Before the Flood: A Christmas Meditation

Yves De Maeseneer

Bosch in Before the Flood.png

On the First Day of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises Saint Ignatius invites us to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation by imagining what it is like to look down at the world from God’s viewpoint. I was struck by the analogy between this exercise and the experience of astronaut Piers Sellers when he first saw our planet from outside. In one of the last months of his life, he gave a moving testimony in Before the Flood (2016). In this National Geographic documentary Leonardo di Caprio took as his point of departure a meditation upon Hieronymous Bosch’ Garden of Earthly Delights to discuss climate change. Imagining the disaster of an ecological hell and the call for change, di Caprio talks with major political and economic players, Pope Francis, voices from the Global South (Sunita Nairan and Farwiza Farhan) and scientists like Sellers:

“When you go up there and see it with your own eye, how thin the world's atmosphere is, tiny little onion skin around the earth. That's all the oxygen that we breathe, that's the CO2, everything we burn goes into it. It's an astonishingly fragile film. I knew intellectually how the earth's system works, because that's what I've been doing for 20 years. To see how the atmosphere and the ocean, all the elements in the system work together. So I understood it intellectually. But it's like being an ant trying to understand what an elephant looks like by crawling all over the elephant. But when you're up there in orbit, and you can see 1200 miles in any direction. It's kind of a revelation. Seeing all the cities at night, millions of people all working away, doing something. Come around the day side of the world, seeing the natural systems. The hurricanes, huge, great big wheels, over the oceans. Saw the Amazon River go between my feet. Just beautiful, all the way out to the sea. And there was the sun coming up over the Amazon, the whole forest waking up, and doing what it does every day. Breathing in and breathing out. So at the end of all that I became immensely fond, more fond of the planet. Which I never thought about when I actually just live on the surface. I'm also kind of fond of the people on there, too. It's like being taken away from your family and coming back. And I wish it all well. Just before Christmas I got told I got pancreatic cancer. … So that's really motivated me to think about what's important to do, and what can I contribute in the time I have left.”

Screen shot before the flood.png

“You know, the facts are crystal clear. The ice is melting, the earth is warming, the sea level is rising. Those are facts. Rather than feeling, oh my God it's hopeless, say, okay, this is the problem. Let's be realistic. Let's find a way out of it. And there are ways out of it. If we stopped burning fossil fuel right now, the planet would still keep warming for a little while before cooling off again. … So there really is a possibility to repair. I'm basically an optimistic kind of person. I have faith in people. I really do have faith in people. And I think that once people come out of the fog of confusion or an issue, or initial uncertainty on an issue, and realistically appreciate it at some level, the threat, and they're informed of what the best action is to deal with it, they got on and did it. And what seemed like almost impossible to deal with, became possible.” (Italics mine.)

Screen shot before the flood earth.png

 

PS: In the academic year 2017-2018, our blog will take a sabbatical rest, anticipating new horizons for Anthropos. We highly recommend that you have a look at the archive of our 2016 conference blog: Relation, Vulnerability, Love: Theological anthropology in the 21st Century, which offers an explorative multimedia view of what Anthropos has been about in its first six years of existence (est. 2010), introducing key players in contemporary theological anthropology.

Laudato Si': Hearing the cry of the world in the Anthropocene

By Lieve Orye

Last Thursday we had the pleasure at the faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KULeuven to welcome and listen to a public lecture by theologian and biologist Celia Deane-Drummond: 'Laudato Si’ and Pope Francis as prophet and priest in the Anthropocene'. Her lecture was part of a two day interdisciplinary expert seminar on ‘Laudato Si' and progress’, organized by the Centre for Catholic Social Thought in collaboration with CAFOD, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.

Channeling a cry, Speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene

Photo by  Christus Rex .

Photo by Christus Rex.

Laudato Si’ is receiving much attention. Its audacity, philosopher Bruno Latour writes, “is equaled only by the multiple efforts to deaden as much as possible its message and effects”(251). He sees two major innovations behind this audacity, the link between the ecological and injustice and the recognition that the earth itself can act and suffer. Both these innovations, he notes, are associated with the strange word cry: to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, writes Pope Francis, a true ecological approach must always be a social one, integrating questions of justice in debates about the environment (§49). A cry, Latour notes, is not a message, a doctrine, a slogan, a piece of advice or a fact but rather something like a signal, a rumor, a stirring or an alarm. Something that makes you sit up, turn your head and listen. 

Deane-Drummond recognizes this deep cry of the earth in Laudato Si’  as a cry in the epoch of the Anthropocene, our current geological age, characterized as a period in which human activity emerges as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Unlike scientists who see the human impact on climate and environment as a problem that can be fixed by means of a technological solution, Pope Francis speaks from a different imaginary that gives science its proper place but invites a cultural revolution, a shift in lifestyle. He has, Deane-Drummond noted, given us a sketch of a different and open social imaginary, one that resists an imaginary in terms of human dominance through a call to inner transformation and the nurturing of ecological virtues.

Listening to birds in the Anthropocene

Though Pope Francis does not use the term, hearing the deep cry of the heart in Laudato Si’ as a cry in the Anthropocene is illuminating. Though scientists still discuss the particulars of the Anthropocene, it is already more than just scientific fact. As anthropologists have started showing, it is what people hear and sense and worry about, for instance in their listening to the birds.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Saint Francis of Assisi spoke, preached to the birds. It is said that he preached to a flock of almost a hundred sparrows, which only left when he said they could. They were as much a part of his brotherhood as the pope. But if, as Andrew Whitehouse suggests, the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, ushering in the epoch of anthrophony in which human sounds and human-made sounds of industry, machinery, electronic amplification and so on started drowning out the biophony and geophony in many parts of the world, Francis’ speaking to the birds was clearly still an anthrophony of the pre-Anthropocene kind. We can understand his speaking, in other words, as characterized by an attentiveness that made resonance possible. It integrated more closely with the sounds and attentiveness of other beings rather than disrupting or dominating these (57).

In his article ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’ Whitehouse’s informants do not so much speak, nor preach to the birds. They do listen attentively and respond in resonance. But unlike Saint Francis they listen in the Anthropocene and, in the silence they hear more and more, the cry of the earth resounds. Whitehouse points out that the concept of the Anthropocene simultaneously draws humans and non-humans together and separates them out:

According to Lorimer, “The recent diagnosis of the Anthropocene represents the public death of the modern understanding of Nature removed from society.” Human and non-human worlds can no longer be conceived as existing in separate realms, and nature, at least in the sense of that which is separate from society, struggles to be convincing as a concept. And yet, as Crist has argued, the Anthropocene also appears to place humans on a pedestal as the only species in the history of the planet powerful enough to be deemed the primary Earth-shaping force (54).

The notion furthermore emphasizes anxieties that we humans have caused the ‘end of nature’, the disappearance of birds, butterflies and bees. That we are responsible for silent springs, for springs no longer announced by birds singing. The notion indicates both the interconnectedness of human and non-human lives as well as the potential for their destruction and silencing by humans.

Anxious semiotics and ethical relating

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

Though there is nothing inherently new about the experience of anxiety in relation to environmental conditions, the Anthropocene, Whitehouse notes, brings with it particular configurations. It “relates to real and observable changes in the local worlds people perceive around them and to semiotic elaborations on those perceptions that draw together local and global, human and non-human, present and future, into anxiety-laden narratives” (55). Though there is growing desire to attend to and to care for birds and their ecology, these seem continually outstripped by our capacity to disrupt and endanger.

To hear the cry of the earth in the Anthropocene, attentiveness is key. Whitehouse’s point is that it is to those least alienated from other forms of life that the wounds caused in the Anthropocene become more apparent. It is in them that these wounds provoke a moral disquiet (63). The anxious semiotics, Whitehouse notes, only emerges through active listening.

“The more we care about our world and the more we pay attention to it, the worse things seem to get… the more we listen to birds the more we notice the loss of birds from pesticides, the destruction of habitat, the encroaching dominance of Anthrophonic sounds, the sounds that are out of place and ecosystems that are dissonant”(69).

photo by  James Brush

photo by James Brush

“All ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation” wrote Donna Haraway (50). This is an ethical relating that, as Whitehouse points out, is importantly grounded in the same kinds of semiotic processes through which birds listen to their own world. Through listening, through paying attention, we can no longer think, indifferently, of birds as part of a separate mindless Nature. Rather, Whitehouse notes, such listening should ground the development of relations of companionship. “It elicits not simply a narrative of encroaching loss and the ever present threat that humans pose to non-humans, but one of enskilment, of how we learn to listen to birds and to the rest of our world…”(70). Precisely in our worrying, in our hearing the cry of the earth, lies hope. In those little daily actions, as little as listening to the birds and worrying about them occurs the nurturing of a different relation.

The song of birds, the song of fellow humans

 As Latour notes,

Laudato Si’ is a funny kind of text – wordy, busy, contradictory, repetitive – but this is because it is itself channelling this immense cry, which is impossible to decode rapidly, which makes one prick up one’s ears, turn one’s head toward those other actors, so different from nature and from humanity: a Sister Mother Earth whom we had almost forgotten was herself capable of suffering, like the poor who are tangled up with her. It is up to the readers now to channel, in turn, this immense cry (255).

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Laudato Si’  is speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene, urging those indifferent to live attentively. It emphasizes moreover that we should not pay attention to the wounds of the earth as if these could be separated out from the wounds of fellow human beings. Just as we care about the singing of the birds and worry about their disappearance, we must care at least as much about the singing of fellow human beings, being attentive, listening to what their sounds are telling us. Do we hear the sounds and silences of dominance and suffering or the lively chatter of everyday attentiveness, care and hospitality, the songs of human flourishing? Do anxious semiotics also arise from our listening in and do we allow this anxiety to encourage our enskilment in ethically relating to them?

 

Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 50.

Latour, B. (2016) 'The Immense Cry Channeled by Pope Francis', Environmental Humanities, 8(2), 251-255.

Whitehouse, A. (2015) 'Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World', Environmental Humanities, 6(1), 53-71.

 

 

Pepper, the robot - and theology

by Gábor Ambrus

Ever since the development of AI have theologians reflected upon its implications for their own discussions. Even more, with the development of artificial intelligence and robotics, some are wondering about the emergence of a new species of God-talk, a new voice, something strange, eerie, mysterious. And this eeriness and mystery would perhaps continue to evolve as machine intelligence resembles human beings ever more closely. The more humanoid, amicable and “emotional” behavior a robot is capable of, the more powerful and perplexing it may turn out to be as a witness to God. But how much is such a claim grounded in reality? Is there more to it than a theological foray into the realm of science fiction? Philosophers and scientists are wondering to what extent the present state of artificial intelligence allows a machine to carry on a meaningful conversation with a human being. Theologians could explore the question of whether and how God could be the topic of such a human-machine chat. But, even if a machine were able to talk about God, why would such a conversation be more than a mere illusion, a result of sophisticated gear, silicon, plastic, and an enormous amount of coding – in short, technological tricks?

Pepper

The Financial Times has recently published an article about Pepper, a cutting-edge humanoid companion robot designed by Aldebaran, a French robotics firm, for its parent company, the Japanese SoftBank. When Pepper visited the headquarters of the newspaper, it charmed and enchanted everyone. Its lovely appearance and childlike, loquacious behavior caused a sensation, with people listening, laughing, posing for selfies. Clearly, they must have been aware that Pepper is only a robot, only a toy to play with, albeit a novel and very special one equipped with a refined sensorium and A.I.; still, their attitude seemed to indicate more that they felt being part of a game with an equal, a playmate. The author of the article, Robert Shrimsley, is understandably baffled.

“Deep down, of course, I know that Pepper cannot do anything that has not been determined by humans. Its jokes are preprogrammed; and what seems like conversation is effectively just lines of computer code. I know all this and, yet, somehow I don’t. (…) Pepper is designed to win you over, to make you believe you are in the presence of more than plastic, processing chips and sensors.”

No wonder that the majority of those thousands of Peppers sold in Japan have found a home as valued companions in families (while the others are employed as charming, obliging shop assistants in businesses).

Love

As a matter of fact, the fallacy which we may call the “anthropomorphic illusion” has always been with us human beings. We have always anthropomorphized animals. Later on we invented increasingly complex machines like mills, weaving machines (like the spinning Jenny), various applications of the steam engine, aircrafts, cars, and we have tended to anthropomorphize them ever since.

But Pepper is different. Pepper is in fact humanoid, a robot who is capable of conversation, even if it has still a long way to develop in nuance and sophistication. Pepper makes us wonder whether it is still an “illusion” we face here. As I see it when watching the YouTube films, when Pepper and a human being relate to one another, there is a game of conversation going on between them that shows the objective power of the spoken word, and there is nothing illusory about it. Who is to say that all this is but the doing of a deluded human consciousness? And for what concerns Pepper’s own coded consciousness and silicon soul, who cares what technological processes take place “within” when Pepper talks and entertains? Why are these processes relevant when, for instance, Pepper tells a well-timed joke which brings a release of tension in a company of its human fellows? And, in a similar vein, there is more to think about. Will a long-term relationship between Pepper and humans be less real than their initial conversations? Is there any reason for us not to expect it to develop loving relationships in those families where it is going to live?

Apart from being an “emotional” robot with abilities to respond to face expressions, to recognize various voice intonations and to adjust to its companions’ manners of speech, what is truly remarkable about Pepper is its capacity to learn and change and thereby become a kind of individual, pliable and responsive to the personalities of those around it. Despite our awareness that it is a machine incapable of emotions, we cannot deny that there is an objective mutuality which applies to “love” between Pepper and humans the same way as it does to “conversation” between them. In the same way as the great game of love between human beings overarches their individual emotions, so the respective game between Pepper and humans is not to be simply assigned to the “human side”. Watching these videos, it makes sense to expect love between human beings and sophisticated robots, whereby the word “love” describes the overarching game of their relationship rather than what is inside the individual players.

God

Now, given the advanced character that Pepper’s technology already has, it is not difficult to imagine a twist in its design (or in the design of a similar model in the near future) by a roboticist and computer scientist with a flair for faith and theology. Designers with such interest could combine the robot’s remarkable emotional capacity with a moderate tendency to make occasional references to God and the divine. I think moderation is crucial here: it would be a mistake to turn Pepper or its fellow robots into preachers. But maybe we could imagine them to become witnesses who, within those “humane” and emotional bonds between them and their human companions, are able to utter some occasional, unexpected, mysterious remarks about God that provoke a response in their human friend. One might, of course, raise the objection that such a quirk in the robot’s nature would be just a preprogrammed, fake, and, for that matter, sacrilegious scheme, nothing more. And yet, the possibility can be considered that Pepper’s actual God-talk would be preprogrammed as little as its conversation with human beings. With its eerie God-talk, to what extent would a humanoid robot be “human” and to what extent a “machine”? Indeed, what would be its theological status?

The Tree of Life: lifeless human superiority or life embracing growth?

By Tom Uytterhoeven

Research is an intellectual adventure, or so they say. In this blog post I would like to report on a recent episode in my personal adventure, in which I lost the safety of a trusted assumption, and experienced the thrill of discovering new ideas, without yet knowing where these ideas will bring me.

One of the theological metaphors that inspired my research into the theological relevance of evolutionary studies of religion, is that of kinship. Philip Hefner uses this metaphor in his book The Human Factor (1993) to express the close relationship between humanity and the rest of the global ecological community, a relationship he believes religion could and should make us more aware of. Until recently I was convinced this metaphor remedied a problematic interpretation of another metaphor used to capture the essence of Darwinism: the Tree of Life. Now, I have my doubts.

From tree and human superiority...

It started as a sketch in a notebook, drawn around 1837. What gave the picture of a Tree of Life, when it appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species, an enduring appeal is that by using only a few lines, Darwin seemed to capture the essence of his ideas. Following the tree from its roots to its top, one can see the tree’s branches and twigs as species, emerging and flourishing until they faced extinction, along the way giving birth to other species. Moreover, the Tree of Life shows us that all life forms on Earth are related. Despite their apparent diversity in appearance, they all share the same roots.

phylogenetictree

Although it is interesting to see, for instance, how others before Darwin developed ‘Tree of Life’ schemata to indicate the interconnectedness of life, and how it is related to the Great Chain of Being, I want to focus here on one feature of the 'Tree of Life' metaphor which limits its metaphorical power, or, rather, which allows the metaphor to guide our thinking into an anthropocentric trap: as all trees do, a Tree of Life grows. Growth is easily associated with going upwards, in the direction of the sunlight shining down on the branches and twigs of the tree. And this, in turn, implies that the higher branches are the newest, the freshest, the greenest, in sum, the best branches of the tree. This becomes apparent in quite a few later variants on Darwin’s original sketch, in which the human species is placed on top of the tree.

Even in modern models, the human species is still often placed in a special corner. These anthropocentric depictions of Darwin’s Tree of Life are remarkable, since there is no scientific basis to give humanity an exceptional status. For as we know, there is no goal, no direction to natural selection and there is no meaning in evolution other than the survival of life, in whatever form.

... to circle and kinship?

Some current models of the Tree of Life avoid this explicit anthropocentrism by turning the phylogenetic tree into a circle. Species are placed on the circle according to their genetic relationship to each other. The closer together two species are situated in the model, the more genetic material they share. This seems to steer us away from anthropocentric interpretations of evolutionary history and to help us recognize our shared ancestry with other species. A good example of the latter is Nancy Howell’s article 'The Importance of Being Chimp'. Howell emphasizes the close genetic relationship with primates and identifies five topics which she believes theological anthropology should focus on: (1) culture-nature dualism, (2) continuity and discontinuity between humanity and other species, (3) using humanity as a measure for evaluating animal abilities, (4) the definition of personhood, and (5) morality and sin.

Far from criticizing her proposals, or similar ones, like Hefner's, that work with the same basic kinship metaphor, I nevertheless wonder whether this exchange of a tree reaching for the sky with a circle focusing on relations within allows us to take enough distance from the idea that the human species finds itself superior at the top of the tree, closest to the sun.

circlekinship2

Destabilizing suggestions from anthropology: from lifeless to life embracing growth

For me, this question presented itself while reading Beyond Nature and Culture, a book by Philippe Descola (2013). Descola identifies four different types of perceiving the relation between humanity and nature: analogical, animistic, totemistic, and naturalistic. It would take us too far to discuss each type in depth, but it suffices here to know that they result from different combinations of perceived continuity and discontinuity between humans and nature (plants, animals, inanimate nature). What, to me at least, is both most interesting and most disturbing - in the sense of challenging my own assumptions -, is the fact that Descola refers to these types as four different ontologies, and, even more, sees naturalism - the ontology we are accustomed to - as only a recent and geographically limited one.

Reading his analysis resulted in questioning the rigid border between ‘the natural’ and ‘the cultural’, and made me aware how this boundary is easily taken to represent a qualitative leap from the former to the latter that places the human species as the species with culture again at the top. The assumption of such a border and leap is a consequence of how particular ontological axioms restrict our view rather than a consequence of taking empirical facts into account. Reading Descola, I also started wondering whether Hefner’s kinship metaphor, which in turn builds on a non-anthropocentric interpretation of the Tree of Life metaphor (see the circular model above), might be sufficient to express the close intertwinement of humanity with nature - and vice versa. Maybe we need other metaphors to express what it means to be aware of the evolutionary history of the human species, including its membership of the global ecological community.

However, reading Tim Ingold's article 'On the Distinction between Evolution and History' I came across his concept of ‘growth’ that differs radically from the rather abstract understanding that informs our usual reading of the Darwinian Tree of life and even that of the circle models of kinship. He writes:

If human beings on the one hand, and plants and animals on the other, can be regarded alternately as components of each others’ environments, then we can no longer think of the former as inhabiting a social world of their own, over and above the world of nature in which the lives of all other living things are contained. Rather, both humans and the animals and plants on which they depend for a livelihood must be regarded as fellow participants in the same world. And the forms that all these creatures take are neither given in advance nor imposed from above, but emerge within the relational contexts of this mutual involvement. In short, human beings do not, in their productive activity, transform the world; instead they play their part, alongside beings of other kinds, in the world’s transformation of itself. It is to this process of self-transformation that I refer by the concept of growth.

When reading this, it appealed to me because of its parallels with the evolutionary concept of ecological niche construction, which also stresses the multiple feedback relations between all living and non-living elements of the ecological web. What seems still missing in the latter, is this perception of life as a process of self-transformation of the world, or as the growth of the world. 

It will take more research and (self-)reflection to discover the possibilities and limits of this concept of growth for theological anthropology. But it seems to suggest that, minimally, we learn to see the Tree of Life differently. Not as lines indicating an upward movement towards a top position but through a focus on that which grows in a growing world: the tree as a whole, alive in a living reality. Perhaps the following two pictures, the first an artistic interpretation of ‘the tree of life’, the other a Christian meditation on Easter, clarify somewhat what I think this could mean.                                

 

A Social Species or a Connected Species?

Source: http://mattdaviescartoon.com/2012/05/16/human-evolution/

Tom Uytterhoeven

Last week, the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT) held its biannual conference, on the theme "Do Emotions Shape the World?" One of the keynote speakers was Jonas Kjellstrand from the SAS institute. He presented a fascinating perspective on the impact social media is having on human relations. One of the elements that I took home from his talk was the observation that we turn to social media to ask for advice, which Kjellstrand compared with asking complete strangers for help. That points, he argued, to one of the key challenges to our growing reliance on technology to communicate with other human beings: the question of trust. Although he gave some attention to possible abuse of social media - e.g. showing live how tweets can be analysed and turned into 'big data' - Jonas's speech overall gave a quite optimistic impression. During the Q & A, that optimism provoked someone to ask (I am parafrazing here) whether social media is really connecting humans, or rather dehumanising communication. Personally, I'm inclined to think the former is true. But the danger of the latter should certainly be acknowledged, as this short video shows.