Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Matthew Dickerson at the ACMS conference

I've just returned from the biennial conference of the Association for Christians in the Mathematical Sciences.   This organization brings together several hundred students, faculty members, and others working in the fields of mathematics, statistics and computer science who want to explore how the Christian faith relates to their teaching, research and scholarship.  I remember discovering the ACMS when I was working in Oxford, and my delight at discovering that there were other people who were pondering the same kind of questions that bothered me.

There were two plenary speakers, Matthew Dickerson from Middlebury College (computer science) and Annalisa Crannell from Franklin and Marshall College (mathematics). Each gave two presentations, and both were excellent speakers.  Here I want to focus on Dickerson's second presentation, where he found himself discussing the ecological implications of "transhumanism" (Ray Kurzweil et al) and its relationship to the thought of C.S.Lewis.  I was quite surprised to discover that our Computer Science plenary speaker was also the co-author of a book - Narnia and the Fields of Arbol - on Lewis' environmental thought which I had recently read and which I had been planning to review some time on this blog.

Dickerson contrasted the implicit Platonism of Kurzweil - what matters is our "software" (that is, the "program" which constitutes our minds), our "hardware" (that is, our bodies) is defective and can and should be replaced by an artificial substitute - with the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body.  He quoted Lewis from chapter IV of Miracles:
The earliest Christian documents give a casual and unemphatic assent to the belief that the supernatural part of man survives the death of the natural organism.  But they are very little interested in the matter.
Surprising worlds from a defender of the supernatural! Lewis goes on
What they are intensely interested in is the restoration or "resurrection" of the whole composite creature by a miraculous divine act.
 Narnia and the Fields of Arbol appeals to Lewis' fiction to develop the idea that this hope - of the restoration not just of the human creature but of all creation - provides a foundation for an appropriate relationship between humanity and the rest of the created world.  Contrary to the famous thesis of Lynn White according to which Christianity, by demythologizing the sacred groves, had licensed humanity to exploit them, Lewis presented deforestation as a blasphemous project, as for instance in The Last Battle:
"Woe, woe, woe!" cried the voice. "Woe for my brothers and sisters! Woe for the holy trees! The woods are laid waste.  The axe is loosed against us. We are being felled.  Great trees are falling, falling, falling."
In this passage the natural world, represented by a Dryad, the "nymph of a beechtree", cries out to its human steward, King Tirian, for justice and protection from exploitation - exploitation which has been justified in the name of religion, yes, but of a false and cruel religion. Dickerson reads Lewis as an agrarian with a deep sympathy to nature and place, almost Wendell Berry as an Oxford don.

I very much agree with the basic theological point here. Humans are part of creation, not "above" it, and our hope is to be restored along with it, not to leave it behind after a technological Singularity or an eschatological Rapture.  Still, I would have been interested to hear more about how this works out in practice.   How do these principles inform our decision-making as Christians confronted daily with stewardship-related questions both large and small?

PS: More reading on this blog related to Lewis and the environment can be found here, here and here.

1 comment:

Dale Brown said...

I enjoyed your summary of Dickerson's second presentation. My professor had told me about the same presentation, so it must have been illuminating. One of your points I wanted to address was your comment, "Humans are part of creation, not "above" it [...]."
In Genesis 1:26 Adam is given "dominion" over creation. There are two grammatical points of relevancy I wish to make: 1) The word 'dominion' (radah) is the Hebrew word 'to rule' or to 'take authority over'. and (2) The verb radah is in the third person plural (not singular). I believe this is not just for Adam and his particular point in time, but for all of mankind. In fact, the Hebrew word for Adam is also used for mankind.
I don't wish to appear as if I'm straining at gnats here. I think we both agree that for he whom God has given much authority, that person will be held that much more accountable. So, in the end, we are still held accountable by God to take care of His creation. My only concern is that we don't allow our culture to determine our reading of the sacred text.