AI, Religion, University Politics, and Other Miscellaneous Topics

Some people have noticed that GPT-4 changes over time and this can be interpreted as a loss of quality in certain circumstances. This is one of the perils of the black-box nature of the OpenAI models. One commentator noted, “Dude I was literally losing by mind over this. I built an agent for my school that relies on GPT-4 and now it has completely lost its ability to reason…” As a product, ChatGPT combines GPT-4 with many other subsystems; it’s likely that the problem has emerged from some integrations within the loop from prompt to response since the model is not likely to have been retrained. While I’m sure OpenAI will figure this out, it does point to the perils of our “upgrade automatically” culture in which our phones and our computers change behavior, UX, and even capabilities overnight. We love waking up with a secure iPhone, but we are letting go of a lot of agency in the process of accepting systems that change. This is okay if we’re talking about personal devices, but we can’t have a bridge monitoring system or an industrial control system suddenly putting new models of computation into live production systems without extensive testing. You can read a good thread about this on Twitter. There’s also a nice article about the study mentioned in a tweet here. They use the term “behavior drift” for this phenomena.

The percentage of Americans who think that religion causes more problems than it solves has remained stable at 35% from 2008 to 2019. Ryan Burge looks at the sub-scores, however, to notice some trends relating to political partisanship. It’s behind a paywall, but if the topic interests you, the introduction to the article promises good things for the full version.

The famous Systems Development Life Cycle Guidance document from the Department of Justice is a wonder, and people often link to it as an undervalued resource in conceiving and executing a system development project. I think, however, looking at it, that you might never finish a project conducted according to this model. It would require quite a large team and miss every deadline.

There is apparently a “doomsday cult” in coastal Kenya in which people are fasting until they die. So far, the death toll has exceeded 400 people and they are still finding mass graves. The total could rise to 613, based on the number of missing persons in the area. The “pastor” of these people is Paul Mackenzie. He is, as you may expect, not starving. From what I could see of his doctrine online (many sermons were extant and reviewed by reporters from the BBC), he taught a mixture of dispensational premillennialism combined with suspicions that resembled the Jehovah’s Witnesses (satanic or Babylonian origins of religious symbols, etc.). It’s just a sad story to see all the pathologies of independency coalesce in the lives of people who need orthodox Christianity. All of this starts with a kind of congregationalism that doesn’t seek a connection to other churches and an approach to scripture that takes its cues from some of the worst aspects of late 19th century dispensational / independent American theology. Platforming a weirdo never ends well, but also be careful not to be too trigger happy in identifying someone as a weirdo.

Realigning a team’s attention to its purpose (resetting its goals) is the best way to begin correcting a team’s pathologies. This is also what I notice effective, intuitive leaders doing already.

It’s always encouraging to know that there is a broad field in which there is much spadework to do. As a kid I’d lament that I didn’t live in a time where simply cataloguing all the bugs in my yard would be groundbreaking scientific work. Here’s an example in the world of large language AI models – the author outlines the challenges that remain in building and applying LLMs.

Man, could you imagine if most college professors stopped lecturing and just depended upon the shared ignorance of students? This was my pet peeve as a student. I wanted to hear the most well-trained person in the room (the professor) speak. I really appreciated the clarifying questions asked by fellow students, but discussion proper was almost always a waste of time unless we were all focused on a particular text that we all had read and prepared beforehand to discuss. This semester, for the first time I’m teaching a course focused on specific texts, where there will be an expectation of discussion, and I will be on the lookout for maintaining a high level of quality and informational content. My tentative plan is to have a student assigned to present each reading kind of like in a graduate seminar. These will be honors students, so I’m not as worried about the students sharing ignorance. My expectation is that they will do the readings and be capable of insightful interactions.

Recordings of all of the PCA pre-General Assembly seminars are now available online. I’ll try to highlight any that stand out as I get a chance to listen.

Someone is putting together a list of classroom policies for using Generative AI tools in a massive, shared document.

Sorry, contrary to Good Will Hunting’s recommendation of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History…” it’s a terrible book. It will knock your socks off only if your socks are gullible and materialist. Here’s a terrible commendation of Zinn from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This essay (profanity warning) actually makes a pretty good point about the lazy way we criticize something by calling it a “religion.” I feel the same way (sometimes) about the word “ideology” and have trouble understanding whether “worldview” and “ideology” are easily distinguishable. At the same time, the word “religion” isn’t that important to Christians. This is because Christ is a person and Christians belong to a real kingdom where he is an actual king with real power. We didn’t accept the ideas of Jesus into our hearts, pace American evangelicalism. We were united, body and soul, to a real person, love for whom animates our actions, including our mental actions. But the editorial does make me think that using “religion” as a pejorative could backfire and also it could just substitute for real engagement with the substance of opposing ideas. I suspect, on the other side of this, that engaging in substance can reach a point of simply getting bogged down. I really don’t care how you want to bring in a socialist utopia, I just don’t believe collectivism can ever work without a lot of coercion.

China is calling for generative AI to adhere to “socialist principles” which means they want the technology to have a point of view. If they are really “all in” on this requirement, this will require at least two approaches that will undermine the utility of large language models. First, they’ll have to limit the training material so that the LLM doesn’t learn to talk in a non-socialist idiom. Secondly, they’ll have to put in explicit controls to ensure that anti-socialist answers aren’t given by the bot. This is not unlike what AI companies in the US are already doing to ensure the bots do not say certain unapproved things, so it is a difference in degree rather than in kind. Still, you can ask GPT to explain how the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment refutes collectivism and it will give a pretty good answer. That would be a good test case for whatever Baidu or Alibaba creates.

I heard about this cool Wes Anderson looking mask and snorkel.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Set in New Zealand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of a recently adopted teenager’s flight through the wilderness with his adopted father to evade child protective authorities and the police. Saying more about the plot would reveal too much, but this is a very humane portrait of an adoptive mother, father, and orphan. New Zealand is a beautiful place and I’m always amazed by the way the timing of humor just “works” across English-speaking countries. I would definitely recommend this one; very diverting. If you appreciated JoJo Rabbit, you’ll like this one–it’s the same director, Taika Waititi.

Music in the PCA

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), celebrated its fifty year anniversary at a meeting of the General Assembly last month. I attended as a delegate and served on the Overtures Committee, the committee that reviews proposals from sessions (local congregation leaders) and presbyteries (the regional church above the congregational level) for actions, changes to official documents, etc. I enjoyed serving on the deliberative body and I really appreciated the care of the men involved in the work of the assembly. All week, I couldn’t shake the constant feeling that fifty is pretty young; we’re just 16 years older than The Simpsons.

Prior to the assembly, I received an email announcing tickets for sale to the “PCA 50th Celebration Concert.” I was puzzled. The invitation said nothing about the genre of the music or the content of the concert. It would have been like buying a ticket for a time slot at the Fedex Center in Memphis without knowing if one would be enjoying Weezer or suffering through some random K-Pop band.

I wrote to the folks managing the concert and asked “what genre will this be?” and, at that point, found out that it would be “Indelible Grace and Friends.” If you’re not familiar with Indelible Grace, it is music that emerged from the ministry of Reformed University Fellowship. The texts tend to be Christian hymns of various vintages along with modern songs written by the “and friends” – many of whom are Nashville artists. The music emerged from the informal acoustic guitar driven early days of RUF, was mixed with Nashville Christian singer-songwriter style, folked-up by O Brother Where Art Thou style rootsiness, then stripped down by Bon Iverish introspection. Think a lilting, vaguely Irish happy-clappy without a lot of happy. Some of the music feels a little morose and introspective, especially when paired with the more romantic texts written between 1880 and 1920. Occasionally this music engages in war crimes, such as replacing an excellent tune like “All Saints Old” in “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder.” Some of them literally sound like theme songs for 80s television shows – check out the demo for “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.” Most of the Indelible Grace songs are alright – appropriate for informal use, but not up to the Sunday-morning register.

I get it. Not everyone likes the same kind of music, but if you think of Christian psalm and hymn singing as part of the church’s warfare in the world, it is very hard to hear many of the Indelible Grace tunes as being appropriate accompaniments for storming the gates of hell. It’s the kind of stuff that invites our getting squashed flat.

Music in the PCA partakes of the same cobbled-together character of all our liturgical endeavors. We have no official hymnal. Most of our churches, if they use a hymnal, borrow the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Trinity Hymnal. We have no psalter. Everything we sing is metrical and there is no chanting. We don’t celebrate the church year officially and some ministers and seminaries have principled objections to the church calendar as a whole. Naturally, because of this, there is no lectionary. We have no prayer book and every church structures its service with a different order of worship. All of this constant reinvention churns up valuable time that could be used for ministry and taking the next steps toward kingdom duties. It’s like washing the dishes by hand when there is a machine at the ready. Every church spends time inventing words to use in confession, choosing methods for handling absolution, deciding whether to have weekly communion, whether to offer wine at all, what kind of bread to use, whether to take communion at a rail or in the pews, whether to use intinction or keep the species separate, how to structure its year together, etc. We don’t even share a single theology of the eucharist; I was really surprised that a minister at the General Assembly treated partaking as an optional activity – that if you don’t feel spiritually connected to Jesus in the moment it’s okay to let it pass. I hadn’t heard that kind of advice before, and I was thinking of how odd it would be to apply that kind of piety around the table with Jesus and the twelve! (I need to write and ask him if I heard that advice correctly. Update, 7/21 – see below.) We are essentially still experimenting liturgically like amateurs in a free-for-all every Sunday, in every church, in every town of the United States.

Thus, it is no surprise that RUF, our excellent and gospel-oriented college ministry, that has a single playbook from campus to campus, a common training manual for all its ministers, and a similar music style nationally has rolled over whatever is happening in the cobbled-together liturgies of the denomination’s churches. Students are being formed in appreciation of these Indelible Grace style tunes and those tunes have now migrated from the informal weeknight large group RUF meetings to Sunday morning when we should be storming the gates of hell with thick tunes that cause the demons to shudder, the magistrate to snap to, the hearts of God’s people to quicken, and the knuckles of God’s people–young and old–to tighten around the handle of the plow.

The churches that do not use Indelible Grace tunes might be represented musically by the very different worship on the first night of the assembly. There, we had “traditional” hymns, yet there were gauche key changes and other aesthetically embarrassing flourishes that made the hymns less singable, less predictable for congregational singing, and less suited to accompany the king into battle.

Now, I will stop with this. It is easy to get mean about these things and I’m a Gen-Xer who gets cheesed out really easily. Someone on Twitter posted this quote from Bonhoeffer recently and it stung me where I needed to be stung:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly.”

I have been praying lately for God to help me love the church as she is. That’s the church Jesus loves and the church for which he died. I suspect, though, that Jesus’s love for the church partakes of that eschatological vision for what she is in him and what she will be at the resurrection. I hope for better things for the PCA. I hope that we can pair our strengths in so many areas with maturity in worship.

The discouraging thing about the 50th Anniversary Concert is not that it contained Indelible Grace music, but that the organizers considered Indelible Grace to be so commonplace that it didn’t need to be made explicit in the initial announcement of the concert. It just adds to my feeling of being continually basted in waves of alienation by contemporary life.

Update 7/21 – I wrote to the minister mentioned above and he clarified that he certainly didn’t mean to imply that believers should let the supper pass. He replied, “I usually urge believers who are struggling, whether with sin, their emotions, or other issues, to come to the table. There we are enabled to grasp Christ with our whole hand.” I must have misheard his comments that evening, no doubt befuddled by the excellent food I’d been eating in Memphis.

Bodily Resurrection

There’s a little bit of controversy right now over the future bodily resurrection of the dead and a future judgment / second coming. In the course of the discussion on Twitter and elsewhere some have made a few claims about the early church, creeds, and councils.

To contribute to the discussion, below are a few things I can see in these conciliar documents that may be useful about resurrection, the human body, and the second coming. All references are to Norman Tanner’s two-volume “Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils,” a book that contains conciliar documents in their original languages along with an English translation.

First Council of Constantinople (381)

The creed produced by the First Council of Constantinople (381) doesn’t just express a belief in the resurrection of the dead. It affirms an explicit future time element. “prosdoxomen anastasin nekron” (Greek) – “we look forward to a resurrection of the dead” (Translation, Norman Tanner, p. 24). The Latin translation has “expectamus” – we expect / look forward to.

Council of Ephesus (431)

The council of Ephesus (431) produced a lengthy discussion in which the body of Christ as firstfruits from the dead is a major focus, quoting Col 1:18 and extensively from 1 Cor 15. The discussion includes a future judgment in glory – “At the right time he will come as one Son and Lord in the glory of the Father, to judge the world in justice, as it is written” (a reference to Acts 17:31). While we Presbyterians (with Calvin) would definitely affirm that the life-giving flesh we receive in the Lord’s supper is the flesh of the resurrected Christ, Ephesus emphasizes that the flesh became life-giving at the incarnation (“when he [the Word] became one with his own flesh” – Tanner, pg. 54). In fact, his incarnation was, “in order that he might bless the beginning of our existence, in order that seeing that it was a woman that had given birth to him, united to the flesh, the curse against the whole race should thereafter cease, which was consigning all our earthly bodies to death, and in order that the removal through him of the curse, ‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’ [Gn. 3:16] should demonstrate the truth of the words of the prophet, ‘Strong death swallowed them up’ [1 Cor. 15:54, Isa 25:8], and again, ‘God has wiped every tear away from all faces.’ [Is 25:8]” (Tanner, 58) This quotation links the consolation of our future bodily resurrection deeply to the body of Christ. It also illustrates the point that these churchmen were working with the scriptures to formulate and defend doctrinal commonplaces.

In the anathemas of Ephesus, Jesus “is made partaker of blood and flesh precisely like us” (Heb 2:14 – Tanner, 60). In the tenth anathema, there is an emphasis on the Word of God’s suffering in the flesh, being crucified in the flesh, tasting death in the flesh, and Jesus’ being firstborn from the dead, a reference to Col. 1:18 (Tanner, 61).

Council of Chalcedon (451)

Related to the Council of Chalcedon (451), specifically in the letter about Eutyches from Pope Leo to Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople, Leo writes:  “After the Lord’s resurrection – which was certainly the resurrection of a real body, since the one brought back to life is none other than the one who had been crucified and had died… he talked to his disciples and lived and ate with them, and let himself be touched attentively and carefully by those who were in the grip of doubt…” (Tanner, 80). A comment on this point – anyone who would deny that our actual bodies are the ones that are resurrected must contend with the empty tomb; Jesus, at least, rose in the same body in which he died. If he is the firstfruits, why do we dare to innovate and think that somehow the union our present living bodies have with Christ will transfer to a new body in another dimension and leave our current ones (even if atomized by burial at sea)? Would Jesus abandon our present bodies any sooner than he would abandon our present souls?

Lateran IV (1215)

Skipping a bit, hah, by Lateran IV (1215), there is a clear affirmation of the futurity of judgment in the body, “Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad….” (Tanner, 230). The quotes from scripture here are implicit. Obviously between 451 and 1215 there were numerous theologians who defended a future general resurrection exegetically, but I’m just including this here for completeness.

Final Thoughts

I have no idea how to provide a systematic exegetical account of every verse that could be talking about AD 70 or the future second coming, but focusing on Jesus’s personal eschatology seems to be systematically useful in sorting out the resurrection of the body and, in fact, scripture invites us to do this (1 Cor. 15). Not only should we base our model of what resurrection looks like on Jesus’s experience, but his experience is what gives us hope. The alternative accounts I’m hearing (yes, even C.S. Lewis’s) are asking me to take hope in a novel account of what it means to die and be resurrected. I don’t need another model nor do the scriptures invite me to find one when I have the model of Jesus, the forerunner who rises in the same body in which he died and ate fish while in that resurrected body. The power of the early church statements is not in ecclesiastical authority, it is in the ministering of the word of God to me and in illustrating the commonplace thoughts of believers as they worked through the claims of heretics about the nature of the incarnation. Hopefully it is useful to see the material above; I know that it is hard to get a copy of Tanner at a reasonable price.

The Five Senses and Metaphors for Understanding

Each of our senses seems to be connected to a primary metaphor for a type of understanding. Vision is good for making fine distinctions; it’s primarily about judging and classifying. “Can’t you see?” When God sees that things are “good” or “very good” in Genesis, he is judging them. Hearing is good for detecting problems / dissonances. “That doesn’t sound right to me.” “He and I are out of tune with each other.” Touch is good for prediction – we explore the contours of an object with our hand and predict its form and purpose – “I can feel my way through it.” Smell is good for memory; diesel brings my wife back to Germany, fish-markets bring me to Japan. Taste is good for value judgment, aesthetics, and other axiological concepts. Of course, we mix these and there are secondary metaphors for each sense. One can “see where this is going” which is about predicting a path. One can develop a “nose for things” which is about judgment.

I first considered this when thinking through digital compression. It is much easier to see lossy compression in an image or in video than to hear it in audio. The eye sees digital artifacts in a compressed image more readily than the ear hears artifacts in lower-quality audio. One of the key examples of prediction used by Numenta in its work on the human neocortex is a human’s ability to touch the handle of a coffee mug and predict the position of the rim.

Self-Knowledge and Empathy

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, the beautiful and confident Cynthia has a deep knowledge of self, akin to the knowledge one gains from taking personality tests. Her half-sister, Molly, hasn’t engaged in much second-level personality assessment and so her responses to people and events are naive and raw – both more principled and truer. Cynthia “feels” but it is always about personal injury. Molly feels because she really cares for others and empathizes. Molly knows people in order to try and understand them. Cynthia knows people to determine whether she likes them or not and whether to contrast them with her own character. Cynthia measures all things by herself. Molly doesn’t know herself well enough to treat her own character as a reference point for the world. While normally we think that self-knowledge is important as a personal developmental step, Cynthia illustrates that this can become a hindrance to real feeling for others.

Temptation, Time, and Wisdom

We first think of temptation in terms of our tendency to be attracted to committing ethical wrongs. But temptation also has temporal (future) aspects; we are attracted to do good things before we should, important things before we are ready, hard things before we’ve earned the competency. Mastering self-control with respect to these sorts of temptations is one way that we gain wisdom.

Looking for the Right Kind of “All In”

Christians can never be “all in” on anything but Jesus. This puts the reflective person into a dissociative quandary. One’s occupation may or may not survive the refining fire of the eschaton, but it doesn’t make one’s job unnecessary. One’s employer may exist only because of the dysfunctions of a society or even due to injustice, but it doesn’t take away the duty of laboring as unto Jesus. One’s country may be unjust to others or to oneself, but it is no less a gift of God. We understand pilgrims to be those who go somewhere, but one can also be a pilgrim who stays and faithfully lives the awkward life given to us. Each of us bears not the spanner/lance/pen/keyboard/hammer/welding torch in vain.

God has a Very Good Life

God has a good life. He is three persons who mutually submit and glorify one another. He enables our joining that life by creating us in his image and likeness and through the incarnation of Jesus. Then, he unites us to Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit and we become part of that good life. God has always existed in a psychologically healthy state, possessing and defining all virtues, connected socially, and acting fruitfully. Living within the corona of that beautiful, refined, white-hot life is where we are the most human, the most connected to him and to the other saints, and the healthiest.

Some Helpful Vocabulary Words and Pronunciation Tips

mawkish – sentimental

ultra vires – (latin) outside of (beyond) one’s authority

intra vires – (latin) within proper authority

The word “especially” has no pronounceable “c” sound. Saying “eckspecially” will subject you to judgment by grammar snoots.

The phrase is “home in” not “hone in.” Saying “hone in” will also subject you judgment by grammar snoots. You can hone a knife, you can hone an argument (sharpen an argument). But you must home in on the answer.