The annual was great fun for all for attended, with controversial and stimulating talks and robust discussion as always. Several attendees wished that these meetings could happen more often! This was our largest meeting yet, with about 60 people in attendance.
Jack Collins presented a compelling argument for an “attribute” view of the image of God, that is, a view that the image of God means that we have attributes that are like God in some ways that animals aren’t. He made this argument both from the natural meaning of the Old Testament texts which talk of the image of God, and scientific evidence of fundamental differences of people from animals. This view has been disfavored in recent years and may indeed be a minority view, as many scholars have argued for a “declarative” view, that is, a view that people are fundamentally no different from animals except for a difference in relationship with God or responsibility given to them, by the declaration of God. There are dangers in the attribute view; for example, it could be used to deny the image of God in people who have less of the attributes in question (e.g., less language ability?) but Jack emphasized that the attributes of the image of God should be viewed as the collective nature of all people together, not individual traits which grant more or less of the image of God to individuals.
Jeff Schwartz presented a lively and controversial discussion of mindfulness. We all learned what it is, how it is being taken very seriously by modern psychiatrists of all stripes, and how the data shows that it involves distinct states of the brain that can be identified. In a nutshell, mindfulness has three parts: 1) relaxation methods such as deep breathing, 2) focus exercise in which a person is aware of when his or her mind is wandering, and 3) honesty exercise in which a person imagines the viewpoint of a good, wise, and neutral observer looking at his or her life. Jeff argued that these practices are compatible with Christianity and that Christians should easily be able to not just imagine a neutral observer, but invite the real Holy Spirit to speak to them. Not everyone agreed, but most felt it was very informative to know about this rapidly growing movement which takes cognitive human agency very seriously.
Mike Egnor gave a talk full of brain science data in support of his position of Aristotelean dualism. He contrasted his position with Cartesian dualism, which has two distinct substances, one which is fully material and deterministic, and another which is spiritual and in another realm, which somehow interfaces with the brain. He argued Cartesian dualism actually just leads to materialism, as the spiritual substance gets ignored. By contrast, his view of Aristotelean dualism posits eternal “forms” associated with every material thing. For humans, the essence of this form is what we would call the spirit. I don’t fully understand this view, but here’s how I visualize it, using an example Mike brought up: a chair consists physically of atoms and molecules. If we destroy a chair, we do not destroy the atoms and molecules, that is, the material of the chair, but we destroy the “form” of the chair. What we call a chair is not the purely physical, but the particular pattern of organization of the chair. Going up one higher level, there is a general concept we may call “chairness” which transcends any individual chair. This general concept can exist, in Aristotle’s view, independent of any matter, just as one might argue the natural numbers 1, 2, 3, … “exist” whether or not I have one, two, or three actual things. At an even higher level, one could then argue that the unique nature of an individual person could exist at this level, independently of matter; in other words, not just the general concept of “person-ness,” but the essential and unique nature of “David Snoke-ness.” It’s an intriguing, and decidedly non-modern, way of thinking.
Kevin Birdwell gave a general overview of the issue of global warming and humans’ contribution to it. On the scientific side, one of his main points was that carbon dioxide is not the whole story; there are many other considerations, possibly the greatest of which is the warming due to urban “hot spots”—people’s experience of heat rises in recent years may be much more related to the effects of city density (which can raise local temperatures by 10 degrees or more) than to overall global warming (which has been about 1 degree in the last century). He held out hope that new technology could solve some of these issues of urbanization. His talk was quite balanced, which means that some who are quite committed to human-caused global warming felt he gave far too much credibility to skeptics, and those on the other side that he gave too much credibility to the standard global warming view. One of the main issues that came up in the open and private discussions was how hard it is to explain to the public the notion of error bars and uncertainty, which can lead some scientists to overstate their cases to the public.
Jerry Bergman presented a very strong case that the holocaust was not primarily driven forward by Hitler personally, but by the scientific, medical, and academic communities of Germany (and in many other places including the US) which strongly embraced the eugenics movement, which was directly inspired by Darwin. One might rather say that Hitler latched onto this train which was already in full steam in the liberal academic world. Much of the open discussion centered on the question of whether evil consequences of an idea have any weight in discrediting the truthfulness of an idea. Suppose that Darwinian evolution is true, and truly implies that eugenics will work on people as animal breeding does on animals. Should we teach it anyway because it is true? Or does an evil implication weaken a truth claim? I am reminded of Francis Schaeffer’s maxim that a test of any world view is “Can you live with it?” In Schaeffer’s view, if a person cannot consistently live with his or her own views (e.g., a person who says that Western values are worthless but needs to listen to Bach to relax, or a person who says technology is evil but uses Facebook and modern industrial-fabricated computers to propagate this view), this should undermine the credibility of their views.
Finally, Nik Melchior brought us up to speed on where the AI program stands today. In many cases, goals have been accomplished which once were thought to require intelligence. For many of those in the audience, the essential question revolved around an issue brought up at our meeting two years ago, of “qualia”, or what Donald Mackay called the “I-story,” or “inner story”—that distinctive feeling of self, the experience of thinking and sensing. By contrast, Nik told us that in the AI/robotics field, what the robot may be feeling is irrelevant; only what it does/accomplishes are relevant. Does intelligence require an “I-story”? If a robot could fully act as a human, but have no inner sense of self or consciousness, would it be intelligent? Would it be a “person”?