Tuesday, January 12, 2010

what does it mean to be human? (part 1)

Let us begin like this:

A researcher in what we call Strong AI (AI for Artificial Intelligence) tells you his goal is to produce non-biological human life, that is, a human being that has no biological components. He advises you that biology does not a human being make and that by the dawn of the 21st century, it will be a post-biological world, at least as far as human beings are concerned.

Startled, you protest, "I can't conceive of humanity as being anything other than biological! A machine is a machine and a human is a human and they are built of different substances and they are not the same thing."

So he smiles (condescendingly perhaps, since he is well used to this sort of reaction to his life's work and knows exactly how to counter it) and says he would like to present a scenario to you.

Suppose, he says, your son, whom you love, is in a terrible car accident and badly burned and mangled, yet still manages to survive. The year is 2032 and the technology is available to rebuild his body inside and out. Instead of spending the rest of his life deformed, in pain and paralyzed from the neck down, he can have his life back again in full health.

So using silicon, fluids, microchips, computer components and all sorts of synthetic material your son is rebuilt or re-created or - the researcher's favorite word - refreshed. Not only that, although you are aware your son has been restored using non-biological material, when you finally see him after weeks of "restorative surgery" he looks just like he has always looked - same face, same smile, same hug, same laugh. The doctor tells you he is 75% non-biological and 25% biological, but you can't tell the difference. They even put components in his brain to replace damaged tissue and he acts just like your son - he is your son! Even though he is more synthetic than biological.

Now, asks the researcher, is your son still human?

Well, you respond, if you put it that way - that it's him, his mind and personality are intact, even his endearing and irritating quirks are there - yes, of course he's still human. Just like the person with a metal plate in his head or leg is still human. Just like the person with an artificial heart or kidney or eye is still human. Restoring his body using non-biological materials doesn't change the fact this is the same son I held in my arms at birth and taught to ride a bicycle at seven.

So, says the researcher, if he's still human at only 25% biological, why wouldn't he still be human at 15% biological, or 10%, or 5% or 0% biological?

Wouldn't he still be your son? Still a human being?

Even if his body no longer consisted of blood and bone and skin and his brain no longer consisted of grey tissue and grey matter?

? ? ? ?

Thursday, January 07, 2010


A few miles south of where I live by the Rocky Mountains a number of paramilitary groups have their home. If you look up their websites, they always seem to be led by a Reverend somebody who has a high definition portrait taken in suit and tie (not camo) and they invariably have some sort of quasi-Christian creed they subscribe to. They want nothing to do with African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants of any visible minority, and they don't like Jews. Armed to the teeth, they promote a holy white supremacy in the name of Jesus Christ (who, apparently, was not a Jew).

About a thousand miles east of me there is talk of sharia law. One imam on a television documentary states that Allah recognizes no such country as Canada. The only nation Allah recognizes is Islam. Another imam declares it is the "will of Allah" that sharia law come to Canada and that Canadian law is not valid for the Muslim, only sharia. Muslims should do whatever they can to make sharia law part of the Canadian fabric.

Terror has existed on our planet for a long time - terror, that is, which is politically motivated. The terror of the czars of Russia was politically motivated and so was the terror that Lenin and Stalin brought in after the czars. Terror existed under the kings of France but the Revolution that overthrew them had not been around long before it succumbed to its own Reign of Terror. When the American South lost the war in 1865 the region spawned a movement that subjugated African-Americans for a century and effectively produced an American Apartheid that was nothing less than terrorism. Terror came to Germany as government under the Nazi regime.

It is true that poverty can be a breeding ground for movements of terror. The French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror rose out of poverty and misery. The Russian Revolution and its subsequent purges erupted from the grinding poverty of the peasants. The American South was dirt poor after the War Between the States. Nazism came to power out of a Germany impoverished from its defeat in the First World War and humiliated by the penalties its conquerors inflicted upon it. People point to poverty in Yemen and Afghanistan to explain the proliferation of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, both radical Islamist groups that use terror to promote their agendas.

Poverty explains why such movements can gain a large following for they provide people with meaning, purpose, identity, hope. It helps explain why terrorist movements gain ground in the first place because the movements tap into a frustration and an anger.

Yet I feel this only partly explains why the leadership of such movements come into being.

The leaders of terrorist cells may or may not come out of poverty and humiliation. But they know how to harness that poverty, humiliation and alienation to a cause, a greater cause that they believe in.

For many of the paramilitary groups south of me in states like Idaho and Montana (and north of me in regions of central Alberta and British Columbia), the cause is the supremacy of the white race. The groups tap into poverty, job loss, the need to belong and a twisted version of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

For the Islamist radicals, nothing less than the annihilation of Western culture and the domination of Islam will satisfy. They also tap into poverty, unemployment, the need to belong and a twisted version, Muslim moderates say, of the teachings of the Quran and Muhammed.

That white supremacist groups and Islamist supremacist groups will come to blows in the near future in Europe, the UK, Canada and the US is inevitable. That they will strike out at civilians and civilian targets, as well as military ones, is also inevitable. What is not inevitable is that any of these terrorist groups should prevail.

First, our law should be as fair and inclusive as possible and it should be the one law for all people groups. It should not be a religious law, not a law for Jews or Christians or Muslims or whites or blacks or Native Americans. It should not be a law that ties a nation to a creed that denies freedom of speech, religion, press or beliefs.

Second, it is imperative that a nation's sovereignty not only be respected but safeguarded. A nation cannot be subjugated to the totalitarianism of any belief that denies the nation's freedom, legitimacy or authority.

Third, the rights of all people groups within the nation must be respected and upheld and any movement that seeks to destroy the rights and freedoms and lives of these people groups must be resisted legally and effectively.

Fourth, it is incumbent upon the moderates who exist outside or on the fringes of supremacist movements to speak up. Christians should be pointing out the differences between the legitimate teachings of Christ and those of the movements that twist his words to racist ends. Similarly, Muslims should be pointing out the differences between the legitimate teachings of the Quran and Muhammed and those of the movements that twist the words of the Quran and Muhammed to racist and life-destroying ends.

As a Christian, I have a responsibility to challenge those who shoot abortion doctors and then say they are pro-life and have upheld a higher law. I have a responsibility to challenge paramilitary groups who say they follow Jesus but hate Jews and Muslims and African-Americans. I have a responsibility to challenge those who in the name of Christianity destroy life far beyond the mandate of any legitimate law enforcement group or military group to maintain order and resist lawlessness.

I expect the same from Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists and other religious followers. They should not let their faith communities become wombs for hatred and bloodshed and intolerance. But I also expect the same from atheists and agnostics - their organizations should not become think tanks of exclusivity and racism and intolerance either. Neither should the ranks of political parties or NGOs or human rights groups. Human nature is easily capable of subverting the most idealistic agendas and turning those agendas into licenses to kill.

Terror will always be with us. But so must the will to resist its intolerance and totalitarianism and viciousness. It is not simply the job of a few enlightened human rights leaders or politicians. The better angels of our human nature must gain the ascendancy. All of us who oppose the tactics and agendas of supremacist groups must find our voice. Or, in these days and times, risk losing it forever.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

monsignor quixote

Recently my son did a school project on Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote. So, to keep in step with what he was up to, I read Greene's novel for the first time.

Greene has an ability few people of faith, any faith, have - and that is the ability to see the weak spots in one's faith as clearly as the strong points. He also has the ability to see the weak spots and strong points of faiths, religious or otherwise, that stand in opposition to his personal beliefs.

In Monsignor Quixote, two friends, one a Communist ex-mayor, the other a Catholic priest who has been promoted out of his parish, take to the roads of Spain to tilt at various windmills that are all around them.

Greene is equally at home pointing out issues with Communism as he is taking issue with Catholic Christianity. So the conversation from both main characters rings true as they rattle along in the small car. Though we know Greene is seen as something of a Catholic writer, and we may sense a slight tilt - often very slight - in that direction, he allows the Communist to score telling points against inconsistencies and hypocrisies in Christianity. He also takes the trouble to show some of the strengths of the Communist "faith." There is an even-handed approach here we are not used to seeing from writers of any stripe - someone usually has a one-sided axe to grind about something.

The only way Greene can do this sort of thing effectively, I maintain, is because he is able to slip into the skin of the Communist or the Catholic in his story, without pretense or guile, and be sympathetic to their point of view. In this back and forth fashion he creates his own contemporary catechism that permits himself, and his readers, to arrive at a better and deeper truth than if he had simply mounted his horse and charged single-mindedly at one opposing target. Unquestionably, he is interested in taking us closer to God and the spiritual, the denouement of the novel shows that, but he is interested in doing it in a more roundabout "give and take" sort of way that shows truth exists in more places than just the few where one might expect to find it, depending on who you are (such as during Mass or in a church setting or at a Communist Party meeting). Truth is in all sorts of places, Greene tells us in Monsignor Quixote, including some very odd locations, and God things happen in those odd places as much, or more, as they do in the expected places.

This makes the novel an excellent read for just about anybody: those asking questions, those who think they have no more questions to ask, those with doubts and struggles, those who feel complacent, those who seek and those who are sure they have stopped seeking. Greene does not write unkindly, and he certainly does not write polemically - with the exception of a kind of Christlike cleansing-the-temple polemic on occasion - so readers can feel safe in the sense they have placed themselves in the hands and imagination of someone who cares.

The novel is quickly read, and there is a movie as well, but it is the sort of novel you read and then think about. A good book for this week of Orthodox Christmas or, as we call it here in my home, Ukrainian Christmas. Or, as Greene would undoubtedly like, a good book for any time of year, not only a standard set of days delineated as godly and holy ones. For the godly and the holy, he would maintain, are to be found everywhere.

If we look and listen, Christ is obvious in what is not obvious.