The Briefing 05-31-16

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Cincinnati zoo kills endangered gorilla to protect child in danger, outrage ensues

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Postmodern confusion abounds in people who attempt "metamorphosis" to become animals

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To speak of artificial intelligence "outsmarting" humans is to deny undergirding human design

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Transcript

The Briefing

May 31, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, May 31, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Cincinnati zoo kills endangered gorilla to protect child in danger, outrage ensues

The value of human life over against the life of animals was drawn to our national attention over the weekend when at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, a four-year-old boy slipped under an enclosure and into a moat inside the gorilla exhibit and into the hands of a 17-year-old male gorilla. As the events unfolded on Saturday in the Cincinnati Zoo, officials made the decision that they had to kill the gorilla in order to save the boy, and that set off a cultural conversation that reveals to us a very great deal of our modern confusion, a modern confusion that, we need to note, is not only a matter of concern, but of deadly significance, because we’re talking about the dignity and sanctity of human life. In this case you have an almost perfect storm of unique circumstances. You have a four-year-old boy who had escaped his mother and had fallen into the enclosure of Western lowland gorillas, a very endangered species. And then you had two females that were lured out of the enclosure by zoo officials, a dangerous animals response team that knew immediately what to do first.

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Postmodern confusion abounds in people who attempt "metamorphosis" to become animals

Now as you consider that controversy and what it already has revealed about the confusion about human dignity and the status of human life, consider the fact that the current edition of the New Yorker, the magazine that comes out and hits newsstands just this week, has a story by Joshua Rothman asking the question,

“What is it like to be an animal?”

And it’s an article that is clearly intended to be taken seriously by serious people, the kind of serious people amongst the intellectual elites who are known to be the readers of the New Yorker. As we’re thinking about postmodern confusion, when it comes to human dignity, it’s hard to know how to exemplify it more readily than the opening sentence in this article,

“Thomas Thwaites first considered becoming an animal on a spring day in 2013. He was walking Noggin, his nieces’ Irish terrier, along the Thames when he found himself taking stock of his life.”

Now as the story goes on, it turns out that this man, Thomas Thwaites, a rather failed artist at least economically speaking, was determining how he was going to lead the rest of his life, and he found himself in some sense feeling jealous of Noggin, that is the Irish terrier. He decided that he would be better off as an animal and he decided he would try to become one. Rothman writes,

“He thought it must be wonderful to live in Noggin’s eternal present—to smell the grass, the wind, and the water without worrying about the future, the past, the meaning of life, or the inevitability of death. How much simpler to be an animal!”

Now the story goes on and it is intended to be taken very seriously. It’s not only about Thomas Thwaites, but about another man who also decided that they would become animals. And they’re making the argument seriously, seriously enough to gain this major article in the New Yorker. After consulting with a shaman in order to determine how he might spiritually cross the species barrier, the story tells us that he eventually decided he will become a goat. In order to do that, he had to learn the goat mind.

“To understand it, he began spending time at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, a pastoral facility, in Kent [that is in Britain]. From a goat-behavior expert named Alan McElligott, Thwaites learned that goats are relatively relaxed and resilient creatures who are slaves to hierarchy—good and bad news for his prospective life as a goat.”

He actually found someone that made prosthetic limbs in order to make him limbs so that he could, at least by his own claim, approximate the gait of a goat and its movements. He tried to eat like a goat, something that he achieved with what we can only describe as limited success, and then he studied the philosopher Martin Heidegger who argued about selfhood and how it is defined. This is how Rothman describes that encounter,

“Reading Heidegger convinced Thwaites that, to inhabit the mental life of a goat, he would need to relate to his surroundings in a goatlike way.”

The he quotes Thwaites,

“‘I need to change my context,’ he resolved, ‘to the extent that somehow I look at a chair and don’t automatically associate it with sitting.’ He would have achieved goathood when he could see a word without reading it—or, more important, ‘look at a(nother) goat and think of it as another person, like me.’”

At this point we simply have to note that it is not ever going to be possible for this man to “achieve goathood.” It is categorically impossible. And it’s categorically impossible precisely because this man, whether he recognizes it or not, is a human being made in the image of God. To state the matter rather bluntly, it is not a goat that is trying to invent such nonsense about how to achieve humanhood.

Here you have an apparently confused and self-delusional human being who imagines that he might be able to achieve goathood. The other man in the article is Charles Foster; he’s been at one point a lecturer in medical ethics at University of Oxford. Now he’s decided that he will be a badger, a badger that lives in the woods.

“For six weeks, Foster lived as a badger in the woods. He dug an underground badger lair, or sett, sleeping there during the day and venturing out, on all fours, at night. Badgers eat earthworms. “When you put a worm into your mouth,” Foster reports, “it senses the heat as something sinister,” searching for gaps between your teeth until you bite down and taste “slime and the land.”

But he goes on to say,

“There’s a lot you can’t see at badger level, six inches above the ground (or under it), and so badgers rely on other senses; it’s believed, for example, that they can hear the bristles of an earthworm plowing the dirt.”

Now, to state the matter bluntly, whether or not badgers can do that, human beings can’t, because we weren’t made to live six inches off the ground listening for earthworms which we would eat. The New Yorker article tells us that Foster actually involved his own 8-year-old son, Tom, in this experiment, trying to get him also to live like a badger. But as it turns out, one of their main goals was to meet other badgers who would see them as badgers. But that didn’t happen,

“In six weeks, however, they never met any badgers. (They heard them and tried to approach them, but to no avail.)”

Now, at this point we simply have to observe that in all likelihood, the badgers actually understood that these were not badgers. They had not achieved badgerhood, and they never would. Rothman tells us,

“Unnerved, Foster fled back to civilization, bringing with him this image of the ultimate mystery and inaccessibility of badger life.”

But just when you think the things surely can’t get even more confused and even more dangerous, Rothman tells us about some intellectuals who are now arguing that we as human beings aren’t even smart enough to know how smart animals are. He cites primatologist, Frans de Waal, who says,

“Even the term nonhuman grates on me,” he writes, “since it lumps millions of species together by an absence, as if they were missing something.”

Rothman writes,

“Instead of comparing animals to ourselves, he argues, we should recognize that every animal is an animal in its own way.”

And by that de Waal clearly intends to include human beings as just another animal. But it is extremely significant that here you have de Waal arguing that he bristles against the categories of human and nonhuman because the use of that term nonhuman seems to insinuate that those nonhuman creatures are missing something the human beings possess. That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? That is exactly what the biblical worldview affirms, that those nonhuman creatures are missing something. They are not made in the image of God; human beings, every single human being, are.

The point made by this article in the New Yorker is that even though these two men are clearly on shaky grounds in terms of self-identity, and of course their knowledge of themselves as human beings, the point is that the New Yorker wants us to see that this is a rather important conversation and one that includes not only these two men, one who tried to be a goat and the other to try to be a badger, but also informed and very influential academics such as Frans de Waal.

This mass and deadly confusion now comes disguised sometimes with academic respectability. But there’s something very telling in how Rothman concludes his article. Even though he has given more credit to this nonsense than it deserves—and that itself is noteworthy—he does seem to see through the entire experiment. He writes in the last paragraph of the article,

“There is an irony to these books [that is the books by these two men]: the more Thwaites and Foster try to change into animals, the more fully they become Thwaites and Foster.”

That is certainly true and as you consider this, just remember the fact that both of these men have now written books. Let’s just note, goats and badgers don’t write books, nor do they read them. The title of Joshua Rothman’s article in the New Yorker is,

“The Metamorphosis.”

But that’s the real irony, isn’t it? There was no metamorphosis.

To speak of artificial intelligence "outsmarting" humans is to deny undergirding human design

You’ll find that the issues of human identity and human dignity have been big in the past week. Just in recent days The New York Times ran an article,

“Not close to human, artificial intelligence still raises concern.”

John Markoff writes about a meeting convened last week by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a meeting that brought together legal specialists, technologists, and scientists to explore questions,

“…about autonomous systems that would increasingly make decisions without human input in areas like warfare, transportation and health.”

The really interesting part of the article comes with the warnings that artificial intelligence might be recognized as a threat to human dignity. One of the claims behind so much of the A.I. movement is that eventually machines are going to think even more consciously than human beings and will exceed the consciousness and intelligence of the human species. Ed Felten, a computer scientist who is a deputy chief technology officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, said,

“The A.I. community [that’s artificial intelligence] keeps climbing one mountain after another, and as it gets to the top of each mountain, it sees ahead still more mountains.”

The bottom line of the article: even though artificial intelligence is real and is growing by leaps and bounds, undergirding it is a human intelligence. Artificial intelligence, it turns out, really isn’t artificial in terms of being separated from human intelligence. That was made clear by Paul Allen, who said that much of the confusion here—by the way he is the cofounder of Microsoft—he says that much of the confusion is the way that artificial intelligence is presented in Hollywood. He also made the argument that much of the media conversation about artificial intelligence misses the obvious. And this obvious fact is something to which we have been pointing to time and again on The Briefing. And that is that even though there are claims about artificial intelligence being truly artificial, the fact is there are human brains that are behind whatever is now called artificial intelligence. As Allen warned,

“Attention-getting feats like Google’s AlphaGo program, which defeated a human champion in the board game Go, had plenty of humans behind the machine doing the work.”

All these stories taken together just from recent days remind us that human dignity is very much at stake, and we need to note it is always at stake. Our only rescue from this kind of very dangerous confusion is the biblical worldview that is given to us in Scripture. Once that worldview disappears and human dignity is grounded in something other than the image of God, we are all in very great trouble.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing