Are the Jesus Stories Originally from Egyptian Mythology?

Zeitgeist is a German word referring to both time (zeit) and spirit (geist). The spirit of the times are the popular and influential ideas that are going around. When the Zeitgeist movie was released online in 2007, it gives voice to renewed scepticism about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

It states that the Jesus story we find written in the New Testament is essentially a re-hash of earlier myths about dying and rising Gods. The Jesus of faith wasn’t a real person, rather he was an idea cooked up by people in the past. Here’s a taste of what it says:

 

“Horus … He is the Sun God of Egypt of around 3000 BC. He is the sun anthropomorphized… Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east … three kings followed [this] to locate and adorn the new-born saviour. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry…he was crucified … buried … and resurrected.”[1]

If this story sounds like the Jesus story, Zeitgeist says you are wrong. It is actually the story of the Egyptian Sun God Horus, who’s story was supposedly repurposed by the Christian church and attributed to the later Jesus of Nazareth.

This idea has a big problem.

Actually – this IS the Jesus story which has been mistakenly applied BACKWARDS onto the character of Egyptian mythology – Horus. This would be a bit like claiming the events from Charles Dicken’s life did not happen. Rather, they were actual events from the life of Ebenezer Scrooge (the character from the book A Christmas Carol) that were passed off as events from Dicken’s life. That’s a pretty absurd claim! Right?

If you think Zeitgeist summarises the Christian story, it’s because it does. But, it does NOT properly recount the Egyptian myth, and it anachronistically and incorrectly imposes historical reports about Jesus onto a mythological Egyptian character called Horus.

 

Chris Forbes is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney. He’s an expert in ancient myths. And – he has a number of interesting things to say about the mistaken claims of the Zeitgeist movie. You can find a useful interview with Chris here.

 

First – Horus is not an Egyptian sun God. He was the God of the sky. The sun God was Raa. So Zeitgeist’s play on words (sun God vs son of God) is just pointless and irrelevant.

Second – The mother of Horus was Isis, but there’s no evidence in the Egyptian sources that she was a virgin.

Third – Egyptians would not date Horus’s birth as December 25th, because they used a completely different calendar. December is a Latin month, and so a foreign idea to ancient Egypt.

Fourth – Horus wasn’t crucified and raised from the dead. He wasn’t killed at all. Rather, in this particular myth, it was Osiris who was killed by his brother Set, who dismembered him and hid the pieces around ancient Egypt so they could not be reconstituted again. Isis gathers the pieces, binds them together again with bandages, and so Osiris becomes the first Egyptian mummy that all the rest relate to.

Fifth – the Horus, Isis and Osiris events are not recorded in historical time. Rather, Egyptian mythology is understood to have happened in a kind of dream time, or mythology. By contrast, the New Testament and the reports of Jesus are clearly presented as a historical account.

Sixth – no serious historian doubts that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified by the Romans in the first century. There is debate around whether the Bible’s description of him is correct. But – that he lived is beyond serious consideration. Horus, on the other hand, is a well understood myth.

Seventh – the sources used by the writers of the Zeitgeist movie are not qualified to make their assertions. For example, Gerald Massey is an English Poet and amateur Egyptologist. He’s not a professional historian. And this hurts the credibility of the film and its claims. When you actually check proper references and compare them with the claims that Zeitgeist makes, you can see that actually it is just talking nonsense.

[1] Zeitgeist: The Movie, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrHeg77LF4Y.

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1917 as a Metaphor for Christian Commission

This hits me hard. The unwavering commitment shown by Schofield and Blake to get the truth thru to the right people in time. If you are a Christian who has ever felt inadequate in the face of the task of sharing the Christian good news…this story presents a useful analogy.

 

There is truth.

Truth is real. If we say, “There is no truth,” then we are contradicting ourselves because we are making a truth claim even as those words leave our mouths. No – truth is a daily human experience. These soldiers received the truth in the form of army intelligence and the consequences it has on the lives of others.

Christianity is about receiving truthful intel from the person who is responsible for putting people in this universe in the first place. The ultimate General. If we are people who deal in the currency of truth, then he made us that way. So truth exists and must be grounded in him. God.

 

They don’t doubt how vital the truth is.

When the soldiers hear the vital news, these guys buy it. Why? Because it’s their General that’s speaking to them. Their commanding officer’s commanding officer. There’s a look of utter resignation and horror in the officer’s face as he gives them their mission. And the stakes are high. They could not be higher. There’s an urgency in the truth. And these guys are the only ones tasked with acting on it.

What’s happening is – they are being trusted as carriers of the truth. And – if they don’t get the truth through – then a lot of people are going to suffer and die. The General trusts them with this truth – this causes them to grasp the message tightly. Whether or not the General actually believes they will succeed in the mission or not – is irrelevant for them.

That’s not to say Schofield and Blake have doubts. What’s the best way to embark on this mission? What happens if there are details we have been told aren’t quite right? Should we wait for more favourable conditions, or go now?

This is like a metaphor for the truth claims of Christianity. Truth is grounded in Jesus Christ. If the Jesus-message is true, then all people’s eternal lives are at risk. Whether the conditions are favourable or not, those of us commissioned to carry the truth need to get there to explain what is really going on, and what the truthful message is. When he was teaching, Jesus was like a General. Commissioning his friends with the vital truth.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

We’ve only got a narrow margin for error here, guys. We need to tell people to aim for the narrow safe gate. It’s the only safe way through for everyone! The stakes are high here.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

 

They don’t allow the chaos of war to make them doubt the relevance of the truth for their audience.

As soon as Schofield and Blake leave the General’s bunker, they are faced with distractions. The film beautifully captures the chaos and horror of war. I use the word beautiful not to describe what it shows, but how it does it which looks and sounds exquisite to me. War is seen as moments of boredom punctuated with periods of utter terror, hope and despair. Periods where progress is made, and times when the pain is so raw that all one can do is weep.

But the machine of war is complex. All these different teams working hard on their assigned duties. Chains of command and reporting structures between people. Yet these two young guys are commanded to cut across all of it. They are told to ignore the machine of war and get to one person who is making the bad strategic decision. Because they accept that whatever is going on, their message is RELEVANT for the survival of many people. And this means they have to do two things.

First – ignore much of the activity around them. The voices that tell them to go a different way or even stay behind and do something else. No – as much as they do work to help other people, and do what they can, they cannot stop. They have a singular mission and they must achieve it or the results will be catastrophic.

Second – they must confidently engage the right people with the right questions. They need to ask the right questions to succeed on their mission. And they’ve got to be selective about who they speak to.

There is so much churn in life around about us today. We have jobs, mortgages, and the planet is in uproar about climate change, political upheavals and the impact of terrorism. It all matters. And yet – there’s a particular truthful message that has got to get through about Jesus. The narrow way. He is the only one that will ultimately get us through. So – we’ve got to avoid letting the complexity of life confuse or distract us. Maybe there is one person who really needs to hear this vital news in our life. Today. Yes we’ve got to be sensitive to the current needs of people in our lives, and we have tasks to perform now. But the ultimately important message about Jesus has to get through to that particular person. It just has. And maybe we are involved in getting the message to them.

 

They don’t allow the confusion of the people around about to cause them to lose a grasp on the truth for themselves.

One of the characters in this story has real skin in the game. His brother is bound to die unless this message gets through. So this message has relevance. Not just for people … but for family. And there are moments in their journey that could rightfully cause them to stop and to give up. To go back the way they came and stop carrying the message. But – they don’t stop. They keep going. Because this truth isn’t just about saving others. It is vital for their own lives and futures too.

Christianity is similar. Being a follower of Jesus is about being the carrier of vital news. Whatever happens around us – this remains true. However much life has tried to blow the stuffing out of us, we remain carriers of the good news. It is in us. God himself lives within us. And so yes, we may need to rest and heal, but then afterwards we must continue our mission. It is of utmost importance that we do this.

 

They keep going even though they feel inadequate to the task.

The whole point of this mission is that it is a launch out into the unknown. No one would feel adequate in these circumstances.

Jesus Christ commissioned his friends in a similar way to the General commissioning Schofield and Blake.

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this …” (Matthew 28:18-20, The Msg)

No one would feel adequate for this task. But Jesus is better than a military General ever could be. Because he joins us on our perilous journey.

Jesus isn’t just a great teacher trying to add useful helpful ideas that people can benefit from. He has a lifesaving message that needs to get thru.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (John 3:16-18, The Msg)

The “Faith” of Dracula

In their new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have said they continued to respect the Christian themes that run through the original novel. The Count still cringes at the sight of the cross, and the church is central.  By the way – if you are thinking of watching the new Dracula series – be warned that it is not for the feint hearted. There are some very gruesome scenes in there.

I am a fan of Gatiss and Moffat. But I must say, while I agree that they have included Christian characters and situations, I don’t think they really understand what Christianity is. They may claim they are building on Christian history in this story. I’m skeptical. Tho I agree they absolutely are building on the tradition of horror cinema from the past 40 years.

One of their most interesting characters is Sister Agatha, played by Dolly Wells. She appears to be a snarky and disillusioned Catholic Nun with an analytic mind. I enjoyed the way she worked to outwit the infamous Count. The story, particularly in the first episode, is masterfully crafted by Moffat and Gatiss. BUT- I was bemused by their understanding of the word “faith.”

At one point in the first episode, Sister Agatha rolls her eyes at the seeming naivety of the other sisters in her religious order. “Have faith,” they encouraged her. Agatha’s reply is piercing.

“Faith is a sleeping draft for children and simpletons. What we must have is a plan.”

The phrase “sleeping draught” comes from Stoker’s original novel, and I think it refers to the shot of whisky or strong spirit that people may take to help them fall sleep at night. What Agatha is saying is that faith is dangerous because it lulls us to sleep. Faith causes us to lose our creative edge, and that is dangerous for intelligent people who are true problem solvers. If we are wise, we will avoid religious faith.

I would suggest that this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Christian faith. While it’s dramatically powerful to show Sister Agatha as a disillusioned Nun, to hear her confusion about Christianity is – well – rather odd. It’s the current post-Christian cultural confusion about the roots of Western society … placed into a devout character in a historical setting. That’s weird and anachronistic to me.

 

What’s Faith?

Well – it’s not a complicated or even a particularly religious idea. Faith simply means – confidence, trust and reliance.

 

What’s the Misunderstanding Today?

The problem is, our culture has swallowed the idea that there is a disconnect between faith and evidence and reason. In fact, people today (including the writers of Dracula) think faith is the OPPOSITE of reason. We get that from Sister Agatha. When we learn about something, the need for faith vanishes. But more than that, our culture dismisses Christianity because it they don’t think it contains anything knowable…the need of faith betrays the pointlessness of religion. “One needs faith in religious or moral claims because there is no knowledge that these claims are true, no evidence either way for them.”[1] If that’s the sort of religion that Sister Agatha is embroiled in, then no wonder she is disillusioned and wants to run from it. It’s pointless and, in the face of a cunning enemy, highly dangerous. But you need to know – this is not – and never has been – what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite. If “faith” is really about confidence, trust and reliance then in those terms, knowledge is absolutely crucial. Why? Because we cannot trust something or someone we do not know anything about. Knowledge is essential in the building of that trust! Do you see the misunderstanding about faith in the words of Sister Agatha?

 

Replying to Sister Agatha

Is faith about being simple, and not knowing?

Not at all. Faith is about knowledge. The Greek word “notitia” refers to the CONTENT of faith. This is learning about how to develop a Christian understanding of the world, and what the Bible teaches. I’ve spent many years on this task, and there is so MUCH to know and contend for. In fact, it inspired this blog. The Jude in the New Testament wrote:

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]

Clearly there is much to KNOW and apply in life. And more than that, we must proactively stand up for this in culture around us.

Is faith about turning off our rational faculties?

In my experience, the opposite is involved when growing in faith. Why? Partly because of “notitia,” the knowing element. But it is also because of a second element.

Faith is about agreement, or “assensus.” Personal agreement to live this way. This means that its not enough to rationally grasp and know the contents of Christianity. We also have to ACCEPT this teaching as true.

There may be very good reasons why we may not want to do that. Maybe the teaching is hard! Why? Because it challenges some deeply held patterns of behaviour in my life that are wrong, but I do not want to give up. I know its right to change. I just don’t want to. Or, maybe my prior experience has left me struggling to accept what Christianity says. If I grew up in an abusive home environment, accepting God as father may be really hard for me!

Is faith is about becoming passive and not acting?

Again – absolutely not. The Greek word “fiducia” is used to describe this in faith terms. We have to wilfully choose to commit to, and partner with God in every aspect of our lives. Christianity isn’t a set of abstract terms. Its actually an engagement with a God who we can know. And its about actually having a life that reflects what Christianity is.

 

So – does faith involve an absence of rationality, engagement and action? Absolutely not – it requires the most from us in all three areas!

 

How would I reply to Sister Agatha? “We don’t need faith … we need a plan,” she said. Can you see now that a proper understanding of faith involves gathering all the resources for approaching life and its challenges? (I’m assuming this also applies to the undead but I’ve not tried it) And even more than that, it is about facing these challenges together with God, not on our own.

 

“To trust Him is not a leap in the dark, but it is a venture none the less. It is a venture of courage and not of despair, of insight and not of bewilderment.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth

 

[1] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2008), 18.

[2] Jude 3.

 

It is the Most Spiritual of All The Trek Movies

A vast cloud has been detected in outer space, and it’s heading toward Earth. Every being who has crossed its path has been lost. Admiral James Tiberius Kirk sees in this crisis an opportunity to escape a tedious desk job, and get back to his first love. Hopping galaxies in the star ship he used to call home.

So begins Star Trek the Motion Picture (TMP), which is – to my mind – the most spiritually aware of all the classic Trek movies. It’s also probably the most “Star Trek” of those films, because it touches on themes that affect us all. No, it doesn’t have “God” in it, or the famous line “What does God need with a star ship?” That’s left to the inferior Star Trek V. But the spiritual themes are more mature and deeply embedded in this first one.

During the torturous pre-production period for TMP, the Paramount Studio executives reportedly urged Gene Rodenberry to elevate the story to religious sorts of levels. They didn’t want a swash buckling Star Trek on the big screen. They wanted 2001 a Space Odyssey, a thoughtful and inspiring tale.[1] Right or wrong, I think that’s kind of what they produced.

It is forty years since TMP was released. I vividly remember going to see it in Glasgow during Christmas 1979. Of being amazed by how incredible it looked, but confused by the different feel to the TV Show I loved. Yet even as a youngster, I sensed the weighty themes at play in this movie.

So – what spiritual themes are found here? Someone might say – “It was just slow. It dragged. It was boring. Just like church is.” Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking of.

The Need to Know Who We Came From

It turns out that the cloud threat, V’Ger, is heading to Earth. But not to destroy it. Rather, V’Ger is travelling vast distances to meet with and to eventually join with its creator. Spoiler alert – V’Ger is actually NASA’s Voyager 6 probe, repurposed by a distant and advanced civilisation that made it sentient and sent it home again.

There’s a sense in which mankind’s religions have a similar aim. It is the attempt of the individual to somehow reach and to understand the greater reality, the one who is responsible for us being here in the first place or some state of ultimate spiritual fulfilment. So many people want to somehow relating to this bigger reality that has to do with where they came from. In the TV cut of TMP, Commander Decker actually says that V’Ger has done what people do, it has make God in their own image.[2]

The Need to Become, So That We Can Know

As the star ship Enterprise intercepts the cloud, V’Ger has to take the form of a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in order to engage and interact with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest. They lose their bridge officer, Lieutenant Ilia, only for her to return again in a slightly different form. While taking a shower. Go figure!

By using Ilea, V’Ger trying to understand and engage with the crew of the Enterprise, to learn everything it can, becoming like them so that it can know and understand more. V’Ger has to change itself, and take on something knew so it can know more.

The Need to Live a Significant Life

Admiral Kirk has been on his own quest, to recover past glories, and get back to his hearts deepest desires. Being Captain of a star ship. Yet in doing so, he finds that the Enterprise has changed. She’s not the same vessel she used to be.

Kirk has a need for fulfilment in life, of feeling that he is able to contribute in a significant way. Surely this is a longing within each of us? And it has similarities to the longings within V’Ger. Is this all I am? Is there nothing more? Kirk intuitively knows what he’s good at, and he wants to reclaim this position at all costs. Even if he must sacrifice other people to achieve it. Perhaps he realises that life is short, and in the end you need to spend the years you’ve got doing what you love, and doing something that makes a difference somehow?

The Journey to the Next Level of Life

Probably my favourite character arc is that of Spock. Kirk’s friend has been on a quest of his own for 10 years since we last saw him. His aim has been to finally purge all emotion from his life thru Kolinahr. And yet tragically Spock has failed in this quest. In an attempt to understand why, he realises that he must discover just what V’Ger is and what it’s aims are. And he uses the Enterprise and her crew to do that. But are his aims noble? Or … like Kirk may be doing … would he put his needs above those of others on the ship? It’s a fascinating tension there in the second act of the story.

Spock’s overall journey is one of abject failure which results in a reconnection with the people who had previously been his adopted family on board the star ship Enterprise. Spock finds what he needs in his interactions with V’Ger, and experiences a break thru from the failures and disappointments of the past into a new place of purpose and significance and belonging in his own life.

What about Bones? Sadly – he’s just along for the ride in this picture! What a shame.

The Need to Know and Be Known

V’Ger, has been travelling the universe learning all that can be known. Who cannot relate to the sense that there is so much that we do not know? But we have the urge to learn more. And what about so many big questions? Who am I and what is my purpose in life? I long to understand. Yet there is more. More than knowing answers, is actually being known by another. Personal intimacy is more important and vital than all the learning one can do, particularly with the one who originally created us.

 

The Themes

It turns out, Star Trek the Motion Picture is a story about knowing:

  • Knowing that you have managed to make contact with the person who created you
  • Changing to become like someone else so you can know what they are like.
  • Knowing what you want, and doing everything you can to get it.
  • Knowing that you have failed, and needing to find out whether you can move to the next stage of your life or not.
  • Coming to the realisation that knowing everything that can be known is not enough. The more important thing – is being known by the one that made you.

 

Christianity

It is fascinating for me then that, while TMP reflects human spirituality in its thematic structure, it is a very human form of religion we find there. Yet Christianity turns the tables on this very human search for meaning and knowledge. We might not realise it, but Christianity shows that it is not possible for the creature to restlessly reach for the greater thing. In the end it’s not mankind’s role to be like V’Ger, and seek to join with its creator. Actually it is the opposite. God comes looking for us instead.

Are Christians making God in our image here? Well, who would have imagined that the transcendent creator would stoop so low as to come in search of little me. It’s an absurd suggestion, it’s wonderful, it’s Christianity.

God wants to be known by me, and is willing to find us to let that happen. We are the people who have gotten lost and are in deep need of being rescued. God’s the one looking for us, not the other way around. He has the resources to become like us to find us, and to help us know what our purpose is in life. He can help us connect with him, to achieve what V’Ger, Kirk and Spock were all trying to get to. A life of true meaning, being known and loved for ever.

 

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:23, NIV

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10, NIV

Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

[1] They were also confused about whether they wanted a movie or a new TV series. Eventually, Star Trek Phase II was dropped in favour of a new movie in the wake of the success of Star Wars at the box office.

[2] “In Thy Image” is actually a title for a proposed episode for a new Star Trek series which never happened, and instead was used as an inspiration for TMP.

Machines, Personhood and Sarah Connor

Contains mild spoilers.

The latest Terminator movie has stumbled at the box office. I feel that’s unfortunate because this was a genuinely fresh and interesting take on a well established story. What interested me was the philosophical article I read about it in the Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter suggests that, perhaps people just don’t see AI as the enemy any more? Rather, we see machines in more positive terms, convinced by the idea of a future personhood owned by machines. Yet Dark Fate tries to observe the psychological difference between man and machine. “Humans are uniquely alive compared to artificially intelligent beings because we are fated to death and decay in ways machines are not.”[1] There is a character called Grace who is part human and part machine, yet she is psychologically on the human side of the conflict. In comparison, the antagonist is a highly dangerous Rev-9 model Terminator which mimics humanity simply to make it a more efficient killing machine. This is a familiar story beat. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in this movie has tried to emulate humanity for more positive and life giving reasons. Yet both of these machine Terminators are simply machines, unable to achieve personhood. Arnie’s Terminator “appreciates humanity and strives toward personhood, but can’t fully achieve it.”[2] So in this movie we see the full spread – human, part human and machine. The inhumanity and non-personhood is always located on the machine side. Perhaps people don’t resonate with this idea so much anymore? Perhaps “the generation raised on Wall-E is entering adulthood just as regarding robots as people becomes the onscreen norm.”[3]

If you think about it, Western society is increasingly of the opinion that people are simply biological mechanisms. There’s no soul, no spirit, just physical. We live, we break down and we die. And death is that cessation of functionality that no one in Western society likes thinking or talking about. Given that understanding of humanity, it makes sense that robots would be seen closer to us than ever before. Why do we have to portray conscious robots as the enemy, when it makes more sense to imagine that they would be our friends?

It’s a fascinating observation and – the Reporter might have a great point. But because society gathers around the idea of future, conscious AI, does not make that idea either credible or likely. Fictional stories are important, we learn a lot about ourselves and our personal development through myth and fairy-tale. Fictional stories can also lead to breakthrus in science. But sometimes the fictional idea is just going to remain a fictional idea. I think conscious, thinking and creative AI is one of those fun yet solid fictions. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of Terminator Dark Fate, but I’m increasingly convinced that genuinely conscious, thinking machines are impossible.

Why?

 

1 – We project our capacity for conscious thinking onto today’s AI.

It’s a way we use language and it would be misleading to someone who knows nothing about computers. AI is a cool gadget that makes my life better (self-driving car). Yet our AI of today is purely functional, following an algorithm and incapable of thinking about whether or not it wants to. It is a mechanism designed to emulate a human (hello Siri).

 

2 – We are always going to be superior to AI.

Machines may be faster and stronger than us, but we have ontological superiority. We are the ones designing and thinking here. When machines do cool things, they don’t get the praise. We do. The designers. We may not even have a metaphysical property that allows us to create thinking, creative  machines that can reproduce themselves.

 

3 – We are conscious, but we do not understand what that means.

A genuinely thinking machine would have to be conscious. But no one is doing the work to understand consciousness from a third person perspective. Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

We need to understand consciousness to replicate it. But – I’m not sure we’re built to understand consciousness. Just to experience it and use it to understand other things.

 

4 – Humans are of a Different Order than Machines.

Yes, we have a physical make up and the closer we look at it, the intricacy of biological mechanism is seen. But – we are of a different order to machines. Likening machines to humans is, in a real sense, comparing apples and oranges.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

 

Final Thoughts

Yes, we are going to get better at making machines mimic human behaviour. But – I don’t think we will ever see a genuinely conscious machine. Terminator Dark Fate understands the ontological differences between us. And I think there is an important reason for doing that. Realising that we are more than biological machines is important for the future of humanity. It is a life giving perspective. As Arnie once said – “Come with me if you want to live.”

[1] Clara Wardlow, One Reason ‘Terminator Dark Fate’ Didn’t Connect With Sci-Fi Audiences, Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20th November 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-terminator-dark-fate-didnt-connect-audiences-1252112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

Rise of the Machines?

This summer, I had lunch with Doctor Mihretu Guta at Biola University. Mihretu specialises in the areas of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. That particular day over lunch, he was speaking to us about his assessment of the field of artificial intelligence. And he has some fascinating observations to make here. You can listen to Mihretu talk about AI on Sean McDowell’s recent podcast.[1]

I would summarise his important points like this:

 

First – today we enjoy the benefits of weak AI.

We’ve got very useful computer based tools available to us today. Our phones incorporate facial recognition technology, self-driving cars are coming on line, we use SIRI to help us talk to and locate people, and we can order products from Amazon that get to us incredibly quickly. These are partly to do with computer tools, or weak AI.

What is weak AI? It is a machine which is fed an algorithm, a set of instructions that we gave it. It follows those instructions correctly, quickly and hopefully reliably!

By convention, we call these things AI. But these technologies are not thinking machines. They are not engaging in conscious thought. They are simply doing what we told them to do, and triggering on certain events to achieve certain tasks.

 

Second – strong AI is what some people are trying to get to.

In strong AI, people are talking about a conscious machine. Something that becomes creative and begins to spawn its own machines. But it is hard to see how you can get from a machine following an algorithm to a machine creating brand new algorithms out of its own creativity.

 

Third – we sometimes speak of weak AI like it is strong AI.

A confusion occurs in culture.

The AI we are talking about today is purely functional. It is doing tasks within a very specific context. It is not a thinking, creative machine that decides what it wants to do and works out its own way to do it. But – we begin to talk like it is. We import ideas from books and movies we like, and sometimes we fool ourselves that our cool gadgets are strong AI.

We may talk of strong AI, but there are issues to face when trying to create it:

1 – We are the thinking beings here, and we are the ones inventing machines. Thinking always requires a thinker to be somewhere. We therefore have ONTOLOGICIAL SUPERIORITY over machines. We are always the ones that built them.

2 – However clever our machines appear to be, they cannot take away from us our ontological superiority over them.

3 – Miharetu does not think people have a metaphysical property as rational beings to bring about a conscious being that is similar in kind to us.

4 – Miharetu is joined in this scepticism toward strong AI by John Searle, who is a naturalistic philosopher of mind. Searle also rejects the notion that we can invent a strong AI.

 

Fourth – an important step to strong AI is an understanding of consciousness.

We have to understand what consciousness is before we can create machines that are conscious. Yet no one is even thinking about this. He observes that the AI researchers today usually dismiss the subject of consciousness in 3 lines. They haven’t even tried to grapple with this area.

Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

Machines aren’t conscious. We cannot even articulate what our consciousness is, never mind imbue some machine with it.

 

Five – we are simply of a different order from our machines.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

[1] Artificial Intelligence and Our View of Human Persons, Think Biblically Podcast, accessed 19th November 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/artificial-intelligence-our-view-human-persons-mihretu/id1300837524?i=1000453915653.

 

Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

Challenging Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracies do happen. Lots of people think they are common. 71% of Americans think the government are hiding the truth about UFO’s, 9/11 was an inside job, and the Apollo moon landings (or at least the first one) was a hoax. But how likely are these conspiracy theories? And what logical tools can we use to explore them?

First – here’s a real conspiracy. On June 17th 1972, burglars were arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. They were discovered to be part of a small group connected to President Nixon’s re-election campaign, seeking to wiretap phones and steal documents.[1] Conspiracies are about small groups of people attempting something immoral. Watergate failed because the group was exposed.

So – what about UFOs and the Apollo moon landings?

Ken Samples points to five questions we can ask of these claims to test the logical basis of the conspiracy claim.[2] These logical tools reveal the majority of conspiracy theories to be false.

1 – Does the theory hold together?

Does it have a solid foundation or is it contradictory? For example, think about the claim that aliens are visiting the planet. Given the vast distances that would have to be travelled, and the physical laws that would have to be overturned in order to achieve this, the theory starts to look contradictory. The facts required for the UFO government conspiracy don’t hold together.

 

2 – Does the theory comport with the facts?

Good theories don’t only fit with all the facts, they also tie them all together. The Watergate burglars were where they should not be, with wire tapping equipment, and one of them had the telephone number of Nixon’s government office. These are simply facts. But the theory that they are conspiring to steal information they should not lawfully have – ties these facts together.

A bad theory will reject some of the facts because they are inconvenient to the theory. For example, people who try to claim that the Jewish Holocaust did not happen during WW2 have to reject the data available from Jewish, Axis and Allied sources. They may mount a theory, but they will have to hide certain facts that the theory does not comport with.

 

3 – Does the theory avoid unwarranted assumptions?

Often when you start to investigate a bad theory, people make unwarranted claims to make the theory stand. For example, consider the claim that the Apollo moon landing was faked. The documented evidence shows that 400, 000 people were employed on Apollo and over 20,000 industrial firms and Universities were active in the enterprise. It was a massive undertaking in financial terms and man hours. It was also massive in the sheer number of people that had to be involved to make it happen.

If we are to claim that the astronauts did not reach the moon, then we have to make the assumption that all these people, or at least a significant proportion of them, were willing to keep this secret. But not just that, but they were all able to KEEP this secret in the face of jubilation around the world, and fifty years of celebrations. This starts to sound like an unwarranted assumption. After all, it would only take one person to crack … and the game would be up! Yet in fifty years, there has been no whisper of falsification by those actually involved. Just by people with a conspiracy axe to grind.

 

4 – How well does the theory handle counter evidence?

When counter evidence comes to light, how well does the conspiracy theory deal with this? For example, on the moon landing, how does the hoax theory cope with counter evidence like:

  • the photographic evidence from American and Chinese satellites showing the Apollo equipment remaining on the landing sites.
  • the bouncing of lasers off of instrumentation on the moon.
  • moon rocks.

 

5 – Is the theory open to falsification? If so, how?

Can a theory be proven false under certain circumstances? Or is it simply impossible to falsify it? Conspiracy theories tend NOT to be open to falsification. There is always another unwarranted assumption that stops the process of falsification.

However – a good theory IS open to falsification. This is one of the reasons that a good theory has rational weight. For example, if there was no connection between the Nixon government and the Watergate burglars, the conspiracy theory could have been quickly falsified.

 

 

Conclusion

It’s fun to kick conspiracy theories around. But when we put them through these logical filters – most of them drop out as false.

So – the next question is – what happens when we expose the theory that Jesus rose from the dead – to these logical tools? Well – the theory comes out to be a sound one. I’ll talk about that next.

[1] Watergate Scandal, History, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/1970s/watergate.

[2] Logically Questioning Strange Ideas and Controversial Theories, Reasons to Believe, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2017/07/11/logically-questioning-strange-ideas-and-controversial-theories.

Doing the Right Thing

Jack Malik wakes up, and he doesn’t realise it yet, but the Beatles never existed as a band and never changed the world with their music. If you’ve not seen the movie Yesterday … I’m going to spoil part of the plot for you below. If I were you…I’d watch the movie before reading this.

 

Still here?

 

Ok.

 

I was really struck by the undercurrents in this movie. Part of the genius is … they don’t state it explicitly till later on, you just see it developing on Jack’s face as he decides to bring Beatles music he recalls, to a world that has never heard it. Jack spends much of the movie with an expression of panic on his face. He’s viewed as a musical genius, able to cook up a world changing song in 10 minutes. Of course, he’s doing nothing of the sort. He’s just remembering music composed by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison many years ago and reproducing it. No-one else knows that.

 

Or – almost no-one knows that.

 

Suddenly we discover that two other people in the world – like Jack – remember who the Beatles were! Jack’s NOT alone in his memory of them after all. And these people watch as Jack is propelled to super stardom. The inevitable consequences loom. And finally – these individuals confront Jack – and tell him that they know what he is doing. That he’s not the original composer. Jack’s face says it all – “I’m a fraud, I’ve been found out, I’m finished.”

 

But what happens next is truly special. They basically say to him, “Jack. Thank you. We aren’t musicians. We can’t sing. But we love those old songs. The world is a better place with these songs in it. And you are making this happen. Your secret is safe with us, and we are just thankful that you have the courage to do this.”

Rather than judgement – Jack receives appreciation and thanks.

 

Here’s what hits me about this. Before the conversation with these people, Jack faced a moral crisis. Should I come clean and tell the truth? That I didn’t write these songs? After his conversation with his new friends, he realises what service he is providing to the world, and to those folks who know who the Beatles were. He has every reason to feel justified in keeping quiet about the source of these songs and carrying on regardless.

But he can’t.

Even though he has every reason to carry on his present course…and be the star, he decides not to. Not because he can’t face stardom (tho it has its downsides). Its also because – he realises he has to tell the truth. He cannot lie about what he is doing any more.

C S Lewis said, when someone makes a moral judgement (like Jack saying to himself ‘I ought to tell the truth’), “they think they are saying something … true, about the nature of the proposed action … not merely about their own feelings.”[1] There is something objectively real about the urge pressing on us to act truthfully. And when we act untruthfully, we find ourselves justifying our behaviour to ourselves…as Jack does. But if we don’t believe that decent behaviour is objectively right and we ought to follow this Moral Law, “why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[2]

 

If there is no one who we are ultimately responsible to, why are we built with this moral core, this need to behave morally? Social programming and evolutionary development of society only gets you so far. We don’t feel beholden to abstract principles. No … we are guilty before a person. Jack is caught in the headlights like a frightened rabbit. Why? What is that about?

 

“Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”[3] Matter and objects cannot make us guilty, it takes a person to achieve that. A young child drawing on the kitchen wall will not receive punishment from the kitchen table. But when his mother sees what’s he’s done, then he’d better watch out!

 

Surely … our moral obligation points to One who we are ultimately accountable to … a person before whom we are ultimately guilty. A God who is willing and able to communicate, and very interested in right conduct and fair play.[4] It’s before his gaze that I am ultimately guilty.

 

And yet … however real my guilt, a surprise awaits for anyone who faces him. Like’s Jack’s experience in the movie, the outcome is not what we expect. We don’t need to receive judgement. Instead, we can receive acceptance, love and affirmation in spite of it all.

[1] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1977), 36.

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 2009), 8.

[3] Lewis, Mere, 23.

[4] Lewis, Mere, 30.

Cleo – a Hero for Our Times

roma

Alfonso Cauron’s latest movie has received a limited theatrical release, which sounds like a tragedy given the quality of his past output. Yet it has also been streaming on Netflix since December, so it’s available pretty much everywhere. Cauron is telling a fictional story through a period of history he himself knows. He grew up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and he chooses to set his story here in painstaking historical detail. His vivid  backdrop is a period of great Mexican societal unrest following government atrocities of the 1960s and early 70s.

The themes of racism and inequality bubble beneath the surface of this story. Cleo is from an indigenous family who comes to the city to work as a maid for a wealthy white family. As her story unfolds we see that, even though she serves this family, she is the same as them. Even though she is financially poor, the problems in her life mirror those in their wealthy life.

As you let Roma wash over you…I think the movie is saying that life in all its vividness and grounded-ness is a real leveller. Everyone goes through similar experiences. Loss and suffering is no respecter of persons. We all hit it at some point. Including the experience of regret, of guilt.

A lot has been written about Cauron’s technical prowess that’s visible in Roma. But what struck me (I’m not a filmmaker) was the honesty displayed in his movie. He is taking a long hard look at human nature in all of its depth, and unflinchingly showing it on the screen. From the selfishness of Cleo’s partner to the selflessness of Cleo herself, I was left feeling that I’d really experienced life as the credits finally rolled. Cauron had almost given me the unique experience of actually living someone else’s life…and feeling what she felt and learning what she learned. What a gift!!

There is something about Cleo’s character that draws you. I think it might show some important aspects of humanity…of living as we are supposed to live. Imperfect yes…but yet it comes through her life and choices. Thru Cleo’s eyes, we are a person of humility, who values those around us and persists in thinking the best of them…even when they mistreat us. Of doggedly carrying on, even when the odds are stacked against us and we’ve got many reasons to give up and try something else. And – even though society around her is collapsing into violence – Cleo continues prioritising the important people in her life. She isn’t distracted from knowing what the right thing is…and continuing to do it.

I think the feel and the smell of Roma stays with you afterwards…because in many ways we’re struck by Cleo as an inspiring role model…a hero for our troubled times. She isn’t presented with all the flash and pizzazz served up by the next Marvel superhero film. She’s not Captain America. But – in a sense – she’s a real hero. The person we would want to be if we faced those sorts of troubles.

The thing is…we are facing these sorts of troubles today. Culture is under attack right now. In Britain…Brexit is threatening to drag us down into a whirlpool of dread and uncertainty. And across the pond…the horror of US Government shutdown and the resulting economic deprivation…all for the sake of a questionable (un) Presidential project…leaves you wondering whether anyone really cares selflessly about anyone anymore? It leaves you feeling like everyone is just on a short fuse…ready and willing to explode in exasperated outrage any minute.

Our world needs people who nevertheless… prioritise the feelings and needs of others. Even though they are in the minority as they do so.

In Roma, this is what Cleo is doing. I think she consciously or unconsciously tries to live out the call of Jesus Christ to “do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.”[1] We see it in her patience with her abusers, and her loyalty to her suffering family.  There’s a clear attractiveness to living life this way. It’s a principle and philosophy which underpins God’s idea of what positive and healthy relationships could be like. Cleo shows us that…living this is not a soft option. Its not easy to live this way in the midst of a society that is embattled, angry and just doesn’t value you that way.

And yet…the results of persisting in living this way are so valuable. It results in a life of belonging, of family, and of facing the future together with those who love you. If our society is going to survive…it will do so in this way. So…we need to start living this way. Doing the right thing anyway, even though so many don’t. Live like Cleo, do to others as you’d like them to do to you.

 

[1] Matthew 7:12, NLT.