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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why Can't Christians Tell the Best Stories?

Image by feeb

Johann Sebastian Bach once said “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Bach also said that he worked hard on his craft and those that worked as hard as he did should see results. Bach recognized that believers should excel in whatever they do as that would honor the Savior.  For much of Christendom, this maxim was followed.  The finest thinkers were Christians; names such as Augustine, Ockham, Anselm, Aquinas, and Pascal still play a central role in secular programs of philosophy. Science, too, saw Christians take the lead with such notables as Newton, Kepler, Boyle, Mendel, and Kelvin. And of course the world's great artists continually produced paintings and statues around biblical themes.

But that seems to have changed today.  Peter Kreeft put is best when he said:

"Christian thought is the most intelligent of all thought and Christian morality is the most holy of moralities. But Christianity no longer produces the world's most beautiful and arresting art. I think modern culture is rejecting Christianity not because they think it is stupid or wicked, but because it looks boring... It's pictures aren't moving pictures anymore. They don't move hearts. It's the secular media that makes them abject now."

Good art both reflects and drives the culture in which it is presented. It is at root a medium that engages the heart first, and then the mind. We know that the story tellers of today are the record producers and the movie directors; and we can see their influence at the fashion shows and at the ballot box.  However, Christianity seems to be markedly absent from making a significant impact in this day and age. We've settled for following the lead of those who hold views antithetical to Christianity.  I'm not satisfied with the ghettoed Christian music station or television channel. I'm not satisfied with the substandard and derivative work of Christian artists who are supposed to substitute for the secular flavor of the day.

Now, to be sure, I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. LeCrae is topping the hip hop charts all over the place.  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's books are still masterpieces.  But we should see more.  We should be leading in the arts, not following.

So, I'd like to challenge you, Christian.  If you have a passion for storytelling, if you're an artist, filmmaker, writer or musician, work hard and take a risk.  Think about how to work hard and honor God while being meaningful. We need to move the culture of today.  In so doing we can move people more towards Christ.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why Artificial Intelligence Isn't

photo by Fumi Yamazaki

I've had an off-and-on again discussion with an atheist friend of mine on the concept of the soul. Being an atheist, he routinely defaults to a naturalistic/materialistic understanding of the world and how things work. For example, he recently made the claim on my Facebook page that "The new thing that is emerging is 'machine life' (artificial intelligence). It will surpass us in intelligence." There are two claims being made in this statement, both of which I think are faulty and the first rests on the understanding of the second.  The primary claim that machines will someday be considered alive due to advances in artificial intelligence that are happening even now. The second is that this intelligence will allow machines to be smarter than us.

The problem here is one of language. We've heard people discuss sentience or intelligence as synonyms. Then, we see a new device, such as a smart phone or intelligence-assist devices and think that people are using the words in the same fashion.  But that is simply not true.  In the first sense, intelligence means to be able to comprehend the facts that are presented to you, to understand a concept. The biggest point of understanding is not the medium through which the concept is presented nor is it the reaction or outcome.  Understanding is an act of consciousness and consciousness has a specific kind of experience associated with it that machines can never have.

You see, machines simply are cause and effect loops. Given a specific input, a computer acts like any other mechanical device—it spits out a result based on preset programming.  This is true even if the programming has a randomizer built into it.  As computer programs become more complex we can be tempted to think the machines are "understanding" what is going on, but they aren't. They are merely acting like an extremely complicated Rube Goldberg machine and producing an outcome based on their prior programming.

Philosopher John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment is a great example of the difference. Searle asks you to imagine a man inside a locked room with two slots in the wall. A Chines messenger will slip a question written in Chinese on a piece of paper through the door and in a little while the paper will be returned through a second slot with an answer inscribed at the bottom, also in Chinese.  The messenger and probably all observers would believe the man in the room spoke Chinese.  However, inside the room the facts are different.  The man actually speaks no Chinese at all. He just has a very large code book that will tell him "If this combination of characters appears on a piece of paper, then you should write this second combination of characters at the bottom and return the paper." The man inside the room has no idea what the question is or what the answer says. It is a qualitatively different experience than conscious understanding. (For a more detailed explanation of the Chinese Room and some great animation, see this page.)

This is exactly how artificial intelligence works.  Even the head of the Google Car project can teach you how to program your own self-driving car in just seven weeks. See the page at and look at the list of topics covered in the class.  All the programming features are simply rules in a code book that must be followed by the machine.  No understanding is required. The CPU in a computer is basically a Chinese Room, except the language is binary, 1s and 0s.

I don't think the label artificial intelligence will ever change; it's become too ingrained in our culture.  However, it still can be understood that the term intelligence can mean different things. If I say my cell phone is dead, I don't mean that at one point it was capable of biological life. In the same way if I say my phone is smart, I don't mean that it is capable of conscious understanding. We would do well to note the difference.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

He Needs to Be Committed: Touré's Abortion Double-Speak

Last week we marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision, a particularly bad bit of legalese that opened the door to more than 55 million babies being slaughtered in the U.S. to date. There were many articles commenting on the decision, from both pro-life and pro-choice camps. One that specifically caught my attention was from the MSNBC commentator Touré (nee Touré Neblett) who said in a video commentary that abortion had "saved my life."

Touré's monologue began:

"This week brought us the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and made me reflect on a moment from about fifteen years ago when I was in a committed relationship with a woman who I knew was just not the one.  She probably also knew it wasn't gonna work out… and then she got pregnant. And I was terrified. I've always known the importance of family and building kids into strong adults. And I know I would not be who I am if not growing up under the watchful eye of two people who loved me and loved each other.  I knew that pregnant woman and I were not gonna be able to form a lasting family. She decided it was best to have an abortion and days later she did; we did. And in some ways that choice saved my life. I was not yet smart enough or man enough to build a family or raise a child and I only would have contributed to making a mess of three lives."

Touré goes on to say how years later, after he married his current wife and they were expecting their first son, his belief in abortion was shaken by viewing 3-D ultrasounds.  "But in the end I remain committed to being pro-choice because I cannot image arguing against a woman's right to control her body and thus her life." He then dismisses babies in the womb by saying that "there is a reasonable and unsolvable medical debate about when exactly life begins."

Now, there is so much terrible thinking here that I could write a book about it, but if I were to be given the chance to talk with Touré, I think I would ask him two questions.  First, notice his opening sentence. He said, "I was in a committed relationship with a woman who I knew was just not the one." Hmm. What do you mean by "the one" Touré? The context seems to imply that you didn't truly love her (remember families are built by two people who love each other), or you at least didn't love her to commit to forsake all others for her. So, if that's the case, then tell me what exactly was it that you were committed to? How can one be in a "committed relationship" without committing to the person for life?  The only answer I can come up with is that he was committed to the sex. He states that "She probably also knew it wasn't gonna work out... and then she got pregnant." So, she got pregnant after they both knew it wasn't going to work out? Touré's understanding of commitment is about as fast and loose as one could have.

Secondly, Touré said that the experience of prenatal care and the technology of ultrasounds made him question his position on abortion. His only escape from the fact that medical science through ultrasound showed that there is a live human being in the womb was to assert that "there is a reasonable and unsolvable medical debate about when exactly life begins." Perhaps the debate is unsolvable medically (the question of the soul would be a metaphysical question and thus lie outside the purview of science), but my question would be so what? There is an equally unsolvable medical debate about when exactly life ends.  However, we don't throw up our hands and claim that we can never recognize a patient from a corpse.

No, Touré is doing a brilliant job of Orwellian double-speak here.  He wants to be committed when it's not a commitment and he claims that any small area of doubt is justification to deny the facts of science that are presented to him directly so he may hold onto his politically correct ideology. It is just this type of propaganda and self-denial that allows the slaughter of the innocents to continue. If Touré was truly held to "a woman's right to control her body and thus her life", he wouldn't stand for destroying both those bodies and those lives in utero, before they ever had a chance to grow and thrive.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Why Appeal to the Existence of Evil?

A fairly constant objection to God's existence is also one of the oldest objections.  It centers on the existence of evil and how any all-good, all-knowing God would allow any evil to exist in His creation. It was first widely voiced by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who asked:

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing. Then Whence Cometh Evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

Skeptic David Hume repackaged the riddle and it's been highly popular with skeptics and atheist ever since.

The problem with this objection is that it assumes there are only two factors to consider. But if we add a third proposition, say that God may allow evil to exist temporarily for a higher purpose, then the argument simply crumbles.

For fun, I've thought about reformulating the argument and turning it on its head. It would go something like this:

Atheists have a true desire to use Epicurus' Riddle in toppling the belief in God for rational people.
Atheists claim that Epicurus' Riddle is powerful enough to topple belief in God for rational people.
Yet rational people still believe in God.

 So, why appeal to Epicurus' Riddle?

In both instances, it strikes me that the logic is the same.  If my argument above doesn't logically follow, then I would think that the argument from evil also doesn't logically follow. Even given that the second argument is not discussing a perfect being, the premises are not as bold and rational people will seek to make rational decisions. One may say "perhaps the rational person is biased by his emotions, or perhaps he doesn't  understand the implications of the argument."  Those points are very possible and make the argument invalid, but prove my point--when other factors can be considered, the either/or structure of both arguments fail.
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