Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Theology of Science-fiction: IV. End-Times

Armageddon in Revelation, from "Israel my Beloved" website
"Because SF primarily deals with the future, it must inevitably deal with the end of the world, and thus SF overlaps more closely with apocalyptic literature than with any other type of religious writing...[and] focuses on eschatology--ideas about 'the last days', the end of the world as we know it and the dawning of a radically new era." Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction
 In this post, the fourth of the series, I'm going to focus on works for which the religious attitudes of SF authors cover the range from atheist to true believer.   And as the quote above  suggests, we're talking about end-times--the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Ball is Over.    For the SF author, this can mean the end of the world--earth--the end of the Universe, or the end of everything  (from Creatio ex nihilo to Annihilatio ad nihilum).

There are a host of stories dealing with end-times, ranging from post atomic-war destruction of civilization, destruction of earth by collision with asteroids,  alien take-overs of the world, or the final end  of the Universe.   Rather than giving a catalog of these, I'm going to discuss two classics that span religious attitudes, from atheist to Catholic faithful.  Surveys of SF apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works are given in the References*.

END-TIMES WITHOUT GOD--"CHILDHOOD'S END"

An Overlord, from Infinispace.net
Childhood's End, the classic by Arthur C. Clarke, is a story about a benevolent take-over of earth by aliens ("the Overlords") who look like the common image of the devil--horns, wings, tail and all that.  The Overlords institute a benevolent dictatorship, eliminating nuclear fission and other explosive missiles, want and crime.  “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom.”

However, it was not to give mankind Utopia that the Overlords came to Earth.    Rather, they were acting as nannies for a new humankind, and to prevent mankind from destroying itself until that new man emerged.  That new, improved species was to be derived from the children of the generation visited by the Overlords.  They would be endowed with supernatural psychic powers, and after developing these powers during a maturation period on earth, would join with the Supermind that had desired this change.    They would leave earth in a pillar of fire and as they left, destroy their birthplace:
“There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun.”  Childhood's End.
Now, there is nothing of God in this, unless you equate the Supermind, which is composed of the composite minds of many species. to God.  The origin  and precise nature of the Supermind is not discussed in the story, but then of course if it is a supermind, what  can our poor intelligence make of it.   Clarke's bias against theism is revealed early on in the book by the remarks of one of his characters:
Science is the only religion of mankind.”     and
Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” Childhood's End
Given Clarke's proposal that psychic powers, supermind and all such stuff, constitute the next step in evolution, one wonders how seriously to take the dicta in the quotes above.    Much more faith is required to believe in supernatural psychic powers than to believe in God and His only begotten Son.   But, as G.K. Chesterton aptly put it:
"It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense." G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in  The Oracle of the Dog
and
"You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything."G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in The Miracle of Moon Crescent
(Those are the quotes that gave rise to the saying, attributed to Chesterton by mistake:
 "When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything."  American Chesterton Society.)
Now it seems in the critique above, I have given short shrift to "Childhood's End".   That was not my intention.   Fifty-five years ago when I first read it, I was moved.   Today on re-reading it (after my conversion) I find it unsatisfying and shallow as an aid to appreciate the meaning of end-times.

ATOMIC WAR, APOCALYPSE AND THE CHURCH--"A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ" 

First Edition Dust Jacket,
by George Sottung
Beloved of both SF fans and non-SF fans, is the classic "A Canticle for Leibowitz", a book which has sold over a million copies and is still in print.
Preparing for this post, I reread it;  the message of the book is still fresh and moving.    Rather than summarize the plot (go to the link above for that), I want to expound on that message.  (Better yet, read the free pdf download of the book, or buy it--you'll want to reread it.)

The story takes places in three historical periods:

  • Fiat Homo (Let there be Man):  The first period is in the 26th century, several hundred years after the "Flame Deluge", an atomic war that destroys civilization and engenders a host of monstrous mutant births.  The populace, calling themselves "Simpletons", have risen up against the establishment--killing scientists, academics, government officials--and against the learning that led to this catastrophe.   Books are burnt, technological devices destroyed in the rage of the survivors.    An order of monks had been founded some years earlier by a Jewish convert to Catholicism,  Leibowitz, who had been an atomic weapons scientist.   The special mission of the monks was  to save the remnants of learning;  each monk is to be a "booklegger", carrying books in a bindle-stiff to a place of safety.   Leibowitz himself was martyred, burnt with his books.
  • Fiat Lux  (Let there be Light): The second period is 500 years later.   The rebirth of science takes place, partially in the Abbey of St. Leibowitz (he has been canonized by the Pope in New Rome).    A monk of the  Leibowitzian order invents a human-powered dynamo to power an arc light, illustrating the new theories of a theoretical genius, a  royal bastard (the kingdom is Texarkana).     Tensions between the Church and the state rise again, as in the past.
  • Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will be Done): The third period is some 600 years later.   Science and technology have risen again:  atomic weapons, interstellar travel (with a few colonies), computers, automated roads are here, to the consternation of the Abbot of the St. Leibowitz monastery.  State and Church have reached an accommodation, much as today--most of the populace are unbelievers or Catholic in name only.    There is tension between the two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy.   The tension grows into an atomic war;  even greater destruction is wrought than in the preceding flame deluge, but a contingent of the Order of St. Leibowitz carries civilization and the Church goes to the stars, to the new colonies.
All the above is bare bones, dry as dust, and conveys little of the power and beauty of the book.  I'm going to try to do that with some selected quotes and context.  (For a fuller exposition of the plot, again, please refer to the linked article.)

Fiat Homo:  Brother Francis falls into the uncovered remains of a fallout shelter, containing relics of Saint Leibowitz, is terrified and prays a litany for salvation from the Flame Deluge:

"A spiritu fomicationis,
Domine, hibera nos.
From the lightning and the tempest,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the scourge of the earthquake,
O Lord, deliver us.
From plague, famine, and war,
O Lord, deliver us.
"From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.
"From the curse of the Fallout,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua,
Domine, libera nos.
"Peccatores,
te rogamus, audi nos.
That thou wouldst spare us,
we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst pardon us,
we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst bring us truly to penance,
te rogamus, audi nos."  p. 16 (Bantam Edition).
Fiat Lux Brother Kornhoer has invented a dynamo and electric arc lamp, amazing the great scientist Thon Taddeo (repeat of Galileo or Newton?) who has come to investigate the Leibowitz memorabilia.    A discourse on scientific achievements of the past and the preservation of knowledge by the Church follows.
"Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flameof knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible--that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God's and not Man's, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. [emphasis added] Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection."  p. 133, ibid.
And so the age of science begins again  and again, the Church is the wet-nurse of the new "logos of nature".

Fiat Voluntas Tua  The Church has had an interstellar vehicle of its own ready for missionary work to the interstellar colonies and, with nuclear annihilation threatening within a short time, decides to send  two Bishops and a group from the Leibowitz Abbey--priests, brothers, sisters, civilians and children--to the Centauran colony.  (The Bishops are sent to  maintain apostolic succession.)  The Abbot, Fr. Zerchi, speaks to the group:'

" 'You will be years in space. The ship will be your monastery. After the
patriarchal see is established at the Centaurus Colony, you will establish there
a mother house of the Visitationist Friars of the Order of Saint Leibowitz of
Tycho. But the ship will remain in your hands, and the Memorabilia. If
civilization, or a vestige of it, can maintain itself on Centaurus, you will
send missions to the other colony worlds, and perhaps eventually to the colonies
of their colonies. Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with
you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you,
or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the
chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the
cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. For some may forget. Some may
be lost for a time from the Faith. Teach them, and receive into the Order those
among them who are called. Pass on to them the continuity. Be for Man the memory
of Earth and Origin. Remember this Earth. Never forget her, but-- never come
back.'  Zerchi's voice went hoarse and low. 'If you ever come back, you might
meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of
flame. I feel it. Space is your home hereafter. It's a lonelier desert than
ours. God bless you, and pray for us.' "  
p. 269, ibid.
Brother Joshua, after much soul-searching decided to accept the invitation to be the Abbott for the Visitationist Friars and be ordained a priest.   He climbs into the spaceship as nuclear bombs are falling to the east,  slaps his sandals together, shaking the dust from them [see Matt 10:14] and whispers "sic transit gloria mundi" .

I wish that the sequel, the story of the interstellar mission, had been written...and, were I thirty years younger, I would try to do so myself.

REFERENCES


The Gospel according to Science Fiction (Chapter 10, "The Last Days [and After]). Gabriel McKee.

*One very fine apocalyptic SF novel by Nancy Kress, "After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall", was published after these references;  it deals with destruction of civilization by aliens and the attempted recovery.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Death of Christianity

Again, in bringing important posts (not my own) to the attention of readers I'll note an important article by Trevor Thomas in the American Thinker, How to Kill Christianity.   And who will attend the wake, I wonder?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Theology of Science Fiction: III. Does Data have a soul?

Asimov's Robots, from
"I Robot--Runaround"
 Theological Objection “Thinking is a function of man’s immortal soul. God has given an immortal soul to every man and woman, but not to any other animal or to machines. Hence no animal or machine can think."
  Rebuttal to Objection “It appears to me that [The Theological Objection] implies a serious restriction of  the omnipotence of the Almighty. It is admitted that there are certain things that He cannot do such as making one equal two, but should we not believe that He has freedom to confer a soul on an elephant if He sees fit? We might expect that  He would only exercise this power in conjunction with a mutation which provided the elephant with an appropriately improved brain to minister to the needs of this soul.” Alan Turing,  Computing Machinery and Intelligence.
“Never tell a child,” said George Macdonald, ‘you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body."  See Mere Orthodoxy
Let's start off on a light note.   A long time ago when computers were still new (yes, it was that long ago), when I was at my first academic assignment, the head of the division dealing with computers gave a talk on artificial intelligence for computers.   One of the humanities faculty in the audience put a question after the talk "Would you want your daughter to marry one[i.e. a computer]?".   Legend has it (I wasn't there) that he answered "Yes, if she loved him".

When we inquire about the souls of computers/robots we assume that computers/robots have a mind/self-awareness/consciousness.   That some sort of programmed intelligence can be conscious (self-aware) is a hotly debated proposition.   A book would be required  (many have been written) to explore this notion.   We don't want to write that book here, so let's suppose,  as do SF authors, that consciousness is possible by some means or another for computers and robots and see what SF has to say about them having souls.*

 I WANT TO BE A COMPUTER WHEN I DIE

As a transition to considering machine intelligence, let's examine how SF treats the transfer of human intelligence/personality into computers or robots.  Note that one theoretical physicist, Frank Tipler, in his book, "The Physics of Christianity",  posits  that heaven will consist of personalities transferred to software  as the universe reaches its end in an "Omega Point'  singularity.  Since it is a black hole type singularity, time is slowed down and the intelligences transferred to software thus have essentially an eternity to enjoy their virtual life.

Among the many SF stories that deal with transferred human intelligence, there is one that especially focuses on the question of soulhood, Deus X, by Norman Spinrad.   Spinrad treats the question with respect, although his attitude to the Catholic Church is somewhat less than reverent (there is a female Pope, Mary I).    Below is a summary of the plot,  as given in McKee's excellent survey, The Gospel According to Science-Fiction:
"...thousands of people exist in an artificial afterlife called 'Transcorporeal Immortality', having copied their consciousness onto a worldwide computer network called 'The Big Board'....Catholic theologian Fr. Philippe de Leone argue[s] that this creation of an artificial soul, which cannot have true self-awareness, dooms the actual soul that is copied to damnation.   Pope Mary I, hoping to settle the controversy, orders Fr. DeLeone to have his soul copied upon his death, so that his consciousness can argue against its own autonomous existence from the other side."   as quoted in The Gospel According to Science Fiction. p.43
Superficially, Pope Mary's plan seems to contain a paradox.   If the downloaded Fr. de Leone changes "his" mind and says "yes, I am a real soul", how can we trust what an artificial soul might say?   The solution to the paradox is that all of Fr. de Leone's beliefs have been downloaded to his program.   If these beliefs are changed, it means that the entity in the computer has free will, and is thus autonomous and a real soul.     In the story Fr. DeLeone's soul is "kidnapped" (how do you kidnap a program?) by a group of downloaded personalities that wants to convince the Church, via Fr. de Leone's download, that they have a real soul. As McKee points out in his synopsis, there is a reverse Turing Test applied here.  Fr. de Leone does change his mind, the downloaded personalities declare him a deity ("Deus X") and a new controversy arises:  Church officials declare how could this blasphemy come about.   To still the controversy, Fr. de Leone sacrifices his downloaded personality (dies), Pope Mary declares him a saint and recognizes that the downloaded souls are "real".

THE CHURCH AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE--"GOOD NEWS FROM THE VATICAN"

There are many SF works in which the Catholic Church plays a role.    In some, the Church and its teachings are treated with respect;  in most, not so much.   As Gabriel McKee points out in The Gospel According to Science Fiction
"SF, arising as it does from the secular humanism of the Enlightenment, is critical of religious institutions.   SF frequently argues that if organized religion is to be a positive force in the future of humankind, it must change drastically to meet the spiritual challenges of the future." Gabriel McKee, op.cit., p. 183
One such drastic change is envisaged by Robert Silverberg in his story Good News from the Vatican.
In his story there are robot priests and robot high Church officials.    One such, a robot Cardinal, is elected Pope after a deadlock between two human cardinals.   The story ends with  the newly elected robot pontiff rising into the air from the balcony before the assembled masses in St. Peter's Square  and, as he goes up
"...his shadow extends across the whole piazza.   Higher and higher he goes until he is lost to sight." Robert Silverberg, Good News from the Vatican.
Does Silverberg, with a sense of irony--the shadow cast over the piazza, and  the Pope lost from sight--predict the eclipse of humanity and human values?   Or am I reading too much into this ending?

A more sympathetic view of how the Church might interact with artificial intelligence is given in Jack McDevitt's fine story, "Gus"**. In this beautiful tale, the newly installed rector of a Catholic Seminary interacts with a computer simulation of St. Augustine of Hippo, purchased (the simulation, that is) to help students understand St. Augustine's teachings. The Rector, Msgr. Chesley, is at first greatly displeased with Gus's (the program's) dicta:
" 'The thing must have been programmed by Unitarians' Chesley threw over his shoulder. 'Get rid of it'" "Gus" in Cryptics, p. 373.
The relationship between Chesley and Gus becomes warmer with time, as they discuss the problems of being a Catholic in today's world:

'Why did Augustine become a priest?'   Chesley asked.  
'I wanted,' Gus said, with the slightest stress on the first words, 'to get as close as I could to my Creator.'  Thoughtfully, he added, 'I seem to have traveled far afield.'  
'Sometimes I think,'  Chesley said, 'the Creator hides himself too well.'
'Use his Church,' said Gus. 'That is why it is here.'
'It has changed.'
Of course it has changed. The world has changed.'
'The Church is supposed to be a rock.'
'Think of it rather as a refuge in a world that will not stand still.' " op. cit., p. 382,
Gus's sayings to the students become so unorthodox (he decries the doctrines/dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that other faculty decided he should be downloaded to storage and traded in for a computer simulation of Thomas Aquinas (plus business software).    Gus asks Msgr. Chesley to hear his Confession and then destroy him, so he can have peace:
" 'I require absolution, Matt.'
Chesley pressed his right hand into his pocket. 'It would be sacrilege,' he whispered.
'And if I have a soul, Matt, if I too am required to face judgment,what then?'
Chesley raised his right hand, slowly, and drew the sign of the cross in the thick air. 'I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'
'Thank you...There’s something else I need you to do, Matt. This existence holds nothing for me. But I am not sure what downloading might mean.'
'What are you asking?
'I want to be free of all this. I want to be certain I do not spend a substantial fraction of eternity in the storeroom.'
Chesley trembled. 'If in fact you have an immortal soul,' he said, 'you may be placing it in grave danger.'
'And yours as well. I have no choice but to ask. Let us rely on the mercy of the Almighty.'
Tears squeezed into Chesley’s eyes. He drew his finger- tips across the hard casing of the IBM. 'What do I do? I’m not familiar with the equipment.'
'Have you got the right computer?'
'Yes.'
'Take it apart. Turn off the power first. All you have to do is get into it and destroy the hard disk.'
'Will you—feel anything?'
'Nothing physical touches me, Matt.'
Chesley found the power switch...He found a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver. He used the screwdriver to take the top off the computer.    A gray metal box lay within. He opened it and removed a gleaming black plastic disk. He embraced it, held it to his chest. Then he set it down, and reached for the hammer.  In the morning, with appropriate ceremony, he buried it in consecrated soil."  op.cit., pp.388-389
Even though I am moved to tears when I read this, do I believe that a computer program will have a personality, a soul?    Not likely***.

DOES DATA HAVE A SOUL? 

This will go somewhat afield.   Given the title of this post, it is required that an inquiry into Data's soul be addressed.   (For those who aren't Trekkies, Data is the android navigator in the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: the Next Generation.   He aspires to humanity and sometimes reaches and even surpasses that state.)    There is a problem, however, in that whether Data has a soul is never considered in any of the episodes, possibly because the word "soul" (not in reference to music) is anathema to writers and producers of popular entertainment.    So in the episode, "The Measure of a Man", the question "Is Data a sentient being" is asked, rather than "Does Data have a soul".

The question is addressed in a trial, to see if Data, as a "sentient being", has the right to refuse to be disassembled for study and refitting.    Captain Picard acts in Data's behalf and Commander Riker, under duress, as the prosecutor.    Riker attempts to demonstrate that Data is a machine by switching him off:
"[Riker is doing his duty in the courtroom]
Commander William T. Riker: The Commander is a physical representation of a dream - an idea, conceived of by the mind of a man. Its purpose: to serve human needs and interests. It's a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms; its responses dictated by an elaborate software written by a man, its hardware built by a man. And now... and now a man will shut it off.[Riker switches off Data, who slumps forward like a lifeless puppet]
Commander William T. Riker: Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut." The Measure of a Man, Quotes.
Captain Picard gives a stirring defense, arguing that the question of whether Data is conscious--self-aware--has not and can not be settled, any more than whether one can be certain that another person is conscious except by external behavior.     And finally the question of soulhood is addressed minimally:
"Captain Phillipa Louvois [The Judge]: It sits there looking at me; and I don't know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics - with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I've got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul?[emphasis added] I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose." [notice the shift from "it" to "he"]  ibid.
And so Data is left free, and the question of whether he has a soul, undetermined--as in the Scottish verdict, "Not Proven".

MORE TO COME 

In the fourth (and hopefully the final) post of this series, I'll explore end-times, the Eschaton.

REFERENCES

see the first post in this series


*Along with Roger Penrose and John Searle, I don't believe that consciousness is a product of algorithmic processes, i.e. that the brain is a meat computer. But that's a post for another day.

**Scroll down to #1, "Gus".

***As always, I asked my wife to review this post before publishing.  I asked her whether she was moved by the story of Gus.  She replied, "If it were St. Augustine on his death-bed talking to his confessor, yes;  but a black plastic disc--never!"

About Me

My Photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.