Category Archives: Polemics

Will computers and robots ever become self-aware?

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

There is a very famous thought experiment from UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle that all Christian apologists should know about. And now everyone who reads the Wall Street Journal knows about it, because of this article.

In that article, Searle is writing about the IBM computer that was programmed to play Jeopardy. Can a robot who wins on Jeopardy be “human”? Searle says no. And his famous Chinese room example (discussed in the article) explains why.

Excerpt:

Imagine that a person—me, for example—knows no Chinese and is locked in a room with boxes full of Chinese symbols and an instruction book written in English for manipulating the symbols. Unknown to me, the boxes are called “the database” and the instruction book is called “the program.” I am called “the computer.”

People outside the room pass in bunches of Chinese symbols that, unknown to me, are questions. I look up in the instruction book what I am supposed to do and I give back answers in Chinese symbols.

Suppose I get so good at shuffling the symbols and passing out the answers that my answers are indistinguishable from a native Chinese speaker’s. I give every indication of understanding the language despite the fact that I actually don’t understand a word of Chinese.

And if I do not, neither does any digital computer, because no computer, qua computer, has anything I do not have. It has stocks of symbols, rules for manipulating symbols, a system that allows it to rapidly transition from zeros to ones, and the ability to process inputs and outputs. That is it. There is nothing else.

Here is a link to the full article by John Searle on the Chinese room illustration.

By the way, Searle is a naturalist – not a theist, not a Christian. Now, let’s hear from a Christian scholar who can make more sense of this for us.

Here’s a related article on “strong AI” by Christian philosopher Jay Richards.

Excerpt:

Popular discussions of AI often suggest that if you keep increasing weak AI, at some point, you’ll get strong AI. That is, if you get enough computation, you’ll eventually get consciousness.

The reasoning goes something like this: There will be a moment at which a computer will be indistinguishable from a human intelligent agent in a blind test. At that point, we will have intelligent, conscious machines.

This does not follow. A computer may pass the Turing test, but that doesn’t mean that it will actually be a self-conscious, free agent.

The point seems obvious, but we can easily be beguiled by the way we speak of computers: We talk about computers learning, making mistakes, becoming more intelligent, and so forth. We need to remember that we are speaking metaphorically.

We can also be led astray by unexamined metaphysical assumptions. If we’re just computers made of meat, and we happened to become conscious at some point, what’s to stop computers from doing the same? That makes sense if you accept the premise—as many AI researchers do. If you don’t accept the premise, though, you don’t have to accept the conclusion.

In fact, there’s no good reason to assume that consciousness and agency emerge by accident at some threshold of speed and computational power in computers. We know by introspection that we are conscious, free beings—though we really don’t know how this works. So we naturally attribute consciousness to other humans. We also know generally what’s going on inside a computer, since we build them, and it has nothing to do with consciousness. It’s quite likely that consciousness is qualitatively different from the type of computation that we have developed in computers (as the “Chinese Room” argument, by philosopher John Searle, seems to show). Remember that, and you’ll suffer less anxiety as computers become more powerful.

Even if computer technology provides accelerating returns for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t follow that we’ll be replacing ourselves anytime soon. AI enthusiasts often make highly simplistic assumptions about human nature and biology. Rather than marveling at the ways in which computation illuminates our understanding of the microscopic biological world, many treat biological systems as nothing but clunky, soon-to-be-obsolete conglomerations of hardware and software. Fanciful speculations about uploading ourselves onto the Internet and transcending our biology rest on these simplistic assumptions. This is a common philosophical blind spot in the AI community, but it’s not a danger of AI research itself, which primarily involves programming and computers.

AI researchers often mix topics from different disciplines—biology, physics, computer science, robotics—and this causes critics to do the same. For instance, many critics worry that AI research leads inevitably to tampering with human nature. But different types of research raise different concerns. There are serious ethical questions when we’re dealing with human cloning and research that destroys human embryos. But AI research in itself does not raise these concerns. It normally involves computers, machines, and programming. While all technology raises ethical issues, we should be less worried about AI research—which has many benign applications—than research that treats human life as a means rather than an end.

When I am playing a game on the computer, I know exactly why what I am doing is fun – I am conscious of it. But the computer has no idea what I am doing. It is just matter in motion, acting on it’s programming and the inputs I supply to it. And that’s all computers will ever do. Trust me, this is my field. I have the BS and MS in computer science, and I have studied this area. AI has applications for machine learning and search problems, but consciousness is not on the radar. You can’t get there from here.

What are the historical arguments for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

Eric Chabot of Ratio Christi Ohio State University has a great post up about the post-mortem appearances of Jesus.

The post contains:

  • a list of the post-mortem resurrection appearances
  • quotations by skeptical historians about those appearances
  • alternative naturalistic explanations of the appearances
  • responses to those naturalistic explanations

Although there is a lot of research that went into the post, it’s not very long to read. The majority of scholars accept the appearances, because they appear in so many different sources and because some of those sources are very early, especially Paul’s statement of the early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which is from about 1-3 years after Jesus was executed by the Romans. Eric’s post lists out some of the skeptical scholars who the appearances, and you can see how they allude to the historical criteria that they are using. (If you want to sort of double-check the details, I blogged about how historians investigate ancient sources before)

Let’s take a look at some of the names you might recognize:

E.P. Sanders:

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it.”[1]

Bart Ehrman:

It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.[2]

Ehrman also says:

We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[3]

 Ehrman also goes onto say:  

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.[4]

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19).[5]

Marcus Borg

The historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus. [8]

The references to Paul are because of the early creed he records in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, and his conversations with the other eyewitnesses in Galatians. Eric has another post where he goes over that early creed, and it is something that every Christian should know about. It’s really kind of surprising that you never hear a sermon on that early creed in church, where they generally sort of assume that you believe everything in the Bible on faith. But skeptical historians don’t believe in the post-mortem appearances by faith – they believe it (in part) because of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.

If you want to see a Christian scholar make the case for the resurrection appearances in a debate, then here is a post I wrote with the video, audio and summary of the William Lane Craig vs James Crossley debate on the resurrection.

If you could rescue EITHER embryos OR a 5-year-old, what would you do?

I'm Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this study
I’m Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this message

I overheard Ben Shapiro talking about some pro-abortion tweet that went viral on Twitter. Basically, the snarky pro-abortion person tried to make the case that unborn children don’t deserve legal protections because people have a moral intuition to save a 5-year-old instead of an embryo, if they can only choose one. The best response to this dilemma comes from Robert George, professor at Princeton University and Christopher Tollefsen.

Their article was posted at The Public Discourse.

Excerpt:

We agree that considering the case as described by Sandel, most people in Jones’s circumstances would choose to rescue the girl. However, this by no means shows that human embryos are not human beings or that they may be deliberately killed to produce stem cells, or in an abortion.

The first thing to notice is that the case as described is not, in fact, analogous to the suggestion that we should perform embryo-destructive research for the benefits it might provide us, or to the suggestion that it is permissible to abort an unborn human being. In both such cases, we are being invited to kill, or authorize the killing of, human embryos or fetuses in order to provide benefits to others. But in the fire scenario, there is no killing; the deaths of the embryos who are lost when Jones opts to save the girl are not killings—no one is acting to destroy the embryos or cause their deaths—but rather are the kind of death we accept as side effects in various cases in which, for example, acting to save one or some persons means that we are unable to save another or others.

Second, there are differences between the embryos and the five-year-old girl that are or can be morally relevant to the decision concerning whom to rescue. For example, the five-year-old will suffer great terror and pain in the fire, but the embryos will not. Moreover, the family of the five-year-old presumably loves her and has developed bonds of attachment and affection with her that will mean much greater grief in the event of her death than in the event of the death of the embryos. While these concerns would not justify killing, they can play a legitimate role in determining how we may allocate scarce resources and, in some cases, whom we may or should rescue. Often, the (or at least a) morally correct decision cannot be made just on the numbers—a point that even utilitarians are willing to acknowledge. And so, for example, it is morally relevant in some cases where choices of whom to rescue must be made that a person we could save is (for example) our own son or daughter, even if saving him or her means that we cannot save, say, three of our neighbors’ children who end up perishing in the fire from which we saved our own child.

The analogy, like Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violin analogy, completely ignores the fact that in a pregnancy, the baby is created as a result of the decisions of the mother and the father of the baby. This is not some stranger, this is their child. And in the case of abortion, it’s not being done to save a 5-year-old. I once heard of a case where a woman killed her unborn child so she wouldn’t look fat on the beach, during her vacation. Hardly a morally sufficient reason.

I really liked this:

The possibility that resources might be used and even, perhaps, lives risked to save the frozen embryos calls to mind the story with which we began our book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a police crew in New Orleans did save a canister of fourteen hundred human embryos from a hospital. Our book began with Noah, one of those embryos, who sixteen months later emerged, via Caesarean section, into the light of the world and his parents’ love. But if those officers had never made it to Noah’s hospital, or if they had abandoned those canisters of liquid nitrogen, the toll of Katrina would have been fourteen hundred human beings higher than it already was, and Noah, sadly, would have perished before having the opportunity to meet his loving family.

The harm of abortion is exactly like the harm of murder in general… each act deprives a person of all of their future. And this against the victim’s will, and without adequate moral justification.

An embryo has a unique genetic signature different from his mother, different from his father. He is a different person, and, if given shelter and food, he will grow up just like any of us do. Is it such a terrible thing to give food and shelter to another human being, that was created as a direct result of the choices of grown-ups? We don’t get to resort to murder of others just in order to make our own lives easier, do we?