Science in Christian Perspective



Of Men and Computers
Gerald C. Marley
Department of Mathematics
California State University
Fullerton, California

From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 43-44.

Since my earliest childhood I have had exposure, drilling, teaching, and indoctrination in arithmetic. Curiously, I've never had anyone suggest to me that I believe in arithmetic as an adult because I had arithmetic drilled into me as a child. The implication would be, of course, that had 1 been reared in an amathematical house I would recognize arithmetic for what it is: a piece of folklore which some parents and groups cram down their childrens throats.

To say that a body of knowledge is folklore and that small children are indoctrinated with it, leaves open the questions of its validity, authenticity, dependability, truthfulness, etc.

Let us suppose now that I say to you, "You believe in arithmetic because it was ingrained so deeply as a child." I would probably mean at least two things: (1) arithmetic is a bunch of baloney; and (2) your commitment to arithmetic (in the sense that you rely upon it) results from preconditioning rather than from your making a responsible choice. We expect people to be able to determine the true nature of things and to make responsible choices.

For the sake of brevity, let me call the "true nature of things" the "reality." I will make no attempt to define "true nature of things." Whenever we assert that two plus two equals four, or that the earth is round, we are not merely making a statement about our desires, feelings, or preferences. We sometimes change our minds about things and say we were wrong. The reality is there as a standard against which we measure our perception of the reality. The reality and our perception (what we think the reality to be) are different. The earth didn't change its shape whenever the prevailing view changed. Perception changed; reality didn't. Whether we are right or wrong, whenever we make an assertion about reality we are saying that our perception is an accurate description of reality. We often equate our perception with reality, but to make a statement is one thing; to equate the statement with truth, is another.

We engage in debate with our fellows to attempt to persuade them that our perception is an accurate description of reality. We assume they (as well as we) have the capability of understanding. In many instances we expect more of our fellows than that they understand. We expect them to act on the basis of their understanding, but before long we find that their actions are not what we anticipate. Action of a specific kind results from a responsible choice and is therefore unpredictable.

The first thing that we learn from the Bible about man is that God made man in His image. God then placed man in the garden and told him not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the tree was there; the fruit looked good. A responsible choice was made at least once. (I say at least once because we know only of the time the choice was made to eat the fruit.) Note that I am consistently using the designation responsible choice. We can probably safely assume that neither Adam nor Eve flipped a coin each time the tree came in sight; heads I eat; tails I don't. The c' -.)ice was not random; it was not the result of irresistible instinct; it was a responsible choice. There were real alternatives; there were legitimate options. God has made us with the capability to make choices and has placed us within circumstances in which there are open options. One of these options, as we learn from Scripture, is to "fear God and keep His commandments." Even in the most ideal earthly circumstance one who walked daily with God chose not to do that. It wasn't the result of a bad environment during childhood. It was the result of a responsible choice.

God also told those created in His image to "fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God calls upon us to know reality; to ascertain the true nature of things.

Man, created in God's image, is able to make statements about reality and to claim that the statements are true. Man is also able to make responsible choices. As a result man has accomplished many things, some good, some bad; some constructive, some destructive. One of man's accomplishments is the development of computers. The size and complexity of the problems and the speed and accuracy with which they are processed, is truly staggering.

Anyone who has worked with computers knows how uncompromising they are. A recent space mission was delayed because of an extra comma on one of the cards. A computer program (if executed at all) is executed exactly as written and not as intended. Even the most obvious "It's obvious what I meant" is no more useful than is the most ridiculous.

In order to be useful and dependable a computer must be entirely predictable. Any randomness, any spontaneous departure from expectation renders all results useless garbage. We see here an immediate contrast between man and machine. The very quality which makes man Man makes a computer useless. Man has the capability of responsible choice and can decide not to do what he is supposed to do. Any computer is in trouble if it "decides" not to execute a statement which it is supposed to execute.

A computer can generate literally endless reams of paper printouts with a very small input. However there must be a generating algorithm. A computer can't generate without some input which generates the generator. Is it possible to build one which is self generating?

Computer art-and computer music are constantly produced. Is it possible to build a computer which can create a piece of literature or a non-randomly generated piece of music?

Computers are supposed to be "learning." Self correcting mechanisms are being developed so that a computer will "learn" that certain moves under certain conditions in chess should not be made. Is it possible to build a computer which can "learn" and still make a bad move just for the fun of it?

Computers can store and retrieve almost endless pieces of information. Is it possible to build a computer which can know any of the information? Can it know that it knows? Is it possible to build a computer which can know that it was built by man? Or, if the atheist is right, is it possible for a computer which wasn't made with the idea of someone of a nature different from itself, to think that this someone whose existence it accepted because of a wish fulfillment, did in fact make it?

It is ironic that there is interest in developing computers which can think and reason as people do. The instant a computer acts like a person and, by responsible choice, chooses to do the wrong thing it will be scrapped. Its makers will never know that they have succeeded in making a computer which can act like a person. If at each step of a program there are open options, and the computer makes a responsible choice whether to execute one of them, and if so, how, there will eventually result two different outputs from the same program. The sign will go up over the door to the computer room: "machine is down."

If a computer fails to live up to the purpose for which it was made it is either modified or destroyed by its makers. There is no room for forgiveness and/or redemption.

God made man in His image. Man made computers but not in his image. Computers are either entirely predictable (whenever they function properly) or entirely useless (whenever they function improperly). Man is sometimes predictable and sometimes useful. It is God's image in man which enables him to be ultimately unpredictable (the result of making a responsible choice) yet at the same time to be ultimately useful (the result of choosing to be reconciled to God).

Both man and computers have been made by another. By keeping options open for His creatures, God has enabled them to become something other than what they are.