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Saturday, October 26, 2013

“God” == God

Three of my intellectual heroes these days, in roughly decreasing order of respectability: Bruno Latour, Christopher Alexander, and Alan Moore. If I squint I can even detect a common project or thread that unites them. For one thing, all seem vaguely disreputable from the standpoint of mainstream thought. In actual fact, all three of these people would likely be pretty welcome in technology circles; and both Latour and Alexander have keynoted major tech conferences. But part of their attraction is a certain outlaw quality that success has not eliminated.

For the other thing: they are all, in different ways, struggling towards the spiritual (for lack of a better term). Latour writes on ecotheology, Alexander is determined to undo materialist metaphysics in favor of something rigorously old-fashioned and hylozoic, and Moore – well, I’ll get to him. This spiritual bent is somehow linked closely to the disreputable qualities. At least in the eyes of the MIT-trained-nerdy-atheist aspect of myself. They beckon to me from outside prison walls that I seem to have erected for myself.

Latour and Alexander I’ve written about previously; Moore is a more recent object of obsession. He is, of course, pretty well-known at this point as the most accomplished writer in the comic book format (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentleman). What I didn’t know until recently was that he had declared himself to be a Magician, in roughly the Aleister Crowley sense, and was getting seriously into all sorts of mystical shit. In fact he’s written about this widely and you can find stuff on the net; his series Promethea is pretty much a catalog of various mystical systems in graphical form. While this sort of thing is not really my thing, I can at least respect that it is neither crazy or lamebrained or even supernatural. Here is a rough statement of the core of his stance as I understand it, from an interview in The Believer (emphasis added):
Actually, art and magic are pretty much synonymous. …The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody… When that enchantment is the creation of gods and the creation of mythology, or the kind in the practice of magic, what I believe one is essentially doing is creating metafictions. It’s creating fictions that are so complex and so self-referential that for all practical intents and purposes they almost seem to be alive. That would be one of my definitions of what a god might be. …It is a concept that has become so complex, sophisticated, and so self-referential that it appears to be aware of itself….If gods and entities are conceptual creatures, which I believe they are self-evidently, then the concept of a god is a god.
This is more or less exactly the same idea I was groping towards a few years back. Given my background and biases, I’m inclined to think of god-concepts in more quasi-mathematical terms, whereas Moore thinks in quasi-linguistic terms, but I think we are pointing in the same general direction. The title of this post is my attempt to condense the idea down to a sort of formal notation, because that’s what I do.

This way of looking at things seems so simple and obvious and at least partially right that I can’t believe it’s all that original (with either Moore or me). Yet I can’t find much prior art. Perhaps it isn’t really satisfying to most people who want to know one way or the other if there is a referent on the other end of the symbol. Maybe people’s concept of concept is not rich enough to encompass these kind of complex, quasi-autonomous structures. Concepts are insubstantial; gods if they are not mere fiction have some effects in the world. We are used to thinking of symbols as dead things on paper; but the more primal oral form of language was always alive, always closely connected to the real-time human activity of a speaker. The causal powers of words in the old days was immediate and obvious.

But we are getting more experience even in our advanced writing-based culture, with complex symbol systems that are immaterial and yet have effects in the world. That is what software is, after all. Gods are pieces of cultural software, powerful enough to erect cathedrals, start wars, bind together communities. Like software, they are living texts, actualized fictions.


Another doctrine that might sound profoundly anti-rational is that God’s holy four-letter name, the Tetragrammaton, is identical with God Himself. Unlike other names that merely point to the signified, when the unnamable Absolute becomes known to the created beings by a name, that name itself becomes the personal God of religion, ’Elohey Is ́ra’el. When the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they experienced a synesthetic vision, in which the sounds of the commandments were seen as flying letters, made of pure light...during their synesthetic experience, the Jews actually saw God as identical to His name. Therefore, it is permitted to bow before the letters of the Tetragrammaton, because they are God, in an esoteric sense, and not just a visual representation of Divinity, which Judaism forbids
From Between Enlightenment and Romanticism: Computational Kabbalah of Rabbi Pinchas Elijah HurwitzYoel Matveyev, talking about an 18th century encyclopedia assembled by Hurwitz ]


Konrad said...

The ontological argument of Saint Anzelm of Cantenbury leads us to: "God" => God

mtraven said...

Hm, don't see the ontological argument as very similar to the view above. It is an argument for the existence of God as a distinct being; Moore is positing gods as a linguistic phenomenon (but taking a broader view than usual of what linguistic phenomena can do).

The ontological argument does try to argue from the concept of God to the existence of God, so your formalism captures it well. I think it was answered well by Kant who pointed out that "existence is not a predicate", but I want to go further, and say that "existence is simply the wrong frame for thinking about gods, so please stop these tedious debates between theists and atheists".

Anonymous said...

If looking for prior art read "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson (and surely other predecessor works that Stephenson could point you to).

mtraven said...

That is true, I had forgotten that aspect of Snow Crash.

The idea is also quite explicit in Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, the other major British-graphic-novel-author-theologian.

I guess it is not that surprising that fiction writers should be comfortable with this way of thinking. It is a bit alarming that comic books are a better guide to metaphysics than the so-called serious thinkers, but I can live with that.

dan said...

I think the concept of God isn't quite specific enough to be called software, yet.

In programming, linked lists, and "sorting a list" are Concepts.

Quick Sort and Bubble Sort are Algorithms that try to fulfil that concept. They take the Concept but do it in different ways.

Then cquicksort and quicksort in haskell or quicksort in python are all extremely different pieces of code, and do details in staggeringly different ways, even though the algorithm is ultimately the same. Many things are actually impossible to do exactly the same way as the languages are so different.

Those languages can be run on different architectures, but not all of them on all. So you can't run haskell on a lispmachine. (OK, so technically you could write a haskell emulator, but it would be slow, ugly, and utterly distort both haskell and the poor lispmachine.) You can't (realistically) run Python on an Arduino.

An individual computer can run programs for that architecture, but actually running it is different from it simply being technically compatible. Certain run time issues (such as what other programs are active at the time. Hardware constraints, etc.)

I would put the following links for the metaphor:

Concept = 'there is a supreme being (god)' or 'there is a dimension to us outside/beyond that which can be explained or observed by physics & science' or 'there is nothing, no supreme being, no souls, no spiritual nature beyond that which we can see/measure/explain by our current understanding of science.'

Algorithm = 'God is a Person, as revealed by the Jewish & Christian Scriptures', or 'every living thing contains elements of the divine, we are all god' or 'There is a dualism to the universe, good/evil, dark/light, creation/destruction, yin/yang, which are both but sides of the same coin' or 'Humans are no different from other purely physically determined animals, meaning/truth/beauty/etc are but chemical figments of our cultural meta-narrative'

Software = Evangelical Christianity (as say, defined by ), or strict Zen Buddhism, or Shia Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, or Marxism, or Jesuit Ingationism, or Polpot's utterly batshit insane Khmer Rouge movement, or Calvinism, or Alan Moore's take on Witchcraft.

Programming Language/Architecture = Specific Cultural group. Such as Wealthy Southern White American Ranchers, Poverty stricken post communist Romanian villagers, Western Saharan Tribesmen, Bavarian Craftsfolk, New York Hipsters, Manhattan Ghetto-living shopkeepers, Sephardic Jews, etc.

Obviously, there is some overlap between Algorithm and Software. Just as a sufficiently specific algorithm may only really work as specified in certain implementations/languages or platforms.

So then.

Mother Teresa, and the Westboro Baptists both had the same initial concept, that of an all-powerful creator God, as presented by the bible. However, the actual algorithms that spun out of that same concept are utterly different. Some software may not even be possible to run on certain architectures.

I'm fairly sure there's no way that Westboro could even compile on 90%+ of those who also call themselves Christians. Let alone run without segfaulting.

Likewise the 'there-is-no-god' concept, has been spun into the algorithms of pretty benign humanism, Marxism, racial supremacist movements, transhumanism, UNESCO, the Khmer Rouge, Steven Dawkins optimistic Scientism, and so on.

Also, people being what they are, a piece of software once actually installed, actually starts getting modified by the system itself, we're all genetic belief-algorithm making machines. :-)

Or something like that.

It's an interesting discussion. Lots of things to think about.

dan said...

And, I guess, anther side of the whole thing, is that in a sense, each person is also a piece of software. There is a version of me being emulated by my wife, in her head. It's not a full complete version of me, as the hardware we have as humans isn't capable of fully emulating another. Or even of fully knowing another well enough to have a full version able to be emulated fully. We really are very limited.

However, we still do run our own emulators of each other, how we expect others to react, what we can count on them to do, etc.

Whenever we meet others, or talk about them, a version of us is installed or updated into their memory, that they can run, to one level or another. Some people pick up the software of someone else from emotional cues only. Others from words and actions.

The guys at work have a very different version of me installed compared to the version my wife has. (She has a version with a lot more sex and a lot less dogmatism about how to write software :-) ). I guess this is where our integrity as people comes out. How we present ourselves to others, and how they receive that. If the version of me that colleagues know is totally incompatible with the me my wife knows, then things will be really awkward at socials.

Certain software packages, such as certain versions of the 'Christian God' can be easily installed by many people. And technology such as the printing press helps distribution. Most of us don't get very wide distribution, as most people don't spin up their instance of us except when they need us.

With mass media, a lot of people have pretty similar versions of celebrities or film stories running in their minds.

Anyway. I guess the point I was aiming for, I think, is that the concept of 'God', may actually have a person behind it, in the same way that the software of 'dan' actually has me behind it. (Or not. Maybe I'm just a concept running in your mind that's strong enough to make the data from your eyes get corrupted into thinking my comments are here!).

Hal Morris said...

Oceans of ink have been spilled trying to explain successful sciences by characterizing methods, and such requirements as that meaningful propositions must have conceivable falsifications.

But has it been suggested that the biggest reason for the success of a few domains of knowledge it that they looked in the right direction, and found a tractable domain?

Hal Morris said...

Was that (previous comment) a total non-sequitur? Perhaps. It's something I've been itching to ask of anyone who might listen. I have a faint recollection of a fleeting reference telling me I should check out Steven Toulmin.

My unfinished attempt to elaborate is at

While human thoughts, conversations, imaginings, belief systems, etc. can sometimes propagate and achieve a reality on a par with atoms, automobiles, guns, etc., as per memetics, I've very skeptical of analogizing vague sets of beliefs ("supreme being", e.g. is surely vague) to computers with their many levels of processes. It seems a bit like reasoning run amuck, without sufficient groundedness in a tractable domain of reality, as in the "proof that all natural numbers are interesting".

I am more attracted to the Alvin Goldman school of social epistemology (See vs the Steven Fuller school, which is more apt to embrace Latour, though I don't know enough about Latour, and will not draw a caricature of his his work -- he has after all expressed alarm over the whole "social construction" tendency to support pseudo-skeptic tendencies such as Climate "skepticism" and creation science.

mtraven said...

@Hal -- that did seem somewhat non-sequitur-ish here, although it's relevant to the Latour-related stuff that I post. I'd recommend him; part of his theory is exactly what I think you are talking about, that science has specific procedures designed to make certain phenomena legible ("turning them into inscriptions" is how he puts it). Naturally this means selectively choosing what to model and what to ignore. The first few chapters of the recent /Pandora's Hope/ have some good illustrations of this.

Was not aware of Alvin Goldman, but he looks interesting, so thanks for the pointer.

Unknown said...

I am just reading Douglas Adams' posthumous "Salmon of Doubt".

There is an essay in it where Adams asks "is God artificial?", where I think he approaches this idea. It was apparently delivered as a talk at a scientific confab (I want to say in Santa Fe, but I don't remember).

It is a delightful speech. I think you will enjoy it, particularly its framing device of "the four ages of sand".

Hal Morris said...

A history of the Rutgers philosophy dept calls Goldman "one of the Twentieth Century’s major figures in Epistemology", and he does serious work in cognitive science, e.g. _Simulating Minds_ surveying the idea that our sense of other people comes from simulations in our own heads.

Hal Morris said...

Something you might find interesting

is a well-written article about the two major schools of thought in Social Epistemology, in which Bruno Latour is treated as a somewhat special case.

(I also tried messaging to your facebook page as you may not be still watching this thread.

Josh W said...

I've been thinking about vicarious self awareness recently, Douglas Hofstader's theory of the ego is essentially that it is a description feedback loop, where the perception of self regulates the action of the self in a self-perpetuating way.

Once you have the mechanisms to support this, you do not in principle have to apply them just to your own self consciousness; you can live for a larger collective that nevertheless includes yourself, your livelihood etc. You can fight for the honour of your god as you would fight for your own, and adjust your conceptions of your group or the mechanisms by which you define it's identity, or indeed your god, or project's identity, so as to make it fit to your highest standards.

In other words, add Feuerbach to Autopoiesis, and you get an idea of how people can sacrifice themselves to creating a god; they can humble themselves, reapplying their ego feedback functions to a deferred concept that nonetheless has their interests in mind, but in concert with that of a larger community.

Anonymous said...

If the writer still checks the comments here- I'd say Godel, Escher, Bach has traces of what you you're looking for re: "prior" art. As well Joyce, as well Borges, as well Blake (Actually, Promethea Issue #10's Sgt. Pepper cover is a good guide for finding some people that clearly influenced Moore in his concept of god, magic, and metafiction). Perhaps find the small book titled "A Blakean Translation of Joyce's 'Circe'. More recently, you could read Roberto Bolano's 2666, though it's harder to tease the theology out of it. Or you've read all these, and I am not helping.