Artificial Intelligence, Authenticity, and the Soul of Writing

Fresno Bee, March 5, 2023

Maybe I wrote this column. Maybe artificial intelligence did it. Does it really matter?

I asked ChatGPT to write an essay on the ethics of artificial intelligence. ChatCPT is an artificial intelligence device that is all the rage. The AI did a pretty good job. Its prose lacks a point of view. But its grammar is impeccable. And it is quick. It wrote a decent essay in a matter of seconds, highlighting concerns about AI, including the problems of bias, privacy, accountability, transparency and security.

It failed to note the problem of authenticity and cheating. This has been a significant concern among educators. Students are already using AI to write papers and do homework. One ironic recent case involves a student who used AI to “write” a paper on ethical issues involving artificial intelligence.

The cheating problem has human solutions. Teachers will need to re-conceive how they assess student learning. Students already cut and paste, and download papers. Desperate students can even hire surrogate writers. AI will make this easier — and cheaper. In response, we should emphasize oral presentations and in-class writing.

A further concern involves the possibility that AI will contribute to the demise of journalism and other professions that involve the written word. In the near future, newspaper columns, political speeches, novels, and film scripts could be written by AI.

My ChatGPT session noted this under the general category of “employment and economic impact.” It explained, “AI has the potential to disrupt industries and change the nature of work.” This understates the problem. Writing is an essential part of human culture. More than the loss of jobs is at stake. Rather, this is about the role of writing in human life.

Human writing involves perspective and personality. The ChatGPT seems to have been programmed to avoid taking perspectives. When I asked it about abortion, it began with a disclaimer saying, “As an AI language model, I cannot take a moral stance on whether abortion is right or wrong, as this is a complex and deeply personal issue that involves a wide range of factors and perspectives.” It then laid out several concerns from multiple perspectives with regard to the ethics of abortion.

Something similar happened when I asked it about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Republican plans for Social Security reform, and whether Biden is a good president. After a disclaimer, it recounted arguments on various sides of these issues. But it did not offer an opinion. This is clearly a matter of programming. This particular AI was programmed to avoid taking a side. One wonder what might result if an AI were programmed differently. I’ll bet it would be easy to program a computer to churn out Republican or Democratic boiler plate.

What’s missing here is human judgment — and the accountability that comes along with authenticity. Good human writing involves more than merely laying out a list of facts. It is also a way of exposing one’s commitments and one’s soul. Opinionated writing assumes that the writer behind the prose stands for something. And we hold authors accountable for their words. This process of soulful writing is part of what philosophers call authenticity.

Authenticity involves responsibility and personal engagement. Words belong to people. And we judge persons in terms of what they say and write. Human writing conveys a sense of who the writer is, what they feel, and what they value. Writing moves us because we imagine real people behind the words, who suffer, enjoy, celebrate, or grieve.

This spiritual element is connected to style and voice. And so far as I can tell, ChatGPT has not been programed to have a style, a personality, or a “soul.”

And yet, when I asked it how Hemingway would describe a bullfight, it came up with a paragraph featuring the “wild fury” of a charging bull, with horns “glinting in the sun.” As far as I can tell, Hemingway never put it quite this way. But frankly the AI surprised me with its story-telling prowess.

And no doubt, AI will improve. In the not-too-far future, movies, novels and opinion columns may be written by artificial intelligence. As far you know, this column was written by a human. But how would you know? And why would it matter?

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Violence is the problem, not the solution

Fresno Bee, Feb. 5, 2023

Violence is the thread linking recent shootings to the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Our culture is addicted to violence. We feel guilt and remorse, the morning after a bender of violence. But we fall back into the same bad habit.

Violence energizes and excites. The thrill of violence was apparent in accounts of the Nichols beating. One Memphis cop said, “I hope they stomp his ass.” Another bragged, “I jumped in and started rocking him.” The buzz of battle is intoxicating.

Not every cop behaves this way. And violence has been turned against police, most recently here in Selma. These atrocities are a sign of a world gone wrong.

The seductive power of violence is leading us astray. Violence is titillating. Its adrenaline rush is why we cheer on brutal hits on the football field and in the boxing ring. The excitement of violence entices us to watch endless hours of violence on our video screens. It’s not surprising that every so often, someone goes berserk in a world habituated to violence.

We won’t root out violence until we confront how it seduces and warps the human spirit. And we won’t overcome violence until we develop other habits.

Band-aid solutions can help reduce harm. We can limit access to guns. We can prohibit militant police tactics. And we can jail those who commit violence. But people need better habits of kindness, patience, and compassion. A band-aid stops the bleeding. But the disease remains untreated.

The world’s moral and religious traditions teach that violence is wrong. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies. Asian traditions celebrate “ahimsa,” a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.

But our culture is fascinated by violence. We watch it and play at it. We spend our money on it. And when violence causes problems, like a gambling addict, we double down, somehow thinking that more violence can solve the problem.

The civil rights icon James Lawson once said, “Our county is trapped, embedded, addicted to the mythology of violence.” Addiction is about pleasure, habit, and meaning. Our addiction to violence is about the kinds of thrills we enjoy. And it is about the kinds of habits we cultivate.

The mythology of violence encourages us to believe that power and prestige, strength and courage, are linked to violence. It teaches us to think that “might makes right.”

But none of this is true. It is false that violence solves problems and is the source of power. Human power comes from respect and love, rather than fear and physical domination. Human strength and courage are expressed through empathy and compassion, not through violence and brutality. And it is simply not true that “might makes right.”

If you overpower an enemy, nothing has changed in the realm of ideas. This is why regime change rarely works in foreign affairs. Violence begets backlash and resistance. We change people’s hearts by appealing to their better angels, not by attacking their bodies.

Physical violence arises from our most basic animal instincts. Wolves bare their teeth and fight without forethought. The violent male takes over the pack. Some humans behave this way as well. But physical dominance is impermanent. The alpha wolf only rules for a season or two. Physical dominance leaves no legacy other than blood, and resentment.

But the wolf doesn’t think about that. He is impelled by instinct and focused on the fight. Violence is the rush of the here and now. It is indifferent to tomorrow. And that’s why it is subhuman. Human beings moderate their behavior while imagining a life that extends into the future. But violence ignores the future. It is a thrilling outburst of a brutal immediacy.

Of course, in the human world, the violent brutes are punished. The momentary rush of violence is subject to the patient reality of human justice, which transcends the law of the jungle. We are not animals or superheroes, despite what we see at the movies.

The lessons of nonviolent humanity must be taught and re-taught. Violence is the problem, not the solution. Love, compassion, and human intelligence provide a higher path. And a culture addicted to violence needs new habits and sources of meaning.

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To live well, find the zest

If you want to live a happy and healthy life, stop being a spectator. Get enthused!

Fresno Bee, January 29, 2023

Life is an adventure. Passivity breeds boredom. Enthusiasm is contagious. And activity is the zest of life.

A recent study of thousands of people found that zest is essential for health and well-being. The study defines zest as “vitality, vigor, and being energized and eager to engage in work and life.”

The word “zest” comes from cooking. It is the tartness of citrus. Like a lemon in winter, zest wakes us up and invigorates us. Zest also includes “love of life” or what the French call joie de vivre. Lovers of life see it as a continual opportunity for inspiration and delight.

This new study confirms a fairly obvious point. It’s not surprising that enthusiasm and vitality are connected. But how do we cultivate love of life? That’s a difficult question in a world hungry for drugs, potions and therapies. But zest doesn’t come in a can. Rather, it is found in action.

Passion is not external to activity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that passion is a “powerful spring.” He also said, “nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.” But this makes it seem that first we set the spring, and then we get to work.

In reality, this happens the other way around. First, you get to work. And in action, you discover satisfaction. In another place Emerson said, “activity is contagious.” The point is to get going. If the work suits you and you stick with it, passion will grow.

And there are lots of ways to get energized. The psychologist William James saw “eagerness” as central to the meaning of life. James explained that eagerness “is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality.” James understood that many diverse activities can give us purpose. We can be eager to learn, to play music, to make love, or to serve others. What matters is staying active and engaged.

James’ colleague at Harvard, George Santayana, celebrated the creative energy of artists and poets, who are absorbed with the creative act. The artists of life say, “life is an adventure, not a discipline … and the exercise of energy is the absolute good.” He explains, “The zest of life becomes a cosmic emotion; we lump the whole together and cry, Hurrah for the Universe!”

That zesty attitude seems in short supply these days. The world is awash in anxiety, moodiness, fatigue, and apathy. Some of this may be traced to the lingering disruption of COVID. There is also the drumbeat of bad news about war, climate, corruption and crime. Our diets, lack of physical exercise, and other environmental factors are also to blame. Screens, sofas, and soft bellies are part of the problem of our low energy.

Certainly, chemical and hormonal imbalances need clinical treatment. But the bigger problem is our cultural malaise. The critics constantly complain. And everyone has a list of grievances. When have you recently heard anyone say “Hurrah for the Universe”? When has reality caused you to tingle?

It can help to hear stories about the enthusiasm and passion of others. It is inspiring to see other people get fired up. Such stories can come from entrepreneurs, athletes, social justice warriors, scientists or artists. But watching others act is ultimately boring. Spectating is no substitute for doing. It is the creative act that gives birth to passion.

Now, a critic might object that this is naïvely optimistic. Energy, she might add, can’t simply be willed into existence. But the American philosophers don’t teach us that energy is the result of wishful thinking. Rather, they tell us that enthusiasm is the result of action.

The American tradition views the world as an experiment. American thinkers see the human spirit as an adventurer. Nothing is fixed and there are infinite opportunities for action. We are free, intelligent, and imaginative beings. To be human is to use our creative energies. Passivity breeds apathy and discontent. Energy is created by action.

Enthusiasm is an attitude, an orientation and a habit. Like a muscle, it grows when we exercise it. And it is contagious. Enthusiastic people inspire us to be more enthusiastic. If you want to live a happy and healthy life, stop being a spectator. Get busy squeezing the lemons and making lemonade.

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What does it mean to believe in Christmas?

Someone recently asked me, “Do you believe in Christmas?” We were talking about religion. As we wandered in the depths of theology, my friend said, “But what about Christmas? Do you believe in that?”

This struck me as a strange question. What would it mean to believe in Christmas? Is the question about the virgin birth and the metaphysics of incarnation? Or is it about Santa and the elves? Or is it about something else, like love and hope? Maybe it is all of these.

Skeptics have criticized the traditional Christian narrative. Jamie Carter, a science writer, recently asserted that there is no such thing as a supernatural star. Carter suggests the Christmas star may have been a bright conjunction of planets or a passing comet. But that deflationary account ignores the star’s symbolic value. To ask if that star was really a supernova is to miss the point of the story.

Scholars have debunked many aspects of the Christmas story. Bart Ehrman argues, for example, that we don’t really know the year, the date, or even the season of Jesus’s birth. But one need not be a skeptic to understand that Christmas includes myth and legend. Ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI published a book explaining that there were likely no animals present at Jesus’ birth. The animals were added to the story for symbolic value and dramatic effect.

The current Pope, Francis, wrote about the nativity scene a couple of years ago, recounting the creation of the first Christmas creche by Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis wanted a symbolic representation of the Biblical story. According to the pope, the nativity scene is a symbol that brings light into the darkness.

So were there really three wise men, shepherds, and a baby asleep on the hay? The Bible’s Gospels don’t agree about the details of the nativity. And when I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, our tour guide told us that Jesus was born in a cave, not in a wooden stable. As the years pass, stories are repeated and embellished. Churches are built atop ancient grottos. And tales are retold and repackaged for the present generation.

Much of what we enjoy about that Christmas has been adorned by art and imagination. Christmas includes “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” There’s also Charlie Brown, Scrooge, and the Grinch. In the shopping malls, Santa gives out candy canes. We hang lights on the outside of our homes and bring trees into our living rooms. None of that is in the Bible. But Christmas is all of this, and more.

But is there a kernel of truth that we might believe in? The theologians tell us it is about the incarnation of God. But what exactly does that mean? And how are we supposed to get our heads around that singular and mysterious event?

Maybe the attempt to nail things down points us in the wrong direction. Human culture and religion are expansive. They grow and develop. New songs, images, and interpretations appear and add to our experience. This creative, hospitable, and joyful spirit is surely part of what it means to say that the angels are singing about goodwill toward all.

Christmas bears witness to the creative spirit. Saint Francis contributed to it. So did Franz Gruber when he composed “Silent Night.” So did Charles Dickens, when he created Scrooge and Tiny Tim. We also witness the Christmas spirit in “White Christmas”, a tune by Isaiah Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Charles Schulz showed us Linus caring for Charlie Brown’s sad little tree. And Dr. Seuss reminds us that the Grinch can be redeemed.

And each family has its own traditions and stories, ornaments and favorite foods. When we celebrate Christmas with our loved ones, we renew that creative and joyful spirit. This is what the exchange of gifts is all about. It is a process of sharing joy, hope, and love.

December is cold and dark. Without Christmas, these days would be bleak. But we warm our hearts by filling the night with laughter and song. The Christmas star is more than a passing comet. It is a symbol that reminds us to seek light in the darkness.

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Do Animals Have Rights?

Fresno Bee, December 11, 2022

Do animals have rights? This is an interesting topic to consider on Human Rights Day, which falls on Dec. 10. Human Rights Day commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In a recent column in the Los Angeles Times, philosopher Martha Nussbaum maintains that animals “should be seen as citizens with rights.” Her vision of the world imagines a future in which there is a “legally enforceable constitution for the various animal species.”

Animals deserve protection from cruelty. But legal rights for animal “citizens” would require us to radically revise what we mean by both “rights” and “citizenship.” And one can call for a reduction in animal suffering without claiming that animals have rights.

There is a vigorous debate in animal ethics about the difference between animal welfare and the more ambitious agenda of animal rights. Both approaches ask critical questions about human treatment of animals, including on factory farms. But the animal-rights idea is less interested in incremental improvements in animal welfare and more focused on abolishing the human use of animals.

This debate re-appeared recently in response to the Montreal Declaration on Animal Exploitation. More than 500 philosophers and other scholars signed that statement (including myself). The declaration condemns “unnecessary” harm to animals.

But some animal advocates refused to sign on, claiming that the declaration did not go far enough, since it avoided the language of rights. One prominent scholar who refused to sign is Gary Francione, a vocal defender of animal rights. Francione explained that the Montreal Declaration “expresses a position that is woefully short of recognizing the fundamental right of all sentient beings not to be used exclusively as means to human ends.”

This may seem like abstract philosophical nit-picking. But there are organizations in the United States working to establish rights for animals. One of these organizations, the Nonhuman Rights Project, sued the Bronx Zoo and Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo on behalf of elephants held in captivity. The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that elephants have habeus corpus rights. The Bronx Zoo case went to the New York Supreme Court, which held that nonhuman animals do not have habeus corpus rights.

Animal cruelty laws currently exist. It would be useful to improve those laws and enforce them better. The state of California has taken steps to strengthen animal cruelty laws, including regulations involving farm animals.

In 2018, California voters approved Proposition 12, which mandated more room for pigs, hens and veal calves. It also banned the sale of food from other states that did not adhere to California’s guidelines. This led farmers in other states to sue California. In October of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, “National Pork Producers Council v. Ross,” which challenged California laws requiring more humane cage sizes for farm animals.

This shows the kind of push-back that would ensue if animals were granted legal rights. Proposition 12 did not abolish factory farms. It merely made them less cruel, and the Supreme Court had to get involved. But the animal rights perspective is about more than cage size. The larger concern is abolishing animal agriculture and converting humanity to a vegan diet.

That demanding idea is unlikely to gain traction in our carnivorous world. In order to reduce animal suffering, it might be more effective to encourage people to eat less meat and to buy cruelty-free animal products. But for those who believe in animal rights, that’s insufficient.

A further concern is that we’ve still got work to do on human rights — including the rights of women, refugees, indigenous people, and others suffering oppression and statelessness. The Declaration of Human Rights is nearly 75 years old. But human rights are still a work in progress. It’s worth considering whether the animal rights movement will help or hinder the work of human rights.

Our obligations to other human beings are morally and politically fundamental. To speak of human rights is to say that human beings have inherent dignity and worth, and that is wrong to abuse, torture and murder them. Are we willing to extend that idea to animals? Or does that require a leap in logic and law that demands too much?

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