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Controlling Access

March 1, 2018 | (869 words)

“For centuries, the Catholic Church sought to limit the circulation of Bible translations in order to control access to the word of God.”  This sentence, a little landmine of libel to some of us, is found in the DEUS EX MACHINA essay by the writer Kelly Clancy that appears in the February 2018 issue of Harper’s magazine.  Ms. Clancy is one of seven contributors to that month’s Forum feature under the heading “The Mind of Others: The art of persuasion in the age of Trump.”

But seeking to limit the circulation of various and sundry Bible translations does not automatically equate to “controlling access to the word of God.”  While certainly no expert on the subject myself, it sounds like the Catholic Church may have spent the centuries Ms. Clancy is referring to focusing its efforts on preserving the integrity of the text.

Without wanting to besmirch her reputation prematurely, in this instance one imagines Ms. Clancy to be somewhat more interested in hurling a throw-away trope at Catholicism, and somewhat less interested in championing an “uncontrolled” access to the word of God.

Such an impression is reinforced when her defamatory sentence about the Church is immediately followed with a comment about the Mayan empire.  Yes, that Mayan empire, the well-known purveyor of human sacrifice.  This creates a de-facto connection between the two in the mind of the reader, and not in a good way.  “Mayan elites,” Clancy tells us, “jealously guarded knowledge of hieroglyphics, insisting that they alone could mediate between the gods and common men.”

Of course this is the standard-issue Protestant criticism of the Catholic clergy.  But it has also become quite the trendy rebuke among cutting edge thinkers who take great pride in confidently dismissing any sort of religious thought as fundamentally opposed to what should be the democratic nature of all knowledge.  Along with that evergreen Enlightenment canard that such religious thought is inherently irrational.

Despite such an inauspicious beginning, the essay goes on to venture into unexpected territory, with its writer winning over even this initially skeptic reader.  Harper’s identifies Kelly Clancy as a neuroscientist and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Basel, Switzerland.  This is pretty heady stuff, and certainly far above my humble pay grade.

The theme of her Harper’s essay is a warning against the “promise of artificial intelligence – that algorithms will save us from ourselves by making decisions rationally…”  It’s one thing for people to acknowledge the failings of the human mind, she posits, but it’s quite another for them to “no longer trust their senses, their own eyes and ears, and prefer to ask the Machine for answers rather than experience things firsthand.”

This premise resonates, especially with us common folk.  So, too, Ms. Clancy’s caution against allowing existing power structures to become even more entrenched, through artificial intelligence’s “ability to persuade, and its tendency toward bias and opacity.”  Clancy goes on to note that even good, old-fashioned human persuasion is also frequently suspect, since it is “so often based on emotion, prejudice, and manipulation.”

This immediately brings to mind the political and economic realms, doesn’t it?  But there is another sort of persuasion not covered by her analysis, which side-steps those three problematic influencers altogether.  That other type of persuasion stands apart from conventional modes of self-interested political and economic behavior, and is based on virtuous personal example.

Ms. Clancy’s finely wrought final paragraph calls for the building of artificial intelligence that can expose itself to us.  She castes language – described as “humankind’s first technology” – as a precursor to artificial intelligence, an example of what was once a “new tool” we started to use before we fully understood it.  Like what we are doing right now with these early iterations of AI. 

“But the beauty of language,” she points out, “is that it enables its own dissection: it is through language that we have come to understand the power of language.  We must demand the same transparency from our algorithms.”

This is an admirable intention one hopes will be pursued with all appropriate vigor.  But no matter how transparent our algorithms eventually become, we should nevertheless be prepared to acknowledge they may at best remain barely decipherable to those of us who are not mathematicians or neuroscientists.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has never had a problem with its teaching being indecipherable to those of lesser cognitive ability.  In fact, some of its most devoted adherents and persuasive exemplars have always possessed more common sense than book learning.

Along the way it has studiously avoided creating “gods with whom only a few can communicate.”  And it has never tried to “persuade people (by referring) to a source of information beyond their comprehension.”  It has always only referenced the moral order, which it has consistently maintained is written on the heart of every man, woman, and child, intrinsically knowable to all through the application of practical reason.  Even to an uneducated mongrel like me.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
March 1, 2018

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