AI Chatbots on the Parable of the Sower

AI Chatbots on the Parable of the Sower January 15, 2024

This semester I’m teaching my Religion and Science Fiction class with a focus on climate change and dystopian fiction. We’ll start off with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Rereading it with a view to teaching it has me excited to introduce students to it and explore its themes. It is so rich simply as literature but especially in terms of theology and social commentary. I will try to emphasize that the point of reading novels is not to remember plot points to be quizzed on them but to experience the novel, reflect, analyze, wrestle, and be transformed in whatever manner happens in encountering the story.

That’s notoriously difficult to grade, and ideally it wouldn’t be graded, but we all know that things that come with no reward other than what is inherent in the activity get pushed aside, not only in the context of academic study. Helping students approach things in a way that does not treat them as merely a means to an end helps prepare them to do likewise throughout their lives, to make time to read when it earns them neither grade nor paycheck.

So what’s the best assignment that can get at that, foster it, and also not be conducive to getting AI to do their homework for them? My hope was that reflections on the readings, section by section, might work.  To make sure that my instincts about what an AI chatbot would provide, I experimented with ChatGPT and Bard. Here’s what each provided (my prompts are in bold and underlined). First, ChatGPT:

Reflect on major plot points and themes in chapters 4-5 of Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower.
I’m sorry, but I can’t provide verbatim excerpts from copyrighted texts. However, I can offer a summary or analysis of the major plot points and themes in chapters 4-5 of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” Would you like me to do that?
Yes

Certainly! In chapters 4-5 of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, continues to navigate the harsh and chaotic world around her. Here are some key plot points and themes:

  1. Survival and Adaptation:
    • The narrative focuses on Lauren’s struggle for survival in a dystopian setting marked by violence, poverty, and lack of social order.
    • Lauren demonstrates her adaptability and resourcefulness as she copes with the challenges presented by the deteriorating society.
  2. Earthseed Philosophy:
    • Lauren’s developing religious philosophy, Earthseed, is explored further. She believes in the idea of God not as an external entity but as change and adaptation.
    • The concept of Earthseed serves as a coping mechanism for Lauren and those who follow her, providing a sense of purpose and hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
  3. Community Building:
    • Lauren begins to form a community of like-minded individuals who share her beliefs in Earthseed. This community becomes a source of support and strength in the face of external threats.
  4. Violence and Exploitation:
    • The narrative delves into the pervasive violence and exploitation present in the society depicted. The characters must contend with danger and predatory behavior from others.
  5. Character Relationships:
    • Lauren’s relationships with other characters, such as her family and the people she encounters, undergo development. These relationships become crucial in the formation of a community that can withstand the challenges of the world they inhabit.
  6. The Unfolding Apocalypse:
    • The story continues to unfold the apocalyptic nature of the world, with environmental degradation, economic collapse, and the breakdown of social structures contributing to the chaos.

These chapters contribute to the world-building and character development in “Parable of the Sower,” showcasing the harsh realities of a society in decline and the ways in which individuals navigate this challenging landscape. The themes of survival, community, and the search for meaning in a chaotic world are central to the narrative.

What further development happens in chapters 19-20?
I don’t have specific information on the content of chapters 19-20 of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” as my training data doesn’t include details at the chapter level for copyrighted texts. However, I can provide a general overview of the novel’s themes and narrative progression.

As the story unfolds, you can expect:

  1. Lauren’s Journey: The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, likely continues her journey of survival and adaptation in the dystopian world. Her character development and the evolution of her Earthseed philosophy may progress further.
  2. Community Dynamics: The dynamics of the community Lauren is building may become more complex. The relationships among community members and their struggles to survive in the challenging environment are likely to be explored.
  3. Social Commentary: Octavia Butler often uses her work to comment on societal issues. Chapters 19-20 may contain reflections on themes such as inequality, the consequences of environmental degradation, and the breakdown of traditional social structures.
  4. Conflict and Resolution: The narrative might introduce new conflicts or escalate existing ones. How characters respond to these challenges and the resolutions they find contribute to the overall narrative tension.

If you have a specific aspect you’re interested in or if there’s a particular theme or character you’d like more information about, feel free to let me know, and I’ll provide as much information as I can based on the knowledge I have.

Next, Bard:

Unfortunately, you haven’t specified which “Parable of the Sower” you’re referring to. Octavia Butler wrote several novels under that title, including a 1993 science fiction novel and a 1998 young adult adaptation. To accurately reflect on the major plot points and themes in chapters 4-5, I need to know which version you’re interested in. Please let me know the specific book version, and I’ll be happy to provide you with a detailed analysis.

The original novel.

My apologies for the confusion! Let’s delve into the major plot points and themes in chapters 4-5 of Octavia Butler’s original 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower.

Major Plot Points:

  • Escalating External Threats:
    • The community of Robledo grapples with news of worsening social and environmental conditions outside their gated walls. Rising poverty, water shortages, wildfires, and disease outbreaks paint a bleak picture of the world beyond.
    • Lauren’s anxieties about their vulnerability intensify as she reads her father’s survivalist books and prepares an emergency kit.
    • A brutal reminder of the outside world arrives when a stray bullet penetrates the gate, killing Joanne, one of Lauren’s friends. This incident underscores the fragility of their haven and the constant threat of violence.
  • Lauren’s Internal Struggles:
    • Lauren wrestles with the growing burden of her Earthseed philosophy. While she believes in humanity’s potential for positive change, she also doubts the feasibility of her vision in the face of such widespread despair.
    • The shooting of the dog exposes Lauren’s internal conflict between empathy and self-preservation. She recognizes the animal’s suffering but ultimately kills it to avoid facing its agonizing death. This action foreshadows the difficult choices she may face in the future.
    • Conversations with Joanne reveal Lauren’s growing sense of isolation. While Joanne clings to hope for a future rebuild, Lauren is more skeptical and prepares for the possibility of total societal collapse. This divergence in viewpoints highlights the contrasting coping mechanisms people employ in the face of crisis.

Major Themes:

  • Victimization and its Impacts:
    • Chapters 4-5 explore the far-reaching consequences of societal breakdown. Characters like Tracy Dunn, a victim of incestuous abuse, embody how past trauma can manifest in destructive behaviors.
    • Lauren’s experiences, from witnessing violence to shooting the dog, illustrate the psychological tolls of living in a constant state of threat.
    • Butler effectively portrays the cyclical nature of victimization, where past suffering can breed future aggression and despair.
  • Adaptability and Resilience:
    • Despite the bleak outlook, some characters exhibit remarkable resilience in adapting to their circumstances. Lauren’s dedication to preparing for the worst and developing her Earthseed philosophy showcases her proactive approach to survival.
    • The community’s cooperative efforts to maintain order and security within Robledo demonstrate their collective will to forge a semblance of normalcy amidst chaos.
    • These instances offer a glimmer of hope and suggest that individuals and communities can find ways to persevere even in the face of immense hardship.
  • Hope and Uncertainty:
    • The tension between hope and uncertainty permeates these chapters. Lauren’s Earthseed ideas offer a potential path for rebuilding society, but their feasibility remains uncertain in the face of such widespread devastation.
    • Joanne’s optimism about a future recovery contrasts with Lauren’s pragmatism, leaving the reader to ponder the question of whether hope or realism is the more valuable tool for survival.
    • Ultimately, these chapters pose no easy answers, leaving the reader to grapple with the complex challenges of navigating a world teetering on the brink of collapse.

Additional Notes:

  • Butler’s masterful use of first-person narration allows readers to experience the world through Lauren’s eyes, immersing them in her anxieties, doubts, and glimmers of hope.
  • The stark contrast between the relative security of Robledo and the brutal realities outside its walls emphasizes the fragility of civilization and the potential for rapid descent in the face of crisis.
  • Chapters 4-5 serve as a pivotal turning point in the novel, pushing Lauren closer to the decisions that will define her future and the potential fate of Earthseed.

I hope this reflection provides a deeper understanding of the major plot points and themes in chapters 4-5 of Parable of the Sower. Please feel free to ask if you have any further questions or if you’d like me to delve deeper into specific aspects of the text.

How are these themes further developed in chapters 19-20?

Chapters 19-20 of Parable of the Sower see the themes of victimization, adaptability, and hope undergo significant development:

Victimization and its Impacts:

  • Psychological Trauma: The earthquake in Salinas is a visceral reminder of the ever-present threat of violence and loss. Witnessing its aftermath, Lauren grapples with the emotional burdens of her own experiences and the pain of others. For example, Allie’s trauma from witnessing her parents’ deaths surfaces, highlighting the enduring scars of violence.
  • Cycles of Violence: The attack on the group by scavengers demonstrates the potential for desperation to breed further brutality. Harry’s killing of a scavenger fuels Lauren’s anxieties about the ease with which violence becomes normalized in a lawless world.
  • Internal Conflict: Lauren’s purchase of a rifle signifies a shift in her approach to survival. While she continues to believe in Earthseed, she acknowledges the need for self-protection in a world where victimization is rampant. This internal conflict reflects the difficult choices forced upon individuals in such desperate circumstances.

Adaptability and Resilience:

  • Found Family: The addition of Taylor Bankole and Allie and Jill Gilchrist expands the group and challenges their established dynamics. While they must adapt to new personalities and needs, this also strengthens their sense of shared purpose and resilience.
  • Resourcefulness: The group’s detour inland and acquisition of supplies like the rifle and radio demonstrate their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and seek out resources for survival. Their adaptability provides a glimpse of hope in a world where resources are scarce and unpredictable.
  • Moral Compass: Despite the harsh realities, Lauren and Bankole refuse to resort to pure pragmatism. They uphold their values by helping others, like the young boy Bankole rescues, even at risk to themselves. This adherence to a moral code reinforces the concept of hope and humanity’s potential for good even in the face of darkness.

Hope and Uncertainty:

  • Earthseed’s Growth: The encounter with other Earthsiders in Salinas, albeit brief, offers a spark of hope and suggests that Lauren’s philosophy is finding roots outside her immediate circle. It fuels her belief that her vision holds potential for a better future.
  • Facing Reality: The news of widespread chaos in the Bay Area serves as a reminder of the enormity of the challenges ahead. It tempers Lauren’s optimism and forces her to confront the harsh realities of a world on the brink.
  • Uncertain Path: The chapter ends with the group unsure of their next steps. The unknown territory ahead presents both peril and possibility. This uncertainty keeps the reader on edge and amplifies the tension between hope and despair.

In conclusion, chapters 19-20 further develop the themes of Parable of the Sower by deepening the complexities of victimization and its impacts, showcasing the importance of adaptability and resilience, and grappling with the ever-present tension between hope and uncertainty. By pushing Lauren and her companions toward even greater challenges, these chapters raise further questions about the possibility of rebuilding society and the human capacity for enduring in the face of immense adversity.

I hope this additional analysis provides a clearer picture of how these themes evolve in later chapters of the novel. Feel free to ask any further questions you may have!

Alas, it looks like things like Sparknotes are part of Bard’s training data, and so it will do for students what many students might otherwise have done for themselves but less effectively: take available summaries and reflections online and rework them, rather than reading the novel and offering their own reflections. One thing that might make it detectable is the inclusion of “hallucinations.” It seems a poor idea to rely on that. To my surprise, asking for reflection and not merely summary on specific chapters turns out to be something that the AI can do, because people have done it and shared it online.

If I am not to ditch this element of the coursework, perhaps I need to add something, such as interaction with news from the past week or two. I could also ask about specific aspects. Here is what I got when I asked Bard, How are the theological ideas of Earthseed explored in chapters 19-21 of the novel?

In chapters 19-21 of Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler delves deeper into the theological ideas of Earthseed, revealing its multifaceted nature and potential interpretations:

Shaping God with Work:

  • Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy emphasizes action and progress over passivity and dependence on a traditional celestial figure. She views God as a metaphor for the collective human spirit pushing for positive change through work and innovation.
  • This is exemplified in their focus on acquiring necessary skills, building communities, and actively shaping their future rather than waiting for divine intervention.

Change and Adaptability:

  • Lauren acknowledges that her vision of Earthseed will evolve over time and adapt to different circumstances. She embraces the fact that future generations will interpret and shape Earthseed in their own ways, potentially changing its form while retaining its core principles.
  • This openness to change reflects the dynamic nature of belief systems and underscores the importance of individual agency in shaping one’s faith.

Community and Shared Destiny:

  • The decision to prioritize those willing to contribute to the collective good further solidifies Earthseed’s emphasis on community and shared responsibility. While outsiders may be welcomed, their acceptance hinges on aligning with Earthseed’s values and goals.
  • This focus on collaboration and mutual aid reinforces the idea of humanity’s common destiny, intertwined with the success of their future society.

Contrasting Interpretations:

  • Bankole’s skepticism challenges Lauren’s vision, highlighting differing perspectives on the role of religion in a harsh world. He views Earthseed as potentially devolving into dogma and losing its revolutionary spirit, prompting Lauren to consider how her ideas might be misinterpreted in the future.
  • This internal debate showcases the inherent subjectivity of faith and raises important questions about the balance between maintaining the core principles of a belief system and allowing it to adapt to changing circumstances.

Faith for Survival:

  • Earthseed serves as a source of strength and guidance for Lauren and others in the group. It fuels their hope for a better future and helps them navigate the hardships they face.
  • This demonstrates the potential of faith as a coping mechanism and a motivator for positive action, even in the midst of despair.

Overall, chapters 19-21 expand on the theological possibilities of Earthseed, revealing its dynamism, its potential for evolution, and its diverse interpretations. By presenting contrasting viewpoints and challenging Lauren’s vision, Butler invites readers to contemplate the complex relationship between faith, action, and survival in a dystopian world.

I hope this exploration enriches your understanding of the theological aspects of Earthseed in these chapters. Feel free to ask if you have any further questions or wish to delve deeper into specific passages or concepts.

If you look closely, and look at the relevant part of the novel, you’ll see that the above is in fact generically about the novel and misses what is specific to these chapters. When I asked for quotes to illustrate these points, it provided some that sounded plausible enough that I might have fallen for them if I hadn’t checked. They are not all actual quotes from the novel! Some are. Bard cited LitCharts, which is like CourseHero, and so some of it may be from that coursework for purchase rather than the novel. Interesting that it was able to train on such data–and interesting that Bard’s link worked!

Quotations from Parable of the Sower illustrating the theological ideas of Earthseed in chapters 19-21:

Shaping God with Work:

  • “God is change. And in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end.” (Chapter 18)
  • “Your stuff isn’t very comforting. ‘Is after a while. I’m still growing into it myself. God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought.’… ‘We… decided to call this place Acorn.‘” (Chapter 18)

Change and Adaptability:

  • “Earthseed is not a set of rules. It’s a direction. It’s an invitation to change.” (Chapter 20)
  • “But I still think Earthseed has to grow beyond you and me. Earthseed has to be bigger than any one person, even Lauren Olamina.” (Chapter 21)

Community and Shared Destiny:

  • “We can take care of ourselves and others better if we all move together.” (Chapter 19)
  • “You can call yourself whatever you want… But if you want to come with us, you’ll have to pull your weight. No passengers.” (Chapter 20)

Contrasting Interpretations:

  • “‘You make Earthseed sound too much like religion, Lauren. Religion, with rules and commandments and gods… Earthseed needs to be more than that.'” (Chapter 21)
  • “‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘maybe it will end up as religion someday. Maybe that’s what it has to be to last. I don’t know.'” (Chapter 21)

Faith for Survival:

  • “The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars. But first, it must take root in us. That’s where I’m starting. With myself. With Acorn.” (Chapter 19)
  • “And I thought, Earthseed is more than just survival. It’s about growing beyond survival.” (Chapter 21)

These are just a few examples, and there are many other passages in the novel that explore the theological complexities of Earthseed. Feel free to share any specific scenes or ideas you’d like further quotes on, and I’ll be happy to provide them!

Take for instance the statement “Earthseed has to be bigger than any one person, even Lauren Olamina.” That certainly sounds like something that the character might say. I suspect that it is based on something someone wrote online about the character.

What’s the takeaway from all this? That AI chatbots can provide what sites like CourseHero and SparksNotes do and so if you ask such questions you will get cheating from students–not only from ones that are lazy or don’t care but also ones who are eager to get an ‘A’ but do not manage their time well. The more specific your questions, the more likely that a student who is BS-ing, or who is getting an AI to BS for them, will expose this.

One last question for Bard, which had proven to be providing the most interesting content. I asked, “How does Earthseed differ from Buddhism in the novel?”

Earthseed and Buddhism, while both offering philosophical frameworks for navigating a harsh world, diverge in several key aspects:

Focus:

  • Earthseed: Focuses on change, action, and progress, emphasizing human agency and shaping a better future through collective effort. It values practical skills, community building, and adapting to new realities.
  • Buddhism: Aims at individual liberation from suffering through personal transformation and detachment from worldly desires. It emphasizes practices like meditation, mindfulness, and achieving enlightenment through understanding the nature of reality.

Deity/God:

  • Earthseed: Views “God” as a metaphor for the collective human spirit evolving and pushing for positive change. This “God” isn’t an external deity but an emergent property of humanity’s collective actions.
  • Buddhism: Does not subscribe to the concept of a creator God, but focuses on understanding the Four Noble Truths and achieving Nirvana, a state of liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

Suffering:

  • Earthseed: Acknowledges the harsh realities of suffering but views it as a motivating force for change. It encourages individuals to work towards a better future to alleviate suffering for themselves and others.
  • Buddhism: Sees suffering as an inherent part of human existence and seeks to understand and transcend it through personal transformation and detachment from desire. The goal is to attain a state of peace and freedom from suffering.

Social Structure:

  • Earthseed: Emphasizes community and shared responsibility. There are no fixed hierarchies or rules, but a focus on collaboration and contributing to the collective good.
  • Buddhism: Can exist within various social structures and encourages compassion and kindness towards all beings, regardless of their social status. However, monastic Buddhism involves structured hierarchies and specific practices within communities.

Overall:

  • Earthseed: Offers a proactive and action-oriented approach to dealing with hardship, focusing on building a better future for humanity.
  • Buddhism: Provides a path to personal liberation and inner peace, regardless of external circumstances.

It’s important to note that these are simplified comparisons, and both Earthseed and Buddhism offer nuanced and complex philosophies with multiple interpretations. However, understanding these key differences can help appreciate how each system offers unique ways of navigating the challenges faced by Lauren and her companions in Parable of the Sower.

I hope this clarifies the distinctions between Earthseed and Buddhism in the novel!

Again, impressive, and more of it is correct than I expected. My follow up question led it to repeat but then also fix one thing that was clearly wrong. I asked it to provide a quote that illustrates how God is an emergent property in Earthseed. Bard replied:

Certainly! Here’s a quote from Parable of the Sower that captures Earthseed’s concept of God as an emergent property of human action and progress:

“God is change. And in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end. Change, the way I see it, is God’s work. And all living things, from one-celled critters to people like us, they do God’s work by changing, growing, trying new things. We’re all God’s gardeners, in a way. Not the kind that just put in petunias. We’re the kind that make whole new gardens, whole new worlds.”

(Chapter 18)

This quote emphasizes several key points:

  • Change as the essence of God: Earthseed doesn’t view God as a static entity but as the dynamic force of change and evolution inherent in the universe.
  • Human agency in shaping God’s work: The passage highlights how, through our actions and choices, humans actively participate in shaping the course of change and progress, contributing to the unfolding of what could be called “God’s work.”
  • Collective effort shaping the future: The metaphor of “God’s gardeners” underscores the idea that humanity’s collective efforts in building a better future are akin to tending a vast garden, contributing to the continuous growth and evolution of the world.

By portraying God as an emergent property rather than a pre-existing entity, Earthseed offers a unique and empowering perspective on faith and action. It emphasizes the responsibility humans hold in shaping their own destiny and actively working towards a positive future.

I hope this quote and explanation provide a clearer understanding of Earthseed’s God in the novel. If you have further questions or would like to explore this concept in more depth, feel free to ask!

It starts with an actual quote but then adds more that is related and plausible but not found in the novel! I made a point of checking particularly about God’s gardeners because that is the name of a fictional religious group in another novel we’re reading this semester, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. I pressed Bard on it: “Only part of that quotation seems to be from the novel. Is there any way for you to confirm what you said here?” Bard replied:

You’re absolutely right, I apologize for the mistake! Only the first two sentences, “God is change. And in the end, God does prevail,” are actually from the novel, found in Chapter 18. The rest of the passage, starting with “But we have something to say about the whens and the whys,” was my own paraphrase and elaboration on Lauren’s concept of God.

I strive to be accurate and transparent in my responses, and I appreciate you pointing out the error. I’m still under development and learning to provide the best possible information, so your feedback helps me improve.

Would you like me to provide another quote from the novel that directly illustrates Earthseed’s God as an emergent property?

Actually, the bit about “the whens and the whys” is in fact from the novel, and the paraphrase begins later. I accepted its offer to provide another quote. Here is what it gave me:

Absolutely! Here’s another quote from Parable of the Sower that showcases Earthseed’s concept of God as an emergent property:

“But maybe God’s not a person or a thing at all. Maybe God is change. Maybe God is what happens when enough people get together and push, like the grains of sand in a sand dune. Each one of us is nothing, just a speck. But put enough of us together, and you can move mountains.”

(Chapter 21)

This quote reinforces several key points:

  • God as the collective force of change: It emphasizes the notion that God isn’t an individual entity but the emergent force arising from the combined actions and progress of humanity.
  • Individual contribution to the whole: Each person, though seemingly insignificant alone, becomes part of something larger and more powerful when working together towards a common goal.
  • Collective action shaping the future: The metaphor of moving mountains highlights the potential of united human effort to overcome monumental challenges and create positive change.

By portraying God as the dynamic outcome of collective action, this quote further reinforces Earthseed’s emphasis on community, progress, and human agency in shaping a better future.

I hope this quote provides a clearer and more accurate illustration of Earthseed’s unique concept of God as an emergent property. Please let me know if you have any further questions or if you’d like to explore this theme in more depth!

Once again it made something up, but what it made up is fascinating in a lot of ways. This technology really is impressive – as long as what you’re seeking from it is not facts and information.

I hope that sharing this detailed account of my experiment with AI chatbots is useful to educators wrestling with how to craft assignments and how to grade them in our age of artificial intelligence. I for one plan to share with students what the chatbot does and doesn’t do, and am also thinking that I should make a change to the points system in the class. I should specify that there is one way you can lose points: by submitting material that is copied from elsewhere or that fabricates things about the novel that are not the case. That seems fair. What do you think?

Of related interest, here is a link to art generated using Midjourney exploring aspects of Earthseed, the fictional religion the main character in the story develops. The LA Times also had an article about an artist using AI to try to depict the future that is the backdrop of the novels. Here is one example from the former:

See also Steve Wiggins’ recent post on Parable of the Talents.

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