Archives For The Future

Good & Bad Memories

April 6, 2022 — 12 Comments

We humans are fascinating creatures. Our capacity to remember both the good and the ill from our past, exerts a powerful influence on the course of our future.

I’ve been reflecting on this contrast since our lectionary readings from worship this past Sunday. (I’ll note the particular passage that triggered my thoughts in a moment.)

The question I’ve pondered is whether good memories are more powerful than bad memories. By bad, I’m not referring to horrific experiences which our minds sometimes actively suppress or bury.

I’m thinking of unpleasant, disappointing memories. Things that we regret having happened, either to us, or because of us.

When I use the word “powerful” in my question, I’m referring to the ability of a given memory to continue actively impacting our lives.

In too many lives, it seems the joy and light emanating from positive recollections is often shaded or eclipsed by the clouds of painful memories.

Perhaps our lives would be happier if we consciously spent time recalling good experiences, and taught ourselves to reject – rather than dwell upon – negative thoughts when they force their way onto the stage?

C.S. Lewis provides a curious insight into the nature of memories. Their overarching essence often seem to magnify as time passes. Listen to his words, penned after a vacation in 1921, in which he describes how the joyful memories will grow ever sharper as they are recalled in the future.

I still feel that the real value of such a holiday is still to come, in the images and ideas which we have put down to mature in the cellarage of our brains, thence to come up with a continually improving bouquet.

Already the hills are getting higher, the grass greener, and the sea bluer than they really were; and thanks to the deceptive working of happy memory our poorest stopping places will become haunts of impossible pleasure and Epicurean repast.

Sadly, though, even glorious memories can sometimes fade away. This is the grimmest tragedy of many forms of dementia.

Memory in the Chronicles

C.S. Lewis does some curious things with memory in his Chronicles of Narnia. While the Pevensie children grow to adulthood reigning over Narnia, they end up forgetting about their earlier lives. Only when they stumble upon the Lamp-post, do they recall the land of their birth.

“By the Lion’s Mane, a strange device,” said King Peter, “to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!”

So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.

And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes.

It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide. Mrs. Macready and the visitors were still talking . . . (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

In Prince Caspian, a wise advisor, Doctor Cornelius, secretly informs the heir to the Narnian throne that the old stories were not simply myths. The evil Telmarines had actively labored to erase all memory of Narnia’s true nature.

“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was against these that the first Caspian fought.

It is you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.”

I find the following description of a renewed memory particularly picturesque. It takes place after the Pevensie children return to Narnia years after their initial visit.

Everyone except Lucy went to sleep at once. Lucy, being far less tired, found it hard to get comfortable. Also, she had forgotten till now that all Dwarfs snore. She knew that one of the best ways of getting to sleep is to stop trying, so she opened her eyes.

Through a gap in the bracken and branches she could just see a patch of water in the Creek and the sky above it. Then, with a thrill of memory, she saw again, after all those years, the bright Narnian stars. She had once known them better than the stars of our own world, because as a Queen in Narnia she had gone to bed much later than as a child in England.

And there they were – at least, three of the summer constellations could be seen from where she lay: the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard. “Dear old Leopard,” she murmured happily to herself (Prince Caspian)

Forgetting the Past

Every one of us has made mistakes. And far too often we allow those poor decisions and choices to haunt us the rest of our lives. That delights the Devil, one of whose titles is Accuser.

He wants us mired in the past, thinking there is no way we could ever earn God’s love.

The simple fact is that we don’t earn our Creator’s love. It’s a free gift. It is pure grace, and utterly unmerited.

Once we have confessed our sins, God washes them away and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

To emphasize how God no longer holds our past sins against us, consider some of the ways he expresses his capacity to permanently forgive our confessed sins.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities… so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103).

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression..? You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19).

And now, for the verse which inspired my thoughts. It struck me as particularly helpful for our Christian lives, given the fact that God does not keep a permanent record of our sins. Wouldn’t our lives be better if we followed the Lord’s example?

Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).

“Forgetting what lies behind,” our past failings which have been forgiven, liberates us to live the life to which God calls us.

That’s seldom easy to do, but knowing how “far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” makes that possibility much more likely. Let us press on.

Machinery, one of the fruits of scientific research, is intended to benefit humanity. It often does. However, even machines with totally peaceful purposes – hay balers, for example – can be deadly.

Machines-run-amuck populate many dystopian novels and films. One of the most successful franchises is Terminator. Humanity is brought to the precipice of extinction, after devising machines – and their perilous companion Artificial Intelligence. The very first film, The Terminator (1984) brilliantly uses the biblical allusion “Judgement Day,” to mark the sentience of the genocidal Skynet.

Nearly forty years later, debates about weaponized autonomous systems have moved far beyond speculation. And it does not require a doctorate in computer science to recognize that given a potentially lethal machine the power to make its “own” decisions poses a deadly risk. After all, if software programs can be virally infected, and secure systems can be locked tight and held for ransom, there are no guarantees that “terminators” will not be part of our future.

We’ve seen how weapons can easily be mounted on the robotic dogs that are currently accompanying our troops.

And in a recent Air Force Magazine article, “Unmanned Flying Teammates,” we read the promise that “Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade.”

The common nomenclature for the current generation of these machines is Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. You can read about “slaughterbots” at the Future of Life Institute site.

Whereas in the case of unmanned military drones the decision to take life is made remotely by a human operator, in the case of lethal autonomous weapons the decision is made by algorithms alone.

Slaughterbots are pre-programmed to kill a specific “target profile.” The weapon is then deployed into an environment where its AI searches for that “target profile” using sensor data, such as facial recognition.

While the first generation of such weapons are still being designed, a genuinely wonderful new machine foreshadows what might be an ominous future.

In response to the destructive necessity for pesticides, scientists have come up with a new self-driving farm machine that avoids the need for poisons by selectively zapping individual weeds with lasers. Forbes has a great article on the subject, with the unwieldly but informative title, “Self-Driving Farm Robot Uses Lasers To Kill 100,000 Weeds An Hour, Saving Land And Farmers From Toxic Herbicides.”

The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second.

They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.

I applaud this invention, with one major caveat. How large a step is required between zapping weeds and burning holes through human bodies?

Ironically, they have even named this agricultural prototype for human-hunting machines “Terminator technology.”

Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator’s official name – used by the UN and scientists – is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

Actually, this is a very positive breakthrough in terms of increasing harvests while preserving the natural health of the earth (and the Earth). C.S. Lewis, I believe, would have welcomed this new technological achievement.

The affinity of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien for nature is well recognized. The two WWI veterans were averse to industrialized landscapes, and much preferred bucolic images. You can see that in Lewis’ fiction, although it’s much more evident in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Even Tolkien’s truest fans must admit that some readers find his elaborate discussion of the Hobbits’ harmony with nature almost mundane.)

True science is a good thing, but one must remain vigilant against an idolatry that masks itself as science.

Beware of Scientism

C.S. Lewis’ role as a an apologist for Christianity – and for what was worthwhile in past history – brought him into more direct conflict with technology. Of course, it was not scientific advances per se of which he was wary. It was the creeping idolatry of scientism, which assumes the trappings of faith in its disciples’ eyes. Tolkien shared his concerns regarding the matter, but confronting such lies was not part of his vocation.

Lewis’ clearest exposition of humanity’s lust for progress may be his 1954 Inaugural Lecture as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. De Descriptione Temporum (A Description of the Times) should be read in one sitting, as it was delivered. It is included in several collections, but available online here. The quotation below offers a very small slice of his influential lecture. (Coincidentally, A Pilgrim in Narnia featured a superb column on the address just yesterday.)

[The birth of the machines] is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. . . . What concerns us . . . is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation,” with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”?

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . . But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. . . .

Our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [all of those who have gone before us.]

A thought-provoking article, “The Folly of Scientism,” offers the argument of a professor of Biology, which is independent of C.S. Lewis, while echoing many of his cautions.*

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics – seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence.

An excellent work on this subject is available for purchase, entitled The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism. Michael Aeschliman’s excellent treatment is evidenced by the fact the 2019 version is the third edition of the title.

But why should this central civilizing truth about the “res sacra homo,” [the fact that “humanity is a sacred thing”] . . . need C.S. Lewis’s [reaffirmation]? The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it should not be as obscure or little understood as it is today.

Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past.

Back to the Robots

Wait, I just noticed some armed drones flying overhead, and what appeared to be a silhouette resembling a GURT-101 Terminator skulking through the woods outside my office . . . Perhaps I’ve already written too much.


* This article appears in The New Atlantis, where they say “Our aim is a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”