Brain vs. Brawn

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


If the mind is godly and good while the body is worldly and evil, then why wouldn’t God have just created us as spirits?  Rather he created us as physical beings with mass and inertia, with blood and muscle.  If the ancient Greeks were right—production of knowledge with our mind alone is good, while production of things using our hands is the least noble—then why would God place us corporeally (bodily) in a Creation full of physical things and put us in charge of this physical stuff of creation?

Christians can get caught up in a Hellenistic way of thinking, conflating a focus on the mind with a focus on the spirit. But our soul is not synonymous with our brain.  Furthermore, we are not purely spirit—we believe in the resurrection of the body, after all, acknowledging that our soul is incomplete without our body.  Thinking about embracing my spouse is not the same as the actual physical act.  Thinking about serving my neighbor is not the same as actually filling their needs through offering physical, bodily aid.  Perhaps the relationship of spirit and body is related to the that of faith and works:  one without the other is dead.  Our faith is dead unless it is lived out in tangible acts that are the fruit of our faith. 

Why is this distinction and balance important for engineers, scientists, and all of us involved in technology either as a career or hobby?  Because technology is the work of our hands as much as of our minds.  It is the physical embodiment of our volition.  It is our will incarnate.  Philosopher Nicholas P. Wolterstorff underlined the importance of equal respect for both mind and body:  “The Protestant Reformation, and, in particular, the Calvinist branch thereof, represents a radical rejection of this scale of values in which the life of the mind is elevated over that of the citizen, in which both modes of life are elevated over ordinary life, and in which the work of our hands is regarded as having no more than instrumental value.“ (Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College,” in Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education , ed. Ronald A. Wells, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996, p. 144.)  Wolterstorff allowed no sacred-secular split: “...it was these [production and reproduction aspects of ordinary life] that the Reformers, for the first time in the history of the West, bestowed with inherent and not just instrumental worth—provided they were done to the glory of God and the good of the commonwealth.”

After praising the ordinary, corporeal work of our hands, Wolterstorff also calls us to responsibility.  It is not sufficient to rest on our laurels of inherent worth.  “One serves God and humanity in one’s daily occupation….But one does not serve God and humanity by going into business and then just playing the received role of businessmen, nor by going into medicine and then just playing the received role of physician, nor by going into the academy and then just playing the received role of the academic.  For those received roles are religiously fallen—not fallen through and through, but nonetheless fallen.  To serve God faithfully and to serve humanity effectively, one has to critique the received role and do what one can to alter the script …. The Reformed Christian will want to step back… to ask what is the purpose of business.” (Wolterstorff, p. 148)

Thus both the technologist and the teacher, both the machinist and the mentalist, both the physician and the philosopher have inherent worth.  All vocations are sacred.  All are callings from God.  As such, they all deserve respect.  As such, they all deserve careful consideration so that they live up to their high calling.

iPhones and iP

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


The recent court ruling in the Apple vs. Samsung smartphone case is just one more episode in the controversy surrounding intellectual property (IP for short) and particularly the use of patents.  Patents were originally invented to encourage innovation.  (Hmm…  I wonder if the first patent was for the idea of a patent?)  Nevertheless, some have recently argued that patents do just the opposite, stifling new innovation in a morass of litigation.  Can you actually own property that is intellectual?  Since our society has chosen to grant the right to own property, then if an idea is property, we might, as a society, decide to grant certain rights to the owner of that property.  The violation of those rights would be illegal.  Further, the violation would be unethical or immoral if the law that was transgressed is right and just.  The debate today has largely focused on that last question—whether our current patent legislation is good law.

I think there is some Biblical basis for property rights, especially as they relate to our ability to earn a living.  However, those rights also seem to be limited in a number of ways.  For example, the Jubilee laws required that the purchase price of land be in inverse proportion to the number of years until Jubilee, and the land would then revert back to the original family at Jubilee.  Ultimately, God is the owner and we are merely the steward.  I suspect that Old Testament laws related to property are connected with our ability to work, as an expression of the talents and gifts God has given us and also an expression of our care and responsibility—for our family, for our community, for the Creation.  In the ancient agrarian society, land was the basic resource necessary to enable useful work for most inhabitants (though certainly there were traders, metal fabricators, and other specialists who could earn a living by means that were not so directly tied to land).  In the modern information society, rather than land, our coin of the realm is information, knowledge, and education.  Knowledge now enables useful work for many, if not most inhabitants.  Thus the idea that ideas themselves might be property is not so far-fetched.  Rights do not come without responsibilities:  just as in ancient times, it may be appropriate today to limit those rights and balance them with the needs of the community.  Thus I believe a balanced approach may be wise, granting some rights and protection (through patents and copyrights) for a limited time and in limited scope to enable individuals to work productively and earn a living.  The limits should be sufficient to also enable the good of the community, preventing hoarding of important knowledge or gouging of customers beyond what is reasonable. 

Beyond property rights, I would also like to consider another aspect of rights and justice related to ideas.  Justice can also derive from respect and honoring of the person who developed the idea.  If one marvels at the creativity of an innovative invention, if one appreciates the beauty of a graceful sculpture, if one is mesmerized by the elegance of an evocative symphony, then it is right for us to feel gratitude toward the creator.  Isn’t it enough to appreciate the art itself?  I think not.  I can appreciate and enjoy the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. because I respect and admire Dr. King’s legacy.  The artwork can instill gratitude to Dr. King.  The artwork can remind me of the importance of King’s work.  However, I simultaneously respect and admire Lei Yixin, the artist who designed the monument.  It is just that we pay respect and express thanks to the artist.  We do the inventor an injustice if we do not acknowledge their hand in the invention.  We do the artist an injustice if we do not credit them as the source of the art.  Respect of the artist may be their right, even if acknowledgement and gratitude do not necessarily take the form of a monetary exchange.

Respect such as this is paid by acknowledging the artist wherever the art is displayed or performed.  When a creative work builds on the work of others, then at the very least, the artist doing the adapting should extend the courtesy to acknowledge her sources.  Even when there is not such a direct link to previous work, inventors and artists with integrity and modesty will credit those individuals who provided them with inspiration and encouragement. 

Engineers often are the unsung inventors and designers behind a product. Perhaps engineers are too shy or modest.  Modesty is not a bad trait—it can help us avoid undue pride.  Even so I wish more companies would follow the example of Adobe.  If you check the “About” dialog for most of their software products, you get a list of all the people that contributed to the product.  It reminds me of the credits at the end of a movie!  I’d like to appreciate the engineers that invented that latest gadget I purchased, the engineers that designed that excellent bridge I just drove across, and the engineers who designed some of the cross-checking logic to ensure the computer flying the plane is ultra reliable.  Whether they got a patent or not, the intellectual rigor and creativity in their designs is worthy of respect and admiration.  If you are one of those countless engineers, technicians, artists, designers, scientists, architects, or inventors, you can pass along that respect by giving glory to God for giving you the talents that enabled that creativity and the resources to carry out your designs.

Tools from God

Friday, September 07, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark…”
Genesis 6:11-14 (NIV)

After the original creation story, we know of only a few instances where God directly created an object for human use.  God made the garments of skin for Adam and Eve, providing a more durable covering than the fig leaves they first used to cover their embarrassment.  God made the original stone tablets and wrote the ten commandments on them himself.  We also know of a few instances where God provides blueprints for humans to build something, such as the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and Noah’s ark.  These artifacts were made from natural resources and had a primarily utilitarian purpose (i.e., they were intended to serve as a means to some further end).  Clothing, a long-lasting writing medium (though not so enduring when dashed to the ground), a pack-n-go shelter, a mobile keepsake cabinet, and a zoological cruise ship are all examples of technology.  These examples raise a couple questions in my mind.

Why so few examples?  It might be that God provided intends for us to follow his example rather than always making tools for us.  Beyond these few samples, God has delegated building and construction primarily to his stewards:  you and me.  What can we learn from our Creator mentor about our assigned task?  Let’s look at the purpose of each technology that God made himself.  The clothing for Adam and Eve addressed their sin-induced embarrassment.  The Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant provided a focal point for worship and reminders of God’s presence.  The other ark, made by Noah, provided a shelter against the ravages of a global flood.  Each technological artifact is a tool, an instrument.  Each is primarily a utilitarian means to a purposeful end.  In the same way, the technology we develop should serve:  our tools should serve God and serve our neighbor.  The design of our technology ought to recognize our human limitations and address the effects of sin. 

Why such concrete examples?  God used physical, corporeal, embodied solutions—things made of animal skin, stone, and wood.  Why not more directly and miraculously fix the problem?  My suspicion is that God wanted to provide a physical reminder of his care and keeping.  God, as a spirit, is difficult for us to grasp (in the intellectual sense).  The solutions he provided were physical tools that one could grasp in a physical sense.  The tool that provided a physical help then also became the crutch his people could use to grasp his eternal presence and benevolence.  In the same way, our best technological products provide an immediate help to those in need but also serve to point to our Creator and Savior.  The fruits of the spirit and Christian virtues thus become active and real.  Our technology is not only an instrument for immediate relief, but also a conduit for kindness, goodness, justice, mercy, and love.

A Small Step

Monday, August 27, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I’m glad it was Neil Armstrong that first stepped on the moon.  Very few human achievements measure up to leaving earth’s cradle and stepping on another heavenly body.  Lesser accomplishments have prompted outsized pride and boasting.  Momentous occasions are often forgotten by the next news cycle.  As he stepped off the ladder of Eagle, the Apollo 11 lunar module, Armstrong punctuated his singular moment of fame with the simple but powerful description “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Armstrong was a self-described “nerdy engineer”.  He was proud of his profession, but also carefully modest.  It would have been a small step to become overly proud when making history like Armstrong, but instead we find him saying:  “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”  Some say that the original sin of Adam and Eve was pride.  It was just a small step from being God’s stewards to a desire to be like God.  Eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an evil conceit, the deadly sin of pride.  Along with our original parents, we humans have always been susceptible to this character flaw.  While engineers are often naturally a bit shy and a bit modest, our ability to create new products can lure us into pride.  It is just a small step.  From appropriate pride in one’s accomplishments that acknowledges God’s help as well as the support of those around us, we can too easily stumble into pride in ourselves and over-estimation of our own self-worth.

Avoiding pride does not mean we cannot praise significant accomplishments.  While pride is a vice, encouragement of others is a virtue.  Landing on the moon was an extraordinary triumph that required extraordinary innovation, dedication, teamwork, and courage.  It is gratifying to read the tributes and eulogies for Armstrong and remember the early days of spaceflight.  A sense of wonder, of how small we are, can be a healthy corrective to bravado.  I’m glad it was Neil Armstrong that first stepped on the moon.  He showed us how it was done—with modesty and class.

Does the World Really Need One More…

Monday, August 13, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Does the world really need one more smartphone?  Does the world really need one more food processor?  Do we need yet another automobile?  Yet another version of an operating system?  Yet another music player?  Gadget overload can be a real problem.  Feature creep in software applications often bloats our programs so that it becomes difficult to navigate new releases and find all our familiar tools.  Special-purpose land vehicles (from fire trucks to military Humvees) often get filled with new technological devices to the point that there is hardly room for the driver! 

I recently addressed the personal need question, but does that exhortation to limit our consumption extend to society in general?  Yes and no.  As a society, should we constrain our production of redundant or marginally useful gadgets that make heavy use of scarce resources?  Yes, I think that is true.  There are as many good reasons for humanity as a collective society to live within our means as there are for humans as individuals.  Use of scarce resources in a product drives the cost of those resources higher— your basic economic supply and demand.  That makes your product more expensive and makes anything else using that resource more expensive.  If we are using non-renewable resources, then every use puts us closer to scarcity.  Even with an increasingly global network to increase our supply of resources,  we still see a rush to scarcity because that same global network also provides increasing demand distributed across the planet.  A renewable resource promises unlimited use, but only if we don’t over do it.  Too much pressure and we can use up a renewable source just as easily, sometimes in ways that the source cannot recover (e.g., over-harvesting fish or forests). 

As a society, should we then stop technological development altogether?  No, I think that is not the necessary conclusion.  We don’t generally question whether the world needs more art or music or literature.  Does the world really need one more song?  Does the world really need one more sculpture?  Yes it does!  Why?  Because humans need to create—it is part of who we are.  We thrive on development and innovation.  Likewise, we need new technology because invention is part of who we are.  As a society, continued innovation of technology, including personal communication devices, is a goal intrinsic to our community health and flourishing.  In our rush to avoid the error of over-consumption that is in essence gluttony, we might then fall into the same sin of omission that the man given one talent committed when he buried it out of fear rather than using and growing the gift as intended (Matthew 25).  I think we are thus called to cultivate the creation around us, making active use of earth’s resources—with care and forethought.  Resource allocations that are not appropriate for us individually might be right and good for society overall.  For example, a new car that has marginally better gas mileage than my current vehicle might be a bad choice for me individually, but making new vehicles available on the market that reduce our use of fossil fuels is an overall win for society.  As an individual, I might not need to replace my smartphone version 4 with the latest smartphone version 5, but continuing innovation and even incremental improvements are an essential part of our societal fabric.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest