William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Since the last worked so well, and nothing exceeds like excess, there will be an extended e-holiday at the blog for at least the next month. New and guest posts are in the queue. Since the blog will not be monitored, the spam filter has been tightened to enormous degree: many comments will thus linger in limbo. Email will not be seen during this time. St Thomas, ora pro nobis.

AI Does Not Pose A Challenge To Christianity

The theology and philosophy of the Atlantic article “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” proves that it was all downhill after the schoolmen in the sad twilight of the Middle Ages adopted nominalism. Almost nothing has been right since, and little can be saved.

It’s best to step through and answer the misconceptions one at a time.

While most theologians aren’t paying it much attention, some technologists are convinced that artificial intelligence is on an inevitable path toward autonomy. How far away this may be depends on whom you ask, but the trajectory raises some fundamental questions for Christianity—as well as religion broadly conceived, though for this article I’m going to stick to the faith tradition I know best. In fact, AI may be the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

False. Technologists are fooling themselves because of a false metaphysics into thinking computers will become rational creatures like man. AI can never be a “threat” to Christian theology. And it is also false that Darwin’s theory, old or new, is a threat. That some Christians think it is results from accepting the same errors atheists make about evolution. (Of course, bad or false theories of any kind are a threat to individual sanity always.)

Despite AI’s promise, certain thinkers are deeply concerned about a time when machines might become fully sentient, rational agents—beings with emotions, consciousness, and self-awareness. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Stephen Hawking told the BBC in 2014. “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

These thinkers are wrong. Computers are programmed to say what they were told to say. They take input, even input from unpredictable exterior processes, and produce output based on that input in directed ways. They are machines. They are not alive. They do not possess souls as living things do.

Souls are the forms of living things. They are not entities inside living things that are extractable from them. They are not ghosts in machines. They are not aetherous. Souls in men are not made of material stuff. Our intellects are not material. Men have free will, and thus can sin. Machines do not have free will and cannot sin. Men’s souls are corrupt from birth. A computer never has a soul.

History lends credibility to this prediction, given that many major scientific advances have had religious impacts. When Galileo promoted heliocentrism in the 1600s, it famously challenged traditional Christian interpretations of certain Bible passages, which seemed to teach that the earth was the center of the universe. When Charles Darwin popularized the theory of natural selection in the 1800s, it challenged traditional Christian beliefs about the origins of life. The trend has continued with modern genetics and climatology.

That some erred in thinking the Bible specified the location of planet earth, vis-à-vis the universe as a whole, only proves that people make mistakes—and that people correct them. Religion in this way is self-correcting. About the origins of life, well, as of this writing nobody knows how that came about. Even supposing somebody does figure out how, whatever explanation is discovered will not in any way challenge Christian beliefs. Good grief, how could it? That some biological-chemical reaction is discovered to behave in a certain way only means that God set up the universe so that biological-chemical reaction behaves in that certain way. The reason why the universe is the way it is is because it was caused to be that way by something. That something could not be nothing or “blind” laws—those “laws” also had to have causes. The only ultimate explanation is God.

…Christians have mostly understood the soul to be a uniquely human element, an internal and eternal component that animates our spiritual sides. The notion originates from the creation narrative in the biblical book of Genesis, where God “created human beings in God’s own image.” In the story, God forms Adam, the first human, out of dust and breathes life into his nostrils to make him, literally, “a living soul.” Christians believe that all humans since that time similarly possess God’s image and a soul.

But what exactly is a soul? St. Augustine, the early Christian philosopher, once observed that “I have therefore found nothing certain about the origin of the soul in the canonical scriptures.” And Mike McHargue, a self-described Christian mystic and author of Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost my Faith and Found it Again Through Science, believes that the rise of AI would draw out the ambiguities in the ways that many Christians have defined terms like “consciousness” and “soul.”

“Those in religious contexts don’t know precisely what a soul is,” McHargue says.

Painting Saint Augustine as some kind of soul skeptic is absurd. And McHargue is wrong. Since Aristotle, we have known what a soul is. And Saint Thomas Aquinas, who lived hundreds of years after Augustine, wrote at great length about what the soul is. Only it seems McHargue, and the Atlantic writer, haven’t read Aquinas.

…consider technologies such as in vitro fertilization and genetic cloning. Intelligent life is created by humans in each case, but presumably many Christians would agree that those beings have a soul.” If you have a soul and you create a physical copy of yourself, you assume your physical copy also has a soul,” says McHargue. “But if we learn to digitally encode a human brain, then AI would be a digital version of ourselves. If you create a digital copy, does your digital copy also have a soul?”

This is true. Killing a human life inside a mother, or in a test tube, is killing a being with a soul. The rest is false. We are not our minds; we are not our brains. We are not just our bodies. We are a body plus intellect and will, and we are alive. Making a copy of the brain, presuming such a thing is possible, which now it is not and is now as far from being possible as having Richard Dawkins convert to Catholicism, would not result in a new man. The copy would have no more animation than would a yodeling pickle.

“I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” Christopher Benek, an associate pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Florida with degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, told Gizmodo in 2015. “It’s redemption of all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”

Men require redemption because they are born with a broken essence, i.e. soul, that requires fixing. Man also sins, and sins are free acts against God’s law. A machine is not alive, does not have free will, and cannot sin, therefore it is not in need of redemption.

The Christian Bible never anticipates non-human intelligence, much less addresses the questions and concern it creates. It does, however, teach that God has established a special relationship with humans that is unique among all creatures.

False. The Bible has plenty to say about non-human intelligences. Angels we have heard on high, anybody? Has the writer never heard of Satan? What the Bible doesn’t mention, and which nobody knows to be true, is whether other physical-rational beings exist in the universe. And if they did, nobody knows whether they would stand in need of redemption. It is true God has a unique relationship with men, because, at the least, God created men in His image.

Russell Bjork, a professor at the evangelical Gordon College who is cautious about broadening the Christian understanding of personhood to include AI, argues in the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, ‘What makes humans special is not what humanity is, but rather it is God’s relationship to us based on his purpose for making us.'”

False. Men are special because of what humanity is, as just discussed.

Kelly, McHargue, and McGrath all are convinced that most traditional theologians today aren’t engaged enough in conversations like this because they’re stuck rehashing old questions instead of focusing on the coming ones. McHargue notes that questions about AI and theology are some of the most common that he receives from listeners of his popular “Ask Science Mike” and “The Liturgist” podcasts. “Any non-biological, non-human intelligence will present a greater challenge to religion and human philosophy than anything else in our entire history combine,” he claims. “Nothing else will raise that level of upheaval, and collective trauma as the moment we first encounter it.”

False. The upheaval of Christ’s crucifixion outweighed any possible press release claiming that a computer has developed free will. Such a release is surely coming. It will be based on some kind of error, like a Turing test (which says nothing about intellects or free will) or whatever, and the only question is how quickly the error will be exposed.

The author of the article in its course was pleased to say, “There are no easy answers for Christians willing to entertain these questions.” We can now see that this is not so. There were plenty of easy answers.

An Open Letter To Milo Yiannopoulos — From A Friend (Guest Post)

Dear Milo,

I’ve heard you are in a spot of bother, and I am sorry about that. Were the shoe on the foot of a Democrat, then I am sure there would cheering and the pederasty movement would have a well-deserved boost, and there would be public agitation to lower the age of consent.

Pederasty? Did I say that? I am very sorry to have brought this up. We usually don’t speak of such things, and when we do, we are too shy to condemn them. I know that you are gay, and had an incident of abuse or awakening, depending on your point of view, when you were a young teen.

That is the true story. Whoever introduced themselves to you then, in whatever circumstances, is a criminal. You are, and I hate to say it, a victim. You aren’t a boo-hoo kind of victim, but what happened to you should not happen to a child. Full stop. The statute of limitations is likely up, and that is a pity. I don’t know if would do you any good to have this person have a modicum of justice, but it might, especially if another small boy or young man would be prevented from having to endure a similar ordeal. Whatever ink is spilled over you, dear Milo, this to me is the true story, and it ever will be.

When I grew up there were five little boys that I knew—all from different family circumstances, all of them, bright and smart and fun. One of them was my first official crush, and I must have been all of five years old, and so was he. There was a snow pile in the schoolyard, and we were king and queen of the mountain. The others I knew, too, and I even “dated” two of them, even though date is a chaste word. Once it was ice-skating and once it was a movie. We were always friends, but dating wasn’t in the cards, for what is now obvious reasons. But then it wasn’t obvious.

I learned later that when these little boys were little, they were visited upon by a friend, an older male, someone perhaps who was attracted to their brightness and wit.

They were funny boys. They knew what the convention was, and they tried to form attachments to girls. But they weren’t able to overcome what had happened. They felt that their lot in life was settled, that the map to their destiny was drawn by someone else, without their having a say in the matter.

Four of those little boys are now dead. Three died very young, one older but still young. One a suicide, and the others in situations that were brought on or complicated by The Disease. None of them married. None of them had children. They left their mothers behind, questioning, grieving, inconsolable, loving. Think of it: five families were prevented from being formed.

When I see you, and you are a wonderful human, I see the father and husband you could have been. What child would not love to be hoisted on your shoulders, and what woman would not blush from your attention?

I understand that the abuse happened, and that there is a direct line from the abuse to your “chosen” lifestyle—did you choose it, or did you think there was no other way? Or did that man so long ago set the course for you?

I get it. I honestly do. I know that I or you or anyone can’t snap our fingers and take you back to that age of innocence for a do-over, a second chance.

The balance of your life is your own. The course can be changed.


A Friend

Miracles And Possible Explanations

From Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory:

‘And I dare say the first time you saw a man raised from the dead you might think so too.’ He giggled unconvincingly behind the smiling mask. ‘Oh, it’s funny, isn’t it? It isn’t a case of miracles not happening—it’s just a case of people calling them something else. Can’t you see the doctors round the dead man? He isn’t breathing any more, his pulse has stopped, his heart’s not beating: he’s dead. The somebody gives him back his life, and they all—what’s the expression?—reserve their opinion. They won’t say it’s a miracle, because that’s a word they don’t like. Then it happens again and again perhaps—because God’s about on earth—and they say: these aren’t miracles, it is simply that we have enlarged our conception of what life is. Now we know you can be alive without pulse, breath, heart-beats. And they invent a new word to describe that state of life, and they say science has disproved a miracle.’ He giggled again. ‘You can’t get round them.’

We’ve talked before about how some dismiss miracles and prodigies by positing an alternate explanation for the happenstance. Alternate besides God, I mean. Water turns to wine, a miracle. Yet that could have happened if the water didn’t turn to wine but instead was substituted for wine by wily servants. Or the water was always wine, but weak, and, when no one was looking, this weak wine was fortified by the good stuff.

Or people in the enthusiasm of the feast, and already well fortified themselves, imagine the whole thing, which was started by a rumor from the kitchen. After all, nobody really saw the water undergo its transmogrification.

The sun danced in the sky in front of tens of thousands, and then the sun fell to the wet ground drying it without burning any soul.

Yet it could be that starting at the sun only made it seem to dance, even though none were blinded by staring. Somehow, maybe because of the moisture in the air, blindness was prevented. And because the sun only “danced” due to jangled optic nerves, it only seemed to fall to the ground, which anyway couldn’t have been that wet. People forget these kind of details all to easily. Even tens of thousands of people.

Well, you can always do this. Any event, any observational contingent event, always has lots of possible explanations, and at least one of these will exclude God from having performed the event. Of course, there may be no other corroborative evidence for any alternate explanations proffered. But that never seems to matter. For instance, no servants who pulled the water-wine swamp were ever discovered to have confided in friends, friends who later wrote the matter down. The joke, if it was a joke, is pure conjecture, made up whole cloth, fiction from start to finish.

Yet that the fiction could be thought of is taken as proof of the mundane, it is taken as a certain demonstration that the miracle did not happen. It is not that the fiction casts doubt on the miracle, which might make sense if the alleged miracle is suspicious in some way. That the alternate explanation might create agnosticism is fair enough, and in most cases more than fair enough. But no: the fictions makes it such that miracle is itself thought to be the fiction. And that is still not the strangest thing. The folks who discard eyewitness testimony and substitute it for fictions call themselves “rational” for this.

But since anything short of actual demonstration of the alternate explanation is not proof, then substituting fictions as proof is an irrational act. Again what is strange, is that this irrationalism is often accompanied by cries like, “Where is the evidence! Bring us the evidence!” It always does no good to say, “But you have discarded the evidence in favor of a fiction.” Why? Because the evidence is thought not to be persuasive because it was used in proving the miraculous. And the miraculous is ruled out of bounds as a matter of empiricist metaphysics. You can’t dent the thick wall of empiricism with evidence.

Summary Against Modern Thought: Man Does Not Share One Soul

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

Nobody alive appears to believe that all men share one soul. If pantheism is defined as God is the universe, than that all share one soul must be mantheism (sorry). This Chapter continues 41 original arguments, but I’m paring them back here since this is no longer a live controversy.

Chapter 73 That there is no one possible intellect in all men (alternate translation) We’re still using the alternate translation this week.

1 On the basis of what has already been said it can be clearly demonstrated that there is not one possible intellect of all present, future and past men, as Averroes imagined.

Notes For those who don’t know, Averroes was a Muslim theologian-philosopher of the 12th century.

2 For it has been proved that the substance of the intellect is united to the human body as its form. But one form cannot possibly exist in more than one matter, because the proper act comes to be in the proper potentiality, since they are proportioned to one another. Therefore, there is not one intellect of all men…

Notes This argument is conclusive enough, but there are still some twists and turns of interest.

4 Again, Aristotle in De anima I [3] takes the ancients to task for discussing the soul without saying anything about its proper recipient, “as if it were possible, as in the Pythagorean fables, that any soul might put on any body.” It is, then, impossible for the soul of a dog to enter the body of a wolf, or for a man’s soul to enter any body other than a man’s. But the proportion between man’s soul and man’s body is the same as between this man’s soul and this man’s body. Therefore, the soul of this man cannot possibly enter a body other than his own. But it is this man’s soul by which this man understands: man understands by his soul, as Aristotle puts it in De anima I [4]. Hence, this man and that man have not the same intellect.

Notes Well, and so much for all those identity-swapping tales and movies, which used to swap old and young, and now swap male and female. Curious.

5 Then, too, a thing owes its being and its unity to the same principle, for unity and being are consequent upon one another. But every thing has being through its form. Therefore, a thing’s unity follows upon the unity of its form. Hence, there cannot possibly be one form of diverse individual things. But the form of this particular man is his intellective soul. Therefore, it is impossible that there should be one intellect for all men…

7 Now, the Commentator Averroes replies to these arguments by saying that the possible intellect comes into contact with us through its form, that is, by the intelligible species, whose single subject is the phantasm existing in us and which is distinct in distinct subjects. Thus, the possible intellect is particularized in diverse subjects, not by reason of its substance but of its form.

8 It is clear from what has been said above that this reply is worthless. For, if the possible intellect makes contact with us only in that way, man’s understanding is rendered impossible, as we have shown…

Notes Worthless? That St Thomas is so judgmental, isn’t he?

10 Moreover, a thing derives its species, not from that which is in potentiality, but from that which is in act. Yet the phantasm, as particularized, has only a potentially intelligible being. Therefore, it is not to the phantasm as particularized that this individual owes the specific character of intellective animal, which is the nature of man. And so we have the same result as before, namely, that the thing from which man’s specific nature is derived is not particularized in diverse subjects…

Notes The difference between potency and act is ever with us!

13 The source of man’s specific nature must always remain the same in the same individual as long as the individual continues to be; otherwise, the individual would not always be of one and the same species, but sometimes of this one and sometimes of that one. But phantasms do not always remain the same in one man; rather, some new ones appear, while some old ones pass away. Therefore, the human individual neither acquires his specific nature through the phantasm nor by its means is he brought into contact with the principle of his specific essence, namely, the possible intellect.

14 Now, if it be argued that this man does not derive his specific nature from the phantasms themselves but from the powers in which the phantasms reside, namely, imagination, memory, and cogitation—the latter, which Aristotle in De anima calls the passive intellect, being proper to man—even so the same impossibilities ensue. For, since the cogitative power is operationally limited to particular things, makes its judgments on the basis of particular intentions, and acts by means of a bodily organ, it is not above the generic level of the sensitive soul. Now, man is not a man in virtue of his sensitive soul, but an animal. Therefore, it still remains that the only thing particularized in us is that which belongs to man as an animal.

15 Moreover, the cogitative power, since it operates by means of an organ, is not that whereby we understand, for understanding is not the operation of an organ. Now, that whereby we understand is that by which man is man, since understanding is man’s proper operation, flowing from his specific nature. Consequently, it is not by the cogitative power that this individual is a man, nor is it by this power that man differs substantially from the brutes, as the Commentator imagines…

Notes Understanding is not the operation of an organ: we are not our brains! Animals don’t understand: man does.

24 It is with respect to the conclusions of demonstrations, moreover, that there is science. For a demonstration is “a syllogism productive of scientific knowledge,” as Aristotle says in Posterior Analytics I [2]. Now, the conclusions of demonstrations are universals, and so, too, are their principles. Therefore, science will reside in that power which is cognizant of universals. But the passive intellect has no knowledge of universals, but only of particular intentions. Hence, it is not the subject of the habit of science…

29 And if there is one possible intellect for all men, it must be granted that if (as the Averroists assert) men have always existed, then the possible intellect has always existed, and much more the agent intellect, because “the agent is superior to the patient,” as Aristotle says. Now, if both the agent and the recipient are eternal, the things received must be eternal. It would then follow that the intelligible species existed from all eternity in the possible intellect; so, in that case, the latter receives no intelligible species anew. But it is only as the subjects from which intelligible species may be derived that sense and imagination have any necessary role to play in the understanding of things. Therefore, neither sense nor imagination will be necessary for understanding. And thus we shall come back to Plato’s theory that we do not acquire knowledge through the senses, but are awakened by them to the remembrance of things we knew before…

Notes Worse, if we’re all sharing the same learned things, we’re going to have an impossible time explaining our stupidity. The Averroist argument doesn’t explain how, if all understand as one, individuals are ignorant. As these next paragraphs show.

34 Since the intellect is a higher power than the sense, its unity must be greater. This explains the observed fact of one intellect exercising judgment upon diverse kinds of sensible things belonging to diverse sensitive powers. And from this we can gather that the operations belonging to the various sensitive powers are united in the one intellect. Now, some of the sensitive powers only receive—the senses, for instance; while some retain, as imagination and memory, which therefore are called store-houses. The possible intellect, then, must both receive and retain what it has received…

39 Then, too, the possible intellect, according to Aristotle, is that “whereby the soul and man understand.” But, if the possible intellect is one in all men and is eternal, then all the intelligible species of the things that are or have been known by any men whatever must already be received in it. Therefore, each of us, since we understand by the possible intellect, and, in fact, our act of understanding is itself the possible intellect’s act of understanding, will understand all that is or has been understood by anyone whatever; which is plainly false…

41 But, that this reply cannot wholly avoid the difficulty is made clear as follows. When the possible intellect has been actualized by the reception of the intelligible species, it can act of itself, as Aristotle says in De anima III [4].

This accounts for the experienced fact that when we have once acquired knowledge of a thing, it is in our power to consider it again at will. And since we are able to form phantasms adapted to the thinking that we wish to do, they are no hindrance to us [in our reconsideration of things], unless, perhaps, there be an obstacle on the part of the organ to which the phantasm belongs, as in madmen and those afflicted with lethargy, who cannot freely exercise their imagination and memory.

For this reason Aristotle says in Physics VIII that one already possessed of the habit of science, though he be considering potentially, needs no mover to bring him from potentiality to act, except a remover of obstacles, but is himself able to exercise his knowledge at will.

If, however, the intelligible species of all sciences are present in the possible intellect—which the hypothesis of its unicity and eternity necessarily implies—then that intellect will require phantasms, just as one already in possession of a science needs them in order to think in terms of that science; this the intellect cannot do without phantasms.

Therefore, since every man understands by the possible intellect as a result of its being actualized by the intelligible species, every man will be able to apply his mind at will to the things known in every science. This is manifestly false, since in that case no one would need a teacher in order to acquire a science. Therefore, the possible intellect is not one and eternal.

1 And sometimes even having a teacher is no guarantee of acquiring a science (sorry). Let us have madmen and lethargy (a burgeoning science lurks) as the final word!

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