Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Holy Machine

I recently finished a book The Holy Machine, by Chris Becket. It is a superb read, but raises some very interesting questions about faith, belief, religion.

In particular, what it showed was something I have argued for a while, that the scientific method has a core set of beliefs underneath it, just like religion. More, it is about the nature of relationship, the way that interaction can be programmed.

The real challenge it makes is to blur - or, in fact, cross - the lines of distinction between humans and machines. Critically, it makes the idea that our responses are "human" and that the responses from a computer are "non-human", and that these are fundamentally different. the truth is that they are not so different, that, in theory at least, a computer could interact in specific situations, provide human-like interactions.

This is not suggesting that the famous Turing test is no longer relevant - it is not suggesting that we can build a computer that could pass this today. In the 1970s there was a system called ELIZA, which was doing this for the very limited interaction of a psychological discussion. Within those parameters, it worked remarkably well.

The real challenge it provides, though, is to the idea of science as something concrete, something purely rational, purely intellectual, without any concept of "faith" or "belief". It isn't, its just that the beliefs are far harder to see, to identify as "belief" rather than "just how things are". It is a little like the Newbigin idea of a pair of glasses that everyone is wearing. The problem is that we all see the world through glasses - through the perspectives that we have learnt and grown up with. It is impossible to see our own glasses, but we can see others' glasses. His experience was that he saw his own glasses when he was in a different culture, a different society, where people had different glasses on. When he returned to the UK, he saw much more clearly that those around him were also wearing glasses - by leaving his culture, he saw the glasses. It is far harder to leave the rational, scientific society, and realise that they too are wearing glasses.

The truth is, they are - we are. the scientific culture is as much a culture, with it's own beliefs and principles, as any other culture. One of the problems today is that our societies have lost a lot of their differentiation - it is becoming hard to identify a particular culture because it has largely been influenced by other - western - cultures.

One of the messages - to me - of The Holy Machine is that a scientific worldview, a scientific set of beliefs and understanding is not enough. Nor is a religious one. Both are needed, and, they are not incompatible. In fact, without both, without the interaction between both, we are diminished, lessened.

But we should not assume that either is everything, or that they are that different. Not in reality. They are not.

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