The neuroscience fallacy and the startling truth

July 28, 2012 2 comments

I want to draw your attention to something I think is quite important to think about, in regards to causality and its relation to the scientific enterprise. More particularly, I am concerned about a particular application of the scientific enterprise to how the modern world conceives of human thought, of the brain and of consciousness. My belief is this: the scientific project, when it comes to the brain, does not understand causality–in fact it routinely commits a very basic logical fallacy.

Quite a claim, you might say. I mean, science is supposed to be the discipline that makes sense out of the world. If anyone should understand causality, it is the scientists! I feel as I write this that I am perhaps making an obvious blunder. Yet, for the life of me, I cannot see what that blunder is. I spend much of my time immersed in logic, dealing with the world of mathematical abstractions, and I think that I’ve gotten pretty good at logic, as a result. And then I look around me and I see science using this very same logic, to deduce causality, in a way that seems to me to be completely backwards.

Let me explain what I mean. Probably the most basic concept in logic is that of a syllogism: A implies B. A syllogism is an “if, then” statement. It looks nice to write a syllogism with a little arrow:

A \rightarrow B

This helps us visualize the direction of the logic. We use syllogisms all the time! Here are some examples.

1. If it was raining, then I would have used my umbrella.

2. If the Yankees win the world series this year, I will shave my head.

3. If you don’t eat your meat first, you can’t have any pudding.

Forget the fact that none of these statements are actually true in general. The point of these is examples are not their truth or falsehood, but their form. Now, for any syllogism, there is another simple syllogism that is logically equivalent to it. Logically equivalent means that the two statements imply each other–if you know one, you know the other. The syllogism that is logically equivalent to a given syllogism is called its contrapositive: NOT B implies NOT A. In symbols, it is usually written something like this:

\neg B \rightarrow \neg A

Thus the little symbol “\neg” stands for “not.” Here are, in words, the contrapositives of the above statements:

1. If I do not use my umbrella, then it was not raining.

2. If I do not shave my head after the world series this year, the yankees did not win the world series this year.

3. If you can have some pudding, then you ate your meat.

The equivalence of a statement and its contrapositive are self-evident logical truths.

A common logical fallacy, on the other hand, is to assume a syllogism is equivalent to its converse: B implies A. This is often called “affirming the consequent.” For example, just because I use my umbrella doesn’t mean it had to be raining. I could have used it, for example, to block the sun. Intuitively, we can see that statements are not equivalent to their converses because, as a rule, the same event can be brought about by different causes. For example, I might frequently use my umbrella to block out the sun as well, demonstrating that the converse of statement 1 is false.

Now, bear with me here, because things are about to get a little tricky. Often the fallacy of affirming the consequent occurs because one considers the contrapositive of the converse instead. The fallacy is believing that “A implies B” entails that “NOT A implies NOT B.” Since the logical implication “goes in the same direction,” it is easy to make this mistake.

Now, I believe that modern scientific thinking often ignores this basic logical fact in the way that it approaches its understanding of causality. Further, I think that it has ignored it because it has a materialistic bias, and thus the consequences for accepting it are startling and at odds with the philosophical presuppositions of modern scientific thinking.

It is especially clear to me that the project of neuroscience falls victim to this logical fallacy. Neuroscience, or at least the popular interpretation of it (and, I suspect, the internal beliefs of most neuroscientists in regards to what they think they are accomplishing) is practically built upon making this error.

Consider first an example. Scientists do a study, and find:

1. The removal of physical circumstances A results in the disappearance of mental state/experience/event B.

Then they conclude:

2. Therefore physical circumstances A cause mental state/experience/event B.

If we consider this as a syllogism, it is clearly the logical fallacy I described above.

For example, scientists may discover that feelings of depression and unhappiness are associated with lower levels of serotonin in the brain (I haven’t verified this, by the way–I might have the science part wrong here). By correcting this imbalance, the scientists are able to remove the feelings of depression. Now, I hope no one misunderstands me here. I believe that this sort of thing, if done responsibly, is very good. But I think that we misunderstand what is going on here, tragically, in a way that undermines our understanding of the human soul.

Many people, upon hearing that we now have a pill that cures depression by altering a chemical state of affairs in the brain, will conclude that this state of affairs causes the mental condition known as depression. They will say things like “my emotions are nothing more than a chemical state of affairs.” And the scientists their will support them in this conclusion. The logic, however, actually ought to go in the other direction: if removal of the serotonin imbalance also removes the depression, then the contrapositive of this causal relationship, the only statement that logically follows from this experimental result, is that depression is the cause of the serotonin imbalance.

This conclusion, however, is unacceptable to modern neuroscientists, because their entire project is to reduce mental states to physical states. The reason they do this is, well, because they are afraid that not doing so would be unscientific. If they would accept that there is something like “mind” that is metaphysically distinct from “brain” and interacts dynamically with it, then the whole project of science, as they understand it, is undermined.

In a way they are right. But they need to get over it! We would do well to stop thinking about science as a special sacred realm of knowledge, as a special epistemological project. We need to get back to thinking about all things carefully and logically. We have reified science far too much, and this hinders our understanding of many things. But that’s a topic for another post…

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More on intelligence, computers, and humanity

July 30, 2011 2 comments

In my last post, I critiqued the notion of artificial intelligence, arguing that human intelligence is not actually what is being imitated by AI programs. Here I’d like to offer some further thoughts, and point to what I think is a pretty basic philosophical issue at stake in these sorts of discussions.

It seems to me that those who produce AI programs have a very specific goal in mind most of the time. What they want to do is “make computers do something that they’ve never done before.” When this is accomplished, the media then takes it upon itself to interpret this achievement as a sign that computers are becoming more like human beings. For example, consider the following case study, entitled “Computer learns language by playing games.” Based on this title, one might get the impression that a computer learned a language somehow. I’ll leave it to you to read the article and discover that nothing of the sort happened.

More recently, I listened to a wonderful episode of Radio Lab that had to do with these topics (Radiolab, by the way, should be commended for dealing with these sorts of issues, and many others, in a way that transcends many of the popular narratives about science), which featured a portion on the efforts by programmers to make computers which can simulate a human conversation.

Emphasis was put on how complex this task, and other artificial intelligence tasks, actually are. It seems to me that the underlying idea that is behind a lot of how people tend to think about these sorts of questions–questions of computers achieving human intelligence–is the idea of complexity. I talked about this in my last post, though the focus was more on computing power. The idea is that the reason it is difficult to make a computer mimic a human being is that human beings are very complex. We are the product of billions of years of evolution and so, well, that means we are pretty complex right?

In this argument, examples are cited: think of how complicated even the most basic tasks are: picking up a coffee cup, typing a sentence on the computer, smiling at your significant other–think of all the different things that are going on simultaneously in all of this. Pretty complicated, right? So simulating it is a difficult task. Thousands of little decisions and judgements have to be made in an instant.

And yet, I insist complexity is not really the issue. The issue is philosophical, and I think I can illustrate this. People who deal in artificial intelligence like to talk about what is called the “Turing Test,” which was mentioned on the Radiolab program. The Turing test, invented by mathematician Alan Turing, says that we can consider a computer to be intelligent, to be on the same level as a human, when it can hold a conversation with a human being (via instant messaging) and have that human being not be able to tell whether or not he is talking to a computer.

I don’t doubt that accomplishing such a feat is a difficult task, perhaps an impossible task, and would, if achieved, be a tremendous accomplishment in the field of artificial intelligence. It would require a computer that is complex and nuanced in its programming in a way that has never yet been realized. At the same time, I find that the fact that anyone would ever believe that succeeding at this test constitutes evidence that we have created something on the same level as a human being simply reveals the philosophical bias that underlies the confusion in this whole affair.

Consider this: computers have, for a long time now, been able to simulate basic spacial realities. A computer can contain in its programming, and project to the world, a convincingly realistic 3-dimensional environment. In the movies, special effects can simulate reality in a way that is convincing enough to us that we don’t notice–we can’t always tell whether or not an effect is real (that is, something recorded by the actual cameras).

There is no doubt that the creation of these special effects is a complicated task–as is the creation of the complex environments in popular video games like Halo. And yet no one ever wonders whether such realities, created on computers, are real, in the same way the universe is. No one wonders this, and no one wonders if they ever will be. There is no “Turing test” for simulating nature. And this is not because simulating nature is a complex task–though it is. We readily admit that computer graphics do not really capture all of the nuances of nature. But we also understand that the complexity is besides the point. The real issue is basic ontology: no one thinks that, if the simulation becomes complex enough, it will suddenly become “on the same level” as material reality, as having existence in the same way. Why not? One could try to give many sophisticated answers, but the easy answer is the correct one: just because it is not. It is still a simulation, and will never stop being that.

The question I want you to think about is this: why do we accept this as obvious–that a computer simulation of material reality would never actually exist in the way that material reality does–and yet find the idea of simulating a mind to raise all sorts of complicated philosophical conundrums about what makes a mind really a mind? We believe that, even if a computer could simulate physical reality in such a way as to fool us completely into believing that it is real, it would not follow that it is real. Yet we think, or at least, we give consideration to the idea, that if a computer could ever fool us into thinking it had consciousness, that it had a mind, then we have to accept that it does in fact possess such things in whatever sense is meaningful. Why do we go one way in one case (matter), and the opposite way in another (mind)?

My answer is the following: our unconscious commitment to materialism. If we believed in the mind as strongly as we believed in matter, then we would have no concerns that artificial minds, after reaching a certain level of complexity, would suddenly become real minds in every meaningful sense. We’d recognize this as an ontological impossibility. This is the idea I want you to take seriously, to internalize. Consider believing in the mind in this way.

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My Bro’s Stories

July 3, 2011 1 comment

My brother has a new webpage featuring some of his short stories. Check it out here.

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Dumb Phones and Artificial Stupidity

May 29, 2011 1 comment

The phrase “artificial intelligence” is a misnomer because what is actually being imitated by all A.I. programs is not what humans call intelligence, but rather what we tend to refer to as stupidity: that is, doing something without thinking. The common thread among computer intelligence programs is to turn an activity that seems to require intelligence, or once required intelligence, into a task that does not; to tear it apart and strip it down by turning it into something that, well, a machine could do. In doing so one shows that the task actually requires no thought. In this way, artificial intelligence does not imitate intelligence, but rather demonstrates that no intelligence is actually required to perform the task at hand–provided one has adequate instructions. This dawned on me clearer than ever as I played a computer in a “rock, paper, scissors” simulation. The simulation revealed to me not how smart the computer was but, rather, how dumb of a game rock paper scissors actually is. The fact that the game was “rock, paper, scissors” was key to my epiphany, since I already knew that this was a dumb game, and thus that the computer was pretty dumb for…taking it so seriously.

Let us, however, consider the more famous, and relevant, examples of artificial intelligence. The first is the computer victory of “Deep Blue” over chess champion Gary Kasparov. And actually, I think I have been too harsh in not mentioning yet what is impressive about artificial intelligence, in this case and in others. What is impressive is the programming task, which is distinct from the program itself. Programming is distinct from the program created in the same way that an artist is distinct from his creation. And computer programming, believe it or not, is a sort of art, in the same way that mathematics is (computer programming is basically just a special applied kind of mathematics). I was impressed by what the programmers of the Deep Blue program actually did. Their accomplishment was impressive because chess has long been believed to be the ultimate strategy game, requiring intuition, planning, and creative thinking on the fly.

But the team at IBM cracked chess–somewhat at least. They demonstrated that there is an algorithm for an extremely strong chess strategy. This is an amazing intellectual accomplishment. I am honestly amazed by it, because I wouldn’t have guessed it was possible. But it is the programming achievement that amazes me, the cleverness of that, the thought that went into figuring out how to create a winning algorithm. If you do some investigating, you will find out just how much thought, and research, went into this. It is truly impressive. But we must remember not to mislabel things: the algorithm, the final program that is the product of the programmers efforts, is not smart. Nor is the machine that implements it (Deep Blue). Rather, it is the people who wrote the algorithm that are smart. It is their intelligence that is on display, not that of any machine.

When you think of it like this, you will realize what a farce the concept of artificial intelligence really is. To whatever extent we think that we see intelligence in computers, we are seeing the intelligence of the programmers reflected. Sometimes it is buried so deep, and is so complex, that we think the computers are smart. But this is an illusion, on the same level as the magician’s illusion: when you see how it’s really done, the magic goes away. You will realize that the laws of nature have not been violated, after all. You may still be impressed with the magician, however. In the same way, when you get a basic idea of what goes into A.I. programs, you will see a mind at work in the program that was created, but you will also realize that there is nothing like a mind at work in the program itself.

More recently, we have the computer program that was able to beat two Jeopardy champions. Again, watching this, I was struck by the depth of the accomplishment: that the programmers were able to cover most cases of what the format for a jeopardy clue tends to be, and to write a program that quickly accessed a database of information in such a way as to make a reasonable estimate as to the answer (actually, the “question,” in Jeopardy terminology). It is fun to think about how they did this; to look at a jeopardy clue and imagine the sort of things that the algorithm looks for–key words and phrases, etc. And in doing so you realize that Jeopardy clues, with their multiple layers of hints within the clue, are especially amenable to the sort of analysis that one can program a computer to do. I was impressed that the programmers accomplished putting this together in a way that was able to handle most clues and didn’t mess up too often. But I was not impressed by “Watson” himself (nor, by the way, was I impressed with his humongous buzzer advantage, which was glossed over by the media coverage of this publicity stunt).

The real problem is that we do not, today, have a good idea of what intelligence is–and this stems from the deeper problem that we have a mechanistic concept of the mind. We tend to associate intelligence with calculation and precision, which are two things that computers are great at, two things they have been better at than humans since their invention. Computers will continue to grow faster, as time goes on, and their programming will become increasingly sophisticated. And if we continue to misunderstand intelligence, then we will think that they are progressing towards us in it. The truth is that computers have always surpassed us in doing many things that were never a mark of intelligence at all, and meanwhile have not moved an inch closer to becoming something that they intrinsically are not. Processing speed has never been the issue with computers being intelligent. The real issue is that a computer is nothing like a mind. The similarities are all superficial, and all based on analogies that have, over the years, seeped into the public consciousness. The analogies go both ways–we say, for example, that computers have “memory” and that human beings can be “wired” to act a certain way.

What I am advocating is an attempt to change the way we look at computers. Do not ever approach a computer with the idea that it is anything like a mind, and you will never be in danger of thinking that it is. Everyone’s first intuition about all computers is that they are dumb. And this is the correct intuition. Dumb as a rock. It is repeatedly confirmed by experience. Computers are exceedingly dumb–they are not capable of even the simplest reflection, of any measure of creativity, of any measure of wisdom, or anything else that smacks of any sort of awareness of reality or self whatsoever. Because computers have no awareness. Moreover, they never will; no matter how fast they get, no matter how advanced their code is. Why? It is obvious. They are machines that implement algorithms. We can all see this. And we can all see (despite what science fiction tells us) that we are not.

Our minds, and even our brains (if you believe there is a distinction) are not computers, and are not like computers. I’m not sure what they are, but they are not like computers. One problem, in realizing this, is that there are many very smart people who think this observation is up for debate, and will engage you in some intractably difficult philosophical discourse if you suggest otherwise. They will ask you: do we really know what a mind is? That it is actually distinct from matter? Isn’t the brain just a collection of atoms interacting in a complicated way? Well, I’m not sure–and I think the burden of proof is on the materialist, and not the other way around. But I think this is all quite beside the point. The point is that computers are not like minds, even if they are just a collection of atoms; we might as well believe that someday we could shape a potato (another collection of atoms) into something like a mind. It is on the same level of absurdity. It is as absurd as the ancient worship of idols:

Their idols are silver and gold,

They have mouths, but they speak not;

They have ears, but they hear not;

They have hands, but they handle not;

They that make them shall be like unto them…

We scoff today at the idea that ancient people could believe that a metal idol could really be a god with any kind of intelligence. But this is only because we find different things persuasive. To them, the convincing face may have been enough, and they disregarded the obvious (to us) fact that it was just a hunk of metal, created by men. Today we see computers being designed to imitate something we more naturally worship–reason and logical deduction–and we jump to similar conclusions.

The most destructive idea that comes out of all of this is the belief that technology, the fruit of the computer revolution, because it is smart, will make you, and us, smart. Listen to advertising today. “We are building a smarter planet.” What? They want us to believe that “technology is smart and will make the world smarter and will bring it together.” This is not true. In fact, technology is very dumb, and is making us dumber, and will bring chaos and misery to the world…if we don’t handle it properly.

Technology, handled properly, can be good for us, or at least neutral. But the more we, without reflection on what we are doing, integrate it in our lives, the less intelligent we will become, the more disconnected from each other we will become. And why? Because we will become more like computers, which are dumb, and have no interest in reflection or beauty or creativity or community or anything else even remotely human.

The irony in all of this is that the gap between man and machine is most at risk of being bridged the other way. If our culture continues to push the analogy between man and machine, this will do nothing to make them more like us, but it will do quite a bit to make us more like them. So please, challenge the language of today, in regards to the computers that are becoming increasing involved in our lives. You don’t have a smart phone. You have a dumb phone. There are no smart phones. That urge you get to scream at your phone, to tell it that it is a “dumb phone!”: that is the correct urge because that is what the gadget is it is. Your instincts are correct. Your phone is dumb. Also, your ipad is dumb, your desktop computer is dumb, the GPS system in your car is dumb, and the internet is dumb. This laptop I am typing on is dumb. The people who created these things, however, are mostly all geniuses, and much credit is deserved for their accomplishments. But, all the same, I do wish they’d give it a rest. The technological revolution is truly exhausting.

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 14 of 155)

April 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Today’s verse:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him… (1.18)

Yesterday Paul told the Ephesians he was praying for them, and now he tells us a specific prayer. In the verses that follow, more about this prayer will be revealed, but for right now let us focus the “spirit of wisdom and revelation” that he asks that they be given.

First, what does it mean to ask that someone be given a particular “spirit”? Sometimes in scripture, the word “spirit,” used in relation to the activity of God, is a reference to the Holy Spirit, though it appears here that the translators did not think so, since they would capitalize the word in this case. In any case, if God is being asked to provide these things, it is certainly the work of his Spirit in some sense. But I suppose the word “spirit” is being used in a more general sense; perhaps today we would say something psychological like “disposition towards” or “motivation for,” or something similar. But the culture of the New Testament era was far less materialistic than our own. I imagine that they would naturally expect that things like wisdom and revelation must come largely from the influence of spiritual beings distinct from the self. I suspect that, in situations like this, they took for granted not only the activity of God but of the heavenly realm in general, of God and his angels–and I believe that they were right to do so.

Anyway, Paul wants God to provide, as he sees fit, the Ephesians with a particular sort of spirit: that of wisdom and revelation. Based on what follows (which we will get to over the next few days), I think it is right to see this in terms of God’s plan: Paul wants the Ephesians to perceive the great plan that God has for his people and for the world. And he has certainly talked about this quite a bit already! But his words so far are just a summary, and they alone cannot supply the Ephesians with what they need to truly absorb God’s story and be transformed by it, thus being made into the image of his Son. The words Paul has said so far are Holy Scripture, to be sure, but for the Ephesians to benefit from it, they need not only the words that the Spirit has spoken through Paul, but also the activity of the Spirit in themselves to open their hearts to those words–in the same way you and I need this activity, as we read those same words. So Paul prays for this.

In the bible, “wisdom” is not just intelligence, but the ability to see things as they actually are and live in harmony with that, to perceive God’s plan and have one’s heart and mind in tune with it. “Revelation” goes further: it is more perceptual, more supernatural, in the modern sense of that idea, at least. With a spirit of wisdom, perhaps what we see is the overall heart of God in his plan, and naturally comprehend his good designs; with a spirit of revelation, perhaps we see more the specifics of what God is doing, the events he is shaping.

Let us pray the same prayer for one another today: that we would see the amazing plan of God, both the overarching themes of his sacrificial love, providence, and redemption, and the specific ways that he is realizing them in the world today, among the people of this world. Let us be in tune with him so that we can be a part of his plan, and share the love of Christ, with the broken world that he died for. When you talk to someone today, remember that that is the true story of the world and that that person is a part of this story.

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The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians (Part 13 of 155)

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve decided to start this series back up. Let’s see how far I get!

When we left off, Paul had just finished his opening paragraph (Ephesians 1.1-14), which is an amazing summary of the work of God in the world, through Jesus Christ. What is particularly amazing is the grand scale of his work that is described, and yet the ultimately personal nature of the plan. We are reminded that God had us in mind when he created the universe, when we were chosen “before the foundation of the world” to be his children, to be redeemed by his Son. His desire is to gather up all things in himself, to wrap the world in his love, and we are the centerpiece of that plan. At the end of the paragraph, the focus turns to the individual, who has God’s Holy Spirit in himself, dwelling in him, making him new and reminding him of God’s promise to see him through to the end, to receive the fullness of the love that God has lavished on us.

Here is our next verse–actually we will do the next two verses:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

Paul has turned his attention more explicitly to the congregation of the Ephesians that his letter is addressing. Hearing of their faith, and the love it induces, brings Paul joy and encourages him to give thanks to God, continually. This is a valuable and important thing, to be thankful for the faith of others; I confess that this is a somewhat rare thing for me to rejoice in. Paul is absolutely confident in the love of God towards these people, and his saving grace in their lives, and so has the joy that we know is from heaven:

Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15.10)

In my experience with the faith of others, I find that I tend to be cynical about it. Instead of looking for the mustard seed of faith in the heart of a sinner–which is all that counts in the end–I am ashamed to admit that I find the faith of others questionable, and often expect that people will fall away, often look for the thing that tells me whether someone is “truly a Christian.” I think there is an awful spirit at work here in this type of thinking, which has the power to bring animosity between Christians and to divide the church. What we should do is trust absolutely that God is at work in the hearts of others, and thank God for the faith we do see, and pray that God would nurture it, knowing as we do that he himself is faithful.

Yet we should, I think, be concerned about the faith of others. There is someone in my bible study who always sits in front at church and says he watches each person in our congregation as they go up for communion, and wonders about what is going on in their heart, and prays for them. He knows that God is doing a great work in our church, and he also knows that something precious is at stake in this life. I admire this a great deal, this deep and ultimate concern.

We know from other places that Paul does display anxiety about the faith of others; assuming that the inspiration of scripture implies that this is a “righteous worry,” how do we account for this? There is, I think, a place for a certain sort of anxiety, or at least sorrow. But it must be humble and it must stem from a genuine desire that people would know the precious love of God and what it costs. We can be burdened for others with a genuine concern for their souls–but this burden must always acknowledge that it is God himself who is burdened more, and who in fact bore the ultimate burden.


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Church Shells

February 11, 2011 4 comments

On Christmas eve I found myself, against all odds, attending a church service at a Unitarian church. This was done under the condition that we (myself and the person I went with) would, afterward, also attend a service at the local Presbyterian church. These two services, together, brought about in me some reflections on the cultural institution known as church, and how it differs from the Church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church–the bride of Christ, the people whom God ransomed for himself with his own blood in order to save them from their sins and make them into a kingdom of priests, to bring blessings to the nations, and to dwell with him forever in his eternal kingdom, to be what human beings were meant to be, experiencing his love and peace. This is the Church that Jesus Christ created, a community that he set up on earth and sustained throughout the years by his Holy Spirit.

If you are not a Christian, and you are reading this, I hope I did not just drive you away with the religious language. Really what I want to accomplish in this piece is primarily for your benefit. I don’t believe I will convince you, here, of the reality of this Church that I have spoken of in the previous paragraph. But what I do think I might be able to do is help dissolve one big thing that might prevent you from seeing it–one big thing that you and I might have a common distaste for.

That thing that I would like to dissolve is what I call a “church shell.” What is a church shell? A church shell is like a traditional church, and is what many people know church to be: a community centered around a Sunday gathering, where various things take place–readings, songs, speeches. The same community that gathers there may participate in other activities together, such as community service and outreach.

Now, these church shells accomplish many things, some of them very good. And, for many (especially the clergy), they are central in the lives of their members. They provide people with community, meaning, and fulfillment in their lives. But, there is one thing that they do not provide, something that is missing from their entire approach. What is missing? God. Church shells are religious institutions without the presence of God.

Bear with me here. I want to say that this is the objective criteria for distinguishing a church shell from the Church: in a church shell, God is gone. Thus it is not hard, in principle, to distinguish a church shell from the real thing. The distinguishing characteristic of a church shell is the lack of God. I don’t claim, sinner that I am, to be able to really gauge the presence of God in a particular situation, but I do claim that I can tell, pretty well at least, the palpable absence of God, the impossibility that God would involve himself with the sort of activity that I see before me. I think I know when God has definitely left the building.

I suppose that, if you don’t believe in God, then this might seem implausible–it might seem implausible that I could gauge the occurrence of such a non-event. Fair enough. But, at the very least, grant me this: that I can recognize that an event, a completely secular event, the only event that would ever cause God to leave a place if he was ever there, has certainly occurred in these places. I can tell that, in these places, something has happened that, if there were a God, it would cause him to leave. That event is incredibly simple. It is the following: the people in charge of the gathering, supposedly in God’s name, have no desire for him to be there. At least, they have no expectation that he be there. He is not their focus. They would rather he not get in the way of what they are doing.

In my perception, the Unitarian church is the ultimate version of a church shell, and thus serves as an excellent illustration. It is the natural place towards which all church shells are tending. Christ has been cut out in nearly every way imaginable–even the scripture passages that they (infrequently) read have been edited to remove any hint that he might be the Son of God. In an odd way, the Unitarians are deserving of praise in that they have systematically thrown out every trace of what wasn’t really there in the first place, ever since they abandoned their foundation, Christ our Lord.

But, I believe, they have one more step to take. One final step of honesty. What I would like is for them to admit that they really want nothing to do with Jesus. Then at least it would be clear where they stand. They should stop pretending he–the one who called us to deny ourselves–has anything to offer to what it is that they are trying to achieve, which is basically a project of promoting a worldly wisdom and a worldly spirituality. They are doing no one a service by not proclaiming this–not themselves, not Christians, not would be Christians, not would be Unitarians, not would be atheists.

Unfortunately, the church shell phenomenon was also in effect at the service I attended later in the night, at the Presbyterian church. Now, I am sorry if I have ever misjudged a sincere minister of Christ in saying this, but what I am describing certainly exists in the mainline Protestant churches in America. And I think this is an important thing to call out, to draw attention to. It is important because the Church, the real Church, exists to build people up in faith in the world’s only hope, the redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ. It exists to lead them to share this good news, in word and in deed, with those around them. And it is not hard to say where this Church is, or what is required for it to exist. Jesus himself gives us the answer: “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” When a community gathers honestly in Jesus’ name, for his sake and the purpose of following after him, for the purpose of laying down their lives at his feet and being his disciples, then he is there. If that is not their purpose than, if Christianity is true, he will have nothing to do with such a community–though he will never stop loving those even who have forsaken him.

Yes, the primary purpose of the real Church, the Church that I know, is to lead people into faith in Jesus Christ, and worship of him. It is a place to throw yourself at the feet of the incarnate Son of God. If a church is not that, then I have absolutely no interest in it. I wish it would go away. And it makes me cringe to think that places with no interest in Jesus Christ are what people associate with Christianity, and thus with me when I tell them that I go to church. It makes me cringe to think of people imagining me going to a church shell every week.

Like I said, church shells accomplish some good, and are quite meaningful in the lives of many–and that is why I am wary of criticizing them. I know that the person I attended service with, on Christmas eve, derives a great deal of personal fulfillment from her Unitarian church. That’s fine. I don’t, in the least, want to deprive her of that, except to the extent that it would lead her away from seeing Jesus. But I have to say something about the predicament it creates for me, for one who thinks that faith in Christ is more important than all religious ritual. It is too important a thing to let this slide by. Church shells confuse people as to what Church, in the Christian sense, is. This is my problem. Many people in this world grow up without an idea that church could be something other than a church shell, and this is a tragedy.

God, though, has not given up on these people, nor on the ministers who refuse to acknowledge him. He may withhold his presence, if we hide ours from him, but his love for us is never extinguished.

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