14.0204 naming and specifying

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Thu Aug 31 2000 - 08:00:28 CUT

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "14.0205 new on WWW: from STOA; Dreyfus on intelligence"

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 204.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA> (78)
             Subject: Re: 14.0200 fingerprints of genius and "The Nine
                     Billion Names of God"

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (40)
             Subject: specification as apotropaic gesture

             Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 07:37:09 +0100
             From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA>
             Subject: Re: 14.0200 fingerprints of genius and "The Nine Billion
    Names of God"

    Fellow Humanists:

    I read with some surprise Willard's allusion to Clarke's story -- surprise
    at the depth of the question he used it to prompt. I read "The Nine Billion
    Names of God" many years ago as a child, and hadn't really thought about it
    since then. Now his question brings it back with a wave of recognition and
    enlightenment: "Of course!!" Of course, back then the whole idea of the
    world existing so that God might be fully named struck me as "silly", not
    to mention a little self-indulgent on god's part. But as Josephine Tarvers
    says, it's not silly at all. Think of the lamas' naming as a (dare I say
    it) metaphor for human activity as such, or, for that matter, any and all
    activity (i.e., the activity of the world, of which our activity is a
    specialized subset).

    Here, I'd draw your attention to an article by Hans Jonas: "Immortality and
    the modern temper" (available in *Phenomenon of Life*, Harper & Row 1966).
    Jonas tells a different story (he calls it a myth) which I now see has
    provided me the key to understanding the story about the Tibetan lamas --
    and the role of technology therein. Jonas' myth is, it seems to me, a
    brilliant re-interpretation of Christian, Gnostic and Jewish motifs in a
    distinctly modern, even "existentialist" vein. Here's how it goes.

    Jonas asks us to consider the creation of the world as a complete
    self-effacement of divinity, out of which the image (name?) of divinity
    slowly and painstaking arises over cosmic aeons. But here's the kicker:
    there is simply no guarantee that the Divine will ever get itself back
    again, because its restoration depends upon the free agency of active
    selves (i.e., us). And we could screw it up. And we do screw it up. The
    Divine depends upon us to restore itself through us; hence our immense
    responsibility. Every action of ours is inscribed on the face of divinity
    for all eternity; every action of ours is like a "naming" of God. Let me
    quote a few lines:

    "in order that the world might be, and be for itself, God renounced his own
    being, divesting himself of his deity -- to receive it back from the
    Odyssey of time weighted with the chance harvest of unforseeable temporal
    experience: transfigured or possibly even disfigured by it." [Eons pass,
    life evolves....]

    "And then he [God] trembles as the thrust of evolution, carried by its own
    momentum, passes the threshold where innocence ceases and an entirely new
    criterion of success and failure takes hold of the divine stake. The advent
    of man means the advent of knowledge and freedom, and with this supremely
    double-edged gift the innocence of the mere subject of self-fulfilling life
    has given way to the charge of responsibility under the disjunction of good
    and evil. To the promise and risk of this agency the divine cause, revealed
    at last, henceforth finds itself committed; and its issue trembles in the
    balance. The image of God, haltingly begun by the universe, for so long
    worked upon -- and left undecided -- in the wide and then narrowing spirals
    of pre-human life, passes with this last twist, and with a dramatic
    quickening of the movement, into man's precarious trust, to be completed,
    saved, or spoiled by what he will do to himself and the world."

    "Having given himself whole to the becoming world, God has no more to give:
    it is man's now to give to him. And he may give by seeing to it in the ways
    of his life that it does not happen, or happen too often, and not on his
    account, that 'it repented the Lord' to have made the world."

    Technology is a major concern of Jonas's, though in this piece he is more
    concerned with questions of immortality. Here, though, he simply alludes to
    the crucial role that technology plays both in elevating humanity, and in
    threatening it:

    "But even if not in their shadow [e.g. Auchwitz], certainly the Bomb is
    there to remind us that the image of God is in danger as never before, and
    on most unequivocal, terrestrial terms. That in these terms an eternal
    issue is at stake together with our temporal one -- this aspect of our
    responsibility can be our guard against the temptation of fatalistc
    aquiescence or the worse treason of apres nous le deluge"

    I hope these quotations are not too long, and I've not put you all off. I
    also hope I have cast a flicker upon the profundity of Willard's question:
    philosophy, science -- and technology -- are all part of the
    self-transcendence of the world. They are not themselves among "the nine
    billion names of God", but they are the means for us to find those names.
    And only in the eternality of the inscription of those names (by our
    actions) can we see the true depth of our responsibility not to falter.

    Steve Robinson

    Dr. Steven Robinson
    Assistant Professor
    Philosophy Department
    Brandon University
    Brandon, Manitoba
    R7A 6A9 CANADA

    FAX: (204) 726-0473

             Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 07:41:27 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: specification as apotropaic gesture

    Further to the talk on "The Nine Billion Names of God" I've been wondering
    this bright though slightly chilly London morning more or less
    anthropologically about specification as a magical gesture meant to turn
    away or avert (apo-trope, thus "apotropaic") some evil. In other words,
    about the deep cultural history behind the impulse we have to deal with
    what troubles us by telling or spelling it out. Trouble that gains its
    power by being kept in the dark, against which the light of reason seems so
    effective. To what extent, I'm wondering, are we misled in our applications
    of computing by this impulse to spell out the troubling mysteries of our
    cultural artefacts until they have all become safe data?

    If you don't think this is a good thing, then you'll be hearing the other
    side of the apotropaic story already, according to which the lurking evil
    is the unknowable good, the enumeration or specification of its analysed
    parts is the evil means by which the essence of it is lost, or (again) as
    William Blake said, the means by which we reply to words of doubt and so
    put the light of knowledge out.

    If we regard the idea of the unknowable as essentially wrong, i.e. a stupid
    way to think about the unknown, then does it not follow that we take to
    computing with the notion that scholarship is essentially reducible to
    algorithms? I recall once, when my place in the academic world did not
    allow me to say what I thought, a profoundly ignorant senior academic
    telling me that a team of professors should be funded to take up the work
    of a certain very famous literary critic and prove or disprove it. (So
    astonishing was this remark to me, so clearly did it reveal the nature of
    the beast, that I recall exactly where it was said, what time of day, etc.)
    Yes, I know, one sputters at the silliness of such an attitude, but it
    doesn't seem to be going away, not anytime soon.

    My question continues to be, how do we reply constructively? What is the
    argument in our terms (i.e. the terms of humanities computing) for the
    unknowable? Which, it seems to me, is basically the question, how do we as
    computing humanists put the case for the study of the humanities?

    I enjoy (to speak in mythological terms) seeing the army of darkness, with
    its banners of progress, on the fields of ancient magical practice; this
    gives me a certain appreciation for the deep underlayer of fear that powers
    so much of what's done with computing. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate -- but
    it is to make a point, so perhaps you'll allow it.) But I do think we have
    to do better than that. I think we need to have a constructive reply, even
    if the magical beliefs in progress are never articulated as such or seldom
    in the terms I was fortunate to hear them expressed.



    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Aug 31 2000 - 07:59:45 CUT