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Technology Archives ~ Aletheia Baptist Ministries Skip to main content

The Vanishing Word

The Vanishing Word

by Rick Shrader

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This is a Focal Point Series book of which Gene Edward Veith, Jr. is the general editor.  The subtitle of the book is “The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World.”  Hunt takes the reader from the world of the Scriptures, given in verbal form, to the Reformation and then to the modern day.  He shows how we have gone from a print society to an image-driven society.  The danger has been, and is today, that idolatry is image driven and today’s culture is totally immersed in image.  Along the way Hunt gives many interesting historical anecdotes about the coming of the new inventions that produced the industrial age and then the information age.  Hunt follows Neil Postman closely and also Veith.  Postman’s books (Amusing Ourselves To Death, Technopoly, etc.) and Gene Veith’s books (Postmodernism Today, Reading Between The Lines, etc.) have been among many that are warning us about the downside of Postmodernism.

“When I said in Chapter One that visual media have the potential to paganize us, I simply meant that in a culture where it is difficult to escape the pervasiveness of images, the devotion that we put into the ritual of watching television, going to the movies, attending rock concerts, or devouring the latest People magazine approaches the same level of devotion that the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans had for their deities.  It meets the same need, and quite remarkably, the images are all too familiar.  The cult of celebrity fills a religious hole dug by modernism.  William Blake once said that all deities reside in the human breast (all but one, of course).  So it was for the Greeks, and so it is for us.  The machines of show business brought the gods back to life.”  (163-164)

 

Technological Symbolism Over Substance

Technological Symbolism Over Substance

by Rick Shrader

Postmodernism’s pragmatic instrumental view of language is why image is everything in our culture.  Language is not neutral but a tool by which those in power or in control of the media can manipulate and construct reality.1

Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm

I believe it was Confucius who said, “When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty.”  History is full of examples of tyrants and other manipulators who changed the course of nations by redefining words and concepts.  That’s why I was interested when I saw an article entitled, “Juliet and Shakespeare’s Other Nominalists.”2 Nominalism is a centuries old philosophy that says there are no universal truths outside one’s own perception of truth (just because I can think about you doesn’t prove you exist except in my mind).  The author of the article is pointing out that Shakespeare wrote in light of the ideas circulating in his time.  In that day, Juliet’s proposal that Romeo change his name (because, after all, “What’s in a name: That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”) was a way of proposing that nothing that existed outside the two of them really mattered.  There were those nominalists in Shakespeare’s day who first removed anything eternal from their existence, then anything outside their empirical world, then anything outside their own mind.  Reality was reduced to the “nominal.”

Young says, “Nominalist epistemology is a step in the direction of postmodern liberation from the constraints of political and religious hierarchies.”3 We have a generation of Romeo and Juliets today who care about nothing outside themselves.  We have spent thirty years educating them in this self-centered philosophy that nothing really matters but them.  Why should we be surprised when a skin-head shoots a black man “because he was in the wrong place”?  He doesn’t really exist anyway!

The Christian point of view is vividly seen in the Book of Hebrews. There we see the tabernacle of the Old Testament as an earthly representation of a heavenly tabernacle; the earthly priesthood as fulfilled in a heavenly priesthood.  That is, living by faith is living with a constant realization that the universal exists.  God’s sphere of existence is out there too.  In fact, we are instructed to look for that world at the expense of this world (and never vice versa).  Nominalism is at complete odds with the biblical view of life and faith.  Faith is the ability to see much more than inside one’s own world.

The writer of Hebrews addressed a unique problem.  Whereas the temple trappings and symbolisms were supposed to remind them of God, they were keeping them from seeing Him by faith.  It was easier and more enjoyable, not to mention more acceptable, to worship with the sights and sounds of the temple than in the plain, simple service of the Christians.  That is, the symbols and the sounds of the place can either serve as a reminder of the God we worship, or they can become the god we worship.  In the Jews’ case, the temple was their worship.  They had become nominalists in the sense that they reduced their worship down to the place and experience, but it was not connected to anything outside themselves.

There was a time in history when the Greek Orthodox Church stressed so much the beauty of the Byzantine architecture and church buildings, that their icons became idols.  “On the surface this conflict, which raged for over a century, was a disagreement over the use of icons.  But at a deeper level it was a disagreement over which things were sufficiently sacred or holy to deserve worship.”4 It was what I call “worshiping worship.”  Gene Veith calls it “a conceptual shift of focus away from the object of art to the person of the artist.”5

We see the potential for modern nominalism all around us today.  The elaborate structures have been replaced by electronic sights.  The stained-glass windows have been replaced by rear-screen projectors.  The moment these keep us from faith rather than helping our faith, they are icons that have become idols.  How else could I explain the phenomenal growth of the local Unity Church due to an aggressive use of electronic, high-tech methodology, even though their doctrine denies the existence of a personal God?  Their worship service is virtually the same as many evangelical churches but evidently that is all many people are seeking—the worship experience.  Francis Schaeffer described modern man this way:  “The tragedy is not only that these talented men have reached the point of despair, but that so many who look on and admire really do not understand.  They are influenced by the concepts, and yet they have never realized what it all means.”6

In reading a recent article about church technology,7 the author states, “As more churches attempt to reinvent themselves as relevant institutions in a society driven by images, speed and information, technology has become an increasingly important worship and marketing tool . . . . The trend is feuled by the convergence of paradigm shifts in both religious worship expression and technology.”  The article gives advice to corporations which can learn what works and what doesn’t in attracting people to their product.  Neil Postman is correct when he observes that this “Technopoly” only “blocks the way to such consideration by beginning with the question of how we should proceed rather than with the question of why.”8

The Brazen Serpent was first an implement, then an icon, then an idol.  The process caused a whole nation to miss their Messiah.  Praise God for its implementation when it was a tool that gave people faith but cursed it was, when it became an idol for worshiping worship, a technological symbol that had lost its substance.

Notes:
1. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis Okholm, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) 14.
2. R.V. Young, “Juliet and Shakespeare’s Other Nominnalists,” The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 1997.
3. Young, 21.
4. Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) 147.
5. Gene Veith, Jr., State Of The Arts (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991) 93.
6. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downer’s Grove:  IPV, 1968) 33.
7. Dave Zielinski, “Churches Go Hi-Tech: Delivering Presentations from the Pulpit,” Presentations Magazine, December 1997.
8. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of a Culture To Technology (New York: Vintge Books, 1992) 171.

 

Does Mind Matter?

Does Mind Matter?

by Rick Shrader

Does Mind Matter?

 

Who would not think, to see us compounding everything of mind and

matter, that such a mixture is perfectly intelligible to us?  Yet

this is the thing we understand least; man is to himself the greatest

prodigy in nature, for he cannot conceive what body is, and still

less what mind is, and least of all how a body can be joined to a

mind.  This is his supreme difficulty, and yet it is his very being.

Blaise Pascal1

(17th Century)

 

 

Kasparov himself, in explaining how he eventually beat the machine, wrote, I changed slightly the order of a well-known opening sequence.  Because it was unable to compare this new position meaningfully with similar ones in its database, it had to start calculating away and was unable to find a good plan.  A human would have simply wondered, ‘what’s Garry up to?,’ judged the change to be meaningless and moved on.2 Was this the limit for a machine?  Will there always be that gap between calculation and consciousness or have we just not had enough time to put a mind into this machine?

To many, these issues of the technology age signify the end of the reign of materialism over the soul of man.  George Gilder of the Discovery Institute wrote, “For the central fact of the twentieth century is not the overthrow of the mind, but the overthrow of matter.”3 He refers to the demise of the last two hundred years of scientific thinking that man is just a glob of protoplasm that learned to speak.  He goes on to say, “From Marxism to behavioralism, from routine evolutionism to logical positivism, from deconstructionism to reflex psychology, scientists and scholars produced an unending stream of theories that reduced man to a mechanism.”4 The old naturalistic view is that as man and his brain organism evolved, the idea of consciousness was produced by the advanced brain.  But now, with the coming of quantum physics and the separation of matter and energy (a subject for another time), Gilder says, “We find a high drama of richly intelligible activity where electrons combine and disappear without occupying conventional time or space, and things obey the laws of mind rather than the laws of matter.”5 That is to say, materialists can account for the matter in the universe but they cannot explain where the intelligence, consciousness or thought come from.

So when this month’s issue of Time Magazine asks the question “Can Machines Think?,” they are equally asking, “Does man have an immaterial part to him that we will never be able to build into a machine? Does man have a soul?”  Time highlights two robots, Cog and Cyc, which are stretching the limits of “AI” (artificial intelligence) but has to conclude, “With AI, the tenets of strict materialism are being realized–and found, by some at least, incapable of explaining certain parts of human experience.  Namely, the experience part.”6

In more common language this is like asking, “Will computers become so complex that eventually they will develop (or evolve) their own conscious will and take over?”  After all, we already speak of computers being ill with a “virus.”  Time reports that next month an ecobiologist in Japan will release a tiny self-reproducing program onto the Internet (an experiment called “digital biodiversity reserve”), a “virtual organism” which will quickly “populate the network and begin to evolve.”7 (Insert Twilight Zone music here)

A few years ago, Neil Postman wrote of this concern.  He said, The computer, it is implied, has a will, has intentions, has reasons—which means that humans are relieved of responsibility for the computer’s decisions.  Through a curious form of grammatical alchemy, the sentence ‘we use the computer to calculate’ comes to mean ‘the computer calculates.’  ‘The computer shows’ or ‘the computer has determined.’  It is Technopoly’s equivalent of the sentence ‘It is God’s will.’8 This directs our attention to the question of moral authority.

Has this latest form of art, the technological machine, illustrated for us and convinced us that man is a machine as well?  Just as the computer has evolved to the point where wires, chips and plugs actually think for themselves, so man has evolved to the point where tissue, blood and mucus have developed consciousness? Ravi Zacharias writes, “Fyodor Dostoevsky predicted that at first art would imitate life, then life would imitate art, and finally, that life would draw the very reason for its existence from art.”9 The materialist, anyway, has long thought that the mind came from a brain, not the brain from a Mind.

The good news is that the more science has tried to produce consciousness from matter, the less it has succeeded.  The new experiments with robotics, computers and even quantum physics have only shown that mind, consciousness and “being” stand apart from the material universe and cannot be explained by it.  But C.S. Lewis warned us fifty years ago, The extreme limit of this self-binding is seen in those who, like the rest of us, have consciousness, yet go about to study the human organism as if they did not know it was conscious.  As long as this deliberate refusal to understand things from above, even where such understanding is possible, continues, it is idle to talk of any final victory over materialism.10

Perhaps one day we will learn, as Time mused, you don’t invite a forklift to a weightlifting competition!  But more is at stake still, with our materialistic generation than chess matches and tests of strength.  We have been conditioned in every modern way possible to live in this world as though there is no other.  We have, in the now familiar words, created God in our own image.  In a very real way, to the materialist, the only god there is, the only real consciousness, is a product of the material world.  Our soul is only an unexplained energy field produced by selective evolution.

Jesus said, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).  He then added a parable of a rich man whom we could rightfully call a materialist.  He lived only for the material things which he could collect and finally thought, “I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (vs 19).  Can there be any doubt that our materialistic age has adopted this attitude?  (Don’t we often define heaven or eveen spirituality by the absence of material things rather than by the presence of the spiritual?)

Jesus had an answer for this man and for every age of materialism:  “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (vs 20).  Then He said to the disciples, “The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment” (vs 23).  God has devised a final exam for the question of mind and matter.  It is called death.  You can guess at the answer, or ignore the evidence but you can’t skip the exam!

I return to Pascal for this final observation:  Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.  There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him.  But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him.  The universe knows none of this.

Thus all dignity consists in thought.  It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill.  Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality.11

 

Rick Shrader

 

Notes:

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (London: Penquin Books, 1966) p. 94.

2. “Can Machines Think?” Time, March 25, 1966, p. 55.

3. George Gilder,”The Materialist Superstition” The Intercollegiate Review, Spring, 1996, p. 8.

4. Gilder, p. 7.

5. Gilder, p. 11.

6. “Can Machines Think?” p. 55.

7. “Can Machines Think?” p. 58.

8. Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) p. 114-115.

9. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994) p. 73.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Weight Of Glory (New York:  Macmillan, 1980) p. 72.

11. Pascal, p. 95.

 

A Virtual Reality World

A Virtual Reality World

by Rick Shrader

Men seek stronger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense . . . They try to stab their nerves to life, as if it were with knives of the priest of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.         G.K. Chesterton

The February 8, 1993 issue of Time magazine introduced us to ‘‘Cyberpunk.’’ It is ‘‘technology with an attitude.’’ The word describes the growing world of ‘‘Virtual Reality,’’ the fusing of humans and machines. ‘‘Cyber’’ is taken from ‘‘Cybernetics’’ and ‘‘Punk’’ from the idea of an antisocial hoodlum. This technological underworld is a labyrinth of hypertext such as cyberspace, interzones, synaesthesia, cryonics, dystopia and rants. Thousands of otherwise bored souls are exploring worlds that only exist in the mind and a computer link.  According to Time, during WW II, Norbert Wiener of M.I.T. designed systems for antiaircraft guns and found that the critical component in a control system is a feedback loop that gives a controller information on the results of its actions. He called this type of study ‘‘Cybernetics’’ (from the Greek word kubernetes), the science of communication and control theory.

In the New Testament, kubernetes means the ‘‘master’’ (Acts 27:11) or the ‘‘shipmaster’’ (Rev 18:17). It was a person linked together with the rudder (from a word signifying hardness) that controlled the ship. Whereas I might call this device a ‘‘steering wheel,’’ my kids would most likely call it a ‘‘joystick.’’

The concept of virtual reality grows out of cybernetics. It is the ability to contact and control a situation without actually being there and without actually suffering negative consequences for inappropriate action. As Neil Postman writes in his 1992 book Technopoly, ‘‘Putting on a set of miniature goggle-mounted screens, one may block out the real world and move through a simulated three-dimensional world which changes its components with every movement to one’s head.’’ Gene Veith, writing in his 1994 book Postmodern Times adds, ‘‘When this technology is perfected, we will be able to take part in multi-sensory fantasies, as if we were the main character in a science fiction movie. Some people are even looking forward to virtual reality body condoms which will offer pre-programmed sexual fantasies.’’ The fact is, according to Time, magazines already exist that are user guides to ‘‘everything from virtual reality and wetware to designer aphrodisiacs and techno-erotic paganism, promising to make cyberpunk’s rarefied perspective immediately accessible.’’

We should not be overly negative nor alarmists. There will also be amazing educational tools developed from this technology. Students may be able to travel to foreign lands or take a simple field trip without leaving the classroom. I may be able to go fly-fishing along a mountain stream but never leave the office. But human nature being what it is, the dangers will overshadow the benefits. That is why the market is already flooded with attractions to the flesh while the classroom sits empty. And I am not sure I am willing to give up the real thing for what is virtually real anyway. I can see my old professor Noel Smith, who wouldn’t drink coffee out of a paper cup and disdained clip-on ties, thanking the Lord that he ‘‘checked out’’ when he did!

We may, however, be witnessing the inevitable outcome (coupled with the technological know-how) of a long infatuation with the unreal. My first trip to a theme park was to Disneyland. I loved it and always have. I could be Tom Sawyer riding a raft down the Mississippi, a star fighter in outer space or Pinocchio inside a giant whale. Now, almost every town has a mall which creates the idea of being outside while you are really inside. Some, like Minnesota’s Mall of America takes you virtually anywhere else you want to go. We can go to Mexico to eat Mexican food at Chi Chi’s or to the great outdoors to buy a fishing rod at Bass Pro Shop. We can even jump from dangerous heights to experience the sensation of falling to our death only to be yanked back to reality by a bungee cord. Of course, we may add to this the theater, television, video arcade and computer.

‘‘The problem,’’ says Veith, ‘‘comes when the mind-set of the malls and theme parks becomes confused with Christianity.’’ Witness, for example, Rev. Tommy Barnett, pastor of Phoenix First Assembly with its $500,000 special-effects system (copied from Bally’s casino in Las Vegas), as he ascends into the auditorium’s ceiling after finishing a Sunday sermon (Wall Street Journal, 12-11-90). Does such miraculous simulation make real or virtually real believers? Can we turn such faith on and off like a television set? Do we exit the game by exiting the auditorium? Robert Wenz in Room For God? writes, ‘‘The marketing church has led to dangerous application of church growth principles to the ‘now’ generation that demands instant gratification or at least instant feedback.’’ Exactly like being at the controls of the latest video game.

To gain our bearings we might download a bit of information from Webster. We might conclude, for example, that ‘‘virtual reality’’ is a bit of an oxymoron. Virtual is from the Latin virtus meaning ‘‘being in essence or effect but not in fact.’’ Virtu is a noun form describing an art lover ‘‘especially of a curios or antique nature.’’ Art, after all, is a representation but not a reality. Virtue is a derivative which means ‘‘conformity to a standard of right’’ but never attaining the real perfection. On the other hand, reality is from the Latin Res meaning fact. Real is to be ‘‘fixed, permanent, or unmovable.’’ It is ‘‘agreement between what a thing seems to be and what it is.’’ That is why we call a piece of land ‘‘real estate.’’ So what is virtual reality? It is unreal reality. Nonreality. Nonsense.

Christopher Meyer, a cyberpunk himself, said that cybernetics is ‘‘all data. It all takes up the same amount of space on disk, and a lot of it is just plain noise.’’ But we must remember that we all have a kubernetes, a pilot over our body and soul. Seneca said, ‘‘No man is free who is a slave to the flesh.’’ Hermes said of Christ that he is the ‘‘kubernetes ton somaton hemon,’’ the ‘‘Pilot of our souls.’’ That is not virtual reality but reality that is virtuous.