Is it true that “the State of the Union is strong”?

Is it true that “the State of the Union is strong”? March 7, 2024

The US Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union” (Article II Section 3). President Biden will likely begin tonight’s address with the declaration, “The State of the Union is strong,” an assertion made by nearly every president in this setting since Ronald Reagan began the practice in 1983.

In tonight’s case, some commentators will agree with the president’s claim, while others will disagree. Each will try to convince us that their version of reality is our reality. This is because our “post-truth” culture believes that truth is perception. If we believe something to be true, it is therefore true for us, or so we think.

This viewpoint is becoming more dangerous now than at any time in human history.

“I am talking about apocalypse now”

Iain McGilchrist is a neuroscience researcher whose lecture at the 2022 World Summit AI in Amsterdam was adapted into an urgent essay in the current issue of First Things. He warns that artificial intelligence is quickly progressing in ways that make people more expendable and less significant:

Consider the impact of the loss of daily contact with human beings as more and more jobs become automated. What happens to those who are rendered unemployed? . . .

And what about our dignity as free individuals? Can we escape the appalling prospect—already realized in China—that wherever we go, whatever we buy, whomever we are seen with, our every word, every action, the very thoughts we express on our faces, all is monitored, potentially marked down against us, and whatever freedom is left to us is curtailed accordingly?

Then he moves to the theme I’ve been exploring this week:

There is much to fear if we leave important decisions in the hands of AI. All decisions affecting humans are moral decisions. And morality is not purely utilitarian; it cannot be reduced to calculation. Every human situation is unique, its uniqueness arising from personal history, consciousness, memory, intention, all that is not explicit, all that we mean by the deceptively simple word “emotion,” all the experience and understanding gained through and stored in the body, all that makes us humans and not machines. Goodness requires virtuous minds, not merely following rules.

McGilchrist concludes:

If we are not to become ever more diminished as humans, we need to remain in control of machines, not come under their control. I am not talking about an apocalyptic future; I am talking about apocalypse now. We are already calmly and quietly surrendering our liberty, our privacy, our dignity, our time, our values, and our talents to the machine. Machines serve us well when they relieve us of drudgery, but we must leave human affairs to humans. If not, we sign our own death warrant.

“Catching rather than pitching”

We might dismiss McGilchrist’s concerns as hyperbole, but he is not alone: leaders from OpenAI, Google DeepMind, Anthropic, and other AI labs are also warning that the technology they are building could pose an existential threat to humanity on a par with pandemics and nuclear war.

Clearly, humans should not assume that because we created artificial intelligence, we will always be its master and AI our servant. Our perceived superiority may soon bear no resemblance to reality, a point from which we may not be able to return.

What can you and I do about this frightening scenario?

Unless you’re a technologist working in the field of artificial intelligence, you’ll be affected by AI rather than effecting its direction. Like the millions listening to the president’s State of the Union address tonight, you have no ability to impact his decisions, even though many of them impact your life.

Upon reflection, most of life works like this. There are few parts of the world over which any of us have any direct influence. Unless we return to the frontier days of harvesting and hunting our own food, making our own clothes, and building our own houses, we are “catching rather than pitching” in nearly every dimension of our lives.

How to be “trusting children”

This is where the Christian worldview saves us from the paranoia of victimhood. Max Lucado is right:

“God has proven himself as a faithful father. Now it falls to us to be trusting children.”

We become such “children” when we embrace these biblical assertions not as mere perceptions but as facts:

  • Our Father is the sovereign King of the universe whose providential provision and protection we can trust today (Psalm 91:1–2).
  • When we pray for those who do what we cannot do, our Lord hears us and does whatever is best (Matthew 7:7–11).
  • When we ask his Spirit to empower us (Ephesians 5:18) and then fulfill our calling for his glory (1 Chronicles 16:24), we partner with our Lord for eternal significance (Romans 8:28).
  • When we name our fears and surrender them to our Father, we experience “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Accordingly, we can make this intercession from the Book of Common Prayer ours today:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversaries which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


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Quote for the day

“It is one thing to believe in God; it is quite another to believe God.” —R. C. Sproul

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