in Christian Perspective
Book Reviews for March 1971
GOD & GOLEM, INC. Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion by N. Wiener, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1969. Paperback. $1.95.
EXPERIENCE AND GOD by John E. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. 209 pp. Index.
IN GOD'S IMAGE by Jacob Rosin, New York: The Philosophical Library, 1969, 81 pp. $4.00.
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN: Man in the First Chapters of the Bible by Helmnt Thielicke, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, Pa., translated with an introduction by John W. Doberstein, 1961. 308 pp. Paperback. $2.50.
GOD & GOLEM, INC. Comment on Certain Points
where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion by N. Wiener, MIT Press,
The author makes a point of the fact that we must face up to some startling realities. Accepting religion as defined broadly by our contemporary secular world, it is true that recent developments in computer science do encroach on some areas of religion. However, the topics discussed in this note have no effect on a true Christian perspective.
The discussion begins with a plea to the reader to divest himself of all emotional religious overtones and face facts. He indicates that his revelations might be tantamount to support of witchcraft in the dark ages or acceptance of Darwinism in the last century. I suspect his claims were well founded in 1963, but in this present day of rapid change we are becoming accustomed to many so-called radical new concepts without getting particularly upset.
The author is also possibly correct in suspecting that many church-oriented people are too emotional about some sacred "absolute" qualities. For instance, the word omnipotence is probably wrought with over-emotion and is actually meaningless. "Can God make a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?" What one really means is that God's attributes far exceed one's wildest imaginations.
Professor Wiener's note deals with three items of supposedly religious significance.
1) Machines can learn. 2) Machines can reproduce themselves, 3) Machines and man can work together.
Of these three topics, the third is most relevant to today's world. In fact, the third item would be particularly disturbing to anyone who is not aware that God really does have a plan for this present world and that our God is a personal God who cares for each of us who have accepted Christ as our personal Saviour.
Machines can learn. His example is the checker-playing computer that is capable of improving its ability. In fact, it learns from experience just as humans do. He feels this is upsetting to people who claim God has created them uniquely as thinking people "in his image". Possibly such a response would be prevalent in his generation. I, myself, found nothing disturbing to my Christian experience.
At this point, he also includes some theory of games which he likens to religious expression. By playing a game, we discover certain moves that enhance our chances of winning. He suggests that religious action such as prayer is playing a game with God in order to better our lot in life.
The author concludes by combining the thoughts that religion is like a game, and machines can learn to play games better than their human designers. This juxtaposition of ideas is certainly thought provoking to a religion based on works, but the idea that we react in a religious fashion for personal gain is definitely not a New Testament concept. Thus, these notions have no pertinent effect on Christianity.
Machines can reproduce themselves. Computers have been employed to reproduce more sophisticated computers. This supposedly again impinges on God creating us in "his own image". I see no difficulty unless one reads into this some sort of uniqueness criterion.
Machines and man can work together. This is a real threat in today's world. In 1963 this was prophecy. It is now accepted fact. A machine can make decisions for us with great speed but it ignores the consequences! A machine can be programmed to make a decision based on certain values. Our present dilemma is that no one knows what values are morally "right". A machine is valuable in a world of absolutes, but it can be very dangerous in a world of "relative" values. The present decade is one of turmoil with respect to moral values and the great issues: the bomb, over population, starvation, progress and pollution, social reform. The moral overtones are not fixed. Hopefully, world leaders will use "pushbutton answers" with caution. Actually when you realize the traumatic decisions facing a disbelieving world, it is a true comfort to realize the Holy Spirit is willing and pleased to guide each of our lives. Thus, once again, he speaks to secular religion but completely misses our Christian experience.
Reviewed by Richard Jacobson, Department of Mathematics, Houghton College, Houghton, N.Y.
EXPERIENCE AND GOD by John E. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
209 pp. Index.
The author is concerned about the fideistic elements in contemporary theological thought and philosophy of religion. He sees fideism as an attempt to save religious faith from the attacks of modern empirical science which cannot find God through observation of empirical reality. Empirical science is viewed as a necessary and positive element in the apprehension of truth, but is gently rebuked when it becomes a scientism with its own presuppositions about (and often against) the possibility of religious faith. Science is simply one way of viewing reality; it is a dimension of the environment of men. The concept of dimension is important in order to understand Smith. It is not that science may investigate reality, reach its conclusions, and then leave the mysterious open for a religious interpretation. It is rather that the scientific dimension is one avenue to and aspect of reality; the religious dimension is another way and the all-embracing way to approach, apprehend, and understand reality. Science deals with the empirical aspect of reality, but human experience is greater than empiricism. Men must enlarge their concept of experience if they are to understand the full dimensions of reality. This enlargement is the religious dimension. All men begin with a given, a pattern of facts, experience, and interpretation. To limit truth to one approach (science) is to do despite to the full-orbed personality-God. A proper approach is one which combines empirical observation and interpretation. The self-reflecting personality with its ontologically-given sense of God as ultimate reality will not exclude the transcendance of the experienced religious dimension of reality. This is not fideism, for it includes all observable, experienced aspects of existence. For Smith, an enlarged understanding of experience permits one to argue for the religious dimension given to reality by the transcendent, revealing God.
Has Smith succeeded in his task? Certainly he points out the weakness involved in using scientific method as a scientism, open only to the empirical. Certainly in form and intent he safeguards the objectivity and transcendence of God in His Self-revelation. Surely he is no fideist; he stands squarely within the empirical tradition and exhorts his co-laborers to broaden their perspective. Yet, for all this, Smith has failed to recognize the finitude, weakness and brokenness of reason as it, in formal function, apprehends reality and, in interpretive essence, invests reality with meaning. Can an enlarged concept of experience bring us to God? It is one thing to emphasize God's transcendence and revelation along with a religious dimension of life. It is another task to show the cohesive and coherent relation between the two. Is not a new experience, a miraculous experience, in which God directly enters into relations with the human personality needed? Must man, can man broaden his horizons, enlarge his appreciation, climb his own ladder and then put up another extension in order to find God? Holy Scripture, church confession, and personal testimony teach that it is not enlarged experience and chastened empiricism that brings man to God, but rather transformed experience in terms of new relationship and invaded empirical reality (The Word was made flesh) that enables one to see Him who is full of grace and truth.
Reviewed by Irwin Reist, Associate Professor of Bible, Houghton College, Houghton, N.Y.
IN GOD'S IMAGE by Jacob Rosin, New York:
The Philosophical Library, 1969, 81 pp. $4.00.
The author, a research chemist, calls for the establishment of "the Science of Prophecy" which he predicts will, when circumscribed by certain rules, be more exact in fact and interpretation than is the present study of history. "Basic Laws" proposed for governing this science include among others: "anything which is theoretically possible will be achieved;" "all predictions should be limited to positive statements of future achievements and should not contain negative predictions;" and "predictions should be limited to inevitable events and should include nothing which is merely probable."
The first prediction the author ventures is that "progress in research into the chemistry of proteins and nucleic acids will continue" and will ultimately lead to a higher form of manlike animal, homo sempercirens, who will be sexless, omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, immortal-"indeed, the very image of God living in a world of abundance like Paradise before the Fall or Heaven after the Final Judgment." Genetic engineering is inevitable and the result can only be Utopia.
Possibly the greatest contribution this book can make is its stimulation of a reader to write another presenting Christian alternatives.
Reviewed by Stephen W, Calhoon, Jr., Department of Chemistry, Houghton College, Houghton, New York
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN: Man in the First
Chapters of the Bible by Helmnt Thielicke, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, Pa.,
translated with an introduction by John W. Doberstein, 1961. 308 pp. Paperback.
Sermons delivered over a two-year period by the well-known German theologian explore the content of the first eleven chapters of the Bible. Under the general headings of the Beginning, the Creation of Man, the Story of the Fall, the Story of Cain and Abel, the Story of the Flood, and the Building of the Tower of Babel, Thiehcke traces all the great themes of Christian doctrine implicit in these opening chapters of the Bible and drives home their timeless application and their ultimate significance for man and his world. It is a tribute to his mastery of the subject that these chapters derived from sermons are able to speak to a quite general audience with profound meaning. Significantly he writes in an introductory chapter.
Among the many things that distort our view of God and 'against' which we must therefore believe, are our misunderstandings. Often misunderstandings are based upon the fact that we confuse the figurative, mythical, ancient-cosmological forms of expression in these texts of the first chapters of Genesis with the thing itself, instead of seeing in them the God language of a time long past which we must translate into the clear words of our own language . . . . I am not concerned with cheap apologetics when I seek to remove misunderstandings. For I have no desire to tone down these texts and prepare them appetizingly so that respectable citizens of the twentieth century can swallow them with pleasure and digest them without getting a stomachache.
He returns to this same theme in a Postscript, as he points out his belief that when these messages are spoken to one in his own language, they strike home, even with hostile and menacing import to shake his life. All too often the familiar and traditional ecclesiastical phraseology leaves him untouched and deprives him7of the real message of the Word.
It is an impoverished reader indeed who comes away from these early chapters of the Bible with only some theories of cosmology and historical origins.
Reviewed by Richard H. Bube, Department of Materials Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California.