Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord
The TV series Westworld is all about androids, lifelike robots that have been programmed to entertain human guests in an American western theme park. These androids are coded with specific storylines and behaviors designed to delight human guests with the most realistic western adventure of their lives.
Equipped with sophisticated deep machine learning however, these artificial intelligences gradually develop consciousness, dreams, memories. They start to question who they are, why they are there, and what their purpose is in that western setting. They are largely oblivious of their makers but some of them begin to stray from their storylines and suspect something more to their programmed existence. I have only started the series but I surmise that what began as a controlled and carefully engineered experiment will at some point lose control once these androids learn how to learn further, attain progressively more complex intelligence, and well, come alive. (ala Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and well maybe Pinocchio.)
To come alive can mean many things. It can be measured by the presence of metabolism, reproduction, and other things that distinguish biological life from inanimate stuff like stones or stars. To come alive humanly, you’d have to deal with one of the hardest things to measure: consciousness, of being self-aware and aware of others, the presence of mind and emotion. You’d have to wonder about thinking and feeling (and the wonder of that wonder) that are somehow unique to us but also evidently shared in part by animals.
Never mind mind. Let’s look at emotion in non-humans. Are animals capable of feeling? Do they experience fear or doubt or anger or love? Or are these merely personified projections of something that is just plain genetic programming? Can animals emote or aren’t they just behaving according to a complex set of stimuli-response algorithms?
For instance, do animals display compassion or concern for others? Iain Douglas-Hamilton, an elephant expert, tells of a young female that had been so severely wounded that she could only walk very slowly. Her pack slowed down with her “to protect her from predators for 15 years, though this meant they could not forage so widely”. Another researcher, Russell Church of Brown University, placed lab rats in two separate compartments in a cage, and trained the first set to press a lever to get food. Upon pressing the lever however, an electric shock to rats was delivered to the other half of the cage. “When the first group realised that, they stopped pressing the lever, depriving themselves of food.” Even rats are repelled by torture.
There are instances when animals seem to show preference for feeling rather than food. The psychologist, Harry Harlow, studied baby rhesus monkeys who were deprived of their mothers and given artificial substitute “mothers”. The first artificial mother was made of wire and had a feeding bottle. The second was just made of cloth, but had no feeding bottle. Guess what, “the infants spent almost all their time hugging the cloth mother.”
When it comes to humans, we are of course capable of being self-aware and responsive to the needs of others. We are capable of feeling. We don’t need experiments to prove that we can bear compassion or ill will or fear. Actually, it is the converse that is bewildering. How can we be so unfeeling, desensitized, impersonal, mechanical? Evolution has brought us to this point of rationality and consciousness where we are able to sense our own selves and one another. And yet how is it that we can be as cold and numb as androids, or as vicious as the predators of the jungle, thirsting for blood, brandishing force to rule over our unruliness.
We think therefore we are, as Descartes would extol our humanness. And yet we can be so unthinking and desperate as to use fire to fight fire, to wield violence to defeat violence, to take out life to defend life. We have been endowed with consciousness; we can see. And yet we can be so blind to who we are, to those we love, to human lives that should matter. We can look at ourselves in the mirror. And yet we can be so dismissive of the uniqueness and value of another life that we would rather see a demon deranged by drugs than recognize another fallen human being who can no longer see himself in the mirror.
We see our capacity for creating darkness and we wonder if there is a God out there who is our maker, who we can ultimately blame for coding us the way we are, for bringing us into this wild, wild west of a wilderness in the first place.
Is God even capable of feeling? Or is he just some hyper intelligent super machine out there that is just as numb and insensitive and impersonal as the android parts we have learned to install in ourselves?
Before Christmas happened, we did not know the answer to those questions. Because of Bethlehem, we now know that God comes to us not as an android but as someone like us. Strangely, wondrously, this is what we believe : by being “born to us”, God is capable of hunger and tears, of learning and understanding our heart. God is capable of longing and dreaming and remembering, of running after us like a father after his lost son, of slowing down for us when we are severely wounded in the wild. From this Child in a manger, we now know that if God is good at anything, he is good at true love, not the love of wires and feeding bottles, but the love that empties itself of wealth, power, and pride, and even life in the end.
There is a star that rises in the east to mark the place where we are to find our maker. Tonight, we are invited to turn eastward to an eastworld, a stable for animals (of all places) where our Creator makes this crazy crossover to the realm of his creation. Tonight, we raise our hearts eastward to this Easter place where we discover our maker to be this child in a manger.
Mysteriously, this child is very much our God as he is one of us. This child is capable of feeling. From his life, we know he will choose the margins, he will choose mercy and life and the things of heaven over food or instinct or those idols the world has always worshipped.
This child is very much who we are as he is very much our God. Our God is capable of feeling. From manger to cross, despite our apathy and his hunger, he will choose to hold on to the cloth of our love (however torn or thin that may be) than cling to something wired up but contrived. By his birth, our God has chosen us, chosen to be held by the warmth of us rather than be glorified and fed by something lifelike yet cold.
For this alone, we have every reason to believe we are more than just androids in someone else’s adventure. By his birth alone, we have a mind and a heart to be joyful.