RESPONDblogs: Human Beings are Unique

tumblr_op881cMaBN1sfie3io1_1280

What are we?

 

I listened to an interesting talk recently from Simon Conway Morris, who is Chair of Evolutionary Paleo biology at the Dept. of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University.

 

He asks the question – are we essentially just more “evolved” animals that belong on Darwin’s incremental tree of life? Or is there something unique about people compared to the animals? However much time has elapsed, perhaps we aren’t just naturally selected incremental improvement? Rather – we are something different altogether.

 

Evolutionary theory has drummed into us that we are essentially no different from other animal species. We’re related to other hominids. We are just matter – we are physical – we are all related. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this idea.

 

Or are we? As Morris says, “Maybe it’s not as simple as that.”[1]

 

 

First – we often misunderstand the animals we invest our lives in.

Morris thinks we have a habit of reading ourselves into the animals we relate to. Our relationship with dogs is a perfect example of this, he says. We humanize them…and they are happy to play along with our delusion. But crucially – as Morris points out – the evidence suggests that dogs have no idea what is going on inside our minds. They react to stimuli – they learn what actions and objects mean and sound like. Nothing more.

 

Dogs live happy and fulfilled lives as our pets. But we are of a different order to them.

 

We are not the only intelligent species on the planet – but it seems that our consciousness is of a completely different order to anything else. We live in an extended universe – the animals are confined to a monotonic universe. And they are happy that it is so.

 

What experimental evidence does Morris appeal to in making this claim?

 

Second – Morris offers the following evidence:

 

1 – Humans Uniquely Understand Cause and Effect

There’s evidence that crows are very intelligent. An experiment has been done where the bird has to perform a task – drop stones into a container – in order to raise the water level so it can have a drink. The fascinating thing is – often the crow will work this out. It will find and deposit the stones to raise the water level.

It is tempting to assume then – that it understands cause and effect, that it gets the implication of what it’s doing. Unfortunately – when the conditions of the experiment change – it becomes clear that the crow doesn’t understand this.

Yes, it has memory, yes its intelligent. But no, it’s not building up an understanding of nature. It can do one thing well – and that involves survival.

 

2 – Humans Live in an Out of the Box Culture

We can think in terms of “analogy”; we are meta-thinkers that can work outside of the box. We explore seemingly unrelated ideas and come up with ingenious solutions to problems.

A simple example of this is – humans use tools. We employ them in many tasks, and the evidence suggests we have done this for a long time. Chimpanzees also use tools.

Yet we go beyond them; we live outside the box. We are the only species we know today that creates tools to build tools. What’s more, we rely on the discoveries and processes laid down by previous tool builders as we do so. Human culture is cumulative, it builds on itself.

Animals like chimpanzees don’t exhibit this behaviour at all. They use tools, they have a culture. But they don’t appear to KNOW they have a culture, and they don’t build tools to make tools.

Morris opines, “This sounds like a trivial difference. But it might be larger than we realize.”[2]

 

3 – Human Culture Features Teaching and Learning

Humans have a sophisticated approach to teaching. We have a self-referential pedagogical approach – the teacher observes the pupil and knows where their mind is currently at. Through observation, the teacher works to move the student forward to where they need to be. We intuitively sense the student’s mind.

Do animals? Morris refers to various species of Ant, Meercat and chimp. And the scientific observation to date suggests that which the animals instinctively develop habits and abilities, they do so in a simple way. Animals don’t go to University like humans do. We are of a different order.

Do animals have false beliefs about the world? Do they have a theory of mind? Current understanding says no, it doesn’t look like it.

 

4 – Human Language is Very Peculiar Indeed

Morris refers to Vervet Monkeys who have been observed to make sounds that seem to relate to other animals in their habitat like a leopard, a snake and an eagle. This sounds like it could be a proto-language, like the foundations of our own language capabilities?

Well, clearly, we have words that also refer to objects and concepts. This blog post is full of them! But our language isn’t just a more evolved version of the Vervet Monkey’s sound. Why?

Morris points to two peculiar aspects of human language:

  • We can say things that go beyond a single meaning. Our communication can have an infinite number of meanings, depending on the context it is used in.
  • We have a bottomless depth of rich imagination in human discussion. We easily move between factual and fictional statements. And we have the ability to create fictional worlds – completely unrelated to our own – where the reader can enter through their imagination. And the fictional world resonates deeply with them.

 

5 – Humans Apply Mathematics in a Unique Way

Experiments suggest that Guppy fish exhibit numericity. They are able to judge relative numbers in terms of distance and size.

For example, if some were to say – “Imagine you have a stone and a feather. How much do I have to add or remove from each to perceive a difference in their weights?” It turns out that I have to add or remove quite a lot from the stone, but not very much at all to the feather to notice a weight change. This is numericity…and Guppy fish can do something similar to this.

Is this proto-maths? Well, it’s called a psycho-physical sensory effect by the scientists. But to suggest it is proto-maths is nonsense to Morris.

Mathematics is a rich conceptual language that bridges the abstract and the physical. Maths:

  • involves abstract entities that don’t exist; numbers, complex numbers.
  • requires that we can do sums like addition and subtraction. Animals can’t seem to do that.

 

 

Conclusion

Are we just advanced chimpanzees? Morris suggests this well-worn message fails to recognize the uniqueness of human beings. It underplays our conscious, thinking abilities that came up with that inadequate theory in the first place.

Humans are of a different order to animals. We have “dominion over the natural world” and uniquely exhibit the characteristics of our Creator.[3] This is not just the Bible’s opinion, it is born out in our relation to those animals we were supposed to care for.

But aren’t we just physical beings like the animals? Is brain simply a biological computing engine? Morris thinks otherwise. He’s a substance dualist. Mind and brain are different aspects of human existence.

The physical human brain seems to be more than a biological information processing organ. It’s a filter. Our intangible, human mind exists independently of our physical bodies. Our brain is part of the mechanism we use for intercepting, exploring and harnessing what goes on in our minds.

People aren’t just more advanced than the animals. We’re built specially; we’re of a different order altogether.

 

Image courtesy of New Old Stock.

[1] Simon Conway Morris, The Emergence of Life, James Gregory Lectures on Science and Christianity, https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/james-gregory-lectures-on-science-and-christianity/id917410241?mt=2&i=1000382210716.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:26 – 27.

 

RESPONDblog: The Cumulative Case…or God’s Crime Scene!

Gods-Crime-Scene-Review_feature

I recently met up with two friends who would (probably) describe themselves as committed sceptics when it comes to Christianity. We’ve spoken about these things many times. Yet they never feel able to come close to joining me in my Christian convictions.

 

At one point that day, they reminded me, “We are not saying there is no God. What we are saying is – there isn’t enough evidence to decide about God either way. We simply cannot say.”

 

I’ve heard this perspective before. And I suspect it’s a strategy that’s used to push the responsibility for wrestling with ultimate questions of life away from us and onto God (if he’s even there!). It’s a way of divulging myself of that responsibility. If God wanted me to believe in him, he would be able to convince me that he’s there. He hasn’t. So, I’m justified in dismissing the subject altogether.

In other words – it’s God’s problem, not mine.

 

This bothers me. Not because I think this line of reasoning is correct, but because I’m concerned that this way of thinking just avoids the obvious. I’m referring to the strong cumulative case for God.

 

Jim Wallace lays this case out clearly in his book, “God’s Crime Scene”. He proposes that the universe and all its wonders has a cause found either inside or outside of the universe. If the cause is inside, there’s some natural explanation for it all. If it’s an outside cause – it’s God.

When Jim (a cold-case detective) looks for evidence that a murder has been committed, he examines the crime scene where the body is found. If there is any evidence of outside activity or objects which have been imported into the room (a foreign footprint or evidence that a gun was positioned to give the appearance of a suicide) then it is reasonable to posit there has been an influence from outside the room, and so a murder case needs to be solved.

Turning this reasoning to the bigger crime scene of the universe, Jim observes eight evidences “inside the room” that point to an outside influence:

 

Our universe had a beginning

“The universe could not have caused itself, since something would have to exist to cause its own existence.”[1]

Our universe appears fine-tuned for life

It’s fine-tuned in the following ways:

Forces governing the atom

Forces governing the matter in the universe

Forces governing the creation of chemicals

Shape, Position and Size of the Milky Way Galaxy

Position and composition of our sun

The age and mass of our sun

Relationship of planets to our sun

Earth’s relationship to the sun

Earth’s atmospheric conditions

Earth’s terrestrial nature

Earth’s relationship to the moon

Often people will quip, “We’re only able to notice fine-tuning because we’re here to see it. So, we can’t draw solid conclusions for the cause of fine-tuning.” Yet this is to commit a logical error in our thinking. We are confusing an observation with its explanation.

Others will claim this is an argument from ignorance. Yet surely, it’s precisely because we are NOT ignorant of these facts, that we are exploring this natural evidence? This is an argument from a growing competence in our understanding of nature.

Others will assume an infinite number of universes; we were bound to come up lucky with one of them. Yet a multi-verse would require finely tuned conditions itself to cause it, and the question of fine-tuning returns.

Life appeared from non-life

“’…the problem of getting all of the compounds together in a living cell is much like the problem of making a cream puff. The filling needs to be made in a pan on a stove, then put in a refrigerator, while the shell is combined in a bowl, baked in an oven, then cooled, before the two parts are put together. All of the steps need to happen to the right amounts of the right components in the right sequence using the right tools in order to form a successful final product.’ To make matters worse, the ‘icing’ on each ‘cream puff’ must also be inscribed with a message (DNA) billions of letters in length.”[2]

Biological organisms appear designed

Randomness is unable to invent, and all the complexity of life must already exist before natural selection can modify it. Life looks designed, and there’s a good reason for that.

Evil and injustice persist

This is a complex subject and there’s no one reason that can come close to explaining all the possible causes for evil and suffering.

“Yet our recognition of the existence of evil is itself a pointer back to God, not away from him. Unless there is a transcendent, Divine standard of “straightness,” evil is simply a matter of opinion. If this is the case, we can eliminate evil tomorrow. All we have to do is change our opinion of it.”[3]

Transcendent moral truths exist

Some things are always wrong. It’s always been wrong to kill other people for the fun of it. And the “transcendent, objective virtue of selflessness and virtuous reciprocity finds representation in nearly every historic theological or philosophical system”[4]

If this is simply a product of culture, then which one is right and how big does the moral majority must be before we must agree with it?

Perhaps morality is all about promoting human flourishing? But the problem here is that this idea imports moral ideas in the term “human flourishing”. It proposes moral survival before explaining the source of the moral truth.

Humans are free agents

Human freedom is a right, and people are morally accountable for the free will choices they make. Some deny free will exists, pointing to the deterministic biological processes at work within us. Yet our ability to ponder these issues “presupposes we have the freedom to think independently from deterministic physical processes.”[5]

“Free will is difficult to deny (unless, of course, we have the freedom to deny it.”[6]

Consciousness emerged from unconscious matter

There’s a strong case to suppose that my physical brain is separate from my mind or consciousness. There are foundational differences between mind and brain. “Any reluctance to embrace a dualistic explanation for mind seems grounded not in the evidence but in a desire to resist answers found outside the room.”[7]

Human consciousness is so inexplicable that naturalist philosopher Thomas Nagel has reluctantly affirmed that, “On a purely materialist understanding of biology, consciousness would have to be regarded as a tremendous and inexplicable extra brute fact about the world.”[8]

 

Having laid out eight examples of crime scene tampering, Jim draws the following conclusion.

If we could identify just one of these evidences, that would be enough to point to a potential outside cause. But when you concede the strong cumulative case…there are at least eight lines of diverse evidence for outside tampering…then we have a strong reason to pursue this case.  A far stronger reason than would be necessary to trigger a police murder investigation.

 

There’s a lot of natural evidence pointing towards God. In a real sense, God’s left his fingerprints everywhere. So perhaps the real question is not “is there evidence for God,” it’s “will I choose to discover who this God is?”

 

 

 

[1] [1] J. Warner Wallace, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, (David Cook), 41.

[2] Wallace, 75.

[3] Wallace, 190.

[4] Wallace, 163.

[5] Wallace, 152.

[6] Wallace, 157.

[7] Wallace, 137.

[8] Wallace, 136.

RESPONDblogs: Is Theology Compatible With Computer Science?

SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340
SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340

A friend proposed recently to me that “the problem with doing theology in science…is that you end up looking for God in the things that you see.”

 

And this statement raises two questions for me

  • is it possible to be a genuine scientist and also be a Christian?
  • is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that you see?

 

 

Well, personally I became a Christian when I was 7 years old. I distinctly remember the experience – and I also am aware of the affect it has had on my life in the years…the decades since. When I was 21 I graduated with an Honours Degree in Computer Science…as a Christian…and have worked in this field for close to 25 years.

Initially I worked in the Broadcast Industry, developing the early automation systems that made complex TV broadcasting more doable for the army of people that it took to make broadcast telly work in the 1990s. I spent many happy days up at BBC TV Center……geeking out at where they used to make “Doctor Who” in my childhood. Latterly…I spent my working life helping other people who were themselves developing complex software systems. I used my experience to – hopefully – make their jobs easier.

Did I use the scientific method in my career? Absolutely I did. It is at the core of the software engineering principles I learned both at University and as I worked in Industry. Was I also a Christian? Yes – I distinctly remember being so. I still am, by the way.

 

Is it possible for a real scientist to also be a Christian? Some people say that Christianity is anti-reason. In my experience, the atheist position is just as welcoming to unreasonable, unthinking and obnoxious people as the Christian position is.

 

I’ve never found the need to separate Christianity from logic and reason. And I’m not alone. I listen to podcasts from “Reasons to Believe” – a scholarly organization employing cosmologists, biochemists and philosophers who develop testable computer models that work to follow the hard observable data, while also recognising and embracing the historic Judeo Christian claims.

 

 

So what? Well it seems to me to be head scratching-ly short sighted to accept therefore the New Atheist,  “Science is at War with God” narrative. Clearly – it’s not Science that’s at war with God. It’s only a subset of Scientists today who don’t subscribe to the claims of Christianity…and a small but vocal number who like to shout about it.

 

Coming back to where I started this blog, I think what my friend meant to say…was this. It is not possible to be a Scientist who is committed to NATURALISM…and be a Christian. By Naturalism – I mean the belief that all there is…is a Universe which is a closed system governed only be physical laws. I agree that one can’t be a committed Naturalist and a Christian. But my friend’s smuggling something controversial in here. He’s implying that only naturalistic Scientists are genuine scientists.

 

So – is that true?

 

Well naturalism views our Universe as a self-contained unit, a place where cause and effect reign. We don’t like thinking about what caused it…but the laws of physics and material process is king to the Naturalist. But here’s the thing. Those material processes are also king to Christians who do Science as well! When I was developing a software application to perform video field accurate control of a Broadcast A/V Mixing Desk using an RS-422 based serial protocol at 38k4 baud…I was applying principles of logic, of CPU architecture and my understanding of software engineering. I wasn’t praying that it would work – I would work to build the thing correctly SO THAT IT WOULD work. (OK – I’ll admit it…sometimes I was praying…please let this bug be fixed now)

 

I think one difference between a Naturalist and a Christian is actually found not in our understanding and respect of material processes. Rather it’s in our personal recognition that these material processes that operate in our Universe…are not just an end in themselves. There is a bigger narrative at play here. Our Universe is not the result of chance and necessity. We have become convinced that it is the result of intention, personality and design. There’s a God who is responsible for creation.

 

How did we become convinced of this? I will grant you – I didn’t become a Christian by learning the laws of Physics! I didn’t study the behaviour of electrons thru a transistor and therefore wind up in church the following Sunday. I don’t know anyone who did. But I do know people who look at our exquisitely ordered Universe and scratch their heads, “I wonder whether there is a God after all?”

 

So – I agree. You can’t be a Christian and a Naturalist…that’s true for Scientists, Authors and Shop Keepers. But clearly you don’t HAVE to be a Naturalist to be genuinely good at any of those professions. To claim otherwise…is just mistaken. Now there will always be one voice that claims – the Christian Scientists are the rubbish ones. Well – it takes hard work to be good at anything…whether we believe in God or not! Let them be measured by the quality of their work. I was always happy for that to be done to me as a software engineer.

 

 

What about the other question – is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that we see? Well – again – if we are a committed Naturalist…then this won’t be happening. But my argument is this. If we do open our eyes to this evidence…what we will find may challenge our Naturalistic presuppositions to the core.

I find the argument from “Information in Biology” to be particularly compelling (as a Computer Scientist myself, that’s predictable). The cells found in all living things contain mind bogglingly complex Nano machines for processing and replicating pre-existent information that is found in DNA and in the epigenetic systems that influence animal body plan construction. Life is rich in complex information. Information that a Naturalistic worldview does not have a reasonable explanation for IMHO.

I’m not saying – it is so complex that God must have done it. Rather, I’m saying that the most plausible explanation for this information rich biological complexity is that it was designed by a creator. And that creator sounds very much LIKE God.

I’m reminded of this quote from Stephen Meyer:

“Yet we know from our uniform and repeated experience that some types of phenomena – in particular, information-rich sequences and systems – do not arise from mindless, materialistic processes. For just this reason, no rational person would, for example, insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone in the British museum must have been produced by purely materialistic causes such as wind and erosion.”[1]

I suggest that the argument from information points to a Designer. I’m not smuggling in the notion of a Designer – rather I’m saying that a Designer is the most plausible explanation for the complexity we see in nature. This argument doesn’t identify who that Designer is. There’s only so far that this evidence takes us. But coming back to my friends at RTB, something happened to convince them as scientists that the claims of Christianity were true. Something took them the next step – from simple intellectual assent – to belief in Jesus Christ.

For myself, that something was the discovery that God isn’t distant and unknowable. He comes close to us and speaks to us. He has done in recorded human history primarily through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But he also does so now – I know He does cos he did so with me. He will make the first move. He will speak to our hearts and soften us towards him.

The real question is – will we let him?

[1] David Klinghoffer, Debating Darwin’s Doubt, Discovery Institute Press Seattle, 147.

RESPONDblogs: Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie” – review

Light Spoilers below

 

Neill Blomkamp is a visionary director; his films look stunning…His worlds feature a gritty, current day aesthetic …with a futuristic twist. The brilliant designs look like they should work. Neill has learned his film making craft from the best and Chappie is “business as usual” for him…and that’s a good thing.

 

It’s a story about a multi-national corporation (Tetravaal) backing two contradictory approaches to robotic law enforcement. Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, is developing an independent autonomous drone while Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) favours the non-intelligent, human controlled vehicle approach; Moore’s MOOSE is like a heavily armed, remotely controlled U.S. Drone. Conflict between these approaches escalates when Deon’s autonomous robotic police drone goes beyond its basic programming and becomes truly self aware…it becomes “intelligently designed” into a thinking, feeling artificial intelligence in its own right.

 

This is interesting timing for Chappie, given the increased buzz around driverless cars (even the Topgear guys are chatting about that one) and the cautionary note that Professor Stephen Hawking rang recently about the dangers that AI will pose to humankind in the future.

 

 

 

Three themes stuck out to me as i enjoyed this movie.

 

FIRST – Neill presents Jackman’s character Moore in an interesting way. Moore designed his MOOSE as an attack vehicle bristling with weapons – but his reasons seem to be philosophical ones…even religious ones. It seems that this guy is against all forms of artificial intelligence…presumably because…as he says to Deon’s Chappie…he is just a godless monster. In other words – God didn’t create this being…mankind did. And to Moore, that’s a bad thing.

 

Jackman portrays Moore as not only a religious extremist, but also as a violent war monger. He is not only frustrated at being sidelined with his out of date technology, but he is also a very dangerous individual. He is quite clearly comfortable with building machines to cause death and destruction on an industrial scale! Neill Blomkamp’s religious guy is the dangerous, violent hate filled brooding presence in his movie.

 

I often hear Christians being described in these terms. And I’ve always thought…where does Jesus ever teach anyone to embrace hate and violence? He doesn’t. Of course the well worn response to this is – stop selectively flicking thru the New Testament and look at the Old. God commands the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites. Therefore God wants Christians to be hate filled and violent. So Christianity is dangerous for society. Yet this is SO far away from a balanced reading of the Bible, that it leaves the average Christian scratching their head in puzzlement.

 

Yes God used Israel to bring punishment to people at a single time in history, as described in the Old Testament. God encouraged Israel to enter the land promised to them, yet stolen by the occupying Caananite people. God had given the Caananites many opportunities to leave the land but they chose not to. So it was finally time to evict them. Despite the claims of Christianity’s critics…the people who were killed as Israel returned to Caanan were soldiers. Claims of Old Testament genocide misinterpret the meaning of the Old Testament text.

 

Further – to claim that this narrative should guide Christian behaviour today…is quite simply wrong. This argument would be like reading Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings all the way to the end when Sam and Frodo are ascending Mount Doom…about to finally throw the ring into the fire…and for Sam to suddenly stop them and saying…hang on! We need to go back to the Prancing Pony Pub right now cos we never managed to meet up with Gandalf there. What? No – that would be crazy. The story has moved on…we are past that now. in the same way…applying the Old Testament Amalekite passages to Christians today is just plain wrong.

 

Radicalised Christians aren’t like Blomkamp’s Vincent Moore; and they aren’t like Israelite soldiers who once fought Amalekite soldiers in Caanan. Radicalised Christians work towards increasing acts of love and kindness to all people. Thats how its supposed to work, anyway!

 

 

 

The SECOND theme I notice is around a complicated relationship between Chappie and his creator Deon. Unfortunately for Deon, his relationship with Chappie is disrupted by a group of gangsters, who become the family that Chappie attaches to. The sidelined Deon has got to work hard to visit with and teach Chappie the values he thinks are important. He manages to open Chappie up to the artistic and creative side of life (much to the gangster’s annoyance). He also sets moral guidelines for Chappie. And this escalates the tension in their relationship. Chappie’s gangster family want him to “do crimes”…but Chappie has promised his maker that he wont cross this line. Chappie has a moral center which is very highly tuned. His creator has so many hopes and dreams for him and Chappie finds the burden of this too much to bear sometimes…leading him to tell his creator that he hates him.

 

Chappie and Deon clearly misunderstand each other during much of the movie. Deon sees the danger that the gangsters are exposing Chappie to. He can see the risk of disaster and the loss of Chappie’s precious life. Yet the childlike robot does not have this perspective at all. He does not understand the risks…although he starts to learn fast.

 

It strikes me that perhaps this theme touches upon many people’s personal spiritual journey.  When it comes to God…things get complicated. It’s the stuff that fills our lives, the choices we have made, that get in the way. And if there is a God…then surely he wants to stop us having fun. Surely he wants to impose his dull will on us? We see Chappie kick against the attempts his creator makes to connect with him…and there is alot of truth in this portrayal. It resonates.

 

And I’m left wondering…what if we mistakenly project our own misunderstanding of God’s motives onto God himself? What if…like Chappie…we think the creator is trying to cramp our style…when in reality his goal is to rescue us from the danger we don’t understand. The risk we are blind to is very evident to our creator. What if instead of wasting our lives, he wants us to fulfil our potential? I think there’s an aspect to Deon’s character that reflects part of God’s nurturing character towards people.

 

 

 

The THIRD theme is a deep one, so I’ll keep it brief. Mind/soul and body duality. Groan! Philosophy! This movie is full of the sense that, our bodies…the material stuff and my physical parts…do not fully define who I am. There is an intangible-ness to me;  a consciousness. Actually this idea points to a Biblical understanding of personhood. We are composed of 3 parts; spirit, soul and body. And while one day our body will wear out…the essential center of us…our spirit and our soul…will live on in another place. Hopefully not in Blomkamp’s way (it does not look good!)

 

 

So if you enjoy science fiction, don’t mind a touch of violence (one scene is really quite bloody)…and like thinking about these themes…then I recommend Chappie.