Saturday, December 15, 2007

Golden Compass off course?

Several Christian friends have expressed concern about the new film of Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass, because of his well-advertised anti-Christian views. However, various sources tell me that the film has been panned as boring.

I haven't seen it, so won't comment except to say this: In their effort to take out the anti-Christian content, the filmmakers may have set themselves up for the "boring" tag. If the essence of the story is anti-Christian, then taking that part out is like taking the the pirates out of Pirates of the Caribbean. If they couldn't live with what the film needed to be in order to represent the books in celluloid, they just shouldn't have made it.


Ignorant journalists and evangelical voters: Fast forward to US election year 2008

Marvin Olasky, journalism prof and World's chief editor complains once again on the endemic problem of journalists who do not seem to think that they need to know anything at all about religion - which would NOT be a problem if they also didn't report religion-related news. But they Do, you see, and so ...
As voters ask questions about religion, some journalists are challenging records for theological illiteracy. For example, on Nov. 29, Chris Matthews complained that a YouTube questioner asked GOP presidential candidates about their views of the Bible: "If there was a Jewish fellow up here, an Arab fellow up here, a nonbeliever, he'd have to say, 'I don't believe in the Bible.'"
Way to go, Chris: Three errors in one sentence. Jewish believers would not say that: They trust the Old Testament, which makes up three-fourths of the Bible. Some Arabs are Christians, believing in all of the Bible. Arab Muslims also believe in the Bible, when the Quran does not contradict it.

I've heard this story a few times now, and expect to hear it a few times more. One reason many journalists do not bother to inform themselves about religion is that for many decades pundits said it would, like, disappear. Nothing of the kind happened, of course.

As we note in The Spiritual Brain, the pundits who propounded that view were looking at the dwindling membership of mainstream Christian denominations. They assumed that the ex-members were becoming secularists. Many were, no doubt, but others were turning up at storefront churches in the inner city and megachurches in the burbs, as well as various New Age folds, Islam, or Zen.

The pundits and those journalists who heed them are just not keeping up with the story. The last pastor I had coffee with, Bruxy Cavey, dresses like a bicycle courier, not like a funeral director. And his innovative churches are thriving. He gave me a copy of his book, The End of Religion - but despite the title, he's no Richard Dawkins, let me tell you. He means the end of the kind of religion that has emptied pews all over town, not the end of Christianity. He is quite confident about the latter.

From the back cover of his book: "Sick of religion? So was Jesus."

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New theory of brain flexibility offers to explain rapid coping mechanisms

Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Marcel Just and Stanford postdoctoral fellow Sashank Varma have put forward a new theory of brain flexibility, according to ScienceDaily that gives some insight into how tasks get organized in our brains:
Some researchers have been tempted to conclude that a simple one-to-one relationship exists between high-level mental tasks and brain areas. For example, some believe that a specific brain area is responsible for a specific cognitive task, such as identifying a face.
Just and Varma, however, propose that the evidence reveals a more complex picture in which thinking is a network function -- a collaboration of several brain areas that is constantly adapting itself, based on the task at hand and the brain's own resources and biological limitations. The collaborating parts of the brain, according to Just, are like members of a sports team whose players substitute in and out of the action.

They call their theory 4CAPS (for Capacity Constrained Concurrent Cortical Activation-based Production System). The article notes,
A unique characteristic of the theory is that it can accurately predict the change in brain activation that results from some types of brain damage or disease. For example, if a stroke damages the part of the brain known as Broca's area -- which is located in the left prefrontal cortex and is involved in language processing -- the corresponding site on the right side of the brain often becomes activated during language processing, even within hours after a stroke.

I can't comment on the status of the theory. I will say this, though: We all know of people who have regained functions that they weren't "supposed to", after a brain misfortune. It is nice to read about a theory that is not in conflict with reality.

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The soul: Folk views vs. philosophical reflections

Christopher Howse muses in Britain's Telegraph on the soul, while considering the work of the late philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe:
I'm not sure it matters all that much if people imagine that their souls are nebulous entities, like a better class of ghost. For at the same time, we seem quite capable of realising that it is each one of us who at heart acts well or despicably, and may be bound for heaven or for hell.
So we seem torn between the idea that our soul is something else (amorphously attached to us as bodily creatures), and the idea that our soul is the real us, which survives our bodily death to get its deserts in a future life.

Anscombe, who died in 2001, was a formidable Catholic interpreter of Wittgenstein.

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Robots that can feel? Really? No, not really.

I've been following with interest the attempt to develop human-like (and dog-like) robots, so it was interesting to hear from a scientist involved with the project. Mirko Petricevic of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record interviewed Rosalind Picard, a scientist who is the director of affective computing research in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. A devout Christian (former atheist), she had some interesting things to say, including,
She is not making machines with feelings, she emphasizes.

Human faces can make 10,000 different expressions, she says. In the course of a 10-minute conversation, a person's face makes between 300 to 400 different faces.

Most of the people we talk to can tell, by our facial expressions, when we're frustrated.

In general, machines can't.

Her hope is to develop machines that act like they know our feelings. However,
"None of this technology actually knows your feelings," Picard notes.

That doesn't mean that scientists won't ever develop a machine that can read our feelings, she adds.

"But we're nowhere near there yet."

I suspect they never will be anywhere near there. The main problem is that, as Mario Beauregard and I reflected in The Spiritual Brain, the human mind is more like an ocean than a machine (and so is the brain it inhabits). We can only approximate interpretations of complex emotional states. Any interpretation definite enough to be considered definitive must soon give way to another interpretation. Think of all the great actors who have interpreted Hamlet, for example, or Queen Gertrude or Lady MacBeth. Trying to nail feelings down for good is not the way to go.
Petricevic's article is a great read.

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