Trying to decipher the ‘mark of the beast’

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on August 14, 2017.

Three recent articles brought Frankenstein and Revelation to mind. Not the crazy monster movie stuff but the Romantic Mary Shelley 1818 novel about the tragedy that comes from playing God, and the fiery end the Bible prophesies for those who turn away from God.

Of course, modern medicine has been replacing lost or worn-out body parts and generally delaying the Grim Reaper on his rounds for some time now. So, is therapeutic gene editing really fundamentally different?

On Aug. 2, The New York Times reported that scientists have successfully edited genes in human embryos to protect from disease-causing mutations. Good news, I suppose, but, a la Shelley, The Times warns about the moral risks of a technology that can be used to design smarter, stronger or, perhaps, prettier people.

A couple days later, USA Today told of 40 employees of a Wisconsin company who volunteered to have microchips implanted in their hands. The chip facilitates security and computer access. The first thing I thought about was the wisdom of surrendering privacy and, consequently, personal freedom to a technology that continuously shackles us to its seeming miracles. But, the article doesn’t really say much about that, focusing instead on “the mark of the beast” described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

That “mark” is the number 666, the number 6 being a symbol of imperfection (one short of 7, the Days of Creation in Genesis) repeated three times. Thus, 666 signifies human imperfection — magnified three-fold. It symbolizes what we become when we place ourselves outside creation, beyond the word of God. The number 666 concerns the buying and selling of things (“no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark”), in a utilitarian, materialistic world. In the story, after a time, God finally lets loose seven avenging angels who pour seven bowls of his wrath into the earth, and those who took the mark are cast into fire.

The Kansas City Star on Aug. 6 joined the party with a headline, “Bionic age: Body hackers get chips under their Skin.” It reports that one guy gladly accepted an implant so in the future he won’t need train tickets. Another said with these chips he’ll be able to throw away his wallet. Yet another said he’s got five implants, “mostly for functional reasons but one just for fun.” The article concludes by citing “high-profile proponents of implants including Tesla and SpaceX owner Elon Musk” as saying “that humans must reach greater symbiosis with computers in order to stay relevant in a world of artificial intelligence.”

Symbiosis means “interaction between two organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” So, taking Musk at his word, machines are a competing organism with which we must necessarily merge in order to survive. We chip our pets to help us find them, but if we chip ourselves we leave a trail of information that can be tracked for commercial purposes or worse, just like with smart-anything technology. But unlike your credit card or cellphone, the chip never leaves your person.

Shelley’s story is Romantic, an organic warning against the arrogance of human reason. She was saying we are just a part of this world, can never step outside of it, and must remain humble in the presence of the power we can achieve through science and reason. There are more ancient codes that must be considered, more ancient warnings against human pride. Exegesis is the analytical explanation or interpretation of a text, such as the Bible, to unbundle its meaning. If we unbundle the meaning of Revelation, as a human story, we find a story with consequences strikingly similar to Frankenstein.

Musk is saying that to avoid obsolescence we must merge ourselves into the machines we’ve created, genetically redesigning ourselves to fit utilitarian needs, implanting features to make our interface with our machines more functional. Merely an implant, or the mark of the beast? While we transform ourselves into the monsters Shelley feared and the God of Revelation abhors. Can a thing we’ve designed and created be a being? If so, is it a human being? If we alter ourselves, and design our children, then the outcome, our future, must be equally self-limiting. If ever we dare to step through the looking glass and enter that world, unlike Alice, we’ll never find our way back out.

In Trumpland, belief equals truth

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on August 1, 2017.

That we want it to be so does not make it so. Truth is not so friendly. But that’s a big problem today. We have “filter-bubble” chat rooms, echo chamber television networks, algorithms that anticipate the images we want, and politicians ever so willing to pander to our philosophical predilections. So how are we supposed to know what’s true and what’s not?

It is not the ability to love that sets us apart from other mammals. I’ve had dogs I loved, and I know they loved me back. What most distinguishes us is our ability to invent symbols to communicate facts we perceive and the ideas they generate. These symbols free us from being trapped inside ourselves or being limited to purely physical means of expression. We incorporate memories with anticipations of the future and meld them into an idea of the present. Then we record these symbols, speaking from the present into the future. We call this language, and with it, as a species, we have changed ourselves and the world around us.

If you agree with me, then like me, you must also value truth. But truth needs precision. When I speak of the color “green,” the use of the word must always mean the same thing, a common experience of greenness. It cannot sometimes mean brown or yellow, and must always be referring to something I have actually experienced. When I use the word, I must be trustworthy. Those to whom I speak, or who read what I have written, must have a basis for believing that I saw what I described. My words are otherwise useless. This is the entire basis for science and for disciplines such as economics and sociology. It is also the basis for friendship, society and democracy.

If, at this point, we remain in agreement, then like me, you should also be concerned with Donald Trump’s butchery of language. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote on the subject.

Trump’s usage, Blow wrote, is “a way of reducing language to the point that it is meaningless because the use of it is mindless, and in that compromised state, language becomes nearly worthless. As a consequence, truth becomes relative, if not altogether removed.”

And:

“Listening to Trump speak is a dizzying experience for anyone interested in candor, clarity or concision. It’s as if he puts language through a meat grinder and what emerges is nearly unrecognizable, in either comprehension or certitude.”

I do not think this is accidental. Trump’s definition of truth is different from mine; truth as I’ve defined it is, to him, irrelevant. He is more concerned with what might be described as belief. The facts are as he wants them and therefore believes them to be. For Trump, knowing flows from believing. In this paradigm, whatever is believed can become fact — belief, not observation, being the gateway to truth.

Many Americans believe illegal Mexican immigrants are dangerous and that millions of them vote illegally. So, Trump echoes these beliefs, and in so doing validates pre-existing beliefs. In the relativist world of Trump this validation is truth enough. Indeed, in a Trumpian view, those in power will ultimately record what happened, and the record they make will become truth. Thus, truth can be whatever we want it to be, if only we have the will to make it so.

The foundations of democracy are literacy and an informed citizenry capable of understanding facts and making rational decisions. Against this backdrop the Trumpian idea that the will creates truth is not new; it has been common parlance within the last century. Read, for example, Benito Mussolini’s 1933 pamphlet on “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism.” To Mussolini democracy was an evil that Fascism despised. To him, belief is more powerful than reason; only belief matters. As Mussolini put it, truth is revealed by what men die for. Death is truth, and a belief men have died for is validated as truth.

Trump has been quoted as saying his financial worth is based upon his “own feelings,” that it “goes up or down based on (his) feelings.” His financial worth is whatever he believes its value to be. And, so it was for those who bought Trump brand tequila, or steaks, or college degrees, or condos. If you want to believe they are valuable, then they are. It is the way of all hucksters; what they sell is belief. In Trump’s world, if he’s telling you what you want to hear, he’s not lying.