Friday, November 10, 2023

It’s Friday, November 10, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Will AI Be the Downfall of Humanity? The Debate Of AI’s Threat to Humans Rages On

Well, does artificial intelligence pose an existential threat to humanity or not, and for that matter, who should we ask, a human being or some form of artificial intelligence? Well, The Wall Street Journal asked some people who are innovators in the field of artificial intelligence whether or not AI should pose an existential threat to humanity, and the two sides are really in very basic disagreement. First of all, you have Dan Hendrycks writing to say, yes, it is very much an existential threat. There is the danger that artificial intelligence will simply get out of control. It will be freed from whatever kinds of limitations are put upon it. It will eventually develop computational power that will be so massive that it will simply leap over human intelligence and thus it will pose a direct threat.

Now, by the way, in terms of precedence, as we’ve already noted on The Briefing, when it comes to chess, artificial intelligence already beats human intelligence. Now, chess isn’t all of life, but it does tell you something. But the other aspect of what’s going on here is that Dan Hendrycks wants to raise the question what specific kinds of threats should we worry about. Cyber warfare is one of them, that’s pretty easy to understand. The risk there is that artificial intelligence could say launch a war or launch an attack that could lead to a war, or it could mess up the ability of one or the other combatants to conduct the war. It could also be an attack upon, well, let’s just say, human civilization as we know it–shutting down the power grid or shutting down the plumbing system. That’s actually more tied to the power grid than you might want to know. More on that, by the way, in just a moment.

It could do all kinds of things. What kind of threat would artificial intelligence pose in terms of unleashing a pandemic? There are those who have just looked into what artificial intelligence might know about pandemics, and based upon what artificial intelligence is doing with existing data in the public square, let’s just say this could well pose a threat. So you have the first answer to the question does AI pose an existential threat to humanity or an existential risk to humanity. The Wall Street Journal says the two sides square off. The first side says yes, artificial intelligence is capable of mass destruction. You have been warned.

But when we’re told the two sides are going to square off, if the first side says yes, AI is capable of mass destruction, it poses an existential risk that is a survival risk to humanity, well, a duo answers in response saying no, the fears are based on flawed ideas. Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor, also writing for The Wall Street Journal, come back to say no, artificial intelligence may pose risk but not an existential risk. The two go on to explain that they think that fears of artificial intelligence and the risk of AI, “rest on a tower of fallacies.” They say, “One is the idea of rogue AI itself which is based upon flawed concepts and science fiction that don’t match how AI is actually being built.” So they’re saying, “Look, there’s really no problem here. You should sleep well at night because human beings are in control of this supposedly non-human intelligence.”

But as you look at this, you recognize that even as they say these threats are science fiction, well, they’re not exactly all science fiction. Sure, this has been one of the big plot themes of science fiction, an experiment goes out of control. You might have mad scientists behind it or you might just have, say, more innocent scientists who don’t know what they’re dealing with. They start an experiment, it’s supposed to stay in the laboratory, but it doesn’t stay in the laboratory and the great blob is coming for us all.

The second thing this duo talks about is what they call the myth of rogue AI and they say it’s really not much of a risk. Rogue AI or AI out of control, turning malevolent, that’s not likely to happen, but they say one of the problems here is that laypeople, non-technologists, non-specialists in artificial intelligence who worry about this, they’re often basing their understanding or their fears upon what they describe as, “a simplistic definition of intelligence.” They go to say, “They presuppose a machine with unparalleled capabilities yet completely devoid of common sense.”

Now, here’s where they actually raised something interesting, and they raised the fact that in order to cooperate with other human beings in society you have to learn what commands to take literally and what commands not to take literally. Perhaps you haven’t thought about this, but actually it’s true. They go on to say, “An AI, an artificial intelligence without common sense, for instance, wouldn’t last five minutes without doing something destructive. A human might ask it to get a light bulb from the store as quickly as possible, and it would do that by ignoring traffic norms and laws and promptly get itself shut down.” But you look at that and then you step back and say, “I’m not sure these two writers are reassuring me on this. How exactly would this rogue AI get shut down? Who would shut it down and what if it won’t allow itself to be shut down?”

The part about imperatives or commands, by the way, is true. Even when parents give a child a command, that command is to be obeyed, but it requires some common sense. When you say as soon as possible, well, that requires a bit of judgment and a part of the maturity of the child is knowing exactly what that judgment means. That’s why when you speak to young children, you don’t say as soon as possible. You say, well, just one word, now.

This issue about artificial intelligence is going to require a lot of Christian thinking, a lot of analysis by a Christian worldview. I wanted to look at this yes and no, this point, counterpoint because it appeared in yesterday’s print edition of The Wall Street Journal and it really is interesting and it raises a very urgent question, does artificial intelligence pose an existential risk to humanity or not.

The editors don’t lean in on this, not by saying we think writer A or writers B are correct, but I just want to point out something to you. They actually do render a kind of an editorial verdict on this because even as the pair of articles ask the question, does artificial intelligence pose an existential risk to humanity, this is published on page R7 in a special insert edition into yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. I would just point out the fact that if the editors of The Wall Street Journal really thought that AI right now posed an existential threat to humanity, it would be on page A1, not on page R7. Then again, what if a computer made that decision?

Part II

What’s the Good of the National Zoo If the Pandas are Gone? A Breakdown of Global Diplomacy and the Return of Pandas to China

All right, we’re going to shift from computers on this Friday. It’s been a week of heavy, heavy issues. We need some others to think about. For example, we need to talk about who’s not in Washington, who is not in Washington at the end of the week, who was in Washington at the beginning of the week. I’m not talking about a world leader. I’m not talking about a politician. I’m talking about panda bears. They were in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo at the beginning of this week. At the end of the week, they were on the Panda Express headed back to China. The National Zoo now has no pandas, and that’s true now for the first time in a generation, and it is leading to a crisis in Washington and beyond because there are an awful lot of people who are now asking what good is the national zoo without the giant pandas.

Well, part of what’s going on here is international diplomacy or you might say the failure of international diplomacy. How did the giant pandas that are endemic, native only to mainland China, how did they end up in Washington DC in the first place? It was because of the breaking of the thick ice of the chilly relationships between the United States and communist China and the year was 1972. The president was Richard Milhous Nixon. His wife was Pat Nixon, the First Lady, and on an unprecedented diplomatic trip to communist China, the First Lady mentioned how much she admired the pandas, describing them as adorable.

Within two months, there were two pandas at the National Zoo officially on loan from the Communist Party, officially on loan from China. The pandas have actually been exchanged, given their lifetime, and the pandas in the Washington National Zoo were actually not two but three because of a younger panda, but all three were put on a modified Boeing 777 known as the Panda Express, and they are now back in China. Does that indicate a breakdown in diplomacy? Of course it does. This is a highly symbolic act. The Chinese regime knows exactly what it’s doing in withdrawing the pandas from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo. They were, from 1972 forward, they were the most popular animals in the zoo. They became symbols of the zoo and symbols of a warming relationship between the United States and China. The Chinese government’s decision to withdraw the pandas is thus something of a diplomatic crisis, not to the pandas of course, but to the human beings on both sides of that relationship.

But why? Why did Pat Nixon, the First Lady of the United States, why was she so interested in and fascinated by the pandas? Well, there’s some interesting worldview answers to that. One of them has to do with something very basic in the relationship between human beings and the animals, and that relationship is this: we are particularly drawn to animals on three distinctions. Number one, we like animals that do not appear to be interested in eating us. Well, that turns out to be a category changer there throughout human history. You’ve got to put animals very quickly into one of two columns, will eat me, won’t eat me, and you have to keep that in mind in terms of whether or not you’re going to have a relationship with this animal or allow yourself to be close to this animal. Fits in the will-eat-me category, well, be advised.

The second category that those who watch those things have noted is that human beings are drawn to animals that, for want of a better word, are cute, are cute. You look at a puppy and that puppy is cute. You look at almost any baby animal and in some sense, although there are rodents that test this category, at least in some sense most babies of all species are cute, and when it comes to the pandas, well, in terms of morphology, they really do stay like babies. The proportionality is a baby-like, a cub-like proportionality. The giant eyes are exaggerated by black spots that make their big eyes look even bigger. They look very cute and human affection goes out to cute animals. That’s why you have so many videos on all forms of social media with puppies and kittens. There’s an explanation for that.

The third category here, number one is it going to eat me or not, number two, is it cute or not, number three, believe it or not, comes down to the human perception as to whether this animal likes me or not. When you look at many animals, well, quite frankly, they are very happy for us just to walk by and pay them absolutely no notice. They don’t appear to be making a judgment like we like you, we don’t like you. They’re just not making any judgment at all. There are unmistakable signs when animals are not neutral but they don’t like us, the snarl, the bark, the curled tail. If you don’t learn to read those signs, well, let’s just say you’re better in a hurry.

But we are really drawn to the animals that appear to like us. How do they show their like for us? They come up and nuzzle against us. They start wagging their tail right in front of us. They have eager eyes. Their teeth are not bared. They don’t curl their mouth into a snarl. Instead, they open their mouth, stick their tongue out and come and drip all over us. Why? Because they appear to like us. And guess what? We like human beings who like us. We also like animals that appear to like us, and no, I’m not saying your dog really doesn’t like you because I promise you, your dog really adores you. In any event, there is a real sense of loss in Washington DC and elsewhere across the nation in the loss of the pandas, the only giant pandas left on loan from China in the United States or in the Atlanta Zoo, and they won’t be there for long.

Just in terms of worldview, some fascinating things about the giant panda. The word giant here is a modifier to distinguish it from the red panda and the relationship there is not even particularly clear. The word panda, we’re not even sure where that comes from, but when you see the giant pandas, you are immediately drawn to them. You know, it wasn’t until 1985 that there was a clear answer to the question what species are we even talking about here, what’s the genus, what is the family tree because the physical resemblances, and this is how so much of the typology emerged early among scientists trying to describe all the animals as species, well, the giant panda shares characteristics with two different species, indeed about evenly split. The answer really wasn’t provided until 1985.

What were the two species? Well, the bear species, on the one hand, the bear family, the other family was the raccoon family because it turns out in physical characteristics, the giant panda shares a lot of both. But a bear is not a raccoon and a raccoon is not a bear. So what’s a giant panda? Well, here’s the bottom line. We have the answer, genetic testing provided the answer, the giant panda is a bear. If you say panda bear, you’re not wrong.

Another interesting thing about panda bears is that they have a very, very, very, indeed it’s hard to exaggerate, they have a very low metabolism. One of the reasons is because their basic diet is the leaves of the bamboo found in bamboo forests in Mainland China. You know the big problem with that? There just aren’t many calories in bamboo leaves, and so these animals eat pound upon pound, something between 20 and 30 pounds of bamboo leaves a day, and they still have to spend about 16 hours of their day eating in one form or another. They still don’t have much energy and their energy peaks about three times a day, unlike other animals with about two times a day. The giant pandas spend most of their time eating slowly and the rest of the time resting slowly. That may be another reason why when we look at the categories will eat me or won’t eat me, we put the panda bear in the second category, not only because we don’t feel it to be very threatening but quite frankly because most of us think we could outrun him.

People are talking about what this means for international diplomacy, the relationship between the United States and China, whether or not there will be another loan of giant pandas under the direction of the Communist Party. You know, I think Christians should be thinking about something even more important, and that is the role of animals in the glory of God’s creation, the fact that these animals are not just some kind of evolutionary accident. We know that the giant panda displays the glory of God, so does the moose, so does the raccoon, so do atoms and amoebas. All of creation declares the glory of the Creator, but in our fallenness, in our human perception, there’s certain animals that make that glory all the more clear to us. And so at least the bottom line is that these giant pandas are going to be missed, and a part of what we’re going to miss is the ability in Washington DC, in our own nation’s capital, to come eye to eye with a part of the glory of creation in a slow, bamboo-leaf-eating animal with apparently giant eyes, now in Washington, an empty enclosure.

Part III

How Should Christians Evaluate the Body Positivity Movement? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Next we’re going to turn to questions. The first question is from a young woman who’s asking about her senior thesis, I believe in high school, and the issue is this: “My senior thesis is on the current body positivity movement in our culture. What do you think is the fundamental biblical principle being violated when society is condoning and even applauding unhealthy behaviors and appearances?”

Well, a good question. This body positivity movement is not in itself necessarily a bad movement because a body negativity movement would be about as unhealthy as an exaggerated body positivity movement, but what’s going on here is really not so much about health at all. As a matter of fact, it’s not really about the body. It is about the self-esteem and the confidence of persons in thinking of themselves and their own bodies. When you put all of this into an oppression and oppressor category, well, it turns out that if you only have the two categories, oppressed or oppressor, kind of the modern cultural Marxism that’s so much a part of the society these days, you wed it to identity politics, and you just make persons who say are overweight or have another physical situation, you’d simply say, “Well, they’re now an oppressed group.”

Well, who would be oppressing them? Well, for one thing, you would say advertisers are in terms of the picture that is presented of attractive human beings. You could say, “Well, the medical community’s oppressive because they have been saying, ‘You need to make these changes because this is an unhealthy situation.'” You have people who are coming along and saying, “This is just another example of how some human beings oppress other human beings,” and you see this reflected, by the way, right now in advertising. You see an awful lot of body shapes, especially when it comes to the question of, say, body weight. You see an awful lot of body shapes you would not have seen in advertisements before, and it’s because a lot of these advertising companies, the cultural elite, they bought into the idea this is oppressor and oppressive.

But the body positivity movement is part of a larger confusion in our society, I want to answer to this young student, it’s a great question, it’s indicative of the larger confusion about who we are and what grounds our identity. As human beings, our body does have a lot to do with our identity, and that’s because we do not have any knowledge of ourselves as disembodied selves, and even Christians understand that in the age to come in the kingdom of Christ, those who belong to Christ and are redeemed, we will have glorified bodies. Not no bodies, not disembodied, we’ll have glorified bodies. We don’t know everything that means, but it does mean we were made by our creator to be embodied. We also understand that our bodies tell us something, and this really is crucial because our bodies tell us first and foremost that we’re human beings and we are male or female, but we’re living in a time in which that’s confused too. It’s not confused accidentally. It’s being confused deliberately.

You know, this particular question from this student has to do with what we say is the fundamental principle being violated when society is condoning and even applauding unhealthy behaviors, I think this means obesity probably just in terms of the focal issue, and thus what is the biblical principle being violated. Well, for Christians, it is that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament makes very clear we are answerable for our bodies. Now, we don’t worship the body. That’s the other thing is that the biblical worldview prevents us from worshiping the body or disrespecting the body, and in between that we understand that our bodies are actually telling us even the effect of sin. So a part of body positivity is not wrong. An old body reflects the glory of God just as much as a young body, but the abuse of the body is another thing altogether.

But this is a very intelligent question, and she’s asking here, what is the fundamental biblical principle being violated. I would say it is the image of God and the stewardship of what it means to be made in God’s image. I think that is the fundamental biblical principle that is at stake.

But I can’t leave this without saying that before the body positivity movement that’s not to say we had ethically untroubled advertising. You know that’s not true because the other side of that is this exaggerated notion of artificial beauty that our society also wants to go headlong after, and it’s still happening, by the way, whether it’s so-called plastic surgery or reconstructive surgery or aesthetic surgery, or whether it’s any number of artificial and cosmetic issues, and you also have people who at that end of this question are often starving themselves in order to meet some kind of photo shoot or for that matter just to get into a sorority, and this is a very dangerous thing. It used to be something that affected women far more than men, girls far more than boys. It still is a pattern that way, but in reality this wrong valuation of the body is now found among both males and females, and in its most exaggerated form in those who even confuse the two.

Part IV

What is God’s Name? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Another really interesting question comes from Savannah. She and her husband are living in an apartment complex. She says about 80% of the residents are from India and in one way or another practicing Hindus. She’s a stay-at-home mom. She has a lot of conversation with people. And then she says, “The question that comes up is what is God’s name?” And she mentions the context of polytheism and all the different names, and then as she’s speaking, she tells them about Moses and the burning bush and Moses receiving the answer from the one true and living God, I am who I am, and she says she’s been doing a word study on the names of God and she speaks of Yahweh. She says, “Why does the evangelical church rarely use that name and instead just use God or Lord”

Well, good question, Savannah. I would say the first reason is because the Scripture itself does, and as a matter of fact, the scripture itself does so again and again and again and again, and there are some very interesting questions about Yahweh. Yes, that is the name God gave to Moses for that situation in which He was going to say, “Let my people go,” and the God who was making that claim was none other than maker of heaven and earth, the one sole living God, and that is Yahweh. He gave that name. That name was in Hebrew. Of course, it’s known as a Tetragrammaton, the four letters, and a part of the reason why I think even by the time you get to the New Testament where you have a very clear usage of words like Adonai, Lord, and you have very clear references to God as God, and of course as Jesus spoke of God the Father, He spoke of His Father, our Father who art in heaven He taught his disciples to pray.

So I would just simply say, Savannah, when we’re using all these different names, we know we’re referring to the one true, the only true God, and He’s given us many names even in His Word. And so I would say the main reason why we do not in evangelical circles use Yahweh predominantly is because the New Testament doesn’t either, and that is our most authoritative answer.

Part V

Why Was Cain So Jealous About Abel’s Sacrifice That He Killed His Brother? — Dr. Mohler Responds to a Letter from a 7-Year-Old Listener of The Briefing

Lots of great questions we’ll get to next time. We end today on a question from a seven-year-old boy named Daniel, and his parents write in to say he has been asking the question, “Why was Cain so jealous about Abel’s sacrifice that he killed his brother?” What a great question, and again, I’m just so thankful there’s a seven-year-old who’s learning the Scripture alongside and from his parents. I would say number one, what the biblical text tells us is that both Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve, they brought a sacrifice to God, and in the case of Cain, who was a tender of the soil, he brought the first fruits of the soil, that meant presumably grain, certainly plant matter. Abel, who was a tender of the flock, he brought a sacrifice of the animal, of a sacrificial lamb. God, we are told in Genesis chapter 4 had regard for Abel’s sacrifice but not for Cain’s sacrifice.

Now, that doesn’t mean that God condemned Cain. It does mean that God was using this as a way of teaching humanity, not just Cain and Abel but all of us, that we are to bring Him the sacrifice that He desires, not just the sacrifice of our own devising. In this case, Abel’s sacrifice pleased God, Cain’s sacrifice did not please God, and Cain in jealousy killed Abel. It’s a horrifying crime. Indeed, it’s the first homicide in Scripture. It’s taken with such seriousness that even a seven-year-old boy named Daniel knows about the horrifying crime of Cain against Abel.

But Daniel asked specifically why was Cain so jealous about Abel’s sacrifice. Well, it is because this is the way we are, Daniel. If we are not careful, if we do not guard our hearts, and by the way, the Lord spoke to Cain about this issue, if we do not guard our hearts, we give ourselves over. Jealousy is a horrible thing. It will make us think horrible thoughts about someone else. If we think that person has received favor and we have not, we may try to steal that favor rather than to find that favor.

And Daniel, it’s in Genesis chapter 3, that’s just the chapter before Cain and Abel, in Genesis 4, that’s where sin enters. And it’s not just Adam and Eve’s sin, the Bible says it’s our sin as well, and when it comes to Cain and Abel, in the very next chapter, it’s a real warning to us that we can’t give ourselves to jealousy because we are not to follow the example of Cain. We’re to follow the example of Abel in bringing an acceptable sacrifice. Jealousy’s a horrible thing. It can ruin even the relationship between brothers, and that’s a very, very serious truth to find so early in scripture, but there it is and thus we need to know it.

So to all of you, thanks for listening to The Briefing, and to keep in mind that Southern Seminary is absolutely committed to training and to equipping ministers for a lifetime of ministry faithfulness in the gospel. That’s why we are very excited to announce an updated Master Of Divinity degree that we think will be just right for the needs of the church and for Christ’s ministers for the 21st century. I want to invite you to take a look at this area. It’s concentrated where it must be concentrated, in Bible, theology and ministry. To learn more, just go to That’s all crushed together as one word, /newmdiv.

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Today I’m in Chicago, Illinois, and I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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