Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Freewill, mindreading, and God

I have been on a Ted kick lately. Intellectually stimulating, Ted talks make me wonder.

Below is one about a new technology that is using brainwaves to move virtual objects, then, with the computer wired, moving real objects. It raises questions of Freewill, mindreading, and God. The end by showing some of the applications like thinking the lights on. Science fiction stuff, where we seemly are fused with machines and we end up living in Matrix like world. What does that mean to our faith in Jesus. If person can be half human and half machine, can that person be a follow of Jesus?

There was an interesting editorial in the NY Times philosophy blog the Stone, William Egginton makes the case for freedom and freewill. The problem he tackles is a corollary to the new technology of brainwaves. Recently, researches have created a machine that can predict the decisions of a monkey. The idea that soon we can have one that predicts human decisions. If a machine can predict ones thought, does that disprove free will.

Now, before making too much of this, the technology works by reading the baselines of the brainwaves. A person first has to think of what he wants to do, the computer gets a brainwave reading. Then when the person thinks the same thought, the theory goes, the brainwaves with be the same and then moves the object. If I try to fool the machine and imagine the object left and code it move right, the machine would have no way of reading this. If I think left it would read move right. It can read my mind, only baseline reproduction of thoughts.

All I know is that there has to be so much theological reflection as the new technologies start to enter our lives.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mirror Neurons, being hard wired with Compassion and Jesus

I remembering feeling pain the night that Joe Theismann professional football career came to an end. The violent snapping of his shin into two pieces, cause a real sensation in my body. I felt for the guy, literally.

Now, science is catching up with my experience. The discovery of mirror neuron, neurons that fire on seeing another's pain, action, pleasure and multiple touches and feelings of another. They are the compassion neuron. They are also the ones that fire when I see images of Jesus on the Cross, and I start to understand the the nature of suffering. We all have them, mirror neurons. Theologically, they are startling because they make they case for humans being hardwired to compassion and empathy. We can feel the pain of God on the Cross. It hurts us to see Jesus nailed, naked, and humiliated for our collective hatred, sin, and pride. The pain we feel makes us look away, repulsed and ashamed. The blood we see and our mirror neurons make us feel is the product of our sin. Jesus bleeds and if we have the courage to see, we can transcend our sin through his work on the cross, the work of compassion. Compassion God show us defines grace. The compassion we show Christ save us from ourselves. God transforms us into loving people through the work of the cross.

One of the major protestant  movements within the art of the Church has been to remove the figure of Jesus on the Cross slowly from the walls. Who wants to see our sin in action. Who needs that pain. Yet, we need compassion. Now, Megachurches remove the cross itself, because people feel uncomfortable with the cross (compassion?). The question of the value of feeling uncomfortable and feeling compassion being a good thing does not seem to come up. Give the people what the want and not what they need. The scandal of the Cross is the scandal of suffering and this is in turn the scandal of compassion. If mirror neurons makes us feel another's pain, and no one wants to feel pain, then maybe the scandal of the cross is feeling the pain of another. Yet, only in this suffering can love be born. Being hardwired to compassion, also hardwired us to love.

I know these are but random thoughts at lunch. Below are some videos explaining the importance of mirror neurons. The first one is a cool graphic video about James Rifkin's lecture about mirror neurons helping in the creating empathic civilization. It is fun.

Here is another talk by Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran on Mirror Neurons. He goes over similar ground as the did Jeremy Rifkin but with no where near the cool graphics.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Word by Any Other Name, Should Smell as Sweet.

Then I said it. I insulted a guest in my own home. I didn't mean to, but I felt, as a writer and lover of language, I had no choice. When my guest, a fine man and great friend, called President Obama a dictator and a worse president than former Ugandan President Idi Amin, I spoke up. I made the case that using “dictator” and comparing the President Obama to Idi Amin went beyond the pale. I did so out of my love of words, not out of siding with President Obama. Words have to mean something.

I found myself in a similar position a few years prior, defending President Bush from charges of his setting up a theocracy and a military dictatorship in the United States. Equally ridiculous charge, and it reveals a disturbing trend in our political discourse. We debate by accusation. We have let our political discourse fall sway to the tricks of Madison Ave.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about bring back civility to the political discourse. I know too much of US history, the duel between Burr and Hamilton, the accusations of Grover Cleveland having an illegitimate child, the yellow journalism of the early twentieth century, to be fooled into thinking civility was ever part of our political game. The change, as I see it, reduction to the absurdity of accusation. Why argue about a difference of policy when you can call the other side, Nazi. Yet, Nazism was a political philosophy based on a particular racial historical myth that no major main stream American politician holds currently. America does have real Neo-Nazis politicians, though they are a small fringe group. To call any major politician a Nazi is to abuse the word, Nazi. Abusing language like this is like pointing to dog and calling it a prickly pear.

I believe this further cheapening of our language comes from the world of marketing. In the marketing world, words with a strong emotional attachment are drained of their meaning and then tied to the product being sold. Freedom becomes toothpaste, choice becomes beer, love becomes driving a car. Words become muddled in meaning and powerful in raising emotions. Love, freedom and choice have nothing to do with the product they are attached to, and to pull off the trick, the words are purposely made vague. For a poet wishing to express the love of God, and isleft with words that conjure up less awe and more toothpaste, this is a tragedy. Quick, give a meaning to freedom.

This process now happens within our politics. The accusation of President Bush being a Fascist, the accusation of President Obama of being a Marxist, or the accusation that US is a dictatorship can only work if Fascism, Marxism, and Dictatorship are emptied of any real meaning, while retaining their emotional repulsion. Suddenly, the language is cheapen to the point of a fastfood plastic toy we can only choke on. How poor will become when we can no longer talk to each other because words can only bring up emotions. In the beginning was the Word. Words have to retain their meanings for us to give us any semblance of truth. To find love, we have to have at least a workable understanding of what love means.

The problem of our political discourse is not civility but a lack of reality, because to hear the political pundits talking and blogging in the media, our choice in November is between Marxists and Fascists and not between Republicans and Democrats. Let us mourn for our bleeding language.