an ‘uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy … it engages even the 20th-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way.’ The late Spanish engineer José A García-Diego is even more unsparing: the device, he wrote, is ‘considerably unpleasant’. One reason for his unsettling quality is that the monk’s purpose isn’t to provide simulacra of prayer, but to actually pray. Turriano’s device doesn’t serve to imitate supplication, he is supplicating; the mechanism isn’t depicting penitence, the machine performs it…

The writer Jonathan Merritt has argued in The Atlantic that rapidly escalating technological change has theological implications far beyond the political, social and ethical questions that Pope Francis raises, claiming that the development of self-aware computers would have implications for our definition of the soul, our beliefs about sin and redemption, our ideas about free will and providence. ‘If Christians accept that all creation is intended to glorify God,’ Merritt asked, ‘how would AI do such a thing? Would AI attend church, sing hymns, care for the poor? Would it pray?’ Of course, to the last question we already have an answer: AI would pray, because as Turriano’s example shows, it already has. Pope Francis also anticipated this in his November prayers, saying of AI ‘may it “be human”.’

While nobody believes that consciousness resides within the wooden head of a toy like Turriano’s, no matter how immaculately constructed, his disquieting example serves to illustrate what it might mean for an artificial intelligence in the future to be able to orient itself towards the divine. How different traditions might respond to this is difficult to anticipate. For Christians invested in the concept of an eternal human soul, a synthetic spirit might be a contradiction. Buddhist and Hindu believers, whose traditions are more apt to see the individual soul as a smaller part of a larger system, might be more amenable to the idea of spiritual machines. That’s the language that the futurist Ray Kurzweil used in calling our upcoming epoch the ‘age of spiritual machines’; perhaps it’s just as appropriate to think of it as the ‘Age of Turriano’, since these issues have long been simmering in the theological background, only waiting to boil over in the coming decades.

If an artificial intelligence – a computer, a robot, an android – is capable of complex thought, of reason, of emotion, then in what sense can it be said to have a soul? How does traditional religion react to a constructed person, at one remove from divine origins, and how are we to reconcile its role in the metaphysical order? Can we speak of salvation and damnation for digital beings? And is there any way in which we can evangelise robots or convert computers? Even for steadfast secularists and materialists, for whom those questions make no philosophical sense for humans, much less computers, that this will become a theological flashpoint for believers is something to anticipate, as it will doubtlessly have massive social, cultural and political ramifications.

This is no scholastic issue of how many angels can dance on a silicon chip, since it seems inevitable that computer scientists will soon be able to develop an artificial intelligence that easily passes the Turing test, that surpasses the understanding of those who’ve programmed it. In an article for CNBC entitled ‘Computers Will Be Like Humans By 2029’ (2014), the journalist Cadie Thompson quotes Kurzweil, who confidently (if controversially) contends that ‘computers will be at human levels, such as you can have a human relationship with them, 15 years from now.’ With less than a decade left to go, Kurzweil explains that he’s ‘talking about emotional intelligence. The ability to tell a joke, to be funny, to be romantic, to be loving, to be sexy, that is the cutting edge of human intelligence, that is not a sideshow.’

Often grouped with other transhumanists who optimistically predict a coming millennium of digital transcendence, Kurzweil is a believer in what’s often called the ‘Singularity’, the moment at which humanity’s collective computing capabilities supersede our ability to understand the machines that we’ve created, and presumably some sort of artificial consciousness develops. While bracketing out the details, let’s assume that Kurzweil is broadly correct that, at some point in this century, an AI will develop that outstrips all past digital intelligences. If it’s true that automata can then be as funny, romantic, loving and sexy as the best of us, it could also be assumed that they’d be capable of piety, reverence and faith. When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond?..

Can a robot pray? Does an AI have a soul? Advances in automata raise theological debates that will shape the secular world; from Ed Simon (@WithEdSimon): “Machine in the ghost.” Do read the piece in full.

Then, for a different (but in the end, not altogether contradictory) view: “The Thoughts The Civilized Keep.”

And for another (related) angle: “Is it OK to torture a computer program?

For more on the work of sculptor and historian Elizabeth King on the Smithsonian automaton friar, please see her articles here and here, and her forthcoming book, Mysticism and Machinery.

Alan Perlis (first recipient of the Turing Award)

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As we enlarge the tent, we might send revelatory birthday greetings to Albert Hofmann; he was born on this date in 1906.  As a young chemist at Sandoz in Switzerland, Hofmann was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant when he fabricated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); handling it, he absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943– a day now known as “Bicycle Day”– Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD then rode home on a bike, a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”*…

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?…

Some psychologists are increasingly confident that they can now measure– and nurture– wisdom, superseding the “speculations” of philosophy and religion: “The Science of Wisdom.”

* Oliver Wendell Holmes

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As we savor sagacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honors since “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

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Written by LW

October 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

Empty seats at a Catholic church in New York City, June 2014

In the early years of the twenty-first century, religion seemed to be on the rise. The collapse of both communism and the Soviet Union had left an ideological vacuum that was being filled by Orthodox Christianity in Russia and other post-Soviet states. The election in the United States of President George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian who made no secret of his piety, suggested that evangelical Christianity was rising as a political force in the country. And the 9/11 attacks directed international attention to the power of political Islam in the Muslim world.

A dozen years ago, my colleague Pippa Norris and I analyzed data on religious trends in 49 countries, including a few subnational territories such as Northern Ireland, from which survey evidence was available from 1981 to 2007 (these countries contained 60 percent of the world’s population). We did not find a universal resurgence of religion, despite claims to that effect—most high-income countries became less religious—but we did find that in 33 of the 49 countries we studied, people became more religious during those years. This was true in most former communist countries, in most developing countries, and even in a number of high-income countries. Our findings made it clear that industrialization and the spread of scientific knowledge were not causing religion to disappear, as some scholars had once assumed.

But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious. The decline in belief was not confined to high-income countries and appeared across most of the world. 

Ronald F. Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, explains what’s behind the global decline of religion: “Giving Up on God?”

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we contemplate the cosmic, we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that Sweden won a major victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld against the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years’ War. Initially a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a general European war, resulting in the deaths of over 8 million people, including 20% of the German population, making it one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.

Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Breitenfeld

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Written by LW

September 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”*…

 

science and religion

 

Over the centuries, the relationship between science and religion has ranged from conflict and hostility to harmony and collaboration, while various thinkers have argued that the two concepts are inherently at odds and entirely separate.

But much recent research and discussion on these issues has taken place in a Western context, primarily through a Christian lens. To better understand the ways in which science relates to religion around the world, Pew Research Center engaged a small group of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to talk about their perspectives. These one-on-one, in-depth interviews took place in Malaysia and Singapore – two Southeast Asian nations that have made sizable investments in scientific research and development in recent years and that are home to religiously diverse populations.

The discussions reinforced the conclusion that there is no single, universally held view of the relationship between science and religion, but they also identified some common patterns and themes within each of the three religious groups…

Pew Research paints three distinct portraits: “On the Intersection of Science and Religion.”

* Albert Einstein (who may or may not have meant to communicate his religiosity and his belief in the compatibility—indeed, the mutual interdependence—of science and religion)

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As we contemplate the cosmic, we might spare a thought for Lillian Wald; she died on this date in 1940.  A nurse, nurse, humanitarian, political reformer, and author, she was instrumental in establishing a nationwide system of nurses in public schools.  Known as “the Angel of Henry Street” (for her founding and running of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City), she directed the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service, while at the same time tirelessly opposing political and social corruption.  She helped initiate revision of child labor laws, improved housing conditions in tenement districts, enactment of pure food laws, education for the mentally handicapped, and passage of enlightened immigration regulations.

Lillian-Wald source

 

 

Written by LW

September 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”*…

 

cult

The Easter ‘Passion of the Christ’ procession in Comayagua, a small town in Honduras

 

Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them. It would be hard to avoid the label on encountering (as I did, carrying out field work last year) 20 people toiling unpaid on a Christian farming compound in rural Wisconsin – people who venerated their leader as the closest thing to God’s representative on Earth. Of course, they argued vehemently that they were not a cult. Ditto for the 2,000-member church I visited outside Nashville, whose parishioners had been convinced by an ostensibly Christian diet programme to sell their houses and move to the ‘one square mile’ of the New Jerusalem promised by their charismatic church leader. Here they could eat – and live – in accordance with God and their leader’s commands. It’s easy enough, as an outsider, to say, instinctively: yes, this is a cult.

Less easy, though, is identifying why. Knee-jerk reactions make for poor sociology, and delineating what, exactly, makes a cult (as opposed to a ‘proper’ religious movement) often comes down to judgment calls based on perceived legitimacy. Prod that perception of legitimacy, however, and you find value judgments based on age, tradition or ‘respectability’ (that nice middle-class couple down the street, say, as opposed to Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch). At the same time, the markers of cultism as applied more theoretically – a single charismatic leader, an insular structure, seeming religious ecstasy, a financial burden on members – can also be applied to any number of new or burgeoning religious movements that we don’t call cults.

Often (just as with pornography), what we choose to see as a cult tells us as much about ourselves as about what we’re looking at…

Cults are exploitative, weird groups with strange beliefs and practices, right? So what about regular religions then?  “What is a Cult?

To get a sense of terrain in question, visit Wikipedia’s page “New Religious Movement” and consult their “List of new religious movements.”

For a sense of how time can convert a “new religious movement” into an established faith, consult the “Timeline of religion.”

And for (one) opinion of where all of this might be leading, see “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the future of religion?

* John Milton, Paradise Lost

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As we ponder piety, we might recall that today is the concluding day of International Clown Week.

Screen Shot 2020-08-03 at 2.46.55 PM source

 

 

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