Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Steinhardt Ordered to Return Looted Antiquities


Michael Steinhardt, hedge funder and antiquities collector

Michael Steinhardt is ordered to return 180 looted artifacts and he will not be charged if he abides by all terms of the agreement that requires that the objects be “returned expeditiously to their rightful owners,” rather than held as evidence. The resolution will also help prosecutors “shield the identity of the many witnesses here and abroad whose names would be released at any trial.”

The 180 stolen antiquities worth $70 million are to be returned to their rightful homelands and Steinhardt is barred for life from acquiring any objects created before 1500 AD.

In a statement, Steinhardt’s lawyer, Andrew J. Levander, said: “Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s yearslong investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries. Many of the dealers from whom Mr. Steinhardt bought these items made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance. To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved.”

The investigation into Steinhardt began in February 2017, after prosecutors determined that he had purchased a statue looted from Lebanon during the country’s Civil War, and subsequently loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An inquiry into his record of acquisitions only heightened suspicions of further criminal misconduct and led to the formation of a joint investigation with investigators in 11 countries—Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.

“For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement. “His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Increasing Threat of Weaponized Drones

Machines that can make their own decisions – called autonomous systems – raise ethical concerns, especially as it is now possible for anyone with computer experience and the right tools to build drones that can be weaponized.

Autonomous drones have been caught dropping explosives on U.S. troops, shutting down airports, and employed in assassination attempts. Azerbaijan recently used its Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) to great effect in its conflict with Armenia. A United Nations report says that deadly drone "hunted down" a human target without being instructed to do so. 

The autonomous systems being developed make staging such attacks easier and more devastating. The attraction to those who would kill political enemies is the drone's agility and the targeted attack. Kim Jong Un is thought to have assassinated his half brother with VX nerve agent in 2017. A year later, there was evidence that Russia may have used a Novichok chemical agent in England, in a failed assassination attempt of a former Russian spy and his daughter. The U.S. intelligence community linked the Russian government to the attempted assassination of Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny in 2020 with a Novichok agent.

Natasha Bajema, the director of the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks, in Washington, D.C., has written, "Technologists and engineers who work on drones need to be aware when they develop applications that might be weaponized and exploited for deadly effect. And policymakers and military strategists need to be equally vigilant in defending against a highly agile new threat that, while its use has, gratefully, been limited to date, its potential for danger will continue to increase as commercial, off-the-shelf drone technologies mature and proliferate."

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Is our Reality a Virtual Simulation?


Machine learning and artificial intelligence are presenting us with new philosophical and theological  questions. Between the Holographic Approach and Data Science addresses the potential of trained artificial neural networks to replace present scientific models, and the possibility of reality being a numerical simulation as has been proposed by Elon Musk and others.

Vitaly Vanchurin (University of Minnesota Duluth) proposes that we live in a neural network and believes that only through neural networks can scientists discover the grand unification theory, that is, the theory of everything. If we treat the world as a neural network which is in the process of learning, then we can better understand quantum gravity, quantum computing and consciousness, writes Vanchurin.

The concept uses neural net theory to unify quantum and classical mechanics. This latest mechanistic hope may explain the meanderings of quantum physics, but it renders the existence of the biblical Creator null and void.

God is posited as a Global Brain. If we may believe the forecasts of the Transhumanists, one day we will be able to upload our minds to this Global Web and thus attain immortality by merging with a Cybergod.

Such is the fantastic worldview of California resident Alex M. Vikoulov, a Russian-American futurist, evolutionary cyberneticist, and filmmaker. He describes himself as a digital theologian and a transhumanist singularitarian.

Alex M. Vikoulou's Theology of Digital Physics redefines God by stepping into digital pantheism. Vikoulov gives us a glimpse into how a fractal multiverse must in the end shake confidence in objective reality. The Christian hope abides as more objectively true and evident than the fantasies of these men.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Immoral Virtual Fantasizing: Should We Call the Cops?


X-Rated (XR) Virtual reality is a consumer product that poses serious ethical questions since it often presents violence or abusive behavior. Some authors discuss this and the need for regulatory authorities (Wassom, 2014; Madary and Metzinger, 2016). Virtual embodiment can lead to emotional, cognitive, and behavioral changes and Virtual violence and pornography in video games and on the internet can make it will feel more real. The social consequences of this are unknown.

The following is an excerpt from an article title The Ethics of Realism in Virtual and Augmented Reality, an opinion piece that appeared in Frontiers, March 2020.

"... XR technology also raises a host of interesting and important ethical questions of which readers should be aware. For instance, the fact that XR enables an individual to interact with virtual characters poses the question of whether the golden rule of reciprocity should apply to fictional virtual characters and, with the development of tools that allow for more realism, whether this should also extend to virtual representations of real people.

Thus, along these lines, is it wrong to do immoral acts in VR? This is explored in a play called “The Nether” (2013) by Jennifer Hayley1, where in a fully immersive virtual world a man engages in pedophilia. When confronted by the police in reality (in the play), he argues that this is a safe way to realize his unacceptable drives without harming anyone at all. As stated by Giles Fraser writing in The Guardian newspaper2, “Even by watching and applauding the production I felt somehow complicit in, or at least too much in the company of, what was being imagined. Some thoughts one shouldn't think. Some ideas ought to be banished from one's head.” But on the other hand, “Policing the imagination is the ultimate fascism. Take Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the point is surely this: imagination is not cut off from consequence. We all end up being shaped by what we imagine.”

The latter point was part of an argument by Brey (1999), who considered ethical issues associated with virtual reality. Following Kantian Duty Ethics (a version of the golden rule), he argued that it is a fundamental moral principle “that human beings have a duty to treat other persons with respect, that is, to treat them as ends and not as means, or to do to them as one would expect to be treated by others oneself.” But does this apply to virtual characters? He gave two arguments suggesting that it does. First, following Kant in relation to treatment of animals, we should treat virtual characters with respect because if not we may end up treating people badly too (note that this is a philosophical rather than an empirical argument). Second, if we treat virtual characters with disrespect or act violently toward them, this may actually cause psychological harm to people that those characters might represent. Of course, this happens in movies all the time (think of the “bad guys” in movies, they are often typified as members of particular ethnic groups or social class). In XR this is different though—in movies it is other people who treat other people badly whereas in XR it could be ourselves doing so, or other (virtual or online) people may treat us badly. While this already takes place in video-games, particularly when the character in the video-game is seen and controlled from a first-person perspective, XR goes one step further in the sense that it can feel more real if the participant is fully embodied as that character. Therefore, Brey concludes that designers of VR applications—also applicable to AR—must take into account the possible immoral actions that they might depict or allow their participants to carry out."

Read the full article here

Related reading: The Benefits and Drawbacks of Virtual Reality; Violent Video Games in Virtual Reality

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Virtual Reality


This month Ethics Forum will address the topic of virtual reality (hereafter VR). In this first article, we weigh the beneifts and drawbacks of VR.

VR has become a tool of neuroscience and is used to study changes in the brain. Neuroscientists from Harvard University were able to change the zebrafish's effort to swim the same distance in VR. Through this experiment, researchers determined which parts of the zebrafish brain are responsible for controlling their swimming behavior. They never could have performed this experiment in the real world time/space.

VR simulations are being used effectively in classrooms to teach physics and astronomy. Some corporations are using VR to train employees, including UPS, Walmart, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and ExxonMobil.

Extensive use of virtual reality by children raises concern about how their developing brains are affected. It does appear that VR has real-world consequences.

This 2015 study found that in VR, the individual's spatial selectivity is impaired. The study found that the firing frequency of neurons in a mouse is reduced by over two thirds. The study reports: "Selectivity to space and distance traveled were greatly enhanced in VR tasks with stereotypical trajectories. Thus, distal visual cues alone are insufficient to generate a robust hippocampal rate code for space but are sufficient for a temporal code."

In the real world, we see and touch objects at the same time, and the integration of these senses helps us gain a fuller picture of the objects. In VR, you can’t physically pick up and feel the objects that you see and so the brain receives significantly less information.

When it comes to gaming, it doesn't matter as much because the game is designed to focus the participant on selective tasks. Wearing the headset, the gamer is transported to a different world. Games that simulate three-dimensional scenes using stereoscopic vision enhance the excitement.  

How the typical young gamer's brain is affected depends on many factors: environment in which the game is played, duration of play, frequency of play, physical movement, and mental engagement.

Another concern touches on mental health. Gaming is fun, but it is also a distraction from real life problems. It can become addictive to those who seek to escape their problems.

Glossary of Terms

Immersion: How well virtual reality is able to mimic or simulate the real world as we know it.

Cybersickness: A feeling of disorientation and/or nausea that can result from the illusion of moving through virtual environments. These unpleasant sensations can also be caused by lagging (or delays) between what your vision expects and what the virtual world presents.

Sensation: The different ways our body has of bringing us information about the world around us (for example, vision, hearing, touch, and taste), and the act of sending that information to our brain to perceive.

Perception: The process of our brain interpreting our senses into experiences.

Binocular Vision: Our left and right eyes are in slightly different positions on our head, and our brain is able to merge these two perspectives together much like looking through binoculars.

Stereopsis: Seeing in stereo. How our brain combines visual information from our left and right eyes into one single image.

Accelerometer: A device that can tell whether (and in what direction) something is moving.

Presence: How convincing we perceive a virtual environment to be.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Chad's Warrior President Has Died in Battle

Chad's President Idriss Déby had died. He was a staunch warrior against Islamic extremists an in Chad and incooperation with neighboring Niger. On March 8, 2015, Chad and Niger announced a joint campaign against Boko Haram.

Déby was in power for three decades and was one of Africa's longest-serving leaders. He was age 68 at his death. Déby died on the battlefield.

Read more here and here.

Related reading: Boko Haram Terrorism Spreads

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Etiology of the Cancel Culture


Alice C. Linsley

The anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote about the cancel culture well before the term became popular. The tendency to erase history or efface time has been termed damnatio memoriae. In his 1970 book The Invisible Pyramid, Eiseley explains that this "is frequently done for obscure or depraved reasons." He writes:

Public monuments are effaced,, names destroyed, histories rewritten. Sometime to achieve these ends a whole intellectual elite may be slaughtered in order that the peasantry can be deliberatly caused to forget its past. The erasure of history plays a formidable role in human experience. It extends from the smashing of the first commemorative monuments right down to the creation of the communist "non-person" of today. (The Invisible Pyramid, pp.100-101)

Eiseley writes of times when people grow tired of history and because they cannot remake it, they seek to destroy it. The marks of such times are social disruption and intolerance, what Rocco Buttiglione terms "moral amputation."

G. K. Chesterton observed, "It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things. The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they always must, and they always do, create institutions. When men are weary they fall into anarchy..." (Manalive, Chapter 3)

Canceling the past involves a hatred of Tradition and attacks on institutions that preserve Tradition. These include museums, churches, and World Heritage sites. In 2016, Islamic iconoclasts blew up a 3,000-year temple at Nimrud in northern Iraq. In Nicaragua, Leftists are burning churches and attacking priests and nuns. The Puritan Oliver Cromwell attempted to erase England's religious history by destroying images and sacred objects in the churches. 

Iconoclasm can be an act of restless rebellion, or religious fanaticism, or anarchy. It can come from the Left and the Right. Effacing history may take the form of a rioting mob or an academic who projects Western civilization as so corrupt that his students feel justified to denounce it. The academic Michel Foucault attempted even to cancel Man.

Canceling the past denies a voice to the ancestors and expresses disdain for the dead. As Chesterton noted, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 4)

The effacers of history have shown themsleves to be self-indulgent and reckless. The Antifa agitators demonstrated in recent months that they do not care that innocent people are injured and private property destroyed or damaged. It was reported that some Muslims in New York applauded as they watched the Twin Towers collapse. Some of the most prominent leftists of the 1960s and 70s were exposed as self-indulgent hedonists in Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch "understood that what presented itself in the lineaments of radical consciousness-raising in the 1960s and 1970s was mostly a blind for moralistic self-indulgence."

Loren Eiseley speaks of the time effacers in Western culture as "broken men" who "engage in an orgiastic and undiscriminating embrace of the episodic moment..." (The Invisible Pyramid, p. 111).

Related reading: When a Riot Becomes a Revolution; On Trusting the Elites; Another Look at Michel Foucault; Liberty and Justice Cancelled

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Twitter's Censorship of Trump


Alice C. Linsley

Twitter permanently suspended Trump two days after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol building. There is concern that President Trump’s tweets to his 88 million followers risked “further incitement of violence.”

Now Trump's Twitter account is closed, permanently. 

Twitter made the right decision and should have shut down Trump's account sooner. Though the Media sometimes portrays President Trump's followers as a homogeneous group of rightwing fanatics, Trump’s followers are a diverse group. Unfortunately, some resemble cult members in their behavior.

Trump supporters fear that their hero will be silenced by all the social media platforms. This is naive. The platforms thrive on celebrities and often give them a pass when they violate community standards. Mr. Trump lost his privileges at Twitter, but we will hear from him again.

It is evident that the former president vilified the Media and made enemies there. Political rhetoric has consequences. History reminds us that other charismatic figures of the past have levered themselves to positions of power by making scapegoats, among them Jews, the Media, and middle-class white men.

Calling a rally on the day the electoral votes were to be counted and accepted was unwise. It seems President Trump hoped to show Congress that he has loyal supporters. Did he believe that the allegedly fraudulent votes could be thrown out, leaving him the winner?  

Some Trump followers invaded the Capitol while deliberations were in progress. There were five more states to consider.

Did his tweets and his speech incite violence? It appears they did, but the impact was that of a slow train gaining speed over the past four years. The POTUS is a powerful figure. When events get out of control and threaten lives, property, and the Constitution the censorship of inflammatory political rhetoric is reasonable.

Twitter permitted POTUS to tweet things that went against community standards. They gave him a great deal of leeway over these four years. They should apply their community standards equally to all people. You might call this "censorship" but holding people to high standards of communication is a good thing.

Community standards should be applied equally. Celebs included. Why do some people get a pass? It appears that the more famous you are, the less likely you are to be censored. 

President Trump's tweets were lightning rods that drew criticism from his opponents on the Left. The closing of his Twitter account exposed their hypocrisy. They oppose censorship, yet they resort to it when threatened. The same can be said of opposition on the Right. Nobody wins the news slinging contest. 

Twitter is a private business and can ban anyone. Bakers legally can refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on grounds of their religious convictions. Roman Catholic institutions can refuse to provide health insurance covering birth control and abortion. Gay couples are not silenced by the refusal of the bakers. They still can "marry" and enjoy their cake from another bakery. A Catholic can buy birth control and get an abortion by other means. Twitter has not violated President Trump's First Amendment right. He no longer has a voice on the Twitter platform, but he has options, as we all do.

Now, if every platform is closed to him, Trump has grounds for a big lawsuit. But why would all the platforms shut him out? Shutting out President Trump means loss of income and benefits reaped from his celebrity.

So, the issue is not censorship which takes place every day at multiple levels. Some Facebook friends do not like what I post and they "unfriend" me. Fox, CNN, MSNBC screen and edit new stories to fit their bias. It is no surprise that the average American wonders what to believe and distrusts Big Tech.

I have managed seven Google blogs for over thirteen years and I never had anything censored by Google, and believe me, I have posted many politically sensitive articles. The one time a blog post was censored (at Christian Women in Science) it was because someone claimed that the post went against community standards. I appealed and Facebook reserved the decision. The educational site Christian Women in Science was cleared of the malicious claim. There are ways to say things that are acceptable. President Trump often failed to measure his words and consider how his angry tweets might influence his supporters.

I use social media extensively. I try to use it constructively, respectfully, and responsibly. How has President Trump used it? Being POTUS, he was allowed to tweet comments that would have been censored were they posted by ordinary citizens.

The best way to keep speech free is to speak more often and to express a range of views. That is a reason to blog, write for publication, discuss these matters on social media, and use every available venue for expression. In the end, free speech is hard work and requires being an adult.

Related reading: What Elon Musk's Purchase of Twitter Could Mean for Donald Trump's AccountThe Ethics of BloggingArguing About Social Concerns; Giant Tech Faces Antitrust Hearings; Regulation of Big Tech; Social Media Bots and Political Propaganda; The Media Stokes Anger and Radicalization; Trapped in a Web of Punditry; Political Debate and Search Engine Politics