The Turing Test We Call Life

Had he made the wrong choice of schools? His courses were demanding: "We have tremendous long and hard lessons to get through in both French and Algebra." The discipline was dogged: "They give a man one of these black marks for almost nothing. If he gets two hundred a year they dismiss him." And the expectations seemed inane: "We are not only obliged to go to church but must march there by companies."

The school was West Point. The cadet, Ulysses S. Grant. His father had coerced him into the academy, and the son didn’t anticipate staying. At the end of orientation, he wrote his cousin, "I felt as though I had been at West Point always and that if I stayed to graduation, I would have to remain always." He did stay, though he never became a model cadet.

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Had Ulysses, or anyone else, attempted to decipher the deity’s designs for the young man, soldiering would not have presented itself as an obvious choice, yet that discernment would have been premature. Grant served in the Mexican war with distinction, and, when civil war erupted in America, he wrote the adjutant general in Washington offering his services.

He received no answer. He spent two successive days outside General George McClellan’s Washington office, hoping to be offered a job. None came. Was the Almighty sending a message? If so, Grant ignored it and joined the Illinois Militia. Ulysses was not a particularly religious man, though even the non-religious can’t help but to read the events of their lives as revelatory. Refusing to believe that occurrences are meaningless, we see boons as blessings of God and setbacks as reproofs or trials. We can’t help but to think that God communicates with us through the events of our lives, that something we’ve just read, or something someone said to us, is meaningful, is meant to be, in short, is a message from God.

Try turning off whatever deep seated mechanism this is. Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that we acquired it when sentient human beings first encountered strangers. Our ancestors had to learn to read the faces of outsiders to determine if they were friend or foe. Eventually, we began to think that nature itself was either frowning or smiling. Seems a flimsy beginning for such an integral part of human life, yet, full grown, it was the driving compulsion behind the Hebrew scriptures, where history is read as the judgement of an all good, all knowing, and deeply involved God.

One might liken all of this to what is known as the Turing Test, when someone, typing at computer terminal, tries to determine whether the apparently intelligent responses received are produced by machine or another mind. As computers improve, more and more humans have been duped into believing that they were dealing with another human mind.

So the question is, are we being deceived by a mindless universe into believing that it dialogues with us, that it approves and blesses, reproves and punishes? Certainly there are times when I tell myself that I would be pleased to exorcize this evolutionary ghost — if that’s all it is — but I find myself trapped in something of an existential Turing Test.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose that, during the course of such a test, you became convinced about the source of the script you were reading. No doubt for you about whether it was mind or machine, but then you were told, "Push this button, and we will either turn off the machine or kill the person at the other end. Who could push that button with absolute confidence that only a program was being terminated?

As a believer, I can’t turn off what others might call a mechanism — I can’t stop finding life meaningful — because that would be to sunder my relationship to a presence, one that I find, borrowing words from Saint Augustine, intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo (more intimate to me than I am to myself and higher than my highest reaches) (Confessions III,6, 11).

In his genius Augustine couples two radically separate realities. Something is so deeply inside of me that I would willingly confess it to be my very self, and yet this presence is precisely that which pushes me beyond myself. How else should I respond — if not with reverence — to this other within me, who is not I but who makes me to become my very self, the self I could not otherwise be?

Moses famously encounters the Burning Bush. As a primitive, he accepts the notion that an unknown deity is before him. He reasonably asks this presence to proffer a name, because, for an ancient to know the name of another was to know the other’s essence. It was to see the other laid out before one, to gain power over him, but God responds by refusing to cede control. "I am who am" (Ex 3:14). For Moses, God will be more intimate than Moses is to himself, yet God will remain the one who is the source of Moses’s own self. Moses will learn that his soul unfolds before this other, this one who has no limit, who simply is "unfolding."

The truly salient question isn’t the evolutionary origins of this "one within us." It’s whether we continue to evolve in response. And realizing how little we’ve understood in the past shouldn’t unduly distress us. On the contrary, it’s proof of growth. A true sign of maturation in discipleship is the ability to resist simple, satisfying explanations, which an earlier version of self would have snatched at. Often, believing that life is meaningful is akin to attending the long delayed advent of the master.

Jesus gently mocks the simple calculations of his congregation. "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?" (Lk 13: 2). But he does repudiate the need to read history as revelatory. Indeed, to reject what God is doing in history, in the person of Jesus the Christ, is to call down condemnation upon oneself. "I tell you. If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did" (Lk 13:3).

Ulysses S. Grant first came to the world’s attention at the Battle of Shiloh. He had been attempting to win the war in the West by compelling a Confederate exit from Tennessee. According to Grant’s strategy, once the army of Union General Don Carlos Buell joined his own, Union forces would considerably outnumber those of the South, but Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston struck at Grant before that could happen. Both armies were young and untested. The result was a melee with horrendous losses, a portent of the war that would emerge. Grant’s forces were sent reeling back to the very banks of the Tennessee River, where, failing reinforcement from Buell, they would surely be crushed come sunrise.

At day’s end, Grant’s second, General William Tecumseh Sherman found himself unable to sleep. The night was equal parts rain and rants of pain from the wounded. Sherman found Grant sitting silent beneath a tree. Was he trying to discern the purpose and plan of God? Was he communing with one more intimate to him than he to himself, one far beyond self? What else would drive a beset commander away from headquarters and its stratagems, when so much depended upon the morrow?

Coming up to him, Sherman sighed, "Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?"

"Yes, Grant replied, and Sherman remembered him pulling thoughtfully on his cigar. "Lick ‘em tomorrow though."

Exodus 3: 1-8a, 13-15 1 Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12 Luke 13: 1-9

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