Artifical Intelligence: Brave New World?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the topic of the day in some quarters. Computers guiding self-driving cars is probably the most well known example.  They have to “think” in a way as the best human driver would.  Too far there are enough glitches to keep them from being trustworthy, but that’s likely to change soon.

Siri, Alexa, and Google Maps give the impression of having artificial intelligence, but they are really just sophisticated programs that can retrieve a limited amount of data from a data bank, delivering audible answers to simple spoken queries.  More impressive is the new Chat GPT app that can write papers on almost any subject, imitating the style of a human author.  My friend Richard and I messed around with it to see what it could do.  Richard is a law professor so he asked it to write a court opinion on a particular classroom case, and I asked it to write a short sermon on The Good Samaritan.  

The court opinion was “not bad” according to Richard,  but about half the citations were inaccurate. Ding! Mistrial!  The short sermon proved better.  It would have satisfied most congregations.  Everyone would’ve gone home feeling good about it.  On the other hand, I was deeply dissatisfied.  It was a stitched together mosaic, very sewn, of every Good Samaritan platitude ever inserted into a sermon.  A homiletics professor would have torn it apart. 

With other teachers, I am skeptical. It’s free, at least for now, and easy to use. I could ask it to write an essay on the philosophy of David Hume, and it would turn out a decent product, bland but decent.  That’s great, but I would not know anymore about Hume or his philosophy than I would had I read an encyclopedia article, and probably not that much.  I would not have read Hume, reflected deeply on his words, and written an insightful reflection essay.  I’m an old guy.  It’s been many decades since I’ve read deeply into subjects in my fields of study.  So yes, I find myself refreshing memory with Wikipedia articles, but at least I’m studying them and reviewing citations.

Richard was less skeptical.  With a little tweaking he thinks Chat GPT could become a useful tool for producing rough draft opinions, particularly in appellate courts.  It would relive clerks from hours of sifting through relevant case law to find the right avenue for leading to the right final opinion.  Maybe, but I think more than a little tweaking would be needed.

We both speculated about whether Chat type AI would be useful to physicians who needed to know if a set of symptoms might be related to some obscure disease far outside the norm or easily available sources.  In any case, AI is here, it’s not going away and it will become more sophisticated and more pervasive.  

Chat usage means serious questions need to be asked now about ethical boundaries, consequences for human learning and wisdom, impact on education, and the consequences of surrendering human effort and judgment for a computer’s supposed greater expertise.  Great leaps in knowledge have come from informed intuition by persons who have thought deeply about the problems of knowing and understanding what is not yet known or understood. Philosophers in every century have probed the meaning of things.  To many it’s looked like a useless waste of too many words, but every generation has benefitted from through better, more just governments, improved relationships between people and nations, and a more clear understanding of what it means to be travelers on this fragile earth, our island home.  Can all of that be surrendered to AI?  Should it be?  What would become of humanity?  Does it matter?

A very old episode of the original Star Trek explores a world that had surrendered to AI.  It made life easy, pleasurable and prosperous for all.  Was it a good world, a desirable world?  It seemed like paradise itself, at least for a short time.  Then it turned to “hell” for beings that treasured adventure, challenges, excitement, and the pleasure of succeeding at a task that required their full intelectual effort.   

Ashes & Dust: their meaning in today’s world

Ash Wednesday (February 22 this year) has been observed by the churches of western Christianity since the early middle ages.  It fell out of use in some Protestant churches after the Reformation but seems to have become more common among them over the last few decades.  Also increasing in popularity is the practice of “Ashes to Go.”  Clergy take ashes to street corners, bus stops, railway stations, etc., offering them to anyone with the admonition, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

It’s made me wonder what the significance of a smudge of ash on one’s forehead means to the increasing numbers who receive them while church attendance declines.  Does the imposition of ashes appeal to the spiritual but not religious?  Is it sort of a fun temporary tattoo or a toy badge of implied piety?  Maybe, for just a moment, it is recognition of one’s mortality in our advertising age of eternal youth and ways to live longer. I wonder.

Holy scripture records that throwing ashes on one’s self was an ancient sign of appearing in prayer before God, stripped of all pride and pretension, to submit to God’s mercy in whatever way God chose to be merciful.  I don’t know what happened in the early church.  Eastern Christianity never picked up on the practice of imposing ashes on the first day of Lent.  By the ninth century, it was common practice in the West. In an age of plagues, untreatable diseases, high infant and maternal death rates and short lives, it was probably not a significant reminder of one’s mortality. Death was the stuff of daily life.  I suspect it was understood, if understood at all, as a sign of promise that even as one returned to dust God’s promise of salvation remained the greater truth.  It should have humbled princes _fat chance that. No doubt serfs were reminded that they were unlikely to ever get out of the dust bin of society’s lowest level., but Go loved them anyway. Imposition of ashes introduced forty days of somber penance in which the ordinary delights of life, few as they were, were put on the shelf, replaced by reflection on how much God in Christ Jesus had done for them, worthless sinners though they were.  No one knows how diligent they were, but human nature suggests diligent enough not to be publicly outed for non compliance.

The imposition of ashes in our day is accompanied by an invitation to observe a holy lent through self-examination, repentance, self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.  It’s worth noting that repentance is mostly about turning to a new and better way of life: one that is more grateful, merciful, patient, kind, honest and faithful.  Self-examination is not self-condemnation but a recommitment to greater honesty with one’s self about one’s self, the good as much as the bad, and most of all, one’s place as a beloved child of God in God’s family. Self-denial, therefore, is not about giving up candy, wine, eating out or some other trivial thing.  It’s about. making room for long periods of prayerful conversation with God, and reflection on the meaning of holy scripture for you in your life.  You don’t have time for an hour of prayer and study each day?  Sure you do. You have time for an hour of television, internet scrolling, drinks after work, coffee and chit-chat.  It’s not much of a sacrifice to put some of that in storage for forty days. Make room for more time with God.  Who knows? It could become a new habit and better life.

Maybe that’s all too much.  If nothing else, let the ashes on your forehead remind you that life is best lived when it’s lived to the fullest as one of God’s beloved.  Each day’s fullness will vary.  Good and bad, light and darkness, joy and tears come to us all.  That’s life.  Living the fullest as you are able, always trusting that you are beloved of God, cannot lead anywhere but to a better life of greater happiness.  Working on that for forty days is a good way to begin, or to begin again.

Respect for and Celebration of Domestic and Global Diversity

Diversity is a big topic these days with the Supreme Court expected to issue a ruling in June on the question of college affirmative action programs.  Affirmative action has been most recently defended as a tool to increase diversity, but not as a tool to redress systemic racial injustices.  The two are certainly related but not the same and this Supreme Court is likely inclined to buy the argument that affirmative action has been used to give preference to less qualified Black applicants thus denying places to more qualified students of other colors.  It’s what happens when the problem of systemic racism is avoided.

Recent news reports also claim corporate diversity training has backfired by appearing to coerce, push and shove attendees into new behaviors dimly understood and resented. Could be I suppose.  I recall some church related anti racism training that did much the same.  Hastily designed programs driven by emotional commitments tend to render poor results. For what it’s worth, I think Eric Law has the  best approach and people should pay more attention to him.

It’s too bad because our nation is becoming a mixed race stewpot in which no skin color will be a majority nor can it dictate social norms..  Inter-race marriages contribute to mix things up even more. We desperately need to find ways to respect and celebrate our differences without prejudice.

Something similar is happening on the world stage.  For the first time, the Munich International Security Conference is listening to leadership from emerging nations.  Until now these kinds of conferences have been limited to major European and Asian powers on the rather imperious presumption that emerging countries were just pawns, albeit important ones, in a global game of chess.  Rightfully so, the same emerging countries seem unwilling to be pawns anymore.  

In like manner, Christian churches with a global reach have discovered they have more bishops from Africa and Asia than they do from Europe and North America.  The pope is from Brazil.  Anglican Bishop Tutu of South Africa was the moral voice of the Anglican Communion for many decades. I’m told that Lutherans and Methodists are experiencing a similar dynamic.  

My wife and I have been tourists in a number of emerging countries, and in my past career I met with unsophisticated trade delegations from others.  Both seemed to think the U.S. was a land of golden opportunity, capable of imposing anything on anybody, and Americans were people to be looked up to with a degree of curious awe and suspicion.  None of that has been true on our more recent travels.  The internet, world wide cable news, and mobile phones have punctured the illusion.  Speaking only for ourselves, we find we are still respected and welcomed as tourists, but on a more equal footing with demands that we learn and respect the local culture as an essential element of touring. 

I don’t know what the future holds.  The Putins, Trumps and Bolsanaros of the world make it hard to read the tea leaves. Our own collection of crazies running rampant in the halls of Congress and state governments add confusion to the problem.  My Magic Eight Ball just spins without stopping on anything. Nevertheless, deep in the furrows of the earth lie seeds to a new and better way of living together, domestically and globally.  Seeds that won’t solve all our differences. There will still be conflicts, some of them deadly.   We can’t avoid recognizing that humans tend toward narrow minded, stiff necked selfishness.  It’s not a requirement, just the way we have been raised.  Yet the possibility remains that  a more diversified global population of equitable opportunity in which people and nations respect and celebrate their differences can lead to de-escalation of violence at every level, more trusting cooperation across all kinds of borders, and a less dangerous, stressful life for all. 

A Better Foundation for Adult Christian Ed.

The bible is Christianity’s central and necessary text. Through it  God’s holy word is revealed and illuminated, although different denominations have widely different understandings of what the text means. Scripture alone is the theme for many who will turn to no other source to find meaning in the ways of God and the world, and for some it is only the New Testament that is given serious attention.  Hebrew scripture, the Old Testament, is given an occasional glance, especially at Christmas and Easter, but otherwise put off as incomprehensible and of little consequence.  Exceptions are made for familiar prophecies linked to Jesus and text snippets favorable to one’s own social values.  Another exception is Daniel that some believe predicts a knowable future if deciphered in just the right way.  It’s often paired with the New Testament  book of Revelation, and together given primacy over everything else.

To the extent this generalized overview holds true, it has several fatal weaknesses that prevent average pew sitting Christians from anything other than a superficial grasp of the depth, breadth, power and meaning contained within the Bible’s covers.  For starters, the New Testament cannot possibly be well understood without a solid grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them.

One cannot be grounded in the Old Testament if it isn’t accompanied by basic knowledge of the history and geography of the ancient Near East. The ebb and flow of competing empires rolled over and through the Israelites who were in their way, troublesome but of minor importance in the scheme of empires.  Of equal importance are the two thousand years of Hebrew scripture history and prophecy through which God’s self revelation was progressively unveiled.  The two thousand years between Abraham and Jesus was a long time indeed, as long as our time has existed from Jesus to  today.  A lot changed in two thousand years, and the direction of change pointed the way to the God’s penultimate self revelation not through prophets but through the Word of God made flesh in in Jesus Christ.

To help explain what’s going on, it’s important to have some understanding of the unique contributions of oral tradition and written testimony, including the written records of other ancient civilizations. Reflection on historical circumstances leads to a deeper understanding of the Bible’s authors, when and why its books were written, how it has come to us in the form we have it today, how authentic scripture was separated from other religious writings of the time, and why different churches have different numbers of books in their bibles.

Teachers of adult Christian education have taken too many years to recognize how important the historical foundation is to a deeper understanding of our central text, and how intricately Hebrew and Christian texts the  are woven as one piece.

It’s not difficult to lay out the historical foundation. The basics are not hard to grasp, and academic complexity is not necessary.  There is an amazing moment in the faces of adults who have been exposed to the historical references of the biblical text.  It’s a sort of “Aha, now I see how things fit together, now it’s beginning to make sense as a whole and not just as long ago memorized verses. I wish I had learned the lesson earlier, but it’s never too late to start anew in a different way.”

Skeptics might harp that it’s just first year seminary stuff and they would be right.  But most graduates tuck it into the backs of their brains and never explain it to adult Christians who were last educated at the fourth or fifth grade level in second rate Sunday school.  No matter how faithful they may be in attending adult Christian education offerings, they’re still hobbled by an unsophisticated grade school level foundation.  No doubt there are videos and scripted curricula that can do the job, but I’m old and favor short lectures in a seminar setting with real people gathering face to face.  Give me a whiteboard, new markers, a glass of water, and we’re off on an hour or two of adventure and story telling with lots of discussion.  

Krugman and Rural Rage: He asked the wrong questions

Paul Krugman, New York Times, wrote recently on the question of how to assuage rural rage, by which he meant deeply felt resentment about being treated as country bumpkins by elites on the coast, cheated out of benefits from the government that go to wealthy urban areas, taxed beyond their means, and their private lives intruded on by an overreaching federal government.  Krugman observed that none of these were factually true no matter how deeply felt and believed. Rural areas receive far more in government aid per capita than anywhere else partly because sustaining agricultural production is a national security imperative. He wondered why it can’t be made more clear that the legislative achievements of the last two years will benefit rural America even more with better infrastructure, access to broadband internet, and improved job opportunities.  Why has rural America voted regularly against its own interests by electing right wing anti government representatives who would deliberately add to rural impoverishment in the name of rugged individualism and unregulated markets?

It’s not that rural America citizens don’t have a right to complain.  They do.  Poverty is endemic, housing often dilapidated, health care services difficult to get, and television rich with displays of wealth and pleasure to which they have little access.  Small town populations shrink as children move away and locals age.  Some regional centers may flourish, as can many small towns if they have recreational assets or large government instalations nearby.  The federal government does seem to be into everything everywhere: crop insurance, farm subsidies, housing loans, food supplements, county extension agents, rural electrification, postal service, land and water use regulations, crop marketing, etc.  Bureaucrats managing them can be insensitive, overbearing, poorly informed of local conditions, and well supplied with unending forms to be completed. Factory farms drive out small producers who, in any case, are held captive by monopolistic fertilizer, seed, equipment manufacturers, banks, and marketing programs.

Krugman understood the problem but had no answer. I think it was because he wasn’t asking the right questions.  Few urban or rural dwellers will ever be persuaded by economic data or descriptions of legislation benefiting them. The value of federal programs is easily dismissed, reputed as unwanted, unwarranted socialism with on one hand while accepting help with the other.  It would be less humiliating if the hoops, hurdles and paperwork were less onerous, more user friendly.  Customer service and satisfaction from distant regional offices is a faint hope.  It’s infuriating when academics and pundits tell rural Americans what’s wrong with them and how the government can fix it.  How can they know the issues when they don’t live them?

Essential questions must be asked if rural rage is to be assuaged and such questions should address strongly held social values defended with religious language and appeals to ideals of rugged individualism.  Since Reagan’s presidency, it’s been drilled into rural heads that government is the enemy threatening their freedom, intruding in their private lives, disrespecting property rights and wasting their tax money.  The fable of urban rural contempt for each other is circulated round and round and never questioned. Folks accept these stories as true because everyone they know says it is and has for generations.

It’s against this backdrop that Krugman’s goal of rural rapprochement with the rest of society must be searched.  I have a couple of possibilities in mind, but not a lot of faith in what might prove to be successful.  One is to frame economic data and the value of government programs as tools for strengthening families, quality of life and greater protection of rights for more people without diminishing the rights of anyone.  Another is to require top regulators to see that the processes and procedures they implement are designed with user friendliness and customer satisfaction by which their own performance will be judged.  Could cable and network news be co-oped to cover a few more primetime stories about agriculture and rural issues, not from Kansas City or Chicago but from Salina or Ship Rock or Belmond? It might not hurt to do more investigative reporting on factory farms owned by major corporations, the power of of Monsanto over farming practices, and the ability of corporations to undermine higher crop prices that are necessitated by  the higher costs of seed, fertilizer and equipment.  One might even consider a public campaign to tout small and midsized cities as terrific places to live and work, far away from metro congestion, but reasonably close to culture, entertainment, and good dining.  A broader distribution of the population would take some pressure off the over use of critical resources in places Mother Earth never intended huge cities to be.  There is more of course;  for instance over the years I have visited with progressive farmers about their experience with vertical integration that gives them more control over processing and marketing of final consumer goods, with the added benefit of creating new jobs. There are few sectors of the economy that can match farmers’ efforts at soil and water conservation, applied technology, and experiments with new crops.  Finally, no rapprochement can be achieved unless change agents know, understand and respect rural core values, which are not the same as the most vocal complaints  heard at the local diner or bar.  It takes more than a t.v. camera and 39 second interview to discover them.