5 science questions that are actually interesting

Most conversations about Christianity and Science bore me. Not because I am uninterested in Christianity. Not because I am uninterested in science. Not because I am uninterested in the interactions between the two. But because the conversations seem to revolve around the same stale question – did we or did we not evolve?

Personally I would like to see the Christianity and Science conversation evolve beyond this. I would like to see more attention to other questions. Questions like this:

1/ Artificial Intelligence. What questions does artificial intelligence research raise about what it means to be human?

2/ Quantum Cosmology. Can a multiworlds interpretation of quantum mechanics be reconciled with a Christian worldview?

3/ Genetic Engineering. If scientists ever create a human-animal chimera, will it have a soul? What is a soul anyway?

4/ Entropy and Time. What do we, as Christians, have to say about entropy? Can we speak of a new heavens and new earth without entropy?

5/ Scientific Neutrality. Are scientific theories ideologically neutral, or might monotheistic, pantheistic and polytheistic bias go deeper than we think?

17 Comments

  1. These are great questions, Matt. I totally agree with you – the old evolution debate is both stale and pointless.
    I’d love to see you blog around the questions you raise – it would be good to hear your thoughts on these issues.

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  2. You’re right, those are great questions. Hope you don’t mind me tackling a couple of them. 😉
    Artificial Intelligence: The problem that I have with AI personally is that it starts out with the assumption that all intelligence is rational and deterministic. It makes no room for the irrational, the emotional, or the intuitive — or attempts to reinterpret each of those things as something that are ultimately a rational process that we don’t understand. It’s an understanding of human nature I just don’t buy at this time.
    Genetic Engineering: Personally, I think there’s a lot of theology to unpack in this question too. For example, why wouldn’t such a being have a soul? Is the question being asked because said being was engineered by humans? Or is it simply being asked because of an underlying assumption that non-human organisms don’t have souls.
    If it’s the latter, then I will freely admit that I’ve always had a problem with the underlying assumption, even when I was a Christian. I’ve always felt that the Biblical arguments for this assertion were a stretch at best. I also think that as an assertion, it raises huge theological questions that I find disturbing. I won’t get into them in a comment, but I’ll just suggest that when I consider the belief that death didn’t enter the world until man sin, combine that with the idea that animals don’t have soul, and then realize that this means a single act committed by one man has caused the death and complete snuffing out of existence of millions of animals, I have a hard time reconciling that with a sense of justice.
    The suggestion that such a creature may not have a soul simply because it was engineered by man raises questions in its own right. We “engineer” babies in fertility clinics all the time. (And yes, I realize some Christians take issue with this practice as well.) Sure, we just combine a pre-existing egg and sperm cell. But does that mean the resulting human gets a soul simply because of some magic God has already imbued those gametes with? So I guess I might add a question to this topic: How does a soul get added to a living being anyway?
    Of course, I’m also concerned about why the question even matters? Do we simply want to know whether such a being has a soul so we can determine how we treat it? If it doesn’t have a soul, does that mean it’s not really alive? Does it mean we get to treat it like property rather than a person or even a living thing? (Again, these are similar to questions that trouble me over some people’s claims that animals don’t have souls, too.)
    I’d tackle scientific neutrality, but I don’t have the time or space to do so in this comment.

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  3. Ah, but I would say that ‘sometimes’ what passes for atheistic science is more polytheistic than most atheists and polytheists and Christians would like to admit. After all, how much science germinated in the occult? Alchemy ~ chemistry, astrology ~ astronomy, sometimes there are residual assumptions that we all miss and might be well advised to take a closer look at.

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  4. Jarred, thank for your thoughtful responses.
    I agree that we must account for the unconscious and irrational and intuitive in any theory of consciousness. Not only that, how do we explain subjectivity? That’s a big question for me. And then of course, at the risk of stirring up an Arminian versus Calvinist debate, there’s the question of free will. Is it real or an illusion?
    On souls, I think we first have to ask ourselves, what do we mean by that word anyway? As a Christian I would first want to deliniate between Hebraic and Platonic understandings, and Hindu understandings for that matter as well.
    On animals, there was an interesting question asked of Dawkins once by animal liberationists. If you don’t see any fundamental difference between animals and humans, and you’re not vegetarian, how do you argue against canibalism? Particularly when some societies accept it, when our taboos can be said to be nothing more than social constructs? Apparently he was quite stumped. Chew on that!

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  5. Sacredise, of particular interest to me is the question of entropy, the arrow of time and quantum cosmology. I find the many worlds hypothesis problematic, not only from a Christian perspective but also a philosophical one. It sounds too much like elephants all the way down. Infinite time regression. Not an explaination but a pushing back of the question. I am intrigued by the alternative hypothesis that there may be no arrow of time at the quantum level, that quantum weirdness is explained by symetric causation, and that our experience of time is explained by the low entropy state of the universe in the beginning. The question then being, why was entropy so low in the beginning? I don’t think the many worlds hypothesis really accounts for it.

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  6. Actually, have any of you read “The Empiror’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose or “Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point” by Huw Price? Fascinating stuff. Interesting questions for consciousness there too.

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  7. Busy day… Short version:
    1) I’ll let may computer answer the first question: ______________. 2) Yes. 3) Yes — It’s one of those thing there (points). 4) We’re against it as long as it lasts. 5) They’re not, but Christian thought should push them in that direction.

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  8. Matthew, as usual Adi Da has something unique to say about what the very important topic of science as open ended free enquiry, and scientism as intolerant dogmatism (while pretending to be otherwise.
    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-science.aspx
    Plus an extraordinary essay on Reality altogether, and the power seeking motives of all of our usual knowledge and their associated “world”-views. Accessible via this page (scroll down for the url)
    http://www.dabase.org/s-atruth.htm

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  9. Hey Kalessin, I was wondering, in developing artificial intelligence might we first have to develop artificial idiocy? I mean, intelligence is illusive even for many humans. I can think of a few alternatives to the Turing test at this point, mostly from my teenage years.

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  10. Hi Matt. Someone remarked (above) about emotional and relational intelligence. I think the idea that intelligence is simply deduction is useful in only a very limited sphere of human activity.
    There’s a principle in 3D computer graphics that’s probably applible to AI: when a 3D figure is highly symbolic (think Dire Straits “Money for Nothing”), we readily imbue it with human qualities to make up the deficit. When it’s 99.999% human, but NOT QUITE, we’re so used to closely analysing faces to detect the faintest anomalies of mood and thought, we find that tiny difference to be positively creepy.
    I think exactly the same phenomenon will be noticed in AI if it ever starts to show useful results; these will be judged by the boundary cases, not by simply getting most things right or applying complex algorithms (Think: Blade Runner). That is where emotional and relational intelligence is going to sort the electric sheep out from the goats. But we don’t have an analytical vocabulary for even normal reason yet, let alone that higher step.
    If we did produce a self-conscious organism, it would be able to relate to God. It would pass the Aristotelian (and still the best) definition of the soul, that by virtue of which I am alive (and in the case of a human being, am rational in the conventional sense). A soul is whatever system of factors makes me live and move and have being. There’s one in front of this computer screen.
    The concept of eternal, industructible souls, equivalent to spirits, is a legacy of Greek cosmological thought about the heavens, and I don’t think we need it, conceptually (whether or not souls have any such essence, I can’t say). I incline to the view that the NT suggests an immaterial aspect to humanity, but eternal life in the sense of the resurrection-and-perfection of the human body and the material world (Rom 8), doesn’t strictly require an intermediate state between death and life-after-life-death (in N.T. Wright’s phrase).

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  11. To complete my thought: a machine without the capacity for emotional and relational intelligence would fit the usual definition of a sociopath.
    Asimov’s robot novels all resolve around getting robots to work out complex ethical conundrums, based on the assumption that everything inside them has been designed to that end. This would not apply in the real world of a commercial robotics arms race.
    So I think the future of robotics is that computer viruses will result in machine violence and actually kill people, and so will be regulated ferociously. But the regulators won’t understand the technology. No one may; it’s possible that several generations of tech will be computer-designed, with humans only guiding the process.

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  12. I think the “creepy” phenomenon you mention could be a very important factor in the future evolution of robots.
    I understand intelligence as a social phenomenon. The evolution of intelligence, natural or artificial, cannot be considered separately from the evolution of society. And while it is true that technology shapes society, it is also true that society shapes technology. The evolution of the phone into a fashion accessory is one example. Successful technlogy tends to be humanizable technology. I expect that creepiness will exert a negative evolutionary pressure against true AI.
    I expect what we will ultimately end up with is not true AI, but idiot savant robots that in some ways are way beyond human, but in other ways are way below. After all, where is the market for a slave who rebels or chucks temper tantrums or has mood swings? We want robots smart enough to detect our mood swings, but not smart enough to question why they should respond with anything other than polite consideration.
    Here is my prediction. IF true AI evolves, it will not be because robots become more and more human so much as because we more and more enhance our humanity through artificial means. IF true AI evolves, it will be because we artificially evolve ourselves. The example here is the way hearing aids help deaf people to become more involved with human society, and paradoxically more “naturally” human.
    So my futurist tip is, look for where social pressures positively reinforce technological development.

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  13. Just in case people think this is pure science fiction, here are some quotes from Routers:
    http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/LM674603.htm
    “The U.S. forces that stormed into Iraq in 2003 had no robots on the ground. There were none in Afghanistan either. Now those two wars are fought with the help of an estimated 12,000 ground-based robots and 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the technical term for drone, or robotic aircraft.”
    “What worries some experts is that technology is running ahead of deliberations of ethical and legal questions.”
    So, lets ask some Christian ethical questions.

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