April 1, 2018
Volker Brendel: Greetings on a sunny spring day, Easter Sunday. The history and stories of Easter originated in the context of Western culture, and it's no coincidence that they coincide with springtime in the northern hemisphere, the time of resurrection and hope after winter. It is well known that the Roman rulers very deliberately blended customs and beliefs of the day with the new state religion, and thus the developing Christianity provided a suitable blend of experiences and natural cycles for the times and context. It is interesting to reflect for a brief moment on the term "Western cultures." We talk about the Western world, the East, the Far East, the Far West, and so forth. Obviously, these are notions that are focused in central Europe. What is to the east of central Europe, because of the dominance of the European culture at that time, is now generally referred to as the Far East, but obviously these directions are relative to your starting point. In this way we have a reminder that all stories, and all histories for that matter, are relative to those who are telling them and as well relative to the intended audience.
A peculiar thought came to me this morning, which was the question of whether there is story telling in heaven. Let's imagine for a moment that we all ascend, and we sit around, or maybe rather we float around in heaven between incarnations. Would we talk about our previous stints on earth and reminisce about the perils of finding each other, having to deal with our host families, work with our limited and sometimes malfunctioning bodies, wonder what could have been, what our plans were, recall the few successes we might have had? I think this little bit of imagination makes for an amusing perspective. We might for example ask whether we would even have time for all this reminiscing, or the interest, or the capacity. Concerning the latter, eternity is an awfully long time, and the universe is a very large place, so conceivably we would have had many assignments over the ages, in many different places. While there is no need to take this imaginary tale too far and to speculate beyond bounds, there is one conclusion we might arrive at: in all likelihood what looms very large in our earthly consciousness now would be much reduced in importance, possibly to a very small side note, if seen in the context of eternity and the universe at large. Secondly, this exercise in imagination should also encourage us to develop a keen ability to perceive accurately now as to what the ordinances of heaven are, so that in this limited and small incarnation we can do what we need to do.
It has been said that spiritual things must be spiritually discerned. This, I believe, is an accurate statement relating to this admonition to develop our perception of heavenly ordinances now. It is instructive to consider the statement in the context of current developments and commentaries on artificial intelligence. For those of you who were online four weeks ago, you know that Sanford painted a picture of these developments and what kinds of questions arise for us in their wake. Let's take another look at this. As human beings we have just a few senses: we have vision, we have hearing, we have the sense of smell, taste, and we have the sense of touch. In the development of machines or computer programs that seem to have abilities like ours, a common benchmark test, often referred to as the Turing test, is whether a particular task can be done by machine so similarly to how humans do it that if all identification is stripped away from who had done the task, it is indistinguishable to a panel of humans whether this particular completion of the task was done by the machine or by a human. The classical example for such test is the recording of a conversation between multiple actors, one of them being a computer program. If you get a transcript of that conversation, can you say with confidence that a particular actor was a real person or whether it was a computer program? Obviously, the exact implementation of such a test depends on the context of what one is trying to establish. But, in general, I think that it is a wonderful idea to always put one's thoughts and actions and perceptions to a test. What is real?
Sanford in his presentation said that we have no reason to worry about these developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence. In fact, we can embrace these developments as yet another tool that we as uniquely sentient beings can employ to "sound the Tone," as we often say, in our realm of responsibility. Clearly, we have no problem with that in our daily living already: for longer distances, we use cars to travel; right now, we use the telephone to talk to each other over many miles, continents even; we use artificial light to read by; we use printing presses to print articles and books; and so forth. Constantly, new technologies have been developed, and in the right hands and in our current experience, they can be used to get things done.
Nonetheless, we can take this line of thought a step further and ask about a test for being sentient. In the other words, can we put ourselves to the test? To make this more practical, could I, for example, give Sanford, or somebody else with experience in machine learning, the entire volume of transcripts from my Sunday talks over the years to throw all that text into a machine learning program and task the program to come up with something that can be used on my next speaking turn? Can a machine deliver one of our Sunday talks? Now, as we know for somebody like Martin Exeter, there would be a much larger volume of transcripts from his talks. So, if imitation of my talks by the machine is a little shaky, we might surmise that this is a question of not having enough training material. So, let's apply the machine learning to all of Martin Exeter's transcripts and see whether the machine can come up with novel lines in his style. Or, if that is still not enough, how about taking all the sermons ever recorded in the Anglican Church over hundreds of years? What would happen? Well, it is clear that every speaker and every tradition has developed their own vocabulary. I think it is obvious even in our small group that every one of the regular presenters has their own cadence, certain words and phrases that we prefer, particular ways of thinking and developing lines of thought, and so forth. Thus, it would certainly be easy for anyone of you to take a piece from our transcripts out of context and say: okay I know this was from a speech by Larry; it has Larry's signature in themes and delivery. In short, there are certain characteristics that could be picked up in training a machine to speak like us. A transcript from our group is likely to have words like "identity," "vibrational," "spiritual," "on tone," and so forth in them that characterizes our way of thinking. Where does sentient meaning then come from? We'll get to that, but if you think this is a completely theoretical, silly consideration, you might have to think again. For example, there are already applications that write poetry, there are computerized renditions of particular styles of artwork, there is composition of what is known as fake news which is sometimes very difficult to distinguish from real news, and there are many familiar successes of applications of machine learning programs. Let's take voice recognition. Those of us who speak regularly to our group use a computer program that transcribes our audio recording into a text document, and while there are still amusing misinterpretations of what we meant to say or presumably actually said, the programs have evolved to a state that they are helpful. The transcripts save us a lot of time in terms of getting the written word out after one of our conversations.
Another recent example of the success of such learning algorithms was with chess playing programs. For many years, chess was considered as too complex for machines to master because of the near infinite number of possible moves in a game. It was thought that humans would have a tremendous advantage over machines because they could sense the value of a certain sequence of moves many moves ahead. But nowadays chess programs do better than even the best human players, and that raises another question: can we discount such successes as simply being a calculation that is now affordable in realistic time because of advances in chip technology and memory? Not quite. The computer programs still cannot possibly go through all possible sequences of moves and thus their success still involves the assessment of positions, using near human evaluation of what might be a good strategy. Thus, the boundaries of machine rendered products and those we think are the domain of uniquely sentient beings is certainly blurred. In a few years, we are going to have self-driving cars, based on massive application of image processing. Self-driving cars will use cameras to take recordings of their environment and make driving decisions, very similar to what we are doing as sentient drivers (hopefully you drive with your eyes open and look around and are aware of all kinds of things going on). I would predict that in maybe ten years from now self-driving cars will be the next normal. We'll have a hard time imagining that we ever did things differently.
Interestingly, our other senses of smell and touch have been much more out of reach in terms of being re-created by artificial intelligence. In particular, smell is an almost intractable problem.
How do we integrate all of these various sensual inputs and add emotional intelligence to our thinking? Earlier, I repeated the statement that spiritual things must be spiritually discerned.
This statement points to the fact that there is another sense that we own as human beings, or shall we say as the incarnate angels, a sense which goes beyond hearing, seeing, smelling, taste, and touching. We might call it a spiritual sense. Now what I would propose is that this sense should be subject to the same sort of testing as we've just discussed for the other senses. Can we make these two statements solidly testable to be experienced by anyone willing to give it a go: first, that we have a "spiritual sensing organ;" and, second, that spiritual things must be spiritually discerned? Well, we can, but what applies is a very different type of test. We know, for example, that Jesus was challenged in this way many times. Recall the temptations in the desert by the devil: throw yourself down from a great height and surely if you are the son of God, some angels will come rushing in and catch you before you hurt yourself. On other occasions: if you are the son of God, then give us a sign, perform a miracle right now, in front of our eyes; then we will believe. As we know, the Master did not go for that, and rather he reminded everyone that many signs had already been given. Indeed, it's up to us to see, and further signs are neither necessary nor will be produced on command. There will be no Turing test for spiritual perception. What we need to acknowledge in all this is that the standard scientific approach of proving this or that is based on the assumption of a particular type of logic, the logic of true and false. Where this logical framework applies, we can set up a test, and we can determine whether we can distinguish a machine from a human, a piece of poetry written by machine from a piece of poetry written by a poet. But spiritual things must be spiritually discerned. As such it is a subjective rather than objective experience. I know for myself that I have the capacity to discern the spiritual tone emanating from the heavens. In any given moment, I have this capacity. I know this for myself, and I seek in my life to express that Tone, to get it translated into appropriate action in each particular circumstance. I know others, you included, who can say the same for themselves. We know the Tone, we discerned Spirit, and we know what the spiritually accurate action is in this moment, now. For this there is no objective proof. It is a subjective experience.
To give you one practical example: I was at a conference on Friday, and one of the talks dealt with current trends in precision health. The speaker is in the cancer treatment field, and in modern approaches the genome of the patient will be sequenced and many other data concerning which genes are expressed in the tumor compared to healthy body parts will be collected. The speaker estimated that for some of the patients in his study they are now taking one trillion measurements, all that to correlate these measurements with tumor type and possible treatment. Then somebody else in the audience pointed out that that is not enough because there is a lot of evidence that shows that your microbiome (all the bacteria that live with you) have a huge influence on disease and health and treatment. So, even one trillion measurements cannot really do justice to proper assessment of the right course of treatment. By contrast, what about spiritual healing? I think we've all had some experience of that or heard stories of that, so we have a sensing that there is something to it. Completely without measurements! We know for example of people going through cancer, and for some sufferers the most appropriate action is to be still, to meditate, to tune into what we call the spiritual Tone; and many people experience healing in this way. Now, I'm careful in how to phrase this, because obviously modern medicine has a role to play. So again, it goes back to individual sensing as to what the appropriate action is, but clearly there is another level of being that we call spiritual expression. That level must be spiritually discerned and spiritually owned to be our own expression. I believe we can say that we are excellently equipped to live in this way. It is not that everybody has perfect eyesight, nor does everybody have perfect hearing; our sense of smell may be a little off. Similarly, there are going to be different levels of ability for spiritual expression, but as long as we are alive, believe me, that sense is there. And as long as we exercise our ability and our right to engage that perception, it will be there, and it will be trained and honed and be ever more accurate.
We have confidence in the quality of our expression, and we radiate our love, without concern for humanly measurable results. If you will, this is the message of Easter, but it's really the message of every day, be it the days that we or others consider important or be it our ordinary humdrum workdays. Every day is a spiritual workday, and as we continue in this way our job is done.
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