Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

So while I was writing a song a week last year and devoting my blog pretty much exclusively to that effort, I was coming across an increasing pile of articles about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and why everyone should at least try to understand what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why did some pretty substantial summing up in two posts – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. This two-part series is a long read but worth it if you want to get some background and do some thinking on this topic.

Which might get you scared or excited at what could happen within your lifetime. I mean, immortality or extinction?! That’s kind of a big deal.

But then for some humanizing balance, I recommend Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. Its author, Maciej Cegłowski, points out that those espousing AI’s potential to immortalize or annihilate our species are making some pretty bold assumptions about what intelligence ultimately is, and that some of this smells a bit megalomaniacal.

A story about computers taking over the universe (and then either saving or destroying humanity as we know it) captures our imagination more than a story about technocrats gradually sucking the soul out of human society by pushing for increased levels of surveillance and invasive technologies in their quest to prepare for the anticipated AI revolution.

Ceglowski’s article includes a quote I fell in love with: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” A search for the author of the quote, John Rich, turns up that he’s a country music singer/songwriter.

Superintelligence, I would like to believe, if and when it does arise, will not be supercerebral. It won’t just encompass the intelligence of computer geeks, but also musicians and plumbers and the infinite depth and breadth of being – of which we humans have only a limited understanding and a small share.

Which spins everything back around for me. Religious and spiritual traditions tell us that a superintelligence like that has already arisen – in what we call God or whatever other name has been given to the supreme being – and that this God brought all we know into being.

So ultimate being, superintelligence – do we project this back to before life began, or forward in time? Do we give rise to it, or did it give rise to us?

Or is this all my less-than-superintelligence asking all the wrong questions, thinking in a linear timeframe, boxed in by the laws of whatever computer simulation or created universe this is?

Thinking is fun!



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Stars are glowing mysteries. Science and wonder collide in those incomprehensibly giant and mind-bogglingly ancient balls of fire that appear to little you and little me as tiny points of light.

They are countless. There are more stars than humans who have ever lived. A quick Google search tells me there are maybe “1 billion trillion” or “100 octillion” stars in the observable universe.

So it seems both fitting and misguided to me that we call people who have set themselves apart, people who dazzle us from dizzying heights, stars. If you can somehow distinguish yourself from the masses around you, maybe you too can rise and become a star.

Why are stars so remarkable when there are so very many of them, each shining its light out all through the universe? For all of human existence, we’ve been staring up at stars on clear nights, lost in wonder, drawn far beyond ourselves or deep within ourselves, like our parents and grandparents and distant ancestors long before us.

But you are remarkable too. And so am I. And our neighbors, and coworkers, and everybody who calls and tries to sell us something, and all the old people sitting in the assisted living place down the street. Every politician, every middle-schooler, every complaining customer and annoying coworker, every single life.

So be you, you bright star. Shine on.

And rest in peace, Prince.

The song I wrote for week 16 of #songaweek2016 has something to do with the above thoughts, but it’s still not all untangled for me. See what you can make of it:


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I wander my past some nights

While I wait for sleep.

Someone I read recently said that our frontal lobe or pre-frontal cortex or some such brain part

Is a time machine

But he was referring to our human capacity to anticipate

Make a plan

Dream a dream

And live it in the mind’s eye.

I must use another brain part

To go back and relive

Though I never go back in factuality.

It doesn’t matter that I don’t see what I’m wearing

I know I am twenty-seven


And a brand-new feminist

Waiting for him in a Florida hotel room.

I know he will take me sailing

Then we will dine on seafood.

I can see myself but I don’t see what I’m wearing

I can look out from behind my eyes

But the everyday details

Have all escaped me.

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How can evolution be both scientific theory and enricher of theology? John Haught explains:

The notion that God creates the world is, of course, central to the faith of millions. Traditionally, Christian theology spoke of three dimensions of God’s creative activity: original creation (creatio originalis), ongoing or continuous creation (creatio continua), and new creation or the fulfillment of creation (creatio nova). Prior to the scientific discoveries of cosmic and biological evolution, however, the latter two notions were usually eclipsed by the first. “Creation” meant primarily something that God did in the beginning. But even in the late nineteenth century a few theologians had already recognized that evolution implicitly liberates the notion of creation from confinement to cosmic origins. And although today discussions between scientists and theologians about God and the big bang often assume that “creation” is only about cosmic beginnings, the idea of evolution forbids such narrowing of so powerful a notion.

Indeed, the fact of evolution now allows theology to apprehend more palpably than ever that creation is not just an “original” but also an ongoing and constantly new reality. In an evolving cosmos, creation is still happening, no less in the present than “in the beginning.” The big bang universe continues to unfold, and so every day is still the “dawn of creation.” As Teilhard de Chardin put it, in an evolving universe “incessantly even if imperceptibly, the world is constantly emerging a little farther above nothingness.”

Moreover, evolution has allowed theology to acknowledge at last that the notion of an originally and instantaneously completed creation is theologically unthinkable in any case. If we could imagine it at all, we would have to conclude that an initial creation, one already finished and perfected from the beginning, could not be a creation truly distinct from its creator. Such a “world” would simply be an appendage of God, and not a world unto itself; nor could God conceivably transcend such a world. It would be a world without internal self-coherence, a world without a future, and, above all, a world devoid of life. By definition, living beings must continually transcend, or go beyond, themselves. As Henri Bergson said long ago, life is really a tendency rather than something rounded off and complete. An unfinished, or evolving, universe is essential to this tendency’s actualization.

(John F. Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Westview Press, 2000), p. 37 from chapter 3, “Theology Since Darwin”)

The weight of evidence pointing towards evolution is often a crushing weight for someone, like me, brought up with a literalistic reading of the Bible. Usually one of two choices is made, both involving denial – deny the mountain of evidence for evolution, or deny the soul’s insistent dream of God.

My readings this morning seem to have converged around this point. Before I read the quoted passage above, Nathan and I read this at breakfast together:

In the depths of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

(from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran)

And later, I came across a blog post discussing this type of contrast as seen in a medieval painting:

Pisanello’s animals, tucked in their self-containing spaces, recall to me my scrappy outsider knowledge of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, when all the manifest forms of creation lie sleeping inside the earth, waiting for songs to awaken them, to call them continuously into being. But here the Dream is fading, the song on the cusp of being mocked and forgotten, replaced by the angular, linear, technocratic visions that lie in wait beyond the cross and the promise of Renaissance that the future saint locks his eyes upon.

(from Cat’s blog The Place Between Stories)

I sense a growing polarity between thinking and dreaming in our culture these days. So I am grateful for the insistent thinker-dreamers among us. Open eyes, open minds, and open hearts keep us growing, unfinished, evolving, deeply alive in the continuing dawn of creation.

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© zir.com

© zir.com

Fifty years ago an unnamed time traveler appeared in the gap left when modernism and fundamentalism agreed that faith and science must be at war.

Known simply as the Doctor, he is the raggedy man, the intellectual genius who weeps and laughs, the miracle-worker with a profound comprehension of the physical laws of the universe, whose imagination, fierce hope and deep love enter into those laws, bending and transforming them. He is a scientific mastermind who can be taught, who can change his mind, who continues to explore and discover, to wonder – and wander.

A living breathing creature who lives and loves and loses and fights, who dies and resurrects (himself and others), who changes and is changed by his companions, his friends, creatures he meets only once, his enemies – anyone with whom he is in relationship.

A god in a box. Which is bigger – immeasurably – on the inside.

The Doctor travels through all of space and time in his box, the TARDIS. He comes to help, to save, and often he comes especially to those who have lost hope, lost belief, lost imagination.

That’s why I’m hopelessly geeked-out on Doctor Who. If you’ve been with this blog – or me – for a while, you’ve seen me lose each of the above at times. I fought in the faith-science war, first on the faith side, then on the science side, and then I ventured into the unstable no-(wo)man’s land in between. Before I put my foot down on a land mine, though, the TARDIS whooshed in, and the Doctor, with his goofy smile and ancient eyes, invited me to fly with him.

I know. It’s only a TV show.

But there’s a story there. There’s a living idea that moves me.

My young son said to his father recently, “I can think of four wise old men – Gandalf, Obi-Wan, Dumbledore, and Sensei Wu.” I would add the Doctor to his list.

But the wise (someday old) man I love challenged our son to imagine more. He asked if he could think of any wise old women. The two of them thought hard, and together they came up with Galadriel and Professor McGonagall. I have yet to come up with any more from popular media. (Help me – can you think of more?)

With this dearth of wise old women, why would I latch onto yet another wise old (and so far very white) man?

Because if the Doctor has taught me anything, it is that everything that lives – even he – has a future. And that future, always true to the essence of the life from which it grows, often looks very different from the past. 

The wisest of old men and the most profound ancient stories are forever leaning forward, letting go of ego and convention, imagining the impossible.

I like to believe that the Doctor himself is a transitional and transformative figure in the evolution of human imagination – that in fifty more years, the Doctor will have helped to move us into a literary universe shining bright with wise old women.

Not only beautiful intelligent young women (a transitional and transformative figure of our current popular media), but also wise, wrinkled, heavy, gray, faded, quirky – even bearded! –  old women. Women who are respected, and heard, and believed in like I believe in the Doctor.

And Who knows what else?

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Intelligent design and evolution are not only conflicting ideas about the science of biological origins. They are answers to a basic question about the nature of life: Is the truth about something a fixed form, or is it an unfolding story?

I’m interested in this as it relates to our concept of self. These days we talk about “finding myself,” and “being myself,” as if my self is a fixed form, something from which I must strip away all pretense and assorted baggage, in order to find the real, true me.

In the framework of the “unfolding story” theory, I am becoming myself instead of finding myself. Instead of a set-in-stone, pre-designed form, I am an evolving, deepening story. Instead of digging down towards a base layer, I push out into the future, into unexplored territory.

But maybe these aren’t ultimately competing theories. Becoming often feels something like finding, in my experience. As if I am unfolding in a fashion consistent with itself (though not at all predictable), rather than careening forward in chaos.

Some sculptors say that the sculpture is always there, in the stone, and their job is simply to remove everything that doesn’t belong. Some writers say that the story or the song is already out there, in the air, and their job is simply to take hold of it, to let the work of art draw the artist forward into the reality of its being. It would appear that time and space lose at least some of their relevance wherever creation is involved.

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To follow up on this post, I went and read Life of Pi. (If you haven’t read the story or seen the movie and you plan to do so soon, you should skip reading this post for now. Spoilers to follow. You have been warned.)

The book has set me to pondering its main idea, “choosing the better story.”

Growing up fundamentalist, I learned that fantastical things were only allowed to be believed if they were written in the Bible – and then they must be believed as literally, historically, factually true. Santa, not true. Satan, true. Flying reindeer, lies. Talking donkey, historically accurate.

When I was nine, my mother read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my brother and me at bedtime. I just couldn’t get it. I asked her, “did this really happen?” There was a wardrobe (of sorts) at the foot of my bed. I tried once or twice to walk through it, with no luck. I doubted that Narnia was real, and my mother affirmed my suspicions.

I asked her why she was reading us this story, then. Why is it important if it’s not real? I wanted to know. She told me that these Narnia books are good for the development of children’s imaginations.

Who needs an imagination, I wondered, when only true things matter?

Throughout my adult life, I have mostly preferred nonfiction reading to fiction. I’ve wanted to learn new information and understand other people’s views and ideas. I haven’t had much time for stories, because I’ve believed that they aren’t true.

The Life of Pi, however, has challenged these thoughts. Or struck a chord I already know but haven’t played enough.

In my college years, I read Jane Eyre, and the story somehow changed me, deepened and darkened the shallow pastel tones of my life. Recently, I reread it. I’ve been rewatching Doctor Who episodes; and although I’ve read the book and seen both the theater musical and the movie starring Liam Neeson, I went out and saw the latest Les Miserables movie.

When I reread or rewatch a story, I haven’t necessarily forgotten the plot line. It’s not that I don’t know what happens in the story. And yet it is that I don’t know what happens in the story. Beyond (or within?) the actions of the characters, the plot development, there is a whole reality – a whole life – that I can enter into, again and again. And each time (if it’s a good story), I will have lived a little more life, grown a little wiser, learned something true that nonfiction cannot convey.

So what is this “better story” stuff? Does “choosing the better story” take us back to that tiresome dichotomy of rejecting science for art, dropping reason in favor of faith?

It might feel that way from a superficial reading of Life of Pi. There was the “factually true” story and the “better story.” Reason and faith (or fact and fiction, or science and art) were competing, and faith/fiction/art won.

But I would suggest that choosing the better story does not mean denying the truth of the “lesser” story. Science and art/reason and faith/fact and fiction are not mutually exclusive stories. Art/faith/fiction helps us go beyond the bare facts and literal account of an experience. So much more is happening in every moment than anything we can convey in a scientific theory or a reasoned argument. Reason is what we believe. Faith is what we believe in, the deeper meaning we apply to the facts.

The stories I learned in Sunday School begin to breathe when released from the demand that they be factually correct. They shimmer with touchpoints on my own experience of the world; they poke into the transcendent nature of things which thoughtful, honest scientific research also points me towards.

I cannot – and do not – deny the bare facts of evolution as the most accurate explanation of the origins of life. That includes classifying myself and yourself as highly evolved “great apes” in the animal kingdom, formed from a process happening over billions of years and manifesting itself through countless life forms and an unfathomably long string of births and deaths. There are moments when this cold hard truth chills me with its starkness.

But there is a better story I embrace, one which gives me courage to accept the lived and living reality of the lesser, equally true story. This story (my chosen faith tradition) paints in richer hues not only the beauty and joy that exists in the cold hard truth (and there is plenty when you take the time to look), but the violence and suffering as well (there’s also plenty of that). It gathers up the facts and re-creates them, not to deceive, but to reflect.

Maybe I only call my faith tradition the better story because it puts me – or my kind – at the center. Pi’s better story put him at the very center. He was the boy and the tiger.

But isn’t it true? From your perspective, you are the center of the story. Everything is happening, ultimately, in your own mind, your own conscious being. That, at last, is the best witness you have to anything you call reality.

Maybe it is possible to choose the lesser story – facts and facts alone. But it seems to me that one of our most widely shared human experiences is to take the facts before us and to tell the truth again – in a better story. This story can take various forms – faith, art and fiction are a few of the names we give it. But in making any sort of comment or reflection on the factual truth (processing it within our own selves), I suggest that we are reaching for the better story.

When I approach my Christian faith tradition and its “holy book” of the Bible as the “better story” that I have chosen, then I can interact with it. I can move in and out of the stories. I can argue with the characters and the things they say about God. I can argue with the characters labeled God, too (they are inconsistent and sometimes infuriating).

On good days (which would be most of them), I get out of bed in the morning because I believe that I am part of this mystical something bigger than myself, this truth that is living and real. I am a character not only in the lesser story, but also in the better story. The holy book may be closed, but the story it began to tell continues to unfold, and it’s my story too.

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