Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Someone you have probably never heard of

From time to time I dip into my collection of old books and occasionally I come up with a winner - very occasionally.

Unlike Heidegger or Ellul the 'stars in the firmament' I will almost guarantee you have never heard of W. Norris Clarke S.J. . Clarke was a Christian philosopher with a Catholic background employed at Fordham University in the USA. Clarke describes himself as a metaphysician devoted to the "creative retrieval" of the thinking of Thomas Aquinas.

I fully admit that my background is protestant covering Presbyterian, Baptist and lately Mennonite and Catholic theology is unfamiliar territory. However, I came across a short reading in

What grabbed my attention was the following comment:

This dynamic dialog of man with nature is inherent in the very presence of man as a rational animal in a material universe.

We could definitely debate 'rational animal - but we could at least agree on semi-rational. Humans are rational enough to create and work with scientific principles.  What captured my attention about this point was two fold.

1) it aligns with how I see the world - our world is physical, our God created us to be physical agents is a material universe. It is an inescapable idea for me that this is purposeful; but

2) the comment stood out more starkly because I have just finished the brilliant In Our Image by Noreen Herzfeld . She makes the stunning observation that there have been 3 standard interpretations of the idea of Image in Genesis - all of which are replicated in techniques being deployed to develop AI.

1. Substantive
2. Functional
3. Relational

What stood out to me about these three conceptualisations of image both in genesis and AI largely ignore (Genesis for obvious reasons) the material and physical. But there is something inescapable about physicality. Jesus returned with a physical body. Paul reinforces that we will be resurrected with physical bodies, yet Christianity has preferenced mind over body. We move through this world and learn what is important to us as singular individuals because we have bodies. A brain downloaded onto a computer would not could have the same determinative selection and specialisation processes. We learn new things because we are in new environments and choose to learn or must learn to stay employed etc.

So what stood out to me about this comment by Clarke is that the physical is integral to the creativeness of humankind.

If you ignore this point I think you can make a strong argument along the conventional Christian lines that technology was never an intention of our creator. However, to me this argument has always had a weak spot. Looking back on human kind's time line we have been making tools for a very long time. The only thing that makes sense of this - combining theology and real history is to understand not the letter of the words but the intent behind the actions as it were. We can argue over single words and what is in the text or not in the text but this seems to miss the bigger picture.

It has always been hard for me to imagine the Ellulian universe - physical beings in a material universe and not shaping something - with hands and a mind picking up a piece of clay would soon have become a pot. A lump of copper a plate or a mirror. The earliest copper objects were formed from Native Copper found lying on the surface in amounts large enough and soft enough to bash into shapes.

We can discuss the words on the page but the bigger story tells a plainer story. If you put an agent - human beings with certain attributes into a physical universe that is constructed a particular way - then you are setting in motion a particular trajectory - one where technologies will result. In AI we are creators in the form of imago hominis (image of humans - Herzfeld) but our earlier attempts have been imago creatio - in the image of creation.

In coming months I want to explore further the writings of Norris Clarke in this blog.