14.0200 fingerprints of genius and "The Nine Billion Names of God"

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Tue Aug 29 2000 - 20:40:10 CUT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 200.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance) (60)
             Subject: Of names, gods and disappearances

       [2] From: "Tarvers, Josephine K." (22)
             Subject: RE: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

       [3] From: "Eric S. Rabkin" <esrabkin@umich.edu> (61)
             Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

       [4] From: aimeefreak <ahm@ualberta.ca> (24)
             Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

       [5] From: "Osher Doctorow" <osher@ix.netcom.com> (46)
             Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

       [6] From: "Dr Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan@cse.msu.edu> (24)
             Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

    [Many thanks to the several others who wrote in to identify Arthur C
    Clarke's story. --WM]

             Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2000 21:14:51 +0100
             From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
             Subject: Of names, gods and disappearances


    Somewhere in the universe, while your thought-experiment namer recites the
    names of some supreme being, another thought-experiment atheist generates
    new names and resists the lure of thermodynamic entropy too clossely
    wedded to monotheism.

    A name is not a nonrewnable quanta of energy that is lost once played in
    some game of communication. Names are not atoms.

    And even if they were considered or encoded atomisticly, their
    interactions may perhaps be better capture by models based on non-linear
    dynamical systems rather than classical mechanics.

    Allow me to quote Sir Oliver Lodge:

    But this idea of the dissipation or degradation of energy I do not put
    amng the most fundatmental of modern scientific ideas, for we are
    geginning to suspect that there may be a renovating or rsuscitating cause,
    about which it is best to hold judgment in suspense. We cannot be sure
    that a cyclical or recurrent or periodic activity, continuing without
    cessastion for ever, is not a characteristic of the material universe as a
    whole. Likened to a great Loom, from the oscillations of which there
    steadily emerges a woven fabric of beauty and design, the product or
    outcome of the periodic working of the material universe may be sought in
    a gradual increase or rise in spiritual values -- a fluctuating, but on
    the whole progressive, improvement in higher and still higher qualities of
    life and mind --- magnum Jovis incrmentum.

    from Modern Scientific Ideas Especially the Idea of Discontiuity (1927)

    Notwithstanding the Hegelian spiral of improvement invoked by Sir Oliver,
    I do believe that intellectual historians might be inclined to place
    between the heyday of the clockwork universe metaphor and rise of the Loom
    (aka Web) metaphor three interesing developments: in the domain of
    mathematics and physics, advances in modeling systems far from
    equilibrium; in the domain of philosophy, the linguistic turn; and in the
    technological domain, the perfection of computing machines.

    And need I add in the domain of culture : pluralism & hybridity?

    Is it an accident that W. Gibson in the concluding volume of his trilogy
    introduces the Loa of Voodoo tradition as inhabitants of cyberspace? I
    wonder how many teachers assign all three novels: Neuromancer, Mona Lisa
    Overdrive and Count Zero. Rereading Neuromancer after completing Count
    Zero is a rather interesting experience. The network has its

    I wonder if the devastation of the supreme being by naming would not
    require a similutaneous naming of all the names at once (not easy to
    coordinate over time zones *smile*) --- all names actual and potential.

    I guess this little excursion brings back a truism about Humanities
    Computing. HC is about the intricate interplay between the actual and
    potential as well as the manifest and the latent and the squaring of these
    two pairs.

                    actual manifest

                    latent potential

    Somehow your little anecdote or thought experiment implies that when the
    latent is made manifest (via a speaking of the unspoken [pronouncing of
    the unpronouncable]) all potential collapses into the actual and without
    a potential to nourish it the actual dies.

    But does that not nourish the potential? The machine may crash but the
    machine model work on.

    Maybe Sir Oliver's Hegelian moment deserves a rerun in this century of
    proliferating cybernetic domains.

    Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large
    Member of the Evelyn Letters Project

             Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2000 21:16:42 +0100
             From: "Tarvers, Josephine K." <tarversj@exchange.winthrop.edu>
             Subject: RE: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

    Willard, I want more time to think about this--but I will add that the story
    in question is Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God," which I
    am teaching on Monday afternoon in my Cyber Rhetoric class
    (http://faculty.winthrop.edu/tarversj/engl510.htm, for those of you who want
    to look; the story is linked on the readings list). And the attempt is not
    "silly"--one of the main points of the story is that the Buddhist monks in
    the story see a supercomputer, a technological tool, as a very licit means
    of achieving a transcendent humanistic purpose, and the disbelievers who
    attempt to sabotage the event are the ones who end up looking foolish.
    Whether the notion of using such a tool to achieve that purpose qualifies as
    an act of genius, of course, is open to debate, as is the question of
    whether technology is innately inimical to humanistic thought and

    Jo Koster Tarvers, Ph.D.
    Department of English
    Winthrop University
    Rock Hill, SC 29733-0001 USA
    phone (803) 323-4557
    fax (803) 323-4837
    e-mail tarversj@winthrop.edu
    on the web http://faculty.winthrop.edu/tarversj

             Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2000 21:17:55 +0100
             From: "Eric S. Rabkin" <esrabkin@umich.edu>
             Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

    Willard, the story you're recalling is "The Nine Billion Names of God"
    (1952) by
    Arthur C. Clarke. In it, two Western technologists set up a computer to
    run the
    program fulfilling the utterance requirement of the Tibetan monks,
    permuting their
    special alphabet to generate all nine billion possible names of God and thus
    fulfill human destiny. The Westerners leave the monastery as the program nears
    its completion, fearing that when the last name is generated and (of course)
    nothing happens, the monks will become enraged and turn on the
    Westerners. As the
    Westerners reach the midpoint on their journey down the mountain, the story
    famously ends thus:

              "Look," whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to
    heaven. (There is
    always a last time for everything.)
              Overhead, without any fuss, the star were going out.

    So, you ask, "what ARE we getting at?" Less famously, but, in my view, quite
    importantly, earlier on the last page of that story, Chuck and George
    strain their
    vision looking down into the valley for the aircraft that to them represents
    escape from the coming wrath (of the monks).

              "There she is!" called Chuck, pointing down into the
    valley. "Ain't she
              She certainly was, thought George. The battered old DC3 lay at
    the end of
    the runway like a tiny silver cross. [...]

    Coupled with the winking stars, Clarke is offering us complex imagery that also
    asks, "what ARE we getting at?" Has Western belief become so transformed by
    technology that we feel we can dominate it ("she" for the plane, not "it", the
    sign of male domination; one would never called a Christian cross "she")? Does
    that hubris, compared with the monks' selfless devotion (which puts
    technology in
    the service of their religion, not the other way around), suggest not only
    why God
    is on the monks' side but how we all may be misunderstanding the world by
    on our tools rather than on their uses? Or is this a vision of two men poised
    between two worlds, halfway up and halfway down the mountain, where the
    height of
    devotion and the valley of the shadow of death (including the supposedly
    redemptive death on the cross) equally receive the promised "end of days" under
    the shared canopy of "heaven"? If "what we are up to" is the achievement
    of peace
    (as in both traditions), then the frantic pursuit of technology may be
    self-defeating, although the story clearly suggests that the technology
    itself has
    no choice but to fulfill the divine plan.

    Of course, Clarke's memorable narrative effect is based on surprising us by
    revelation of a divine plan. That such a revelation is a surprise in the
    of a _science_ fiction suggests that the cultural conflict he explores
    exists in
    us all. And not just, in my view, in "computing humanists."


    Eric S. Rabkin              734-764-2553 (Office)
    Dept of English             734-764-6330 (Dept)
    Univ of Michigan            734-763-3128 (Fax)
    Ann Arbor MI 48109-1003     esrabkin@umich.edu


    --[4]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2000 21:19:18 +0100 From: aimeefreak <ahm@ualberta.ca> Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

    it's by arthur c. clarke. it's called 'the nine billion names of god.' it was published in 1953 -- and it's on my reading lists for candidacy exams fast approaching -- not so fast, though, that i've reread the story yet. but, ignorance of all but the name of the story notwithstanding, i just *had* to jump at the opportunity to demonstrate my handle on computer-related arcana ...

    on the tyranny of perfectly administered IQ tests, see kurt vonnegut's _player piano_ which describes a society in which standardized tests, results of which follow an individual throughout life, encoded on punch cards fed into an endless series of mainframes. briefly, engineers and managers run the world. well, they tend the computers that direct the machines that *actually* run the world.

    in the novel, there is some concern that IQ tests fail to capture some nuances of humanity, like creativity, gusto, artistic capacity, etc. social standing is entirely based on hierarchical job arrangements (with numbers, so you can easily determine relative status) which are alloted based on numerical IQ test scores.


    aimeefreak ------------------------------ aimee morrison phd program, dept of english university of alberta edmonton, alberta http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca/amorrison

    --[5]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2000 21:19:57 +0100 From: "Osher Doctorow" <osher@ix.netcom.com> Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

    From: Osher Doctorow osher@ix.netcom.com, Mon. Aug. 28, 2000, 11:26PM

    WM has raised a profound question as usual. My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that words/names have no intrinsic meaning, as Shakespeare tells us. Neither does technological innovation/progress/fad. The world of computers is as divided as the world of Shakespeare, into those who believe in intrinsic meaning and those who believe in something beyond it. Reality is a name for something beyond intrinsic meaning, but for me it does not capture the full picture/sensation/cognition. Explanation/theory is a name for something beyond or perhaps parallel to reality, but again it seems incomplete. I think that what I am thinking of is some combination of the Unknown and the Force (as in Star Wars, but also as something that is more active than passive). We assume that Tibetans are homogeneous and that science fiction is homogeneous and that computers are homogeneous, but Dickens and Tolstoi and Shokholov tell us about divisions in the most unusual places. To me, the rising chi'i of Tai Chi and Tibetan Lamas is far more interesting than the names of God. In Judeo-Christian theology, we think that it was otherwise since the name of God Yahweh and the Word of John are thought to be sacred, and the name of God is not to be taken in vain - but what does that mean? If people wrote the Old and New Testaments, then the literal and non-literal translations of sacred and reverence may well reflect the division between those who believe in words and those who believe in something beyond them.

    When I proposed a fingerprint test for Creative Genius, it was actually not to separate, not to categorize, not to label, not to stigmatize, but to search. The fingerprints of the Unknown and the Force can never be completely subsumed in words, I think, and in this respect I agree with what I think is the essence of Sir Roger Penrose's viewpoint. I thought that it was a good idea to search, not in the direction of those who follow one step behind or ahead of somebody else in their genius - and it is still a form of genius, which I call Ingenious Follower, to do so. I meant to suggest that we search among those who were more than one step ahead. I know that this is disagreeable to many social scientists, who often argue that creativity only comes when society is ready for it and is essentially a social phenomenon. It is also often disagreeable to the "pure artist" who only wants to be guided by feelings. My own view is that there is something beyond feelings as well as beyond words and social accumulation - what I call a combination of the Unknown and the Force. Einstein felt the Force and the Unknown, whether as Creative Genius or Ingenious Follower. Erwin Schrodinger in the quantum theory appears to have also done so, and I am convinced that he was several steps ahead of other theorists in his field (he was, by the way, an almost lifelong friend of Einstein). I conjecture that the secretiveness of Newton and Fermat was a form of reverence of the Force and the Unknown. Finally, or perhaps I should say as a way of commencing, the fingerprints which I have in mind refer not to literal prints but to clues to Force(s) and Unknown(s) in all times and all places. The lights do not wink out. They come on. It is also called Creativity.

    Osher Doctorow

    --[6]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2000 21:21:08 +0100 From: "Dr Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan@cse.msu.edu> Subject: Re: 14.0196 what if we succeeded?

    There is, I think, a science-fiction story that plays on the same notion -- as I recall, a computer had been programmed to come up with these names, and as it generated them the stars winked out one by one.

    The story is"The Nine Billion Names of God"


    by Sir Arthur C. Clarke


    Sir Arthur was presented the "Award of Knight Bachelor" on 26 May, 2000, at a ceremony in Colombo, Sri Lanka where he has lived since 1956. Indeed, if memory serves, Sir Arthur describes himself as having lived in Sri Lanka in self-imposed exile from British tax laws.


    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London voice: +44 (0)20 7848 2784 fax: +44 (0)20 7848 5081 <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/> maui gratias agere

    _______________________________________________________________ Dr. Don Weinshank weinshan@cse.msu.edu http://www.cse.msu.edu/~weinshan Phone (517) 353-0831 FAX (517) 432-1061 Computer Science & Engineering Michigan State University

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