Review: Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins by Garry Kasparov

Artificial Intelligence is a phrase that often promotes a strong reaction in a lot of people who hear it. There are the gloom and doom prognosticators who tell us that ‘Judgement Day’, the day the intelligent machines take over and decide we are more trouble than we are worth and wipe us out is near. There are also the overly optimistic prognosticators which tell us that the day AI will take over and we will enter a golden age of humanity beyond our wildest dreams is near. Kasparov charts a course in between these two extremes using the extremely compelling example of his two matches against IBM’s Deep Blue. He won the first and lost the second which was the first time a World Chess Champion was defeated by a chess engine. Kasparov uses these matches, his preparation and the preparation the IBM team employed, to paint an interesting picture of both machine and human intelligence. The conclusion he draws is that machine and human intelligence are complimentary to each other and machine intelligence enhances human intelligence to the point where mediocre chess players using chess engines can easily defeat an International Grand Master and this has, in fact, been done. Our future, according to Kasparov, is to embrace what the machines offer us and use them to augment our human intelligence. Throughout the book Kasparov makes the point that research into AI has shown that machines are good at the types of things humans are not and vice versa. Machines can analyze millions of positions per second while humans can only go 4-5 moves in the future, for instance. On the flip side, the human mind can see what tactics are worthwhile and which are not which makes the human mind’s search far more effective. The future, according to Kasparov and backed up by real-world results in the chess world, is a synthesis of the two the end result of which is the enhancing of the human mind. If you are interested in AI, chess and the future of expert systems this is one book you’ll want to read.

The Thin Veneer of Deeply Held Religious Beliefs

“I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim—so modestly and so humbly—to possess. It is time to withdraw our ‘respect’ from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world.”
― Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever.

 

A recent interview on Fox News featured Robert Jeffress, an evangelical adviser to Trump and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas defending President Trump concerning the recent Stormy Daniels scandal.  To sum up the pastor’s position:  “We don’t care what Trump has done in the past.  What is important is what he can do for us now.” The “we” that the pastor refers to is the community of the faithful, the ones with the “deeply held religious beliefs”.  These beliefs can be jettisoned in a moment with a theological slight of hand when it suits the interests of the faithful.  These are the people who are suddenly seized with concern over the “sanctity of marriage” while having multiple spouses and divorces.  These are the people who want to rewrite our laws to enforce these “deeply held religious beliefs’, beliefs that they will jettison in an instant when it suits their purposes and gains them power over others in this world, the only world that actually concerns them, the only world they really believe in. The more fanatical of their ilk will tell you God actually talks to them and gives them instructions that the rest of us must follow. To even question this claim is now perceived as insulting to them and they will demand an apology from you for having the slightest doubt that the creator of the universe talks to them and them alone and has put them in charge. How dare you question them when they demand your time, your money and, most important of all, your unquestioned obedience and acceptance of what they say?  How dare you question God?

But there is a silver lining to this.  We see right through them now.  We see them for what they are;  parasites on society, a mental cancer that seeks to destroy this nation of laws and turn it into a theocracy with they, of course, occupying the position of ‘theo’.  Their ‘deeply held religious beliefs’ are the thinnest veneer over a festering infection of hate towards their fellow man that threatens all of us.  Stand up to them and call them out when they stop indulging in their pet sins long enough to become suddenly obsessed with what others are doing. Question whatever authority they pretend to have and tell them you won’t be spoken to in that manner by some other mammal, which is all they are.  We’ve had enough and we’ve seen enough of this divine hypocrisy. Its time to push them back to the margins of society where they belong.

 

The Death of a Friend

“A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends.”― Christopher Hitchens

Monday mornings and I have never managed to come to any sort of rapprochement.  Mondays are not the sort of day one looks forward to for obvious reasons but some are far worse than others.  For me, this last Monday was one of the more terrible ones.  I was greeted with the news that an old friend had finally lost his ten year battle with cancer.  The news from the week prior was not good but we all expected him to make a recovery as he had many times previously.  Fate, it seems, had other intentions for our friend this time.

In this day of social media news spreads quickly. Well wishes and condolences started to stream in.  I found myself on the phone with mutual friends who I hadn’t spoken with in years.  I’ve always thought it a shame that that the only time we call or reach out to each other these days is when someone we know passes away.  It was good to hear their voices as it reminded each of us of a time when our friend was still there, laughing one more time about the adventures of our youth and the coming of age experiences we shared. As we talked and the conversations moved to what was now the all consuming event in our lives, the death of our friend, we seemed to part ways in spirit.  They took great consolation believing that the spirit of my friend ‘lived on’ in heaven and would be watching over those of us who were still dwelling in the land of the living. It was if they were talking about color to a blind man.

I’m a naturalist so I don’t have a belief in the supernatural which includes a place where the departed spirits go after this life is over.  All we have, in my view, is our brief time together while we are alive in this world.  I take consolation in the fact that my friend left a large body of work for us to enjoy and the memories I have of the times and experiences we shared.  I find it especially rewarding that I can look up at a sky full of stars and remember the many times we spent gazing through my telescope and waxing philosophical about life, the universe and everything, to quote Douglas Adams. These memories also create a sense of urgency in me to take out the telescope when I might not feel like it, to pack up the bass and head out to that Blues Jam when I would rather stay home and to sit down and write that article when all I’d rather do is surf Facebook.  We all have a limited time to do the things we want to do; some of us have more than others as life so often brutally reminds us. Eventually the silence of the grave will overtake us all and our voices will be extinguished.  But while we are alive our voices ring out loud and clear.  Now is the time to be heard, now is the time to make music and dance.  May the life of my friend and all he accomplished constantly keep this fire alive in me; I can’t think of a better way to honor his memory until that eternal silence overtakes me.

The Laurence Krauss Debacle

A recent Buzzfeed article by  Peter Aldhous Azeen Ghorayshi Virginia Hughes

I’d encourage everyone to read the BuzzFeed article as it is not without bias against secularism.  That being said there are a number of things in it that concern me. First and foremost the article states that Dr. Krauss has been banned from the campuses of two institutions, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario in response to complaints made against him.  If true, this points to a pattern of behavior.  The second is Dr. Krauss’s response to the current allegations against him.

From the article,

In lengthy emails to BuzzFeed News, Krauss denied all of the accusations against him, calling them “false and misleading defamatory allegations.” When asked why multiple women, over more than a decade, have separately accused him of misconduct, he said the answer was “obvious”: It’s because his provocative ideas have made him famous.

“It is common knowledge that celebrity attracts all forms of negative attention from many different angles,” Krauss said in a December email. “There is no pattern of discontent revealed here that suggests any other explanation.”

My gut response to this is that his reply smacks of deflection.  After further reflection, I am convinced that is what he is doing. I am a big fan of his work.  His ability to communicate complex and difficult ideas is one of the best I’ve seen.  Ergo, his inept response to these allegations raises even more suspicions in my mind.

Dr. Krauss has already suffered some repercussions from these allegations according to a recent Gizmodo article. If the allegations are confirmed then it is the moral responsibility of all organizations to cut ties with Dr. Krauss for two reasons.  First, the behavior itself.  This sort of behavior should not be tolerated and it is up to the secular community to make a strong statement that it will not be tolerated within it’s ranks and follow those words up with equally strong actions.  Second,  the self-professed sine qua non of the secular movement is the pursuit of the truth.  We are fond of posting memes and quotes in social media and arguing in debates that it is the quest for truth that motivates us no matter how uncomfortable that truth may turn out to be.  If these allegations are proven to be the truth then Dr. Krauss’s initial denial was a flat out lie.  That permanently disqualifies him to be a standard bearer in an organization or movement that professes to hold truth as the ultimate good.

Review: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Taunton

I had read a lot of vitriol from the secular community regarding this book and made a point of re-reading Hitch-22 since Taunton referenced it in his opening description of Christopher Hitchens. So armed I was looking forward to reading it to see if all the ruckus was justified. As it turns out, the book is rather anti-climactic. There is nothing in the book that would lead one to think there was any deathbed conversion. I have respect for Taunton insofar as any discussions of conversion he writes about is no different than what one would hear from any believer contemplating the death of a non-believing friend who, during the time they were alive, had philosophical and religious discussions about faith and belief and fervently hoped for a last minute change of mind. The book centers on a trip through the Shenandoah Valley after a debate that Taunton had moderated and a subsequent trip after the debate that Hitchens and Taunton had in Billings Montana. I would recommend watching the debate between Hitchens and Taunton which is freely available on YouTube.

Most apologists are guilty of causal simplification in their arguments against unbelievers and Taunton is no exception. This should preach well to his followers to which this book is very clearly directed. For the unbeliever and/or the fan of Hitchens this book does have something to offer and I’d recommend reading it if for only these two reasons. If you are looking for a compendium of tired old canards and jingoist slogans against atheists this book is for you; you’ll not find a better one. The other and more important reason is to see the paucity of Taunton’s thinking which is representative of the sort of mind that finds Taunton’s sophistry impressive. It is readily apparent Taunton is quite pleased with himself and his conclusions which makes one feel a bit obligated to extend a degree of pity towards him.

Taunton takes Hitchens’ expression of “keeping two sets of books” and accuses Hitchens of doing the same thing both in his movement from the Left to the Right and his subsequent support of the Iraq war and his desire to spend time with Taunton (they genuinely liked each other) to find out what Taunton believed and why. Taunton assumes that it is not possible to possess a mind that allows facts to change your opinions over time about your beliefs, even deeply held ones. One cannot sit in the pew every week making the outward professions of faith while at the same time holding doubts about certain tenets of one’s faith and working through these issues in one’s mind, according to Taunton’s thinking. You either believe or you don’t. Questioning is what Taunton would have you believe is “keeping two sets of books” and he accuses Hitchens of doing exactly that. While publically being a firebrand atheist up to his passing, Taunton interprets Hitchens desire to understand his friend’s thinking as evidence that Hitchens was himself “keeping two sets of books” and furthermore was evidence that Hitchens was really considering converting in much the same way Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s younger brother, converted later on in life. Anyone who has read Hitchens would see through this in an instant. A more apt example of what Hitchens considered “keeping two sets of books” would be Ted Haggard, the anti-homosexual preacher who lost everything when his long time homosexual relationships and drug usage were exposed.

As I write this review I am reading an article about Taunton resigning from his position as director of the Fixed Point Foundation after being confronted with allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with two young women on the ministry staff, according to sources familiar with the situation. If true, hopefully this will correct Taunton’s misunderstanding about what “keeping two sets of books” actually means.

Life does begin at conception – a secular view

A recent article from Newsweek was making the rounds in social media this week reporting on the new strategic draft issued by the Department of Health and Human services.  The draft includes language that defines life as beginning at conception.

“HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”

The comments on this article were cleanly divided across ideological lines: those against abortion considered this a major victory while those for abortion considered this a major setback. It is neither and that debate seems to be nothing more than a red herring at best. I think the science is quite clear: life, whether it is human or otherwise, does begin at conception.  Once the egg and the sperm fuse the resulting DNA is human DNA which, for those of us who have their worldview informed by science, is the sine qua non of being human.  The DNA is unique to the developing embryo and will stay just as unique throughout the entire gestational period until the mother gives birth. The mother and the child are separate and equal both in fact and, as I will argue, under the law.

The anti-abortion argument goes something like this:  if you grant that the child is a child from the moment of conception (granted) then aborting the child at any point along the timeline spanning conception to birth is murder since you are taking a human life. It follows then that we should legislate according to this understanding since our laws consider murder a capital crime and our legal system, rather than aiding and abetting this, should be consistent in outlawing and prosecuting those who engage in this practice as they would any other individual or group who commits murder.  The question is, does this argument follow from granting personhood and the subsequent legal rights that personhood entails in our society to the developing child?  My contention is that it does not.

What the understanding that life begins at conception does do is grant both the mother and the child equal rights under the law. This is what logically follows, not the idea that the ending of the child’s life is murder anymore than the death of a mother due to complications while carrying a child to term is murder.  In a secular society that follows the rule of law, we are all considered equal under the law.  If we are all considered equal, including the developing child, then no one, including the developing child, has the right to use anyone else’s body for any reason, including survival, without that person’s consent. That is the proper legal stance that government should hold and should base it’s legislation on.  Given this understanding, the decision whether to have or to not have an abortion is left with the mother, her conscience and her doctor’s advice.

Review: Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”
― Christopher Hitchens

I started to read Larry Taunton’s book, “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” and he begins the book by painting a picture based on “Hitch 22”, Christopher Hitchens’ autobiography. Having read “Hitch 22” when it first came out I was struck how the impressions that Taunton was getting and the seemed importance he was assigning to them were not jibbing with my recollections so I decided to re-read Hitchens’ book.

Aside from the pedestrian account of his upbringing which will interest Hitchens’ fans, both friend and foe alike will be interested in his narration of his move from the ‘Left’ to the ‘Right’ as he witnessed the events in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and the Middle East unfolding. As I write this a secular revolution is happening in Iran. The youth are taking to the streets, demonstrating against the Mullahs, burning Korans and Hijabs and demanding democratic elections, in short demanding a secular government and society that affirms the preeminence of the secular values espoused by Paine, Jefferson and Madison. These are the same ideas that motivated our revolution here in America, the only revolution still standing in the world. These are the same ideals that inspired the countries of Eastern Europe to tear down the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain and are now inspiring the young in Iran. Unfortunately it appears the United States has turned it’s back on the world and the ideals it once stood for and exported around the world and has embraced nationalism and populism. I fear our revolution and the nascent one in Iran may be in grave jeopardy and I’d like to think Hitchens would feel the same way.

Now on to Larry Taunton’s book……..