Archives For Humanity

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No robots were involved in the writing of this column.

That’s not to say that robots aren’t writing a considerable amount of what you might come across today on the internet.

A recent article, entitled “Robots Wrote this Story,” describes how “in 2013, AI-powered journalism was in its infancy . . . [but today it] identifies the relevant data, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions across different platforms.”

The various artificial intelligences writing the news for us have interesting names. Among them are Wibbitz (USA Today), News Tracer (Reuters), Buzzbot (open source), and Heliograf (Washington Post). Rumors are that Skynet may be on the horizon.

A Washington Post reporter optimistically says, “We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings. But this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.”

So far.

Lewis certainly wasn’t overly impressed by the robot in a classic science fiction film released in 1956.

Before leaving home [for a trip to Northern Ireland] I saw the film of The Forbidden Planet, a post-civilisation version of the Tempest with a Robot for Caliban . . . The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most.*

Count me as a member of C.S. Lewis’ camp. He possessed little to no fear of robots. He was far more suspicious about a future shaped by the devotees of scientism.

Scientism is that warped theory that, in the words of one Professor of Biological Sciences, surrenders to the “temptation to overreach.”

When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived.

But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable. (Emphasis added.)

Scientism, not robotics, is clearly the danger. However . . . what if the disciples of scientism intend to use robots to further their misanthropic plans?

I suspect taking over our news sources may only be the first stage of the robot blueprint for humanity’s future ruin.

Where are we prepared to draw the line in terms of robots displacing humanity. Apparently, not even in the realm of spiritual matters and worship. I have previously written about a curious, presumably docile, robot. It is, in fact, a Buddhist monk, and presumably a moderately successful evangelist.

A Greater Danger

A futuristic threat that once fell in the domain of science fiction has become science fact. Scientific American has reported that “some of the brightest minds in science and tech think we need a plan to keep humans safe from supersmart machines.”

C.S. Lewis identified a much more ominous alternative than robots seeking to lord it over humans. Lewis worried about the danger of human beings devolving into robots. Well, not robots per se, but beings who have suppressed the qualities that make us who we are, and forfeited our humanity.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures describe an event that must have stunned the angels in heaven. God deigned to create humanity, men and women, in his own image.

It is precisely when we choose to disobey God’s leading, and further distort that divine image, that we become less human.

When I was a child, I wondered why God would create people capable of disobedience. Not only capable but, as the Lord knew in his omniscience, beings who would disobey him. To a more mature mind, the answer seems obvious. No automaton, guided by its programming, can truly love. Lewis explores this dilemma in Mere Christianity.

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot.

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.

A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.

The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. . . .

If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.

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* The Forbidden Planet received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. It is also received the honor of being selected to be preserved for posterity by America’s National Film Preservation Board.

Along with its literary influence, highly influential special effects and visual style, the film also pushed the boundaries of cinematic science fiction. For the first time, all action happened intergalatically (not on Earth) and humans are depicted as space travelers, regularly jetting off to the far reaches of the cosmos. Additionally, Forbidden Planet is remembered for its innovative score—or lack thereof. No music exists on the film’s soundtrack; instead, all ambient sounds are “electronic tonalities.”

forbidden planet.jpg

NietzscheI unexpectedly encountered C.S. Lewis while unpacking a box today.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but five years after moving into our retirement home, I have yet to unpack half of my library.

The text that stood out among the two score volumes restored to the light today is called The Cult of the Superman. It was written in 1944 by Eric Bentley.

The 1969 edition which I possess includes “An Appreciation” by C.S. Lewis. Before emigrating to the United States, Bentley had studied under Lewis at Oxford. He spent his own professorial career at Columbia University.*

I have yet to find the time to read the volume, but it’s subtitle clarifies the profound subject it addresses: A Study of the Idea of Heroism in Carlyle and Nietzsche, With Notes on Other Hero-Worshippers of Modern Times. Thomas Carlyle and Nietzsche, in elevating the exceptionality of the hero or superman who “shapes history,” diminish the value of the vast majority of human beings who seek no such domineering role.

This view, so warmly embraced by the Nazis, is directly opposed to the Christian worldview.

The news that God lifts the lowly will come as a disappointment to any supermen or superwomen who are reading this.

However, to those of us who do not yearn to rule over the masses, it is joyous news. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In Jesus’ own words, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Nietzsche would revile those words, yet his knee too will one day bow before the One who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In his “Appreciation,” Lewis declares that Bentley is the right man to address this challenging topic.

The Author, though sternly critical, has a sympathy which I cannot emulate with those elements in Heroic Vitalism which really deserve a serious answer, and this enables him to make a constructive book out of what might easily have become a mere chamber of horrors.

Sheep or Wolves?

This aggrandizement of those who seize their self-ordained right to lord over others can certainly lead to horrors. One example I recently saw was a violent criminal’s justification for his actions. “There are sheep and there are wolves. I’m a wolf. The sheep only exist for my benefit.”

Those of us who comprise the lambs find it inconceivable that evil people believe we exist only to be preyed upon. Yet, this is precisely what predators think. And this Nietzschean notion can justify any atrocity, based as it is upon the maxim that “might makes right.”

Coincidentally, as I was writing this column, “Fishers of Men” by The Newsboys began playing. The first lyrics in the song coincide perfectly with the biblical promise above that every single person—including you—is precious to God.

Seven billion people on a spinning ball,

And they all mean the world to You.

So much for those who would consider themselves super-men . . .

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* Lewis’ praise for Bentley’s work is also found in a letter included as an expression of appreciation in ‪The Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley.

For an interesting assessment of Lewis’ influence on Bentley’s vocation as a drama critique, Donald Cunningham writes in his Ph.D. dissertation:

Dissent and debate were seen by Lewis as a method for testing ideas, and so he felt that discussion of an ideological sort could only strengthen a grasp on truth. . . . It is possible, then, that Bentley’s positive attitude toward conflict and its necessary presence in a pluralistic, growth-oriented world was learned at Oxford.

Imitating Animals

March 31, 2015 — 4 Comments

bearsHave you ever imitated a bear? Perhaps not intentionally. Still, if you are typical, you may do so routinely.

And it’s all because of your acnestis.

When I first saw the word, I thought it might be some recently coined term to address a semi-serious subject. But, the word is neither new, nor is the dilemma it describes exaggerated.

From the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.

ACNESTIS, n.

That part of the spine in quadrupeds which extends from the metaphrenon, between the shoulder blades, to the loins; which the animal cannot reach to scratch.*

While most human beings may not replicate bears’ behavior with trees, it is not uncommon to seek relief from a handy doorjamb.

Scratching that unreachable epicenter of that infernal itch has motivated the creation of a variety of tools. Yet none of these instruments can match the sheer relief offered by a sturdy doorway. I doubt I am alone, or excessively ursine, for believing that.

It could be worse, of course. At least people (most of them) don’t follow the example of dogs. We’ve all seen how they use the excuse of scratching their backs, to justify picking up unsavory scents while they wriggle around on the ground.

Descending to Subhuman Levels

Emulating animals has implications extending far beyond physical considerations. It is one thing to share a mutual appreciation for scratching one’s acnestis. Quite another to echo their baser natures.

In one of his letters, the Apostle Peter considers the fate of false prophets. After describing the damnation of fallen angels, he writes about those who teach deceitful doctrines. “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed . . .” (2 Peter 2:12, ESV).

The following passage from the Psalms reveals how even the righteous are not immune to behaving like animals. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you [God]. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. . . . My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:21-23, 26, ESV).

God’s word is filled with allusions to bestial behaviors. One of the most literal is found in the example of the humiliation of the great King Nebuchadnezzar. You can read it here, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

What Distinguishes Us from the Beasts?

C.S. Lewis describes how being a true human being differentiates us from animals. We share physical natures and numerous biological similarities. But we are far more. Lewis explores this in The Abolition of Man, which begins with the chapter “Men Without Chests.”

This image of lacking a “chest” actually refers to a classical reference for the part of a person where our character or virtue resides.

The excerpt below addresses how the enlightened or morally educated individual is capable of transcending the slavery of animals to their fleshly nature.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’

The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.

The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

It is wise, I believe, for every man and woman to devote themselves to the health and of their own heart and purpose—that which makes us human.

In doing so, we will still share some of the basic behaviors of the animal world about us, such as being plagued by our acnestis . . . but the choices that direct the course of our lives will no longer be dictated solely by carnal instincts.

And such growth, my friends, will make us each day, a little bit more human.

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* I realize Noah Webster limited his definition to quadrupeds, but today it has been expanded to aptly apply to all of us who suffer from this curse.

Common People

April 8, 2014 — 6 Comments

narnia shieldNone of us like to be considered “common.” No surprise; it’s not a complimentary adjective. We prefer to think of ourselves as exceptional . . . and, if not extraordinary, at least special.

In our democracies, with the possible exception of monarchies where the terminology may still exist, we’re no longer referred to a “commoners.” In fact, in the United States we can even design our own coats of arms!

If you want to add a “title” to your legal name, you can follow the example of some Americans who actually name their sons “Sir.” (Believe it or not, in 2012 it was the 998th most popular male name in California. Then there’s also “Prince Michael ‘Blanket’ Jackson II,” but let’s not go there.)

Owning a noble name is no prerequisite to possessing value. A well known quotation from C.S. Lewis dispels the misassumption that any human being is common or lacking in value. Every person is precious. Every person. And, no matter how tiny you ever feel on your most dejected day, you are special . . . precious . . . and (literally) unique!

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
(The Weight of Glory).

As I was considering this subject I came across a less familiar, but equally true, comment from Lewis. He was writing during an age when class distinctions in Europe were still implicit. He turned the matter on its head in a wartime essay entitled “Private Bates.” Here Lewis says that the very things the “elite” esteem reveal just how slavishly they follow appearances.

We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.

There’s much truth, I think, to Lewis’ observation. Or, perhaps that is merely my blue-collar upbringing speaking.

Let’s close our thoughts on “common folk” with a rarely read piece of poetry from Lewis’ Spirits in Bondage. (This was a pre-conversion collection, and is the only work of C.S. Lewis that is currently in the public domain.)

Thank God that there are solid folk . . .

Who feel the things that all men feel

And think in well-worn grooves of thought

Whose honest spirits never reel

Before man’s mystery, overwrought.

Yet not unfaithful nor unkind

With work-day virtues surely staid

Theirs is the sane and humble mind

And dull affections undismayed.

O happy people! I have seen

No verse yet written in your praise

And, truth to tell, the time has been

I would have scorned your easy ways.

But now thro’ weariness and strife

I learn your worthiness indeed

The world is better for such life

As stout, suburban people lead.

“In Praise of Solid People”

Spirits in Bondage