Doomsday: The End of Privacy!

There is much concern these days about privacy and whether in a digital age where all things electronic are recorded somewhere  and whether there ever can be such a thing as privacy or private communications.  Electronic communications have a way of finding themselves able to be retrieved and published.

“Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, writing in the HARVARD LAW REVIEW, expressed concern over privacy infringements threatened by new technology: ‘Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual . . . the right “to be left alone,”‘ they wrote.”  (“The Never-Ending End of Privacy”, DISCOVER MAGAZINE, Jan/Feb 2014, pp 14-15)

Just another alarmist piling on to all the current concerns?  If you thought the above words were written in the 21st Century, you would be wrong.  As the article goes on to report:

“The year was 1890, and the inventions Warren and Brandeis cited were ‘instantaneous  photographs’ and devices for ‘reproducing scenes or sounds.’  Those innovations now sound quaint, but the concerns they raised are fresher than ever.”  

 

Perhaps it is proof that the more the world changes, the more it remains the same.  Technology challenges our freedoms and even our humanity.  For Christians, the issue remains the same, even with technology, how do we love one another as Christ commanded us to do?

Ray Kurzweil and the Appearance of Consciousness (I)

Futurist and artificial intelligence advocate Ray Kurzweil has been predicting for some time that artificial intelligence (AI) will in the near future become greater than human  intelligence in a moment he calls the singularity, after which point artificial intelligence will take on a life of its own, taking over many things humans now do.   As AI assumes greater control of the world wide web, it will even further accelerate the speed at which AI takes control of all manner of things in the world.  Kurzweil also foresees in this time a merging of AI with human intelligence in a fusion which will change the world as we know it forever as human intelligence will become more merged with computers and less dependent on limited and mortal human bodies.  AI will become more “human” and humans will be able in a gnostic apocalypse to shed their bodies to soar through  the universe  in a flow of electrons – or flow to wherever wireless connections allow us to go.  (see also my blog The Singularity is Near Gnosticism).  From what I’ve read of him, it is not so clear to me why the super-intelligent AI won’t eliminate all individualism and become Star Trek’s “Borg.”

Underlying Kurzweil’s thinking is his apparent belief that the human brain is nothing more than a bionic computer which calculates and crunches data – which is why it will so readily and easily merge with the AI of computers, since they all do the same function (at least as he views the world).  Human thought and the human mind, in a very gnostic vision of things, do not need the brain or the body and thus are just waiting to merge with the electronic universe.  The biological dimensions of being human are ignored, and seemingly of no value to Kurzweil, for whom the mind is eternal and the body that which prevents the mind from attaining its destiny in cyber space.

In the science magazine, Discover  November 2012, Kurzweil writes (How Infinite in Faculty ):

“My own view is that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex physical system. … By this reckoning, a sufficiently complex machine can also be conscious.  … My objective prediction is that machines in the not-so-distant future will appear to be conscious. … My subjective leap of faith is this: Once machines succeed in being convincing when they speak of their conscious experience, they will indeed be conscious persons.”

He somewhat hedges his prediction in saying that machines will soon “appear to be conscious.”  Of course appearances can be deceiving.  But Kurzweil says they will be conscious, and which then raises the moral dilemma of whether turning computers off or unplugging them might be  “murder”?  In Kurzweil’s world it would appear to be since he imagines humans will have attained immortality by being merged with AI in cyber space – of course only if no one turns the computers off or they are knocked out by a Hurricane like the recent Sandy.

Kurzweil pushes the ethical envelope:

“The idea of consciousness underlies our moral system, and our legal system in turn is built on those moral beliefs.  If a person extinguishes someone’s  consciousness, as in the act of murder, we consider that to be immoral and, with some exceptions, a high crime.  Those exceptions are also relevant to consciousness.”

So perhaps Kurzweil’s predictions of human immortality through the merging of human minds with AI can only be attained if computers cannot be turned off.  If we can switch off AI, that might terminate his supposed merger of mind and AI, which he says would then morally be murder.  So maybe, before his singularity happens, we want to think about whether creating AI that we morally cannot terminate is such a good idea.  It is the stuff of great science fiction.

“I agree that contemporary examples of technology such as your smartphone and notebook computer are not yet worthy of our respect as conscious beings.”

What a relief!   For now, if you turn off your smartphone or notebook you are not terminating a conscious entity.  Imagine forgetting to charge your phone: you’d be committing homicide. But maybe in the future the phone’s will be so smart they will practice self-defense and force you to charge them to keep them alive.

Next:  Ray Kurzweil and the Appearance of Consciousness (II)

Implications of the Free Will Debate

This is the 14th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Free Will.   This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.

The new fMRI technology has opened some exciting possibilities regarding our understanding the functions of the brain.  As Tallis notes popular media stories about neuroscientific findings are ubiquitous in the news these days.   Claims about what fMRIs can prove abound in scientific and popular literature.  Both Gazzaniga and Tallis offer some cautionary advice about what the new neuroscientific achievements can actually prove.  Tallis especially points out that those with strong materialistic beliefs are proclaiming neuroscience now proves consciousness, the self and free will are illusions created by brain biochemistry. And Tallis warns that these claims far exceed what the science actually shows but rather the materialists are reading into the evidence what they already believe rather than extracting from the evidence testable conclusions.    Just a quick look at 3 Magazines that come into my house:

DISCOVER magazine, a publication reporting on recent trends and findings in science has regular features on the brain and new neuroscience:  The April 2012 edition had an article by Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives”;  Carl Zimmer contributes regular articles on “The Brain” to the magazine.  The 5 March edition of TIME magazine had an article, “Getting to NO: The Science of Building Willpower”, by Jeffrey Kluger which also relies on fMRI studies on the brain.  The October 2011 edition of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC featured David Dobbs’ article, “Beautiful Brains: The New Science of the Teenage Brain.”

Claims are abounding as to what neuroscience has proven and because of the drive of some neoatheists, this science is now being offered as the basis for an entirely new morality and calling for sweeping reforms of the justice system.  For if the material world is all that exists and free will is an illusion, than any ideas about morality and personal responsibility will have to be completely revamped.  Age old ideas of how to deal with social problems and crime which are based in the free will choice of the perpetrators will have to be thrown out.

Tallis offers a very stark warning about the agenda being pushed by the neo-atheists.

“The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart.  The twentieth century demonstrated how quickly social policies based in pseudo-science, which bypassed the individual as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply saw humanity as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe.  Unfortunately, historical examples may not be successful in dissuading the bioengineers of the human soul because it will be argued that this time the intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous.”  (Tallis, p 70)

Tallis is clear in his book that the scientific evidence and logic itself do no support the claims of these neo-atheists.  Though himself an atheist he comes in his book to the defense of religious beliefs about free will and personhood and calls upon modern philosophers to challenge these modern claims based in sound logic.  He also sees dire consequences to humanity not in following science but only in allowing science to be interpreted by scientism.

Gazzaniga offers some thoughts which perhaps not his main intention are solid support for the notion of free will and a rejection of materialistic determinism.

“On the neurophysiological level, we are born with a sense of fairness and some other moral intuitions. These intuitions contribute to our moral judgments on the behavioral level, and, higher up the chain, our moral judgments contribute to the moral and legal laws we construct for our societies. These moral laws and legal laws on the societal scale provide feedback that constrains behavior. The social pressures on the individual at the behavior level affect his survival and reproduction and thus what underlying brain processes are selected for. Over time, these social pressures begin to shape who we are. Thus, it is easy to see that these moral systems become real and very important to understand.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2966-70)

Wisdom and Lady Justice

Social pressures (non-material forces) do in fact change behavior as can be demonstrated in scientific studies.  People have free will and are shaped by society and moral beliefs.  Thus the claims that all behavior is purely controlled by biochemical processes in the brain are not supported by our experience in life nor by what scientific studies show.

Next:   A Test Case – Applying Neuroscience to Law

Singing Therapy Helps Stroke Victims Speak Again

I found both fascinating and very moving the NPR story Singing Therapy Helps Stroke Victims Speak Again which I listened to as I drove to the church this morning.  I sat in the car after arriving at the church to finish listening to the story.

As the story title implies researches are looking to use “melodic intonation therapy” to help stroke victims who have lost speech to regain speech through first having them sing.  Apparently while speech is controlled in the left brain hemisphere, singing involves the entire brain, and so stroke victims who have lost the use of their left brain hemisphere can still sing even if they can’t speak.

The story also focuses on a 16 year old girl, Laurel F. who suffered a devasting stroke at the age of 11.  Doctors concluded she would never be able to speak again.  But miraculously through a singing therapy, Laurel’s speech has returned and she is back in school.   As Laurel puts it:  “I’m singing in my head and talking out loud without singing. I do it, like, really quick.”

The story is amazing and well worth reading or listening to as a podcast.

Fortuitously for many others, Laurel has a twin sister and doctors are able to compare through brain imaging Laurel’s brain to her twin sister’s – both her damaged brain as well as the regrowth and repairs of the brain that have taken place through the music therapy.  This allows researchers to better understand what is happening to the brain and how the therapy might work.

A miraculous story for the Christmas season.  Thanks be to God.

The Internet for the Non-teetotalers

The recent comments by the OCA bishops on social networking and the Internet as well as a few criticisms they proffered of the Internet at the All American Council give us all reason to consider the value of the Internet.   Today Mark Stokoe announced he was suspending publication of OCAnews.org, something he had been privately talking about for a very long time.

Perhaps the bishops will rest easy now; we will see how the antagonists of OCAnews.org react themselves since they justified their own publications as needed to counter OCAnews.   Will the end of OCAnews bring an end to Orthodox Internet wars as all parties declare the cessation of publication?  Or will some ideologically driven folk carry on with their ad hominem attacks?  Time will tell.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.”   (Proverbs 10:19)

Disagreement in the Church is nothing new – we can read about disagreements among the apostles while Jesus was still with them (which one of us is greatest?).    Disagreement is not always bad as it can help to clarify issues as certainly was done through the great theological debates which culminated in the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The Internet itself has become a jousting point for the Orthodox – an issue arguing over the means by which we can communicate.   Certainly part of the issue, which many would say is the very goodness of the Internet in dealing with despotic dictators, is the inability of the few to control the Internet (as well as who speaks, or how many speak, or what they speak about).  The Internet’s threat to democracy is also there as we can see in the presidential campaigns where lies, fabrications, disinformation and distortions about various candidates abound.  The Internet can challenge the despot’s control of information, but it can also flood people’s email boxes and minds with useless, wrong and harmful ideas.  So the good and the bad of  using the Internet are not readily separable.

Abraham Lincoln in a speech in 1842 dealing with temperance waxed eloquently about whether drunkenness arose “from the use of a bad thing” or rather “from the abuse of a very good thing.”

The same question is being asked about the use of the Internet by Orthodox Christians.   Some seem to want to make the Internet a bad thing from which ‘others’ should abstain.   After all, the Internet seems to be as addicting to some as alcohol is, and certainly it can lead to verbally abusive behaviors.    Yet Orthodoxy has not forbidden the use of alcohol to its members, even though its negative effects have been well known since the time of Noah.

The Internet itself is nothing more than a powerful tool for conveying information (or disinformation) to a large number of people, quickly, efficiently and often over great distances instantly.  Tools can build up the world or destroy it; they can be used to create beauty or make a mess of things.

Lots of people are killed in automobile accidents and yet our society is so structured that we can hardly survive without cars.   The Internet itself is often imaged as another highway, one which conveys information.  Highways are not without danger.  Parents warn their children about the danger even of crossing the street.  Yet we do not ban autos or highways or streets, for they all also are tools serving a purpose.

Perhaps the development of the Internet is something like  the discovery of the new world’s tobacco as described in the recent book by Charles Mann,  1493: UNCOVERING THE NEW WORLD COLUMBUS CREATED.  Tobacco was hailed as something marvelous, enriching, and even healthy by Europeans and Chinese, leading to the addiction to the plant of millions and also to their early deaths.  It took many centuries for humans to come to a belief that the drug effect of tobacco was dangerous to our health.

Tobacco’s stimulent effect was at first largely thought of as quite useful, especially for soldiers.     The Internet is not quite the same as tobacco, it is a far more powerful tool that remains outside of our bodies.   In the hands of a carpenter, a hammer can be effectively used to build beauty.  In the hands of a murderer it can bash someone’s brains.  So too with other tools, the whittler’s knife, the doctor’s scalpel or the laborer’s shovel which can dig a well or a grave.

But the Internet remains a tool in itself neither good nor evil, but capable of being used for both and either.  Some might think it both the use of a bad thing or at best the abuse of a good thing.    God in His own wisdom endowed humans with free will and has put into our hands, hearts and minds the ability to create beauty, to co-create the world with Him, and to procreate life.   We also have the ability to choose rather to destroy and to bring about death.   The Internet does not change humanity.  We invented it and we are the ones who will use it for good or ill or both.  As Christ taught us:

 “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:35-37)

The Internet is a tool, it is humans who choose good and evil.  The good among us will make good use of the Internet.   The evil will make use of the Internet as well.   We will know them by their fruit.  And we will see as with tools, sometimes swords are made into plowshares and sometimes the reverse happens.  The same material can be used for helping bring forth life and for taking life away.  In this world we also are aware that sometimes swords are needed.

There is still much for us to learn about the Internet.   It is obvious that Internet etiquette has not been embraced by some Orthodox.   Some find it easy to hide behind anonymity in order to attack others, accuse falsely, and abuse people.

It is also true that the wrong reading of Scripture can lead to heresy, yet we do not ban Bibles nor their study.

Unfortunately, as some of the Patristic Fathers noted about commentaries on the Scriptures, sometimes writers demonstrate exacting precision (Greek = akrebeia) about how they interpret the text, but their conclusions are purely wrong despite their interpretive precision.    So too on the Internet people can be inaccurate in what they write even when they are saying precisely what they intend.

“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14)

The Internet’s use requires much wisdom and discernment not to mention humility and love.  In the hands of the fool and of the wicked it will wreck sin and evil.  But it also can convey beauty and truth to the many.

Viewing the AAC from Where I Sit

Podcasts and some reports from the OCA’s  16th All American Council are now available online.  You can also read about the AAC and some developments at other webpages.

Thanks to the technology of podcasts you can hear what various speakers said and don’t have to rely on the filters of reporters.  So in this blog I don’t intend to simply report what was said, but admittedly I’m running what was said through the filter of what I heard and how I understood what was being said.  That is also the nature of blogging.

Metropolitan Jonah’s opening speech mentioned some of the very difficult problems created by his administration through the past three years, as well described some of the ongoing work of the church, and offered a few goals for the future.  The fact that his speech is available online both in written form and as a pod cast is important because there have been at times notable gaps in the past between what he said and  what he did or said later.  Technology is allowing for some accountability.

The Metropolitan acknowledged that the past three years have been an administrative disaster.  From where I sit on the Metropolitan Council, on the MC’s Ethics Committee and on the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee his words are certainly an accurate assessment of what has happened under his administration.   He did own up to being the source of the problem but also blamed his critics for creating a difficult atmosphere – for me the truth is that much of that poisoned atmosphere was created by himself. He came into office at a moment in the OCA’s history with high expectations that we would be able to put behind us all our past problems, scandals and failures.  There was an overwhelming sense at his election that now finally the OCA would move into its manifest destiny to be the Church in America.  All of that good will and hope was quickly evaporated among those who had to work most closely with him.

Everyone in leadership manages to offend some, disappoint others, and make enemies of some.  One learns that this is a reality in the world of the Fall.  We can have all the intention in the world of doing out best and assuming this will please everyone, but as the old adage says, “you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time”, but if you decide your goal is to please everyone so that they will like you, you have set yourself up for failure and for the ruination of the organization you lead.

The Metropolitan acknowledged there had been a complete breakdown in trust and raised a serious question as to whether at this point that breakdown could in fact be reversed or repaired.  As a step to see whether or not repair and restoration of trust in him as a leader is possible, he mentioned entering into a program of evaluation for clergy beginning November 14.   A lot rides on his willingness to co-operate with this program of evaluation because it will certainly be a test (and not the first one either) of his real acknowledgement that he is responsible for many of the problems which now exist in the OCA’s administration.

For me, again from where I sit, much of what happens next in the OCA is riding on the Metropolitan’s own willingness to cooperate with the process and the willingness of the Synod to not only hold him accountable but upon their willingness to deal with what is learned especially if some of the evaluation provides ambiguous results.  Then the members of the Synod are going to have to deal directly with issues that the Metropolitan and they have been either wrestling with, dancing around or hoping to avoid.

The Metropolitan outlined some of his priorities for the future which are both notable and noble and you can read them in his speech.   Giving speeches as he himself has oft said is something he likes to do, and has often earned him lauds from his listeners.  However, as he also acknowledged his years as bishop have been an administrative disaster, and so there is a huge gap between his articulated vision and the reality he works to create.

I will comment on one detail of his vision for the OCA, you can read his speech or listen to it and make your own judgments about what he says (and how that matches with what he actually accomplishes).  Funding is a perennial discussion in OCA administration and a triennial discussion at AACs!  Various ideas have been proffered through time, some merely name change dressings to the core issue that the central church believes if it had more money it would accomplish more things.  Whatever the truth in that logic, in the midst of his appeal to the funding issue, the Metropolitan advocated moving away from whatever current system we are following to a tithing system of giving to support the church.  Now I have been committed to tithing all of my adult life as a Christian, so I’m a practicing believer in tithing.  But when the Metropolitan says in his pitch for tithing that we must “conform ourselves to Christ through obedience to the Gospel and commitment to living according to the teachings of the Apostles and of the Holy Fathers”, I can’t help but wonder how many quotes could he come up with from Apostolic and Patristic writers in which they actually make tithing the norm for Christians.   Even the Apostolic Council in Acts 15 does not set tithing as a requirement for Christians.

But that issue may be nitpicking when compared to the very serious issues the Metropolitan raised related to his administrative failures and the complete breakdown in trust between himself, the chancery staff, the Metropolitan Council and the Synod of Bishops.

Following the Metropolitan’s report several bishops offered “responses” which weren’t so much directed at the Metropolitan’s speech but actually allowed them to reflect on their life in the church.  Personally I thought their comments were worth listening to because in my mind for the first time ever we heard our bishops in the AAC share anecdotes and thoughts related to their own sojourn as Christians and members of the OCA.   There was something warm and alive in their sharing their thoughts.  Certainly they all expressed a desire for the Metropolitan to fully and faithfully deal with the issues which have crippled his ability to lead and have damaged his relationship with other church leaders both in and out of the OCA.  And there was at least “veiled” acknowledgement that there are some serious problems waiting to be tackled and resolved.

The bishops did take a few shots at the Internet as contributing to making solutions to the internal problems of the OCA difficult.   The Internet however has not created the real problems that exist with the personalities involved.  Leadership has to lead despite the circumstances in which they are in.  The Internet is simply part of the daily lives of Americans.  It can be used for both good and evil.  Certainly there are professionals who can help willing and receptive leaders learn how to navigate through the information/Internet Age.  Leaders can lead even with the Internet attracting and creating attention to itself.  Rather than bemoaning the technology of communications which is now part of the landscape and infrastructure of daily life, we can learn how to deal with it.  Certainly most early Christians viewed the Roman Empire as the greatest threat to their existence and felt there was no possible connection between Rome and Jerusalem.  Yet the Church overcame that Empire and used that Empire for evangelism.  The Internet is not a greater threat to us than the Roman Empire.  We cannot escape the Internet and certainly we will learn even more about its risks, but we can also bring our use of it under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

See also my Parting Thoughts from the 16th All American Council

The Word, The Information, and The Bit (PDF)

My recent blog series which began with the blog The Word, The Information and The Bit (I) is now also available as a PDF at  The Word, The Information and The Bit  (PDF).  The blog series is my reflecting on  James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD .

I wrote some other blogs also based on Gleick’s book which may offer some insight into what originally persuaded me to read his tome:

From Incarnation to Encryption

Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

Information Time Change

The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)

This is the 4th and final blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (III).

The printing press by making permanent records available to all had the potential to preserve so much information from the past that we might become so overwhelmed with it that we would suffer a memory loss – no longer sure as to what was the exact past as we can now see all of the variations and changes and mistakes of the past – nothing has been forgotten and so the past becomes buried under mounds of facts which we don’t know how to measure or weigh.   Or it is possible that the new technologies in preserving more of the past make it more visible in detail to us, increasing our understanding of ourselves and of history?

“Another way to speak of the anxiety is in terms of the gap between information and knowledge.  A barrage of data so often fails to tell us what we need to know.  Knowledge, in turn, does not guarantee enlightenment or wisdom.  (T. S. Eliot [d 1965]  said that, too:  ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? …)’”  (p 403)

Or as one clever wag said:

“The more we study, the more we learn.

The more we learn, the more we know.

The more we know, the more we forget.

So, why study?”

All of Gleick’s book is a study of information, whatever that is, it has become the basis of the technologies we use daily and are so dependent on – all of the computing of any sorts we do from cell phones, to GPS, to e-readers, to computers of every size.     It is a fascinating look at the history of how our ideas of information have evolved through time.

“A ‘file’ was originally – in sixteenth-century England – a wire on which slips and bills and notes and letters could be strung for preservation and reference.  Then came file folders, file drawers, and file cabinets; then the electronic namesakes of all these; and the inevitable irony.  Once a piece of information is filed, it is statistically unlikely ever to be seen again by human eyes.”  (p 410)

So the Word became flesh according to St. John, but in the modern world the word becomes filed existing in an electronic incarnation called the bit.

“It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings.  There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion.  Our earthly Babel is a falling off from the lost speech of Eden: a catastrophe and a punishment.”  But information theory and science says it ain’t so. “With or without God, there is no perfect language.”  (p 418)

All information requires interpretation.  It is the way of Christ who interprets Torah. It is God’s way.  Any incarnation of the word requires interpretation.   Christianity, if it is not so fearful, may come to realize that information theory tells us what we knew all along.   Islam for its part will struggle with this much more for it does hold that there is the exact original of the Quran in heaven of which all earthly volumes are precise copies –  though the Quran itself implies relying on a recited word, not one committed to print.

Babel was aimed at preventing humans from conspiring against heaven, not to prevent humans from understanding God who intended Babel to be a lesson.

But science in information theory sees itself moving in a particular direction.  Dexter Palmer wrote:

“In a modern age without an Author looking down on us from heaven, language is not a thing of definite certainty, but infinite possibility; without the comforting illusion of meaningful order we have no choice but to stare into the face of meaningless disorder; without the feeling that meaning can be certain, we find ourselves overwhelmed by all things that words might mean.” (p 419)

This seems to assume that humans are isolated and alienated from each other, and from all others and from God – extreme individualism with no shared anything.   But we share a world, and can share not only information but also understanding and meaning.  We can interpret and debate because we can share meaning.  Everything is not random.  Humans do some things with intention and with intended meaning – in other words, we do communicate.  It is also the nature of divine revelation, which is at the heart of Christian claims.  The reality may be that there is a pattern to all that exists, but we simply lack the perspective – the God view – to see it.  We are limited beings and do not like such limitations.

The English language according to Claude Shannon’s   (d 2001) statistics has close to 75% redundancy.  Certain letters follow other letters regularly, some combinations are totally rare.  It is what enables Google to “read my mind” when I do a search as it “guesses” the next letter in my search.  Randomness is not complete, order is both in the information and imposed on it.     And Gleick can write a 526 page book about it which does convey meaning in written form to any who read his book.   Even in the quantum world of unpredictability, there is a great amount of information conveyable to those who know how to read the signs.

Too bad that I read his book, and got my e-reader afterwards.  His may be the last of its kind for me – I’ll look for “books” that are available on Kindle.   It is a technology made possible by information theory.

“In the beginning was the Word…”   And that word was not coterminous with printed letters, but as a spoken word had no physical form, no letters serving as bookends to contain it within certain symbols.

The word became print, but that never altered the Word which retains all of its divinity.  Perhaps technology is freeing that Word once again so we will never mistakenly equate the Word with a written script, but rather will understand that the Word in its electronic manifestation (no incarnation, but an electronation?) will be much closer to its original revelation when God said, “let there be light.”

See also my blogs:  From Incarnation to Encryption and Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

This is the 3rd blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (II).

The 20th Century saw in science an increased understanding of the importance of entropy and randomness in physics.  The concept of randomness had implications for other fields as well including biology and the emerging science of encryption and information theory.  It became clear that the standard for science – Newtonian physics – did not accurately describe the atomic and sub-atomic worlds.   At the atomic level the universe did not function like a predictable machine, but rather there existed a randomness in motion, and a tendency for all things to move toward entropy – a total randomness.

Living things actually survive by undoing the randomness apparent in the atomic world.  “In other words, the organism sucks orderliness from it surroundings.”  Or, as Erwin Schroedinger (d. 1961) described it:  “To put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.” (p 283)  In many ways, living things are computing information from their surroundings, turning randomness into life with its ordered cells.

The world of physics and mathematics and the study of biology and even human language was becoming more clearly the same study, all of it having a measurable mathematical and logical basis.  Randomness it was realized may not mean blind chance, since it to contained measurable information.

“’Chance is only the measure of our ignorance,’ Henri Poincare famously said. ‘Fortuitous phenomena are by definition those whose laws we do not know.’ … such phenomena as the scattering of raindrops, their causes physically determined but so numerous and complex as to be unpredictable.  In physics—or whatever natural processes seem unpredictable—apparent randomness maybe noise or may arise from deeply complex dynamics.”   (p 326)

It reminds me a great deal of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s  (d. 1881) argument that the apparent randomness of world events which caused some to disbelieve in God caused him to think that there is an orderliness to the world and a logic which is beyond human rationality.  It thus spoke to him that there was a God whose logic and rational is simply beyond our capacity to comprehend.    We think we can know all there is to know and thus can understand everything.  Even modern science says this is not true.  That there is mystery in the universe is not merely a mystical thought of religion.

Modern information theory and quantum physics emerge from this history of information – from the spoken word, to the printed word, to the electronic word.  All of the inventions related to the word – from writing to printing thus have shaped the very way we understand the universe.  That is why it is somewhat amazing to me that Gleick only gives honorable mention to Gutenberg’s printing press.  Johannes Gutenberg (d 1468) doesn’t even make the index though he does acknowledge that Elizabeth Eisenstein in her two volume THE PRINTING PRESS AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE places “Gutenberg’s invention at center stage: the shift from script to print.”  (p 399)  (And many know already that the state of Ohio no longer requires the teaching of script writing for students – typing has totally replaced the use of script.  Will we soon be meeting literate people who no longer can sign their name?)

“As a duplicating machine, the printing press not only made texts cheaper and more accessible; its real power was to make them stable.  ‘Scribal culture,’ Eisenstein wrote, was ‘constantly enfeebled by erosion, corruption, and loss.’  … Before print, scripture was not truly fixed.”  (p 400)

“Scribal error” which is thought to have introduced into the text of Scriptures the variations which modern scholar’s debate can possibly be eliminated by the printing press which produces many exact same copies.   Now as never before people around the world can read the exact same text without variation.  But it has introduced into biblical scholarship an anachronistic thinking – we now read the text as if it has always been exactly like the one we are reading.  It makes us rethink the text as if the physical words are sacred rather than the ideas which they simply and symbolically mimic, reflect or capture.  We create (not re-create!) what we think is the most perfect text of Scripture only to realize that no ancient interpreter of Scripture had the exact text we have since ours is now a hybridization of all the “best texts” available to us.

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)

The Word, The Information, The Bit (II)

This is the 2nd Blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1).

Socrates (d. 399 BC) according to Plato (d. 347 BC) worried that humans would become increasingly forgetful due to the invention of writing.  The written word would mean memorization was obsolete.  There would be nothing for students to learn.

Repetition was the mother of all learning, learning mostly meant memorizing the wisdom of the past.   The written word was a technology that though making  a more permanent record (memory!),  threatened the very nature of what learning was thought to be.  You no longer needed to memorize to be wise if you knew how to read and how to research.  And the written language allowed not just memorization but also analysis.

“In the ancient world, alphabetical lists scarcely appeared until around 250BCE, in papyrus texts from Alexandria.  The great library there seems to have used at least some alphabetization in organizing its books.  The need for such an artificial ordering scheme arises only with large collections of data, not otherwise ordered.  And the possibility of alphabetical order arises only in languages possessing an alphabet: a discrete small symbol set with its own conventional sequence…” (p 58)

Hieroglyphics

Ordering letters and then books by alphabetizing helped make the written language even more useful since greater quantities of information could now be found even in large collections of writings.  There was then a leap from the technology of writing to the technology of machines which could reproduce, use and code writing.

Charles Babbage (d. 1871) became fascinated by a loom whose weaving pattern was controlled by punch cards.

“Inspiring him, as well, was the loom on display in the Strand, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, controlled by instructions encoded and stored as holes punched in cards.

What caught Babbage’s fancy was not the weaving, but rather the encoding, from one medium to another, of patterns.” (p 109)

An artist designed the cards, the weaver could use different threads and colors to produce the artist’s patterns.   A machine that could convert abstract ideas into physical things, and cards that could store memory – the artist’s patterns.  The basis for computing was being formed.  And collaboration between art and science was being established.

“The invention of writing had catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning—to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination—and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols.  In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seemed to be coming together.”  (p 177)

The use of machines gave rise to a mechanical view of the universe.  Everything was following a pattern, perhaps pre-determined, and science was intent upon discovering those patterns in order to explain the universe.  But then these machines opened to our observation the atomic world and sub-atomic world, and suddenly the world was not quite as predictable as thought.

“It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. . . .  More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves.”  (Alan Turing  d 1954, p 212)

What science was becoming aware of is the notion of entropy – randomness that was actually related to the idea of information.    Randomness which could be measured – it contained information.  Heat for example is caused by the random motion of atoms.  That randomness can be measured, and so can the “unavailability” of energy be measured.   Such randomness and “unavailability” actually contain information! (pp 270-271)

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)