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Brave New World 2.0

June 19, 2019 | book reviews | 6 Comments

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t
                  -(William Shakespeare, The Tempest)

We yearn for a day when all disease is eradicated, human power and intelligence transcend our feeble frames, and death is vanquished.

The second coming of Christ? Or an attainable goal of technology? For some it is the latter.

In Humans 2.0, biochemist Fazale Rana and philosopher-theologian Kenneth Samples offer us a glimpse into the current state of human-enhancing technology with a balanced and thoughtful consideration of the philosophical and moral implications.

It is not a simple subject, and the authors do not oversimply. As they explore the idea of “transhumanism”, they focus on three broad areas of research: human genetic modification, neural enhancement, and lifespan extension. Each area is introduced with clear, authoritative technical explanations and an assessment of the current status. The future ramifications are then considered. In each of these areas, technology offers great hope for better health and relief of suffering. In all three domains, there is no barrier to prevent us passing beyond health to enhancement.

I approached the book somewhat doubtfully, wondering “Is transhumanism a paper tiger?” For example, intelligence is determined by not one gene but thousands, and environment still has a profound impact. Enhanced intelligence seems a long way off and may be impossible. Countless such technical obstacles threaten to nullify the transhumanist vision. I also wondered, “Is anyone really pushing this stuff?” I found both concerns satisfactorily addressed. The authors clearly understand the technological impediments to transhumanist visions, but also demonstrate these conversations are happening. They cite the work of ten influential advocates of transhumanist principles, most of them obscure except for 71-year-old futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Chapter 9, “The Problem with Progress”, I would single out as especially insightful and pertinent. Probably the greatest dangers lie in unintended consequences. Neil Postman warned long ago how technology doesn’t merely serve us but changes how we think.[1] Transhumanism would not simply make us better; it would change who we are. “What we end up saving won’t be us.”[2] Nassim Taleb directed our attention to “Black Swan” events – unpredictable disruptions in the course of history that have a profound lasting impact, either for good or bad.[3] Transhumanism looks like a fertile rookery for black swans.

Bringing their sound theological grounding to bear, the authors do an exemplary job of framing the ethical concerns within a solid Biblical framework in a style that is neither dogmatic nor polemical. Professing Christians across the theological spectrum, other than the most liberal or conservative extremes, should find themselves in comfortable agreement. They are unabashedly and consistently pro-life, but not insensitive to the ramifications of that position.

There was one minor point with which I would take issue. Twice[4] the authors warn that transhumanism can only develop with the resources of capitalism (certainly true), that capitalism leads to unequal outcomes (certainly true), and that the technology would only benefit investors and the wealthy (probably not true). They don’t seem to appreciate that most profits in capitalism come from the mass market, or that Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, and Steve Jobs did not become fabulously wealthy by catering to the rich. We should be far more concerned with this technology in the hands of totalitarian regimes. Far from extending the benefits of freedom, new technology finds increasing use in the service of repression. With human enhancement we might fear more of the same.

Is this book for everyone? Will it change your life? Probably not. Nor is it an apologetic for the Christian faith; anti-theists will take issue with much of the analysis. Non-scientists may wish to skip the more technical sections (the authors even tell you how!) Nonetheless, Kenneth Samples and Fazale Rana have delivered once again with a well-executed analysis of a timely topic. I recommend it highly to scientists, physicians, policymakers, authors, pastors, and anyone in a position of leadership or influence who will be facing these issues, like it or not.

[1] Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death. Penguin Books: 1985

[2] Fazale Rana and Kenneth Samples. Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism. Reasons to Believe: 2019. P. 217

[3] Nasim Taleb. The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House: 2007

[4] Rana and Samples, p. 146, p. 215

The Intelligence Trap: why smart people make dumb mistakes. David Robson, W. W. Norton, 2019

Western society reveres intelligence, or at least pretends to. A leading political figure boasts he’s “a very stable genius” – which, presumably, is superior to an unstable one. Yet no one stops to ask, “does it matter?” According to this fresh and fascinating analysis from British science writer David Robson, probably not. In fact, it could be a liability.

Anecdotal examples abound of brilliant people who believe crazy things. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, clung to a naive but unshakeable faith in spiritualism and fairies. Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis recounts his abduction by a glowing alien raccoon, when not engaged promoting astrology and AIDS denialism. The name most synonymous with genius – Albert Einstein – saw the hope of mankind in Vladimir Lenin and frittered away the final decades of his life stubbornly rejecting quantum theory. The tendency of Nobel prize winners to go of the rails is so commonplace that science writers coined “Nobel disease” as a term of derision.

Among the lower ranks of intelligentsia, we learn that:

  • College graduates are more likely to believe in ESP and “psychic healing.”
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit.
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs.

By way of explanation, research has found that highly intelligent and educated people are much more confident, and this confidence makes them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions.

Is there hope for the genius? After reviewing current evidence and theories concerning human cognition, particularly the influence of emotions and effects of overconfidence, Robson identifies a series of empirically validated practices by which one can mature beyond mere intelligence to wisdom. These include:

  • Emotional awareness and regulation – learning to recognize when emotions influence opinions, and how to override them when necessary.
  • Cognitive reflection – the ability to question one’s own intuitions and assumptions.
  • Actively open-minded thinking – allowing for other possibilities, and seriously considering opposing viewpoints.
  • Having a growth mindset – never resting on one’s credentials but committing to a lifetime of learning and improvement.
  • Intellectual humility – accepting that one’s knowledge and abilities are limited.

The third section of the book zeroes in on sound practices of learning and how principles like curiosity, conscientiousness, and emotional intelligence are at least as, if not more, important than intellectual intelligence. Robson relates a number of evidence-based practices shown to facilitate learning – material that should be of keen interest to teachers and learners alike.

A final section extends beyond the individual to apply these principles to group dynamics and the means of avoiding catastrophic group decisions.

This work should be of profound interest to Christians. Without ever quoting the Bible, Robson lays out an elegant model for the Biblical principle of wisdom. His explanations account for why both brilliant believers and brilliant skeptics are prone to overconfidence and equally capable of tremendous self-deceit.

In summary, David Robson has delivered a provocative, entertaining, and timely contribution to the public square. This book could serve as a life manual for those afflicted with a very high IQ. It should be an eye-opener for anyone whose life or profession concerns issues of intelligence. For the average person, it offers two benefits worth the price of the book. First, do not be intimidated by intelligence. Outside their own narrow area of expertise, geniuses are no more trustworthy than anyone else. Second, what matters is not intelligence, but wisdom. And wisdom is within reach of anyone. However, wisdom does not emerge from a vacuum. It matures over time through consistent practice of the principles described within.

Five stars. Buy or borrow it, read it, then live it. You will be much the wiser.

Review of the UK edition. The US edition will be released on August 6, 2019 by WW Norton.

 

 

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The State of the Evangelical Mind

Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future 

Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry A. Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers
Intervarsity Press, Dec 11, 2018

Mark Noll’s 1994 “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” addressed his perceived lack of intellectual rigor in the American Evangelical community of the early 1990’s. It was an interesting and important work, though misleading in singling out Evangelicals. As Noll later conceded, it could more fairly have been titled “The Scandal of the American Mind, as expressed in conservative Protestant Christianity.”

 
This present work consists of an Introduction, six stand-alone essays, and a conclusion representing at least 8 distinctive viewpoints regarding “The State of the Evangelical Mind”. An ambitious undertaking for so short a work, considering 1) no one agrees on the definition of Evangelical, and 2) no research methodology or data exists to support objective, quantitative analysis. The analysis is purely subjective.

Synopsis

Introduction: “The state of the Evangelical Mind: tales of prosperity and peril” written by the book’s editors. They attempt to define the term and offer a broad overview of general trends in Evangelicalism since Noll’s original book.
 
1. “Evangelical intellectual life: reflections on the past” by Noll recaps trends over the last 24 years focusing on the Reformed Journal, Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, the Pew Evangelical Scholars Program, and Books & Culture. All are now defunct but had productive runs. He carries us to the present with reference to a handful of Evangelicals in science and academia that warrant Mr. Noll’s notice.
 
2. “The State of the Evangelical Church” by Jo Anne Lyon. She reports on developments such as the March 2018 document from the National Association of Evangelicals, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility“. If you want to know current trends regarding race and social justice issues in the larger Evangelical community, here’s a very brief synopsis. There isn’t much reference to anything else.
 
3. “University Ministry and the Evangelical Mind” by Mahan and Smedley. Two individual essays from individuals long connected with Cru and InterVarsity, large campus ministries with an academic focus discipling future leaders. This is one of the better sections, and most relevant to the actual title. 
 
4. “John Henry Newman’s ‘The idea of a university‘ and Christian Colleges in the twenty-first century” by Timothy Larson. A very good essay on the importance and value of increasing in general knowledge and the neglected value of theology. Toward the end he writes “We must never fudge the evidence or rig the argument in order to save a doctrinal claim from embarrassment. All truth is God’s truth.”
 
5. “Contemplative posture and Christ-adapted eyes: teaching and thinking in Christian Seminaries” by Lauren Winner. A perspective on Evangelical seminaries through the eyes of a female Episcopal priest. Heavy on trade jargon (“extraction”, “instrumentalism”), she contributes little to the theme of the book. Meh.
 
6. “The future is catholic: the next scandal for the Evangelical Mind” by James Smith. In a mostly insightful commentary, the author praises current projects like the Center for Christian Thought at Biola. He makes a valid point that with the proliferation of non-denominational churches training standards for leaders has diminished. Calls for restoration of denominational creeds and more intermediaries to communicate work of Evangelical scholars to the laity are good advice. His credibility is diminished by an off topic political rant over Donald Trump and Evangelical support. Only 16% of white Evangelicals voted for Hillary Clinton (down from the 21% who voted for Obama in 2012), yet strangely Smith faults the voters rather than the candidate. To blame it on the voters is insulting. To insinuate it has anything remotely to do with their intelligence is delusional.
 

Conclusion: “The ongoing challenge of the evangelical mind” by Mark Galli. Galli is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and this essay summarizes his recent editorial posts on the CT website. Good, balanced thoughtful analysis.

Summary

 
For those with an interest in the subject, this collection of different opinions provides some useful perspective filtered through various biases. It is notable for its failure to mention many prominent figures and ministries actively  or recently involved in Evangelical intellectual life (e.g. Tim Keller, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Hugh Ross, or the late R. C. Sproul and Chuck Colson).

Lost in Math

October 30, 2018 | book reviews | No Comments

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray 
by Sabine Hossenfelder. Basic Books, June 2018. Reviewed by Steven Willing, MD

“Physical laws should have mathematical beauty”. Paul Dirac, Nobel Laureate*
Way back in 1973, the world of theoretical physics reached a dead end. That year marked the last successful prediction of any elemental particles – the top and bottom quarks – which were experimentally verified in 1995 and 1977 respectively. (The Higgs boson, finally detected in 2012, had been predicted in the 1960’s). Since then, there has been no successful prediction that would supersede the standard model.

In the intervening decades, dozens of additional particles have been predicted; not one has been found. String theory evolved and gained wide acceptance, without a shred of experimental verification. Proton decay has been sought but never observed. Dark matter remains dark to our own investigations. The search for a grand unified theory, based on the the holy grail of supersymmetry, has gone nowhere. Eighty years of effort failed to combine general relativity with the standard model. More exotic concepts – the multiverse, wormholes, extra dimensions, mini black holes – have eluded observation and may never be testable. Some ideas are untestable, even in theory.  

Not that we are lacking in achievement. What physicists call the “standard model” – where all matter and forces except for gravity are accounted for by 25 elemental particles and forces – has been wildly successful both in experimental validation and its predictive power. The same is true of quantum theory. There’s only one problem. Physicists hate them both. Nature, it seems, is too unnatural for their tastes. 

The standard model has been denigrated as “ugly and contrived” (Michio Kaku), “ugly and ad hoc” (Stephen Hawking), “ugly and baroque” (Brian Greene), with “the air of unfinished business” (Paul Davies). What troubles them so? Fine-tuning. Too many improbable coincidences. Too hard to understand or explain. Quantum mechanics is “magic”.  Too many arbitrary constants. (In the standard model, there are at least 19 unique constants that cannot be predicted by the model. They can only be determined by scientific measurement).  

The mass of the Higgs boson serves as a case in point.   Its mass depends on the contribution from quantum fluctuations multiplied by the fermion/boson sum. Quantum fluctuations contribute an amount to the mass of the Higgs boson 1015 greater than what is measured. To achieve the measured mass, the quantum fluctuation effect must be perfectly offset by a factor of 10-15, with a precision extending to fourteen digits.   In the eyes of physicists, such fine-tuning is not “natural”. It is an improbable coincidence. Fine-tuning is “a badge of shame” (Lisa Randall), “a sickness” (Howard Baer). It seems to demand an explanation. It is “ugly”. There are other trouble spots of fine tuning: the cosmological constant, the “strong CP problem”, and the great disparity between gravity and other forces (the “hierarchy problem”).

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder suggests one reason physicists have hit a wall: in their philosophical quest for “Beauty” the world of theoretical physics has gotten “Lost in Math”. The popular perception of a scientist is that of one driven by cold, hard, objective, unswerving logic. Despite the stereotype, the theoretical physicists interviewed and cited  by Hossenfelder – all leaders in their field – seek, hope for, even insist upon solutions that are aesthetically satisfying.  To them, the ultimate explanation for everything should reveal elegance,  naturalness,  symmetry – all shrouded in mathematical beauty. Yet, there is a danger in this approach. If our present laws of nature were not beautiful, would we ever have found them?  Surely an ugly explanation beats no explanation at all. If a more fundamental theory is not “beautiful”, will we fail to find it? Or even look for it? What if ultimate reality is “ugly”? 

There are other barriers to progress. As high energy experiments from the Large Hadron Collider eliminate from consideration various testable hypotheses, successive hypotheses must assume even higher energy levels which may not be testable, ever: 

If we wanted to directly reach Planckian  energies, we’d need a particle collider about the size of the Milky Way. Or if we wanted to measure a quantum of the gravitational field – a graviton – the detector would have to be the size of Jupiter….Clearly, these aren’t experiments we’ll get funded anytime soon. 

To escape the current predicament, there are calls to abandon the scientific method by eliminating the requirement of experimental verification.  Physicist, philosopher, and string theory proponent Richard Dawid is advocating “non-empirical theory assessment”. With declining prospects of empirical validation, Dawid concludes that “the scientific method must be amended so that hypotheses can be evaluated on purely theoretical grounds.” But “if we can’t test it, is it science?” asks Hossenfelder. 

Hossenfelder is at various times lively, comic, and probing. She quips “Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed…There are many ways to not explain something”.  

In her journey through the rarified world of particle physicists and cosmologists, Hossenfelder voices concern for how hostility to the idea of a God on the part of some harms the public image of science. In the course of their conversation, cosmologist George Ellis recalls his review of a book by Victor Stenger claiming that science disproves the existence of God: 

“I opened this book with great anticipation, waiting to see what was the experimental apparatus that gave the result and what did the data points look like and was it a three-sigma or five-sigma result? Of course, there is no such experiment. These are scientists who haven’t understood basic philosophy.” (God, the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger, reviewed by George Ellis in Physics World

“Lost in Math” portrays a community of researchers in philosophical crisis. The esteemed physicists interviewed in this book and its impressive author are to be congratulated on their efforts and their honesty. The genuine achievements of science are acknowledged and celebrated, while the limitations of science and of scientists are admitted frankly. Scientists are human, after all. 

Naturalness, beauty, simplicity are aesthetic and philosophical concepts, not scientific ones. While aggressive proponents of secularism accuse believers of irrationality for believing in a God that – they claim – cannot be proven, their rear guard is crumbling. The field of theoretical physics faces a headwall where empirical validation of foundational theories may no longer be possible. More foundational theories may ultimately be embraced on faith alone – so long as the mathematics is beautiful! 

In the world of physics, we find fine-tuning and mystery from the subatomic to the cosmic scale with rapidly diminishing prospects of natural explanation. It is possible we may never see deeper than we are currently able, that we have reached our limit of comprehension regarding the essence of underlying reality. Meanwhile, what can be proven is distressingly improbable. God must be smiling.

*In her biography of Paul Dirac, historian Helge Kragh noted that in the last 49 years of his life Dirac “largely failed to produce physics of lasting value”.