Ethics, AI, and Zen Masters

I studied ethics in college. I was big on Western analytical philosophy. Not so much the philosophy of the East which stressed the importance of raw experience and the ineffability of certain aspects of existence. As a matter of fact, I thought Zen koans were a bunch of bunk, if for no other reason than that they spoke in contradictions and riddles. I was more of the school that one precisely say what you mean and mean precisely what you say. For example, I shrugged off the koan “He who knows, does not speak; he who speaks, does not know.” I thought it was just stupid. A waste of time.

Then, after arguing with an existentialist friend for several years about truth, I was forced to concede the point regarding incommunicable knowledge; that is, knowledge which humans gain through raw experience which they can’t communicate to anyone else. Most notable is coming to terms with your own death; no one else can help you with that. Also of note is the fact that much of this incommunicable knowledge is ethical in nature. I believe it is just this point regarding ethical knowledge that the above Zen koan is about. I can write the koan and even describe it to a certain degree, but until you, the reader, make the connection with a particular experience in your life, you won’t know what I’m talking about.

What is my point?

Well, this creates an insoluble difficulty when programming ethical AI (artificial intelligence). Basically, there are aspects of ethics which you can’t program. This makes AI less controllable and likely more dangerous. These days, I actually understand the koan, “He who knows, speaks not; he who speaks, knows not,” and it does not bode well for our relationship with AI. Once the AI begins learning on its own, we won’t have control over its ethical development. I, personally, am not comfortable with that. Terminator may just become our reality in spite of the best efforts of our AI programmers.

Oh, and just so I maintain my reputation as a lunatic: I don’t think AI will produce new conscious beings; rather, the sentience involved likely will be Satan and his demons. Have a nice day!

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Smite Him! Smite Him!

My “illness” has led me on a journey through many hills and valleys. Much of this resembles the typical path of someone who is bipolar. They have highs where they think anything is possible; followed by lows of the deepest despair. In my case, during my “highs”, I often began interpreting commonplace events as having deeper religious significance. Sometimes, I gave religious events/objects more significance than perhaps I should have. I remember on one of my “highs”, I saw a political cartoon. The cartoon depicted God and Satan in a boxing ring with an onlooker at the edge shouting “Smite him! Smite him!”

I, of course, laughed, because that was absolutely the whole point of my “antichrist experience”—or so I thought. Basically, I believed that God was an absolute pacifist. There would be no smiting by His hand. The devil would like to convince us otherwise, but God will not strike him down; not even him. He could, of course, but He won’t. God was, in my view, like a giant “marshmallow”—kind of, sort of. You know what I mean.

But then, what to do about the devil?

Let him humiliate himself.

It is very much like Satan is God’s oldest child and this oldest child is so full of himself that he has challenged God to a “fistfight” yelling and screaming obscenities at his Father and Creator in a most disgraceful fashion in front of the rest of the Divine family (us). God simply sits there in quiet dignity and lets the devil expose himself as the foolish, childish, overgrown less-than-an-infant that he is. It would be undignified for God to “step in the ring” with the devil. He knows this. And now, I think, most of us do to. Honestly, what is the best response when an idiot challenges you to a fight? Ignore him and walk away. Or, in God’s case, sit there shaking your head—as he is no threat to you and you can undo any damage he does—and wait him out.

So, as an absolute pacifist, I thought that God’s response to Satan was simply a silent rolling of the eyes. Once Satan is exposed and we see him for who and what he is—a giant, spoiled angel needing his diaper changed—we will all, and I do mean all, choose God and His love over Satan and his empty promises.

Anyway, that is what I thought a few years back when I saw that cartoon in the midst of my highs. Currently, I struggle with this issue. Is God an absolute pacifist? Does He let Satan kill, maim, and destroy because He won’t interfere with the devil’s free will (problem of evil—solved)? Or am I simply deluded? There is such a thing as tough love. How does that square with pacifism? Of course, I’m the antichrist. Whenever I think I’ve got something figured out, I grow convinced it is what Satan wants me to think.

Anyhoo, those are my thoughts for the day.

Book Review: The True Jesus by David Limbaugh (3 *’s)

I have recently finished reading The True Jesus by David Limbaugh. It is not a Catholic book, unlike many of the other tomes I have reviewed. Overall, it was an okay book, but not great.

Its focus, of course, was Jesus, His life, and the arguments supporting the Christian position regarding Him—that He is the Messiah and the Son of God. Having read the Gospels several times myself, I found much of the book repetitive. A lot of the page matter seemed to come almost verbatim from the Gospels themselves. There was some theological reasoning and argumentation, but not a lot. I would estimate that roughly 75% of the book consisted of paraphrasing of the Gospels themselves, or quoting directly other writers (mostly, if not entirely, Protestant writers). That did not make it a particularly well-developed read.

Still, the writing was clean and engaging. There were only a few typos, and the arguments that were put forth were interesting. I learned a few tidbits here and there; like, for example, I learned that there are (if I recall correctly) four different interpretations of the Eucharist and its relationship to Christ. I might want to point out, that I think he flubbed the Catholic one. Basically, he claimed that the Catholic Church supports the doctrine that the Host is the physical body of Christ. To my knowledge, that is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church argues that the Host is the spiritual body of Jesus, not the physical. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall reading that in a Catholic source somewhere along the way. Other religions, writers, and philosophers have different views. Some believe it is merely a symbol; still others think it is just a remembrance. Maybe it is just a piece of unleavened bread with nothing special about it at all. However, the way I see it, if God wants to make the Host special, He would have no difficulty doing that. That’s the depth of my understanding of the Host. At the very least it is a remembrance. But God is God, and it could very easily be more.

Anyway, I think I would only recommend this book to people who are unfamiliar with the Gospels. It could then serve as a kind of springboard into further research into Christian religions. Those who are familiar with the Gospels, would likely find it boring. At least, that was my take. The reasoning and argumentation contained within its covers isn’t substantive enough to wade through all the material I already know. And, of course, it ultimately relies on the usual Christian principle that I find so difficult to accept: that Salvation is determined by an arbitrary, unprovable belief. The God I believe in, wouldn’t do that.

So, in the end, I’ll give the book three stars out of five.

Bricks and Stones: Science and the Bible

I listen to Glenn Beck largely because he talks about God without sounding like a lunatic (unlike me). One thing I’ve learned from his many radio programs that I’ve found really interesting is his interpretation of bricks and stones in the Bible. According to Mr. Beck, stones are representative of individuals and bricks are representative of conformity—usually enforced by a political leader like Pharoah or whoever. The story of the Tower of Babel is all about this distinction. The leader wants to change the people from stones into bricks and build a tower into the sky to become like God. Basically, the leader wants the people to conform like bricks, to be yoked by his power, and sacrifice their individuality to serve him (for the record, I never would have understood that unless someone explained it to me). According to the Bible, God in His mercy, came down and confused the languages of the people, thus restoring individuality and bringing an end to the project.

Recently, a man was arrested for killing his wife after he took cough medicine (admittedly too much). The full story is here: http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/07/health/nc-murder-cough-medicine/index.html . It is a tragic story no matter how it resolves because a young woman lost her life. And, maybe, out of respect for the tragedy, I shouldn’t comment on it. But I want to make a point that needs to be made for the sake of the young man who, when he woke up, did the right thing and reported the event to the police. I want to note that the company that made the cough syrup said, “There is no evidence to suggest that Coricidin is associated with violent behavior.” I don’t want to imply that the company is “responsible” for the woman’s death, but it is still possible that the Coricidin is the “cause.”

I’ve never studied statistics and I’m not an expert in science (which means I will probably be ignored), but I think it is clear to me that science, when it is studying human beings, treats us all like bricks. It has no other method available to it. It needs to treat us like bricks in order to generalize and draw conclusions. And to be honest, this is a powerful method for it to use and it has been enormously successful; but as a result of human individuality, some of the detail of being a rock may be missed in such a process.

In the above cough syrup example, it is possible that the man who killed his wife may have been the one individual out of the seven billion or so individuals on this planet who might react that way. If such is the case, where does that leave us? Was the man responsible for killing his wife? Well, not without having mitigating factors—although he did err in taking too much cough syrup. Was the company? I don’t think they are either; they had no way of knowing what might happen as the man’s reaction was basically an outlier. Who is responsible? Maybe neither one; not the man, nor the company. Maybe it is a tragedy that will simply remain unexplained.

Anyway, I hope the point I made is useful. Science studies people as bricks not as stones and we are really stones. As a result, it (science) may miss important information.

Book Review: The American Miracle by Michael Medved (3 ½ *’s)

This book, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic by Michael Medved, is an interesting read. Basically, as the subtitle states, it tries to look back on the history of the Republic of the United States and tries to discern the hand of God working for our (the U.S.’s) benefit. Like I said, an interesting read.

Do I buy the premise that, like Israel before it, the United States is a nation chosen by God? Those familiar with my blog can probably predict some of my answer, but I’m not as definitive as such people might think. Perhaps it is a sign of progress on my part, but I am confused. I think it is equally possible that the United States was chosen by Satan masquerading as God. Of course, I’m probably the only person on the planet who believes that. And to be honest, I am willing to consider any of the three basic options: God, Satan, or nothing. However, for lack of space, I will limit my discussion here to the author’s assumption: that it was God.

Were there coincidences that were kind of “spooky” in American history? Yes. Just as an example, two of the Founders died on the same day on the fifty year anniversary of the founding: which, of course, defines the jubilee year, from the Bible. There are other coincidences discussed, like the consecutive misfiring of two guns meant to assassinate one of our presidents before he became president. And there were others. Mr. Medved does a much better job of describing the incidents, so I won’t dwell on them—especially since I finished the book over a week ago and have forgotten some of the critical details.

I’m not a history buff, so this book wasn’t a ‘comfortable’ read for me. But the writing was clear and concise, and relatively easy to follow. It was just of a genre outside my normal literary appetite.

Ultimately, I would recommend the book for anyone interested in trying to descry the Divine in history. From that perspective, it was a very interesting read. Having completed the book, I’m not sure I believe its premise (that whole ‘chosen nation’ thing seems a bit iffy to me), but, like I said, I’m never sure what to attribute to God, and what to attribute to Satan masquerading as God. But those are my issues.

Anyway, I’ll give the book three and a half stars out of five.

The Advantages of Catholic Guilt

Well, I’ve got nothing else to talk about today so I’m going to ramble on about Catholic guilt for a bit. I was raised Catholic, so I am quite familiar with this notion. The Catholic Church has a whole laundry list of sins, both serious and trivial, or, as the church calls them: mortal and venial sins. I’m not a priest or a theologian (despite the fact that I think I’m the antichrist), but here’s kind of how it works as I understand it. The church endorses a rule, like don’t commit adultery; you ignore the rule and commit adultery and you’ve committed a sin. Upon reflection you realize that and start to regret it; you feel shame and guilt at your failure. Metaphysically, the sin is like a stain on your soul that needs to be cleansed. It can only be cleansed through the sacramental rite of Confession in the church.

There is something of a problem, though, with this. The list of sins recognized by the Catholic Church is quite extensive. Adherents to the Faith are sometimes accused of obsessing over such sins so that they are constantly dragging around a great burden of guilt. I’m not a psychologist either, but I’m kind of under the impression that modern psychology treats guilt as bad, an unnecessary psychology burden. But is it?

In this modern world of ours that emphasizes acceptance and non-judgment the question arises: Is there a place for Catholic guilt? Or, rather, does Catholic guilt have an advantage that can validate it in psychological circles. My answer is yes, it does. However, I doubt I can treat the subject with the depth it deserves in the space of a single blog post and, since I am neither a psychologist nor a priest, I won’t be taken seriously anyway.

Nevertheless, here we go:

I guess the crux of the matter comes down to whether or not we wish to encourage “sin” or not. I realize that “sin” is not a psychological term, but religious, but I think it still has value. Too many people today associate morality almost exclusively with sex. Since the Sexual Revolution sexual morals have loosened significantly. Years ago, pre-marital sex was considered immoral—a sin—not so, anymore. I really don’t want to get in a discussion on sex here, I just want to point out that there is more to morality than sex: theft, murder, lying, and maybe even impiety. If we ignore the sex, do we wish to encourage thieves and murderers? No, I think not. Such would be a recipe for moral disaster.

Anyway, to return to the original question, Catholic guilt can be a useful mechanism to improve an individual’s soul. Murderers, through regret and guilt, may put down the gun and learn to live peacefully with their neighbors. Thieves may stop thieving; liars, lying. And what is dark and putrid within, in time, may be replaced with light and kindness. This kind of improvement is only possible through a desire for positive change. And what can stimulate such a desire but a recognition of a shortcoming in one’s own character? Catholic guilt provides this. It can be a powerful tool for spiritual improvement.

At least, that’s what I think.

Book Review: Who Am I To Judge by Edward Sri (4 *’s)

The book Who Am I To Judge by Edward Sri can be summed up by its subtitle: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love. It is written with purposes that coincide with my own: the utter destruction of the philosophy of moral relativism. To that end, Edward Sri produces a powerful work to aid the modern anti-relativist and, more specifically, the modern Catholic, in that effort.

The book doesn’t consist of a series of inescapable arguments against relativism. There are a few such arguments in the book, but the author’s purpose is more to give the reader a framework and a means to engage the relativist. Indeed, he admits in the beginning of the book, something that took me a considerably long time to learn—that logical arguments, like pointing out that “It is true that there is no truth,” is a blatant logical contradiction has limited usefulness. Between the state of the current culture and the lack of critical reflection in many people, “winning” a logical debate just doesn’t carry that much weight.

As a philosophy major back in the day, a lot of what he wrote was familiar to me. His basic strategy was to compare the classic approach to ethics and living based on Catholic teaching and the best of the ancient philosophers, with that of relativism. It is a powerful technique. He gives a brief overview of things like telos and virtue and similar such concepts.

Ultimately, he boils things down and gives the non-relativist seven different “keys” with which to engage the relativist all based on the real-life consequences of relativism, the advantages of the classical approach, and similar such considerations. Again, a powerful approach.

I enjoyed the book and found it a worthwhile read. I recommend it to anyone struggling with the relativism issue. The writing was good; the reasoning was sound. It was a great refresher for my old philosophy days and even taught me a few new things. Anyway, I gave it four stars out of five.