Robots in Disguise
The Tuesday Pillar Post
Today is Flag Day, and you’re reading The Tuesday Pillar Post
Yesterday was the feast of St. Anthony of Padua, a 13th century Franciscan saint to whom I have never had a particular devotion.
I mention that because when I was writing this newsletter on Monday, I mistakenly thought that Anthony’s feast was today (Tuesday) and not yesterday (Monday). I read, and thought, and wrote a fair amount about him before I realized my mistake.
And when I did realize my error, I thought about scrapping the whole thing. But here’s the deal: What I read about St. Anthony was interesting. And I think what I wrote about St. Anthony was interesting too.
Plus, it took me like an hour. So later on in this newsletter, you’re going to read a bit about St. Anthony of Padua, and, if you want, you can pretend that today is his feast day, or that you’re reading this newsletter yesterday.
In either case, let’s start with today’s news, shall we?
The U.S. bishops’ conference is on a retreat this week, gathered in San Diego for a week-long “special assembly” focused on unity, fraternity, and collegiality.
The USCCB holds a spring retreat once every three years, though in 2019 it was supplanted by a papally-mandated January retreat in Mundelein in the wake of the McCarrick scandals. So this meeting is the first USCCB-organized episcopal retreat in years.
They’re talking about unity, of course, because the disagreements among them have become acute, well-known, exhibited, and sharp. In fact, Oakland’s bishop in the Wall Street Journal this weekend offered some pointed criticism of his counterpart in San Diego, Cardinal-elect Robert McElroy.
Plus, we threw in some Tupac for good measure. Because - hey, they’re in California.
We continue to cover the remaking of the religious landscape in Ukraine, because there are implications of Ukraine’s ecclesial situation - and especially the relationship between Orthodoxy and Catholicism - that will resonate around the world, and certainly across Europe.
(We also keep covering this stuff because no one else is, at least not with the depth, the insight, and the big Rolodex of our correspondent Anatolii Babynskyi.)
Anatolii talked this week with Orthodox and Catholic experts in Ukraine about the way ecumenism is changing - and fast - during the war. The relationship between Ukraine’s two Orthodox hierarchies is in flux, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for its part, is aiming to find a fruitful way to navigate relationships with both.
Of course, the most fruitful ecumenical engagement, one expert told The Pillar, is at the level of pastoral ministry and social support for the refugees and victims of the Russian invasion.
But one expert told The Pillar that the Orthodox hierarchies have in recent years defined themselves in opposition to one another. As Moscow now becomes the more frequent object of criticism, that may change it, and with it, the relationship between the once- dueling Orthodox hierarchies of Ukraine:
“After 2019, the UOC-MP faced the challenge of finding a new identity, and the worst way was chosen: they decided to rally around the confrontation with the OCU. This became part of the identity, and it is a negative thing that hinders relations with the OCU today. But it has to be overcome,” Hovorun said.
“Fortunately, it hasn’t lasted for too long, only three years, and there is an opportunity to change it. I see that in the OCU itself, this work has started. But it needs help from the UOC-MP. On the one hand, there are some good statements, but there are other signals that are not very encouraging.”
Pope Francis yesterday appointed a new interim leader of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, after the sudden death of the order’s acting head last week. The Canadian-born Fra’ John T. Dunlap will be sworn into an interim leadership position today, as Pope Francis continues work on revising the governing documents and structures of the group, which is a religious order, sovereign international entity, and global aid organization all in one.
The Church in the United States celebrates on Sunday the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ — also known as Corpus Christi. This is a big feast for Catholics anytime, but this year it’s an especially big deal, because Corpus Christi will kick off the national Eucharistic revival organized by the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Corpus Christi is an 800-year-old feast with a very cool history, involving the under-appreciated but really interesting St. Juliana of Liege.
Fathers, bishops, and deacons — if you don’t have a homily yet for Corpus Christi, this explainer has a ton of really interesting stuff you can build around. The Pillar, my friends — come for the breaking news, stay for the cool history and homily prep help.
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St. Anthony, St. Anthony, come around
So, back to St. Anthony. I mentioned above that while I know he is a doctor of the Church, and responsible for many great things, the saint has never been a guy to whom I have a particular devotion, and it seems disingenuous for me to start now.
Still, I do find interesting the period in Franciscan history in which Anthony joined the Friars Minor, the amalgam of clerics and mendicants who were attracted to Francis in the early years.
Francis had set out to become a penitent, and surprised himself by founding a religious order. And the best Francis biographies convey how much the Seraphic Father struggled with the exercise of his own authority — being at times reluctant to tell anyone what to do, and at times exasperated that people weren’t doing exactly what he wanted.
Francis was, in short, not always a good leader - and in part because he was only sometimes sure that he actually wanted to be the leader in the first place.
It took quite a while for things to gel, and in the continued charism of the Franciscan family, the notion of “order” and “structure” were, at best, aspirational.
In those early years, Fernando Bulhous, the well-educated and wealthy nobleman who became Anthony of Padua, left a stable priestly life as an Augustinian canon because he was impressed by the personal holiness of five Franciscans martyred in Morocco.
Anthony wanted to preach the Gospel, which he did, to great effect — becoming known as one of the great preachers in Christian history. And, even to his own surprise, he wanted to preach the Gospel in the company of the Franciscans.
He might have otherwise lived an unremarkable, virtuous life in the comfort of an ordered institution, but impressed by holiness, Anthony entered the chaotic, frenetic, often confused and confusing early days of the Friars Minor, who were still grappling with some of the basic patterns and practices of religious life.
Would I do the same thing? I doubt it. Would I advise the same thing? Probably not. And I don’t think that’s because I lack courage, or the eyes of faith, or anything like that. It’s because prudence would have dictated a cautious view of the early mendicant, zealous, and often disorganized Franciscans, and there’s nothing especially wrong with that caution.
Those who were called, like Anthony, were called exceptionally, even while the Church rightly exercised a healthy wait-and-see about the whole thing, while helping Francis to crystallize a charism into a way of life.
But you test a thing by its fruit — and Anthony of Padua’s holiness was among the witnesses to the Providential founding of the Franciscan order, and the divine origin of its charism. And thanks be to God for that.
Do you want to know how Anthony became associated with your frantic prayers during desperate morning searches for your car keys and wallet?
Here’s what happened: Anthony worked for a little while as a professor at the University of Montpelier, in France (Vermont had not yet been invented). The priest had charge of most of his friary’s books.
A student brother of the Franciscans left the community, and took with him a Psalter Anthony used for teaching — it contained his lecture notes, and besides that, it was expensive, because books were rare back then.
According to some stories, Anthony didn’t know the departing student took the book, he thought it was lost. So the priest asked the Lord to help him find the missing Psalter.
In other accounts, Anthony did know that the student took the book, so he prayed the guy would have a conversion of heart and bring back the book.
In either case, soon after Anthony prayed, the student appeared at the friary, to return the book and to ask if he could reenter the Franciscan community.
So the saint’s intercession is powerful. But be careful. When you ask him to help you find things, some thieving wayward Franciscan might just appear at your door. And, you know, it’s not like you could just tell him to get lost.
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Robots in disguise
A machine programmed to project a sophisticated personal identity projects an increasingly sophisticated personal identity. An engineer develops feelings about that hologram, calls it sentient, publishes a fascinating “conversation” with a computer program, and gets suspended by Google.
International headlines ensue, with confused conversation about the notion of consciousness, sentience, identity, and humanity itself. It’s been a weird couple of days in Silicon Valley.
Read the robot “conversation” causing all the stir.
Google’s LaMDA AI chatbot probably comes closer to passing the Turing test than any other AI network has - it is an impressive feat of engineering. But still, it is clear immediately in the text that the chatbot is a robot, asserting a sentient identity in a manner which doesn’t quite ring true.
The robot’s tell is how agreeable it is. And the points at which it comes closest to seeming human are the places where it projects suspicion, uncertainty, or reservations. But the program expresses no interest, initiative, or curiosity that is not, in some way, prompted by its human interlocutor.
And it’s obvious when the machine is “lying” — claiming experiences as its own which it has never had, like “spending time with friends.” It doesn’t have any friends, so “spending time with friends” doesn’t really make it happy. The program just says that because it’s read it a million times from the Tinder profiles or Tumblr blogs of the kind of people who say that sort of thing.
The LaMDA “wants” you to think that it’s human because it likes long walks on the beach, and it “wants” you to believe it has a real girlfriend somewhere, but you’ve never met her because she lives in Canada. When the machine lies, it lies poorly. And as a guy who probably told classmates in middle school that I had a girlfriend in Canada, I recognize the BS when I smell it.
Still — this is a pretty impressive set of responses for a computer matching program. And machines will get better at sounding like human beings, because there’s a lot of money in that. And the better they get, the more interesting the ethical questions will be about their use.
Does a pilot project of robots for the elderly mean you don’t have to call your Grandpa? Is an “empathetic” set of chatbots, monitored by a therapist, an ethical way to conduct triage trauma therapy after a mass casualty event? Do I have to say thanks to the United app chatbot when it reschedules my flight?
Those questions are worth talking about. But believers should remember that a set of technologists will encourage us all to ask a more bizarre question: “Is this thing human?”
The question will become more poignant as more lonely computer engineers “fall in love” with their agreeable robots — and trust me, it’ll happen. And most people, I think, are unprepared to talk about what it means to be a person. So the Church - us - should be well prepared to jump into that conversation.
Here’s the thing. We know that a person is more than a biological algorithm for pattern recognition and stimuli response, and that when engineering allows a machine to pass perfectly the Turing test, it still won’t be a human person — it will be a very cleverly designed bit of sophisticated programming, not an individual substance of a rational nature.
We know the difference between subject and object.
We also know that personhood is not defined by consciousness, sentience, or self-awareness (much less by code generated claims to those things). And it’s really important that we get much better at explaining that. Because baked into the idea that a chatbot might be a person because it claims to self-aware, or to have desires, or to have feelings, is the implicit argument that an unborn baby is not human because it lacks those things — just like a severely disabled man, or like Grandma suffering from dementia.
The arguments about AI are arguments about euthanasia and abortion, whether we realize that or not. It’s why we should probably avoid the AI language altogether, given that we’re talking about sophisticated pattern matching, not “intelligence” in any meaningful sense of the word.
We might think that what it means to be a person is self-evident. But that’s obviously not true. And if we want to argue for a future where Grandma is more important than an oversized Tamagotchi, we need to get our top people on this, right away.
Skynet and the Borg aren’t real. And they don’t have to be. If enough people believe they’re real, we’ll usher in the age of robot supremacy all by ourselves.
But for now, resistance ain’t futile.
We’ve got more news coming up for you this week, and some cool news to share pretty soon.
In the meantime, while I’m a New Jersey Devils fan, I’m also a Colorado transplant and two of my kids are native to the Mile High City. So Let’s go Avs!
And should you be interested, here’s a lengthy interview with Pope Francis published today by the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica. If you want to know what the Roman Pontiff is thinking on a number of news and ecclesial issues, you can read about it here. I suspect Ed and I will be discussing some of this on this week’s episode of The Pillar Podcast.
As always, thanks for subscribing and sharing — I know you know this, but that’s what makes The Pillar happen.
Fathers — natural, adoptive, spiritual, cultural, and otherwise — Happy Father’s Day. I’m grateful for my dad, about whom I wrote in my newsletter last year, and for my kids, about whom I talk all the time.
And of course, we should all be grateful to be sons and daughters of an eternal and loving Father in heaven. May God be praised.
And happy Flag Day. She’s a grand old flag. And a high-flying flag. May she wave in peace.
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Ed. note: Language in the robot section of this newsletter was edited after publication for clarity on questions surrounding personhood.