Over the course of 2021, Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, TX, housed a series of programs, Higher Meanings: Connecting Religion and Mathematics, as part of Scientists in Synagogues. Starting in March 2021, the series has offered a unique opportunity for people in the world of mathematics to show new audiences the beauty and the wonder of the interactions between religion and mathematics, religion and science, and scientific thoughts in general.
So you may ask, what does this have to do with mathematics at all? And the fact is that computers are basically nothing but mathematics. You may think that, for instance, letters on a screen in a text are letters, but they’re just representations of of numeric codes and so forth and really a lot of computer science is fundamentally mathematics. But the good news is today, I don’t think there’s going to be a single equation in all of this, and I hope that it’s going to be pretty easily graspable.
Speaking of graspable, I want to talk about affordances. So I’m going to use this hammer example. So if you think about this hammer, what can you do with it? Okay, well, I mean, it’s got the head on it. So it’s pretty good at pounding things. It’s got the claw part, so I suppose you could use that for taking nails out or something, and then it’s got this big part, right — the handle. Right. And you might say that. So, you can look at it you can just say “Okay, that’s something I can grasp. Right. And if I do grasp it, and I can use the head to hit things with the right.” And we’d like to.
So, in the terms that are especially popularized by, say, Don Norman, on this hammer shape affords grasping, and it affords hitting.
With me so far? Okay, so let’s look at these three doors. So the door on the left, it has that doorknob, and you can ask, “Well, what does that afford, what can you do with that?” And you might say, “Well, you can grab the doorknob and twist it, and you don’t know whether it goes in or out, but you could probably pull it out, right.” And the second door, it’s clear that you’re supposed to pull on it, right? And the third door — it’s real clear you’re supposed to push on it, right. You can’t pull on it.
So the first door affords, probably, both in and out. The second door affords pulling, and the third door affords pushing.
Now, what about a door that has that middle handle, but you’re supposed to push on it? That’s called a false affordance. In other words, it looks like you can pull on it, but if you try to pull on it, nothing’s going to happen, you have to push. And I’ve actually run into doors like this. So, for me, this is a real example.
Okay, now, what about this door? Nothing’s afforded, there’s no handle at all. Okay, so you don’t know what to do. All right, and that’s going to come up here in just a second.
So let’s take a look at this terrible example of affordance. Unless you had those signs on this receptacle, you really wouldn’t know where to put stuff, right. I mean, the one on the right is green and the one in the middle is green, so those, I guess, are recycling, but it’s not clear where you’re supposed to put in what. Okay, so this is not such a hot example of affordances.
But on the other hand, the strap hanger things in buses and subways, now those are great affordances, right. Because they’re up there, and they look like handles, and you can grab them, and you wrap your fingers around the bottom part of the bar, and they stay steady. Okay, so that’s a really great affordance.
Now, most people have seen this. This is the menu bar across the top of Outlook. And if we think about the kinds of things that this affords, well, we can create a new email, we can create new items, whatever that is, we can delete stuff, and so forth. And it provides a set of pretty distinct choices, right. It’s pretty clear what these things do mostly. But if you wanted to find the button to send a letter to your mom asking for money, there is no button for that, right. So it affords some things that are clearer, and then some things it doesn’t afford.
Now, what about this? What if you’re walking down this street – which I figure is near Times Square, right. What do you do? I mean, it’s not like you’ve got those all those dozen or so icons at the top. Are you supposed to go up to Elmo? You know, what’s with the stripes in the street? All these signs and stuff — do I go into “Champs,” whatever the heck that is? They’re just way. I mean, there are basically more choices here, than I can probably count. Yeah, so it’s not clear what it all — I mean, everything’s afforded, and if everything’s afforded, nothing’s afforded, if you see what I mean. A computer program, people like me and my students design things so that the paths are clear. In other words, you can — I mean, if you’re in this maze. And there’s sort of signs, you know, helping you figure out where to go, the choices are clear: you either go left or right or straight.
Okay, but what if you’re in a situation like this? Where do you go? There’s, you know, unless you think God designed it, there isn’t any designer. There’s sort of a path there, but really you could go anywhere, do you go up to the mountain? Do you go into the stream? Do you sit on a rock? The number of possibilities is really open. So, again, you know, everything’s afforded.
And what about this scene? Think of all possible relationships, all the people you could talk to, all the things you could talk to them about, all the things you might want to do — play frisbee, jump in the bouncy castle with somebody, whatever. Okay, so the real world is a lot more complex than that maze, or Microsoft Outlook.
So, it turns out that computers are pretty good for things with technical solutions. So, for instance – well, in this case, I wrote “How to get from El Paso to San Diego?”, and here is my map show[ing] how to get from El Paso to Albuquerque, right. And, you know, Google Maps [is] pretty good for figuring that out, and it gives you a number of routes. But these situations also have moral dimensions. So some routes are more convenient, but some routes are probably better for the environment. If you go more slowly, your gas mileage will probably be better. So maybe we should take a back road that would maybe not be as fast, but it might be better for the world.
And you might say, “Well, the computer could tell you whether or not, you know, the route is harmful to the environment or not. You can always pick that one no that’s that’s less harmful.” But on the other hand, like, what if you had a relative in Denver who was dying? Maybe you really don’t want to take the less-harm-to-the-environment road, because you really want to get there to see your relative. Okay. And, you know, and the number of possible reasons why you might want to take one choice over the other is pretty large, and people’s moral calculus will differ about those things.
So, will computers make religion obsolete? I’d have to say that the problem is that computers can tell you the kinds of things you can do, right, but they’re not going to tell you which of those things they are. So, in any situation in the world, not necessarily on a computer screen, but let’s say I want to consult my iPhone here about everything I wanted to do, okay. But what if the moral choice isn’t afforded? What if the moral route isn’t the one of the routes that’s shown? So, you’re not going to be able to know. And if you think about it, computers are physical things in the world, but they’re not physical things in the world like human beings. Just by the fact of being a human in the world, we know what it’s like to be a human being. So in situations where answers depend on moral judgments. and especially where those moral judgments depend on what it means to be human, computers, whether you’re going to fail.
And that’s where religion comes in, right. Because religion is effectively a source of guidance with respect to morality. And it provides a basis for making choices. The computer can give us all the information we need, but it’s not going to tell us which of the choices we should take under the circumstances.
Now, you might ask, “Well, maybe we could just apply machine learning to this?” Machine learning is a technique that takes lots of examples, and then it basically converts those into patterns and then generalizes from that. And you send it — you know, you can ask it questions, or it can tell you if something’s a cat or a person. (Oddly enough, it can easily mistake people for cats, which is sort of funny). But there are actually some troubling uses of this kind of technology – now they’re used for things like decisions about bail. And, you know, they put in a bunch of factors and out comes a recommendation.
But the problem with these kinds of programs is that they can’t explain how they get there. They’re basically a black box. You know, they put all these examples in, it thinks for a while, and then comes out with this decision mechanism. It gives you a decision but can’t explain it, and to precisely that point, there was a recent project to try to do that, precisely for moral choices. And there’s an article in The New York Times, which Larry has graciously put in the link to in the readings, which talks about this effort. Anyway, I think “Well, that’s great, all we gotta do is just go to that site and it’ll tell us what to do.”
But the fact is, it can’t explain why it made that choice. And some of the choices are crazy. So for instance, most people are familiar with the trolley problem, right. So you’re in control of a trolley, there are five people in front of you on the tracks that are going to get killed, but there’s a way to switch the trolley, and you’re just going to kill one person if you switch the trolley. That’s the trolley problem. And so, they gave the trolley problem to this program, and it said — let’s see – something like, “Yeah, if you’re going to hit 12 people, then you could switch.” But then, perversely, it said that “If there was 13 people, you couldn’t switch.” And it can’t tell you why.
So that’s the reason, anyway, at this point, computers can’t replace religion. In fact, for the reasons I’ve explained, at least from my perspective, it just is simply impossible, simply because human beings are in the world and can make decisions about humans.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is excerpted from a presentation, “Will Computers Make Religion Obsolete?” held at Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, TX on December 16, 2021. This presentation was the last in the series “Higher Meanings: Connecting Religion and Mathematics.”)
Photo by Tara Winstead