Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Third Party in the Dialogue of Science and Religion

Number 8 from the Top Eleven List of topics in science and religion adapted from my book Negotiating Science and Religion in America

It used to be that the conversation between science and religion involved just two parties. But t
echnology has become increasingly crucial in dialogue of science and religion. In fact, for a robust and relevant conversation today, we have begin by taking in the omnipresence of cell phones, laptops, video conferencing, social media, etc., especially as we consider science, especially for emerging adults. 

Simply put, 18–30 year-olds have only known a technologically-saturated world. The presence of technology (and specifically the internet) is the main reason many call the generation born 1995-2012 "iGen." Topics in technology then must be brought to the top three or four topics in science and religion where scientific and theological method, interactions with evolutionary biology, and cosmology once reigned supreme. And why not just call it Science, Technology, and Religion in the process?  

One of these topics is Artificial Intelligence or AI. What is is it? Science Daily defines AI
“The study and design of intelligent agents where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes action which maximizes its chances of success.” Science Daily, Artificial Intelligence
This naturally leads to transhumanism, a term Julian Huxley coined in 1967 to describe the belief that the creation, development, and use of technology will improve human physical, intellectual, and psychological capacities. Transhumanism is hot: Popular culture loves to speculate about what it might mean in the future years. Consider films like Her (about a man who falls madly in love with an operating system) and Ex Machina (about the creation of a beautiful, and ultimately, deadly robot, Ava). 
Ava pondering herself in Ex Machina

And then there's Ray Kurzweil’s vision, which promotes "a Singularity" where artificial intelligence (AI) and human thinking will merge by 2045. Indeed this would take humankind toward something like omniscience. But something, according to Kurzweil, will arrive first: AI will pass the famous Turing Test, a rubicon when computer intelligence or AI and human intelligence are indistinguishable. 

In a 2017 Futurism article, Kurzweil was quoted as follows: 
“2029 is the consistent date I have predicted for when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence. I have set the date 2045 for the ‘Singularity’ which is when we will multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created.” Futurist Ray Kurzweil
Furthermore, from this Singularlity, Kurzweil seeks a form of immortality by uniting our (or at least his) brain with the cloud and living forever. I am fascinated by this drive toward immortality as it brings to mind whether religions are indelibly invested in the afterlife. Will religions survive if human beings can survive indefinitely? Put another way, if we can be saved by technology do we need also God to do it? 

And I'm full of questions. Second, is it really possible for an AI to pass the Turing Test and thus become indistinguishable from human intelligence? If so, does this mean we have become creators and therefore like God (Genesis 3:22)? 

Finally, what does AI imply for the existence of the soul? If an artificial intelligence machines seem to us to be interactive and self-reflective, do they have souls? Or maybe neither of us have souls.

These are hot topics, and in this post, I've pushed the scary questions. In my mind, they are worth pondering, especially since high-tech firms are investing mounds of financial capital to produce increasingly impressive AI. And, as these rapidly advancing fields expand, they will create questions with significant implications for those who seek to integrate contemporary technology and science with Christian faith. 

As indeed I do.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Big Data: A Trending, Stealth Topic in Science, Technology, and Religion (A Somewhat Revised Musing)

This comes from my Top Eleven List of Key Topics in Science, Technology, and Religion adapted from my book Negotiating Science and Religion in America. In it, I look forward to topics I hope to address in future posts, which is an appropriate way to begin a new year. 

I move now to #7.

Big Data 

I don’t see much religious writing or speaking in the popular press or in academic circles on this stealth topic. Big Data is (via a reasonably garden variety definition) 
“data sets, typically consisting of billions or trillions of records, that are so vast and complex that they require new and powerful computational resources to process.” 
This new reality bequeathed to us by the power of computing has profound religious significance. Maybe because Big Data is all around and seems powerful, many technologists associate it with the divine.

On a related note, some seem to promote Big Data as the scientific cutting edge with almost religious zeal. Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, commented, 
“Data is the new science. Big Data holds the answers.” Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware
That sounds like a fairly grandiose, even religious, claim. Since this is such a new topic (at least to me), I’ll simply lay out three sets of questions: 1) How do we as human beings conceive of the sheer volume of information? What tools do we possess? 2) What should we do with this information? Who owns each person’s data—the individual or powerful, multinational corporations? This is an especially tricky ethical question with healthcare. 3) How does the Eye of Big Data relate to the omnipresence of our God? Is it benevolent? Does this give us comfort, concern, or some mixture of both? 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Can We See God from Einstein’s Tower?

I've excerpt this post from my recent article for Christianity Today
Here's McGrath's book
When I was a grad student in Germany, I remember visiting the city of Ulm. Two particular, commingled sights come to mind: first, pausing at the marker for Albert Einstein’s birth in 1879 (before his family moved to Munich six weeks later); and second, ascending the dizzying heights of the 530-foot cathedral tower. The combination strikes me as instructive: Most of us see in Einstein a mind that seemed to unlock the deepest mysteries of the universe. He sought a “theory of everything.” And many have sought to ascend with him into higher realms of insight, through many tiring steps.
Can Einstein bring us closer to God’s view of the world? Oxford University’s Alister McGrath takes up this question in his book, A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God. McGrath—who holds advanced degrees in theology, intellectual history, and molecular biophysics—is a leading light in the dialogue of faith and science.... 
[The article continues and concludes as follows.]
In the final paragraph of the book, McGrath sums it up: 
“I do not suggest that Christianity alone provides a way of seeing things that allows us to hold together these objective and subjective worlds: that would be arrogant and inaccurate. Yet I cannot overlook the fact that it does hold them together and allows them to be seen as a part of a greater whole, rather than disconnected realms of thought.” Alister McGrath
As I worked my way through A Theory of Everything (That Matters), ascending the steps of the intellectual tower erected by Einstein and his many pathbreaking discoveries, I was stunned by the breadth of knowledge on display. McGrath’s command of the facts is truly encyclopedic, and his grasp of Einstein’s theories is firm. Yet I’m doubtful that one can climb Einstein’s tower all the way to the celestial realm. Getting there requires other sources of illumination.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

A Park Bench in DC and God's Yes (A New Year's Reflection)

The full version of this piece appeared in our Science for the Church website newsletter. Here's an excerpt.

Physicist Charles Townes had a significant problem. 
Towne's (on the left) with the laser he developed
He’d been trying to figure out a solution to a long-standing conundrum of how to create a pure beam of light—one that’s short in wavelength and high in frequency. More than three decades earlier, the great Albert Einstein had in fact theorized that it could be done. But no one had yet managed the feat. And despite Townes’s best efforts, this brilliant young professor hadn’t figured it out either.
It was 1951, and Townes was in Washington, DC waiting for a breakfast restaurant to open. He sat down on a park bench.
I’ve read this story numerous times, and it seems that this brilliant future Nobel Laureate let his mind wander. That morning, he said No to trying and took a moment to pause.
Last week, I looked at the process of quieting ourselves, of taking Sabbaths as a way to renew ourselves. We need to slow down and stop striving. Not only Scripture, but science teaches us that this changes our brain chemistry in ways that allow for new insights.
That’s the practice of saying No. And this week I want to emphasize the Yes. Scripture also tells that No is never the final word. Instead, God wants us to hear a Yes because in Christ 
In Christ “every one of God’s promises is a “‘Yes.’” (2 Corinthians 1: 20) 
And so when we wait for answers, we wait with expectation. As we read in the Psalms,
“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word, I put my hope. I wait for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6
In Townes’s case, God had a profound Yes for this young Christian physics professor as he waited for an answer. In fact, something happened on that park bench fifty-eight years ago—I would say, Townes heard God’s Yes. Here’s how the event was reported:
“On that bench, surrounded by blooming azaleas, the solution came to Townes, then a 35-year-old Columbia University researcher. It involved a flash of bright light, a population of excited ammonia molecules and a mechanism for limiting the wavelengths they could then emit. On the back of an old envelope, he ‘just scratched it out,’ he said of his brainstorm.”
That solution led first to the development of the maser and then the laser, and ultimately Townes’s 1964 Nobel Prize. Few other modern inventions have had the wide-ranging effect of the laser. They are at the core of home DVD players, military rangefinders and altimeters, grocery store bar-code scanner, and police speed detectors, to name just a few applications.
How might we find God speaking to us in 2020? 
In my view, after we’ve made our “No Year’s resolution,” we wait with hope for God to bring a new vision. Put another way, it is a new year, 2020, and a time to say Yes.

Townes listened to the God who can speak a Yes and who guides our lives… especially when we’re listening. He often spoke about this moment as a "revelation." But maybe it's about how he lived and what he was always ready to hear. In an interview with UC Berkeley News, Townes commented that God was present in everything he did: 
“I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time.” Nobel Laureate physicist Charles Townes
May we take his words to heart as we begin this new year.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Pondering a No Year's Resolution

Here's an excerpt from a piece that just appeared on our Science for the Church website.

An enthusiastic admirer once rushed up to the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. What was his secret? How did he sculpt The David, the epic 17-foot statue of the biblical king and hero that now stands in the Accademia Gallery in Florence? 

Michelangelo’s answer was simple and profound: He looked at the unformed block of marble and “chipped away all that wasn’t David.” His indeed was the work of negation—the art of No. And through this Michelangelo found the deeper beauty, the more profound yes. That’s why on this December 31, I’m pondering my “No” Year’s Resolution.

This New Year’s Eve I’m looking to Scripture and science to tell me where my life is a block of unformed marble that needs some chipping away.
It all begins for us with the power of no in God’s gift of Sabbath—whether that’s for a day or something much shorter. In these times, Scripture tells us that God gives us a new vision and energy: 
“For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15, NRSV).
Honestly, the brain science behind this is easy to grasp. When we take breaks and reduce stress, we think better. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School suggests that this comes from the release of nitric oxide that fires up feel-good neurotransmitters and slows down stress hormones. 
“It’s a matter of learning to shift our internal biology at will so that we increase production of nitric oxide and the neurotransmitters associated with well-being and increased creativity” Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review
Will you join me in making a No Year's Resolution?