- We stand in an arena, the great coliseum. For it is the apostles who were sent forth last, as if men condemned to die, made a spectacle unto the world, to angels and men.
- St. Job was made like unto a champion waging war against Satan, on God’s behalf. He lost everything and remained God-fearing, standing as the saint who vindicated God.
- But all the saints vindicate God.
- We are told as we read the trials in the Book of Job that Satan stands slandering God’s saints day and night and said God had no saint worthy of temptation. And the Lord God Almighty allowed Satan to tempt St. Job.
- We are told this, but in the end of the Scripture, even when St. Job’s losses are repaid double, St. Job never hears. He never knows that he stands in the cosmic coliseum, as a champion on God’s behalf. Never on earth does St. Job know the reason for the catastrophes that befell him.
- St. Job, buffeted and bewildered, could see no rhyme or reason in what befell him. Yet even the plagues of Satan were woven into the plans of the Lord God who never once stopped working all things to good for this saint, and to the saint who remained faithful, the plagues of Satan are woven into the diadem of royal priesthood crowning God’s saints.
- Everything that comes to us is either a blessing from God or a temptation which God has allowed for our strengthening. The plagues by which Satan visited St. Job are the very means themselves by which God glorified his faithful saint.
- Do not look for God in some other set of circumstances. Look for him in the very circumstances you are in. If you look at some of your circumstances and say, “God could not have allowed that!”, you are not rightly accepting the Lord’s work in the circumstances he has chosen to work his glory.
- You are in the arena; God has given you weapons and armor by which to fight. A poor warrior indeed blames the weapons God has armed him with.
- Fight therefore, before angels and men. The circumstances of your life are not inadequate, whether through God lacking authority, or wisdom, or love. The very sword blows of Satan glancing off shield and armor are ordained in God’s good providence to burnish tarnishment and banish rust.
- The Almighty laughs Satan to scorn. St. Job, faithful when he was stricken, unmasked the feeble audacity of the demons.
- God gives ordinary providence for easy times, and extraordinary providence for hard times.
- If times turn hard for men, and much harder for God’s servants, know that this is ordained by God. Do not suppose God’s providence came when you were young but not now.
- What in your life do you wish were gone so you could be where you should be? When you look for God to train you in those very circumstances, that is the beginning of victory. That is already a victory won.
- Look in every circumstance for the Lord to train you. The dressing of wounds after struggle is part of training, and so is live combat.
- The feeble audacity of the demons gives every appearance of power, but the appearance deceives.
- Nothing but your sins can wound you so that you are down. And even our sins are taken into the work of the Almighty if we repent.
- When some trial comes to you, and you thank God, that is itself a victory.
- Look for God’s work here and now. If you will not let God work with you here and now, God will not fulfill all of your daydreams and then begin working with you; he will ask you to let him train you in the here and now.
- Do you find yourself in a painfully rough situation? Then what can you do to lighten others’ burdens? Instead of asking, “Why me?”, ask, “Why not me?”
- An abbot asked a suffering monk if he wanted the abbot to pray that his suffering be taken away. The disciple said, “No,” and his master said, “You will outstrip me.”
- It is not a contradiction to say that both God has designs for us, and we are under the pressure of trials. Diamonds are only made through pressure.
- No disciple is greater than his master. Should we expect to be above sufferings when the Son of God was made perfect through suffering?
- Anger is a spiritual disease. We choose the path of illness all the more easily when we do not recognize that God seeks to train us in the situation we are in, not the situation we wish we were in.
- It is easier not to be angry when we recognize that God knows what he is doing in the situations he allows us to be in. The situation may be temptation and trial, but was God impotent, unwise, or unloving in how he handled St. Job?
- We do not live in the best of all possible worlds by any means. We live instead in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods. And that is the greater blessing.
- Some very holy men no longer struggle spiritually because spiritual struggle has worked out completely. But for the rest of us, struggle is a normal state. It is a problem for you or I to pass Lent without struggle. If we struggle and stumble and fall, that is good news. All the better if we cannot see how the thrusts and blows of the enemy’s sword burnish away a little rust, one imperceptible speck at a time.
- Do you ask, “Did it have to hurt that much?” When I have asked that question, I have not found a better answer than, “I do not understand,” and furthermore, “Do I understand better than God?”
- We seek happiness on terms that make success and happiness utterly impossible. God destroys our plans so that we might have the true happiness that is blessedness.
- Have a good struggle.
- There is no road to blessedness but the royal road of affliction that befits God’s sons. Consider it pure joy when you fall into different trials and temptations. If you have trouble seeing why, read the Book of James.
- Treasures on earth fail. Treasures in Heaven are more practical.
- Rejoice and dance for joy when men slander you and revile you and curse you for what good you do. This is a sign you are on the royal road; this is how the world heralds prophets and sons of God. This earthly dishonor is the seal of Heavenly honor.
- If you have hard memories, they too are a part of the arena. Forgive and learn to thank God for painful memories.
- Remember that you will die, and live in preparation for that moment. There is much more life in mindfully dying each day than in heedlessly banishing from your mind the reality. Live as men condemned to die, made a spectacle before men and angels.
- Live your life out of prayer.
- It takes a lifetime of faith to trust that God always answers prayers: he answers either “Yes, here is what you asked,” or “No, here is something better.” And to do so honestly can come from the struggle of praying your heart out and wondering why God seemed to give no answer and make no improvements to your and others’ pain.
- In the Bible, David slew Goliath. In our lives, David sometimes prevails against Goliath, but often not. Which is from God? Both.
- Struggling for the greater good is a process of at once trying to master, and to get oneself out of the way. Struggle hard enough to cooperate with God when he rips apart your ways of struggling to reach the good.
- Hurting? What can you do to help others?
Apps that are directly useful for ascesis
There are not many apps formally labeled as Orthodox Christian, but there are some apps and mobile websites that can be used in the pursuit of the spiritual discipline of ascesis. Among these apps are:
- Ancient Faith Radio
- The value of this app goes more or less without saying, but there is one caveat.
I visited a monastery whose rules included not playing recorded music, and I saw outside the nave an old man, with headphones on, listening to Byzantine chant, moving to its beat and off in his own world.
It struck me, if anything, as an act beneath the dignity of an old man. Being off in your own world is not good for anyone, but there are some things tolerated in youth that are just sad in a mature adult. And as best I can surmise the rule was not a rule against certain types of prohibited music (though acid rock would be a worse violation), but using technology to be off in your own world in the first place. And it is because of this that I rarely listen to recorded liturgical music: it is easily available, but there is something about it that is simply wrong. (And this is not just a matter of how digital music sounds to someone with perfect pitch.)
I know of nothing better in terms of Orthodox Internet radio than Ancient Faith Radio, and really have very little if anything to say how Ancient Faith Radio could better do the job of a radio station (or, as the case may be, two stations providing access to lectures, sacred liturgical chant, and access to past broadcasts). But I have some reservations about why Orthodox need to be doing the job of a radio station—as, for that matter, I have a cautious view of my own website. The ironically titled The Luddite’s Guide to Technology lays out the attitude where a radio station with crisply rendered sacred song available on one’s iPhone or Android should be used that much.
- CJSHayward.com/psalms/?mode=mobile (bookmark for iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry; tablet users may prefer CJSHayward.com/psalms/)
- The Psalter is the greatest prayerbook of the Orthodox Church. This page selects a Psalm at random, until you click a link and it provides another Psalm at random. They seem to be helpful, chiefly because the Psalter is helpful.
- JonathansCorner.mobi (bookmark for iPhone, iPad, Droid, Samsung, Android, Kindle, and Blackberry; tablet users may prefer CJSHayward.com)
- I hate to hawk my own wares, but I’ve put quite a lot into the two sites linked above, and perhaps reading them may be of some use.
- Your smartphone’s built-in note-taking application, or Momento for iPhone or iPad (with many diary applications for Droid, Samsung, and Android, and perhaps other offerings for other devices.
- Some monks in the ancient world kept a notebook, and something to write with, by their belts. They would stop at intervals to write down their thoughts: not brilliant ideas to think about, but take moral stock of where they were and how they were doing.
Such a practice was not mandatory in the ancient world and to my knowledge no one requires it now. However, since I started doing it, I have besides some very stupid struggles come to a higher level of awareness, of nipsis, of how much goes on in my head and heart that is simply silly.
If you do this, it would be better to have an application that stores your information locally in your smartphone instead of uploading it to the cloud where others may more easily find it. That is why I don’t recommend Evernote for this purpose; it is a very attractive app in many ways, but not as strong on privacy as your smartphone’s built-in note taker or a diary app.
- The Kindle app for iPhone, iPod Touch, Droid, Samsung, Android, and Blackberry (not to mention PC’s)
- I wouldn’t want to denigrate paperback books, but you can buy some of the greatest classics on Kindle: the Orthodox Study Bible (an edition I discussed in my Orthodox bookshelf), the Philokalia, and My Orthodox Prayer Book. Plenty of lesser works are available too: see my own Kindle offerings at CJSHayward.com.
- Wants and Needs
- Having this app is a want and not a need, but there are legitimate wants.
This is a simple but very well-executed app to help appreciate what are our wants, what are our needs, and what we have to be grateful for.
Apps that are generally useful
G.K. Chesterton said, “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.” And there is more Orthodoxy in just using an iPhone as a tool for being human than going to the app store and looking for apps endorsed as religious.
Do a Google search for best iPhone apps, for instance, and you will find a wealth of app recommendations. And many of these can work as a support for an Orthodox life of ascesis: Orthodoxy did not invent the pot, the belt, or the hammer, and yet all of these can have a place. Not, perhaps, the same place as a book of prayers, but a legitimate place. Secular tools and activities are holy when they are used by a life out of ascesis. And there are some excellent apps; among them I would name PocketMoney, a personal finance tool;mSecure, a password manager; Things, a to-do list; GPS MotionX Drive, a navigation tool; Flashlight, which lets you use the LED as a flashlight; and the main Google app, a search app optimized for the web by the company that defined search. All of these have their place.
But there are many apps on those lists that are unhelpful. Games and entertainment apps are meant to kill time, which is to say that they are meant to provide a convenient alternative to the spiritual discipline that tolds monks, “Your cell [room] will teach you everything you need to know.” And I suggest asking, in considering an app, “Does this support ascesis?” A to-do list helps with nuts and bolts of a disciplined life. An app to show a stream of new and different restaurants feeds gluttony. It is fine for Orthodox Christians to use apps that are not branded as Orthodox or ascetical, but the question “Does this support ascetical living?” (which is in no way a smartphone-centric question, but a basic question of Orthodox life, to be settled with one’s priest or spiritual father perhaps), applies here.
A closing note: When do you call 9-1-1 (or 9-9-9)?
There is a good case to be made that the most important number for you to be able to call on any phone is 9-1-1. However, this does not mean that your first stop in dealing with boredom is to call 9-1-1 to just chat with someone. It may be the most important number for you to be able to call—and the only number that may save your life—but using 9-1-1 rightly means using it rarely.
I would not speak with quite equal force about smartphones, but I would say that if you really want to know how to use your smartphone in a way that supports Orthodox spiritual discipline, the biggest answer is not to use one more app or one more mobile website. It is to use your phone less, to visit people face to face instead of talking and texting, and to use apps a little more like you use 9-1-1: to get a specific task accomplished.
And this is without looking at the problem of an intravenous drip of noise. The iPhone and Android’s marketing proposition is to deliver noise as an anaesthetic to boredom. And Orthodox use of the iPhone is not to deliver noise: all of us, with or without iPhones or Android devices, are to cultivate the ascesis of silence, and not make ourselves dependent on noise. And it is all too easy with these smartphones; they are designed so that it is too easy.
The Fathers did not say “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity,” but on this point they could have. Killing time is the opposite of the ascesis of being present, of being attentive of the here and now that God has given us, and not the here and now that we wish to be in or the here and now we hope to get to. Contentment and gratitude are for here now, not what we imagine as better conditions. We are well advised to live astemeniously, and that is where the best use of iPhone and Android smartphones and tablets comes from.
Smartphones have many legitimate uses, but don’t look to them for, in modern terms, a mood management tool.
- This life is an apprenticeship. You do not understand its purpose until you understand that we are created to be apprentice gods.
- It is said, a man knows the meaning of life when he plants a tree knowing he will never live to sit in its shade. Truer is to say that a man knows the meaning of life when he plants a tree not seeing how he will ever this side of Heaven sit in its shade.
- You do not understand life in the womb until you understand what is after the womb. For some actions in the womb bear fruit in the womb, but suckling and kicking are made to strengthen muscles for nursing and walking, and nursing a preparation for the solid food of men.
- You shall surely die: such Adam and Eve were warned, such Adam and Eve were cursed, and such the saints are blessed. For death itself is made an entryway for life. But we can only repent in this life: after this life our eternal choice of Life or Death is sealed.
- Do not despise moral, that is to say eternal, victories. Have you labored to do something great, only to find it all undone? Take courage. God is working with you to wreak triumph. From his eternal providence he is working, if you will be his co-worker, in synergy, to make with you something greater than you could possibly imagine, a treasure in Heaven which you never could imagine to be able to covet.
- The purpose of life may be called as an apprenticeship to become divine. The divine became man that man might become divine. The Scriptures oft speak of the sons of God, and of men’s participation in the nature divine. This divinisation begins on earth and reaches its full stature, when the Church triumphant and whole becomes the Church of saints who have become what in God they were trying to become. And we are summoned to that door.
- Were sportsmanship to be found only in a foreign culture, we would find it exotic. Play your best, seek to win a well-played game, but have dispassion enough to be graceful in winning and losing alike. But one of its hidden gems is that most often a team that has to win will be defeated by a team that only tries to give it their best.
- But sportsmanship is not just for sports. Hard times are encroaching and are already here: but we are summoned, not to win, but to play our best. Hence St. Paul, at the end of a life of as much earthly triumph as any saints, spoke as a true sportsman: he said not, “I have triumphed,” but that he had been faithful: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my [race]course, I have kept the faith. This from a saint who enjoyed greater earthly accomplishments than his very Lord.
- It is said that there are three ranks among the disciples: slaves who obey God out of fear, hirelings who obey God out of the desire for reward, and sons who obey God out of love. It has also been said that we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, for more people come to the truth from fear of Hell than the desire for the rewards in Heaven. But if you want a way out of Hell, seek to desire the incomparably greater reward in Heaven; if you seek reward in Heaven, come to obey God out of love, for love of God transcends even rewards in Heaven.
- It is said, Doth thou love life? Then do not waste time, for time is the stuff life’s made of. It might be said, Seekest thou to love? Then do not shun ascesis and discipleship, for they are the stuff love is made of. Or they a refining fire that purges all that is not silver and gold. Our deifying apprenticeship takes place through ascesis and being disciples.
- Two thoughts are to be banished: I am a saint, and I shall be damned. Instead think these two thoughts: I am a great sinner, and God is merciful. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. You have not met Christ’s dread judgment throne yet: seek each day to pursue more righteousness.
- The sum of our status as apprentice gods is this: Love men as made in the image of God, and work in time as the womb of eternity. Fulfill your apprenticeship with discipleship as best you are able. And follow God’s lead in the great Dance, cooperating in synergy with his will. And know that lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Can you pull out Leviathan with a hook,
or press his tongue down with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose,
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you?
Will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make a covenant with you?
Will he be your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird?
Or will you put him on a rope for your maidens?
Will traders bargain for him?
Shall he be divided among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons,
or his head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on him;
Think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed;
he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before him?
Who can confront him and be safe?
Under the whole Heavens, who?
I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his powerful frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Round about his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up as tightly as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can pass between them.
They are joined to one another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light;
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him.
The folds of his flesh cleave together,
firmly cast upon him and immovable.
His heart is as hard as a stone,
as hard as the lower millstone.
When he raises himself up, the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail;
nor spear, nor dart, nor javelin.
He counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotted wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee;
for him slingstones are turned to rubble.
Clubs are counted as stubble;
he laughs at the rattle of javelins.
His underparts are like sharp potsherds;
he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his equal,
a creature without fear.
He beholds everything that is high;
he is king over all of the sons of pride. (Job 41)
Behold Behemoth, which I made with you;
he eats grass as an ox.
Look now; his strength is in his loins,
and his power is in the muscles of his belly.
He swings his tail like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are like rods of bronze;
his limbs are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the works of God;
his maker can approach him with the sword.
Surely the mountains bring forth food to him,
where all of the beasts of the field play.
He lies under the lotus trees;
the willows of the book surround him.
Behold, he drinks up a river and is not frightened;
he is confident though the Jordan rushes into his mouth.
Can a man take him with hooks,
or pierce his nose with a snare? (Job 40:15-24)
These words, lightly altered from the Revised Standard Version, culminate a divine answer to Job out of the whirlwind: where was Job when God laid the foundation of earth? The divine voice turns to the foundations of the earth and the bounds of the sea, light and darkness, rain and hail, the stars, and the lion, mountain goat, wild ox and ass, ostrich, horse, and the hawk. The text is powerful even if translators demurely use “tail” for what the Behemoth swings like a cedar.
On a more pedestrian level, I was reticent when some friends had told me that they were going to be catsitting in their apartment and invited me over. (They know I love cats and other animals.) What I thought to explain later was that I proportionately outweigh a housecat by about as much as a mammoth outweighs me (perhaps “rhinoceros” would have been more appropriately modest than “mammoth”), and I try to let animals choose the pace at which they decide I’m not a threat. (And the cat has no way of knowing I don’t eat cats.) As far as the environment to meet goes, I didn’t bring up “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but humans are more forgiving than animals. Although I didn’t mention that, I did mention the difference between someone approaching you in a mailroom and someone following you in a less safe place. All of which was to explain why I love animals but would be cautious about approaching a cat in those circumstances and would play any visit by ear. (I later explained how even if the cat is not sociable and spends most of its visit hiding, they can still experience significant success by returning the cat to his owner unharmed with any unpleasantness quickly forgotten in the arms of his owner.)
As I write, I spent a lovely afternoon with those friends, and tried to serve as a tour guide. What I realized as I was speaking to them was that I was mixing the scientific with what was not scientific, not exactly by saying things some scientists would disapprove like why eyeless cave fish suggest a reason natural selection might work against the formation of complex internal and external organs, but by something else altogether.
What is this something else? It is the point of this essay to try and uncover that.
I wrote in Meat why I eat lots of beef but am wary of suffering caused by cruel farming, and for that reason don’t eat veal and go light on pork: I believe it is legitimate to kill animals for food but not moral to raise them under lifelong cruelty to make meat cheap. (Jesus was very poor by American standards and rarely had the luxury of eating meat.) While I hope you will bookmark Meat and consider trying to eat lower on the animal cruelty scale, my reason for bringing this up is different. The reason I wrote Meat has to do with something older in my life than my presently being delighted to find beef sausage and beef bacon, and trying not to eat much more meat than I need. And I am really trying hard not to repeat what I wrote before.
Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said that the one who does not murder because “Do not murder” is so deep in his bones that he needs no law to tell him not to murder, is greater than the theologian who can derive that law from first principles. What I want to talk about is simultaneously “deep in the bones” knowledge and something I would like to discover, and it is paradoxically something I want to discover because it is deep in my bones. And it is connected in my minds less to meat than when one of my friends, having come with a large dog who was extremely skittish around men, had a mix of both women and men over to help her move into her apartment, and asked me and not any of the women to take care of a dog she acknowledged was afraid of men. (I don’t know why she did this; I don’t think she thought about my being a man.) At the beginning of half an hour, the dog was manifestly not happy at being at the other end of a leash with me; at the end of the half hour the dog had his head in my lap and was wagging his tail to meet the other men as well as women.
Part of this was knowledge in the pure Enlightenment sense about stretching an animal’s comfort zone without pushing it into panic—a large part, in fact. But another part is that while I don’t believe that animals are people, I try to understand animals and relate to them the same way I understand and relate to people. Maybe I can’t discuss philosophy with a rabbit, and maybe a little bit of knowledge science-wise helps about minimizing intimidation to a creature whose main emotion is fear.
But that’s not all.
After I ended the phone conversation where I explained why I was wary of terrifying what might be an already afraid cat, I realized something. I had just completed a paper for a feminist theology class which criticized historical scholarship that looked at giants of the past as behaving strangely and inexplicably, and I tried to explain why their behavior was neither strange nor inexplicable. I suggested that historical sources need to be understood as human and said that if you don’t understand why someone would write what you’re reading, that’s probably a sign there’s something you don’t understand. Most of the length of my paper went into trying to help the reader see where the sources were coming from and see why their words were human, and neither strange nor inexplicable. What I realized after the phone conversation was that I had given the exact same kind of argument for why I was hesitant to introduce myself to the cat: I later called and suggested that the cat spend his first fifteen minutes in the new apartment with his owner petting him. I never said that the cat was human, and unlike some cat owners I would never say that the cat was equal to a human, but even if I will never meet that cat, my approach to dealing with the cat meet him is not cut off from my approach to dealing with people. And in that regard I’m not anywhere near a perfect Merlin (incidentally, a merlin is a kind of hawk, the last majestic creature we encounter before the proud Behemoth and Leviathan, and it does not seem strange to me that a lot of Druids have hawk in their name, nor do I think the name grandiose), but Merlin appears in characters’ speculation in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength as someone who achieves certain effects, not by external spells, but by who he is and how he relates to nature. That has an existentialist ring I’d like to exorcise, but if I can get by with saying that I feel no need to meditate in front of a tree and repeat a mantra of “I see the tree. The tree sees me,” nor do I spend much of any time trying to “Get in touch with nature…” then after those clarifications I think I can explain why something of Lewis’s portrayal of Merlin resonates. (And I don’t think it’s the most terribly helpful approach to talk about later “accretions” and try to understand Arthurian legend through archaeological reconstruction of 6th century Britain; that’s almost as bad as asking astronomy to be more authentic by only using the kind of telescopes Galileo could use.) It is not the scientific knowledge I can recite that enables me to relate to animals well, but by what is in my bones: a matter of who I am even before woolgathering about “Who am I?”
This has little to do with owning pets; I do not know that I would have a pet whether or not my apartment would allow them, and have not gone trotting out for a cat fix even though one is available next door. It’s not a matter of having moral compunctions about meat, although it fed into my acquiring such compunctions a few years ago. It’s not about houseplants either; my apartment allows houseplants but I have not gone to the trouble of buying one. Nor is it a matter of learning biology; physics, math, and computer science were pivotally important to me, but not only was learning biology never a priority for my leisure time, but I am rather distressed that when people want to understand nature they inevitably grab for a popular book on biology. When people try to understand other people, do they ask for CT scan of the other person’s brain? Or do they recognize that there is something besides biological and medical theories that can lend insight into people and other creatures?
The fact that we do not try to relate to people primarily through medicine suggests a way we might relate to other animals besides science: trying to relate to nature by understanding science is asking an I-It tree to bear I-Thou fruit. (If you are unfamiliar with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, it would also be comparable to asking a stone to lay an egg.)
I’m not going to be graphic, but I would like to talk about dissection. Different people respond differently to different circumstances, and I know that my experience with gradeschool dissection is not universal. I also know that dissection is not a big deal for some people, as I know that the hunters I know are among the kindest people I’ve met. Still I wish to make some remarks.
The first thing is that there is an emotional reaction you people need to suppress. Perhaps some adults almost reminisce about that part of their education as greatly dreaded but almost disappointing in its lack of psychological trauma. And I may be somewhat sensitive. But there’s something going on in that experience, stronger for some people and weaker in others. It’s one learning experience among others and what is learned is significant.
But is it really one learning experience among others?
Again without being graphic, dissection could have been used as a bigger example in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book I strongly reccommend. It finds a red flag in the dissection room, if mentioned only briefly—a red flag that something of our humanity is being lost.
To be slightly more graphic, one subtle cue was that in my biology classroom, there were plenty of gloves to begin with, then as the dissections progressed, only one glove per person, then no gloves at all—at a school for the financially gifted. And, to note something less subtle, the animals were arranged in a very specific order. You could call the progression, if you wanted to, the simplest and least technical to properly dissect, up to a last analysis which called for distinctly more technical skill. Someone more suspicious might point out how surprisingly the list of animals coincides with what a psychologist would choose in order to desensitize appropriately sensitive children. I really don’t think I’m being too emotional by calling this order a progression from what you’d want to step on to what some people would want to cuddle. I don’t remember the Latin names I memorized to make sense of what I was looking at. What it did to my manhood, or if you prefer humanity, is lasting, or at least remembered. Perhaps my sensibilities might have needed to be coarsened, but it is with no great pride that I remember forcing myself in bravado to dissect without gloves even when everybody else was wearing them. Perhaps I crossed that line so early because there were other lines that had already been crossed in me. And perhaps I am not simply being delicate, but voicing a process that happened for other people too.
If the question is, “What do we need in dealing with animals?”, one answer might be, “What dissection makes children kill.” I’m not talking about the animals, mind you; with the exception of one earthworm, I never killed a specimen. Perhaps the memories would be more noxious if I had, but all my specimens were pre-killed and I was not asked to do that. But even with pre-killed specimens I was, in melodramatic terms, ordered to kill something of my humanity. I do not mean specifically that I experienced unpleasant emotions; I’ve had a rougher time with many things I can remember with no regrets. What I mean is that any emotions were a red flag that something of an appropriate way of relating to animals was being cut up with every unwanted touch of the scalpel. It’s not just animals that are dismantled in the experience.
When I wrote my second novel, I wrote to convey medieval culture (perhaps Firestorm 2034 would have been better if I focused more on, say, telling a story), and one thing I realized was that I would have an easier time conveying medieval culture if I showed its contact, in a sense its dismantling, with a science fiction setting, although I could have used the present day: I tried not to stray too far from the present day U.S. There is something that is exposed in contact with something very different. It applies in a story about a medieval wreaking havoc in a science fiction near future. It also applies in the dissection room. Harmony with nature, or animals, may not be seen in meditating in a forest. Or at least not as clearly as when we are fighting harmony with animals as we go along with an educator’s requests to [graphic description deleted].
Let me return to the account from which I took words about a Leviathan and a Behemoth whose tail swings like a cedar. This seemingly mythological account—if you do not know how Hebrew poetry operates, or that a related languages calls the hippopotamuspehemoth instead of using the Greek for “river horse” as we do—is better understood if you know what leads up to it. A stricken Job, slandered before God as only serving God as a mercenary, cries out to him in anguish and is met by comforters who tell him he is being punished justly. The drama is more complex than that, but God save me from such comforters in my hour of need. The only thing he did not rebuke the comforters for was sitting with Job in silence for a week because they saw his anguish was so great.
Job said, “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (Job 13:3) And, after heated long-winded dialogue, we read (Job 38-39, RSV):
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, `Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed like a garment.
From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man;
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
Can you bind the chains of the Plei’ades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Maz’zaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
and say to you, `Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the clouds,
or given understanding to the mists?
Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cleave fast together?
Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they bring forth,
when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
and he searches after every green thing.
Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear;
because God has made her forget wisdom,
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider.
Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrible.
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength;
he goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
he does not turn back from the sword.
Upon him rattle the quiver,
the flashing spear and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says `Aha!’
He smells the battle from afar,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off.
[closing gruesome image deleted]
Then Job says some very humble and humbled words. Then the Lord gives his coup de grace, a demand to show strength like God that culminates with words about the Leviathan and Behemoth. Job answers “… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… I had heard of thee by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” (Job 42:3,5, RSV)
Did God blast Job like a soup cracker?
Absolutely, but if that is all you have to say about the text, you’ve missed the text.
There’s something about Job’s “comforters” defending a sanitized religion too brittle to come to terms with un-sanitized experience and un-sanitized humanity; Job cares enough about God to show his anger, and though he is never given the chance to plead his case before God, he meets God: he is not given what he asks for, but what he needs.
There’s a lot of good theology about God giving us what we need, but without exploring that in detail, I would point out that the Almighty shows himself Almighty through his Creation, quite often through animals. There may be reference to rank on rank of angels named as all the sons of God shouting for joy (Job 38:7), but man is curiously absent from the list of majestic works; the closest reference to human splendor is “When [Leviathan] raises himself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves” (Job 41:25). The RSV thoughtfully replaces “gods” with “mighty” in the text, relegating “gods” to a footnote—perhaps out of concern for readers who mihgt be disturbed by the Old and New Testament practice of occasionally referring to humans as gods, here in order to to emphasize that even the mightiest or warriors are terrified by the Leviathan.
This is some of the Old Testament poetry at its finest, written by the Shakespeare of the Old Testament, and as Hebrew poetry it lays heavy emphasis on one the most terrifying creature the author knew of, the crocodile, a terrifying enough beast that Crocodile Dundee demonstrates his manhood to the audience by killing a crocodile—and the film successfully competes head-to-head against fantasy movies that leave nothing to the imagination for a viewer who wants to see a fire-breathing dragon.
Let me move on to a subtle point made in Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. While the main emphasis of the work is that dependence is neither alien to being human nor something that makes us somehow less than human, he alludes to the classical definition of man as “rational mortal animal” and makes a subtle point.
Up until a few centuries ago the term “animal” could be used in a sense that either included or excluded humans. While both senses coexisted, there was not a sense that calling a person an animal was degrading any more than it was degrading to mention that we have bodies. Now calling someone an animal is either a way of declaring that they are beneath the bounds of humanity, or a dubious compliment to a man for boorish qualities, or else an evolutionary biologist’s way of insisting that we are simply one animal species among others, in neo-Darwinist fashion enjoying no special privilege. But Aristotle meant none of these when he recognized we are animals.
To be human is to be both spirit and beast, and not only is there not shame in that we have bodies that need food and drink like other animals, but there is also not shame in a great many other things: We perceive the world and think through our bodies, which is to say as animals. We communicate to other people through our bodies, which is to say as animals. Were we not animals the Eucharist would be impossible for Christians to receive. We are also spirit, and our spirit is a much graver matter than our status as animals, including in Holy Communion; our spirit is to be our center of gravity, and our resurrection body is to be transformed to be spiritual. But the ultimate Christian hope of bodily resurrection at the Lord’s return is a hope that as spiritual animals we will be transfigured and stand before God as the crowning jewel of bodily creation. The meaning of our animal nature will be changed and profoundly transformed, but never destroyed. Nor should we hope to be released from being animals. To approach Christianity in the hope that it will save us from our animal natures—being animals—is the same kind of mistake as a child who understandably hopes that growing up means being in complete control of one’s surroundings. Adulthood and Christianity both bring many benefits, but that is not the kind of benefit Christianity provides (or adulthood).
If that is the case, then perhaps there is nothing terribly provocative about my trying to understand other animals the way I understand other people. Granted, the understanding cannot run as deep because no other animal besides man is as deep as man and some would have it that man is the ornament of both visible and spiritual creation, Christ having become man and honored animal man in an honor shared by no angel. The old theology as man as microcosm, shared perhaps with non-Christian sources, sees us as the encapsulation of the entire created order. Does this mean that there are miniature stars in our kidneys? It is somewhat beside the point to underscore that every carbon nucleus in your body is a relic of a star. A more apropos response would be that to be human is to be both spirit and matter, to share life with the plants and the motion of animals, and that it is impossible to be this microcosm without being an animal. God has honored the angels with a spiritual and non-bodily creation, but that is not the only honor to be had.
In my homily Two Decisive Moments, I said,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”
I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.
Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.
It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!”
What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!
Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.
Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.
Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!
Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”
Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.
To the Orthodox, at least in better moments, Christ is not just our perfect image of what it means to be God. He is also the definition of what it means to be Christian and what it ultimately means to be man.
Can we understand this and deny that Christ is an animal?
Satire / Humor Warning:
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
The Confused Person’s Guide to Being Even More Confused About Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy is exactly like Roman Catholicism, except that it is Oriental and exotic. The Catholic Church split off from the Orthodox Church because the Orthodox would not accept the filioque clause, an anti-Arian shibboleth which offended the traditional Orthodox reverence for Constantine (a baptized Arian). The Orthodox Church is very wise because it has traditionally used the Julian Calendar to have an extra thirteen days to prepare and contemplate before each day. Each year, the Orthodox Church also rolls a die and holds Easter up to six weeks later than in the West, just to make things more confusing.
The Orthodox Church, sometimes called the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, held seven ecumenical councils in response to controversies that arose. The main results were that the Church officially ruled out certain misunderstandings of Christ. The first council was the Council at Nicaea, modern day Nice, where Saint Nicholas of Myra and Lycia (our jolly old Saint Nick) boxed Arius on the ear. The Council at Nicaea rejected Aryanism, which teaches that Christ had blonde hair and blue eyes (a misunderstanding which is still prevalent in the land of blonde hair and blue ears). The other councils are really not that important, as they dealt with abtruse ancient controversies and don’t have much to say about the modern and practical questions people struggle with today, such as whether Jesus was really tempted like us, or was just play-acting. The word “ecumenical” comes from the Greek οικουμενη, meaning the whole civilized world. Catholics and Orthodox disagree whether there are still being ecumenical councils; the Catholics, who are traditionally more universal and embracing, believe that a council without Orthodox bishops can still be ecumenical, while the Orthodox (considered by the Catholics to be schismatic) do not believe one can hold an ecumenical council without healing certain divisions, a task which faces any number of daunting obstacles, ranging from the Catholic Church’s progressive Westernization to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s demonstration that an Anglican can be a Druid. (If you find this confusing, don’t worry. Most Orthodox don’t understand it either.) Most devout Orthodox are wary at best of ecumenism as Protestant in spirit, but even these Orthodox should none the less be distinguished from the “True Orthodox”, the preferred designation for a loose confederation people and groups who regard themselves as properly Orthodox and Novatians as liberal ecumenists.
Understanding the Orthodox understanding of understanding is a point that is not often appreciated, partly because the syntax of “understanding the Orthodox understanding of understanding” is very confusing. The Orthodox believe, as Catholics still do on paper if not in practice, that we have a logos (from the Greek λογοσ, meaning the part of the mind we use to keep track of facts related to corporate logos), and a noose (from the Greek νουσ, meaning the part of the mind we use to grasp spiritual realities), and with typical ingenuity the Orthodox insist on using the noose for practical matters. The noose is very different from any Western understanding of mind, but if I explained it you wouldn’t believe the claim that Orthodoxy is ordinary, concerned with the here and now, and not exotic in the way people assume. Some Orthodox, caught up in the Celtic culture boom, want to represent the noose with a stylized knot.
The words at the institution of Holy Communion, λαβετε φαγετε (literally, “Take, eat”) have been misunderstood in the West (i.e. Catholics and Protestants) to mean “Take, understand.” In the East, among Orthodox, people have insisted on preserving the apostolic meaning unchanged and have therefore reacted against the West and taken the text to mean, “Take, but do not understand.” The Orthodox is free to say that the Eucharist is a symbol, on the understanding that this does not mean anything like the Western understanding of “just a symbol.” The Orthodox is also equally free to claim that transsubstantiation occurs, on condition that “transsubstantiation” does not mean what the Catholic doctrine says it means.
Grace is like the sun in Orthodoxy: not only do we see it, but it allows us to see everything else. “Grace” characteristically means different things for Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant; for Catholics “grace” is what we create by our works, for Orthodox “grace” is when God gives himself, and for Protestants “Grace” is a woman’s name. Grace is behind works, sacraments, and everything else—food and drink, for that matter. Orthodox believe that God’s grace rains down from Heaven, and because “He has established the round world so sure, it shall never be moved,” God’s grace then collects at the center of the earth.
Fully Orthodox believers may be divided into cradle Orthodox, who don’t understand Orthodoxy very well and tend not to take it seriously, and convert Orthodox, who overdo everything. Orthodox are required to remain in communion with their bishops, which means community and a degree of submission to authority; people who fail to do this are called non-canonical, schismatic, etc. Non-canonical “Orthodox” are notorious for a rigid legalism in their interpretation of ancient canons. Canonical Orthodox take the matter much more lightly and often do not know the difference between a canon and a cannon.
There are many ranks of clergy, including (but not limited to) readers*, subdeacons, deacons, archdeacons, proper subdeacons, sub-sub-deacons, ostriches, priests, arch-priests, archimandrites, bishops, arch-bishops, bishops of the caves, metropolitans, patriarchs, prophets, ascetics, protons, neutrons, and Abednegons. There is a proper way of addressing each of these ranks, and it is traditional to embarrass your priest by not knowing how to address the higher ranks of clergy or (at your option) not being sure how to address anyclergy.
* Remember that Orthodoxy originated at a time when most people didn’t know how to read and write, and Orthodoxy hasn’t seen mass literacy as reason to change its practices. The positive way of stating this is that Orthodoxy, while incorporating the act of writing, preserves many of the attributes and the essential spirit of an oral tradition and culture, an achievement which may be appreciated in light of the anthropological observation that the opposite of “literate” is not “illiterate” but “oral”. In other words, a Catholic is an Orthodox who can read.
Orthodoxy has been blessed by many great theologians, including Saint Dionysius the Aereopagite, who was not Saint Dionysius the Aeropagite but another writer known as Saint Dionysius the Aeropagite, and Saint Maximus Confessor, who stalwartly resisted the heresy that Christ lacked a human will, and whose intricate analysis of will concluded that we have something called a “gnomic” will and Christ does not. Augustine is not revered nearly so much in the East, owing to the fact that he became a Christian and in fact a bishop without realizing he was supposed to stop being a Manichee. (This is why Augustine is considered the founder of American Catholicism.) The Orthodox consider the patristic era to be a golden age for theology; it ended in the ninth century and has produced a small number of patristic theologians since its close.
In contrast to American individualism, the Orthodox Church talks about how when we come closer to Christ the more closely we resemble each other. This spirit of uniformity is demonstrated by her saints, who have been known to live on top of a pillar, make acts of public foolishness a form of spiritual discipline, or walk around after their deaths.
Icons are called “windows of Heaven” and, apart from being an emblem of matter drawn into spiritual glory, provide a place where saints can look in and see how people like them were on earth. This is a humbling enough experience for the saints, so that they no longer have problems with pride.
Please do ask why we aren’t up to date enough to have women priests. Some Orthodox consider feminism to be an interesting spot of local color in our time and place, and at any rate the Orthodox will remember feminism as it remembers other challenges which lasted a mere century or two and which you probably haven’t heard of. The Orthodox Church will continue discipling boys and girls, men and women, to be the men and women God created them to be, long after feminism is one more -ism that people of the future will learn about when they study the history of abandoned fashions. And besides, Orthodoxy is gender balanced. Cradle Orthodoxy is a woman thing, and convert Orthodoxy is a man thing.
It is an Orthodox principle that there should be one Orthodox Church in each country. That is why, if you are an American, you have your choice of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Orthodox Church in America, Antiochian Orthodox…
Metania (μετανοια) is from meta (μετα) as in “metacognition” or “metaphysics”, for a philosophical analysis of other things, and noia (νοια), which means mind but is not to be confused with the noose above. Hence “metania” means a philosophical discussion of how our minds should be functioning if we are Orthodox. This is very important in convert Orthodoxy; cradle Orthodox think converts miss metania completely. “Metania” also refers to an action performed with the body in worship, thus exemplifying the Orthodox penchant for conflating mind and body.
One closing word. Part of what distinguishes Orthodox theology is that it is no more systematic than the Church Fathers. In keeping with this tradition, this introduction is proudly disorganized.
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
Surgeon General’s Warning
This piece represents my first serious study as an Orthodox Christian. The gist of it, by which I mean a critique of the artificial intelligence and cognitive science movement whose members are convinced of its progress for reasons unrelated to any real achievement of its core goal, is one I would still maintain. Artificial intelligence, over a decade after the thesis was written, remains “just around the corner since 1950”. The core pioneer John von Neumann’s The Computer and the Brain‘s core assertion that the basis of human thought is “add, subtract, multiply, and divide” remains astonishingly naïve to the point of being crass.
With that much stated, there are things that don’t belong. The “I-Thou” existentialism is not of Orthodox origin and its study of occult aspects is simply inappropriate. I do not say inaccurate, only wrong. I believe there is probably some truth to some suggestion that the artificial intelligence endeavor represents a recurrence of age-old occult dreams dressed in the clothing of computer science and secular rationality. Such things should still not have been studied, or at very least not by me.
For those still interested, my dissertation is below.
AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics
Artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and Eastern Orthodox views on personhood
15 June 2004
Table of Contents
I explore artificial intelligence as failing in a way that is characteristic of a faulty anthropology. Artificial intelligence has had excellent funding, brilliant minds, and exponentially faster computers, which suggests that any failures present may not be due to lack of resources, but arise from an error that is manifest in anthropology and may even be cosmological. Maximus Confessor provides a genuinely different background to criticise artificial intelligence, a background which shares far fewer assumptions with the artificial intelligence movement than figures like John Searle. Throughout this dissertation, I will be looking at topics which seem to offer something interesting, even if cultural factors today often obscure their relevance. I discuss Maximus’s use of the patristic distinction between ‘reason’ and spiritual ‘intellect’ as providing an interesting alternative to ‘cognitive faculties.’ My approach is meant to be distinctive both by reference to Greek Fathers and by studying artificial intelligence in light of the occult foundations of modern science, an important datum omitted in the broader scientific movement’s self-presentation. The occult serves as a bridge easing the transition between Maximus Confessor’s worldview and that of artificial intelligence. The broader goal is to make three suggestions: first, that artificial intelligence provides an experimental test of scientific materialism’s picture of the human mind; second, that the outcome of the experiment suggests we might reconsider scientific materialism’s I-It relationship to the world; and third, that figures like Maximus Confessor, working within an I-Thou relationship, offer more wisdom to us today than is sometimes assumed. I do not attempt to compare Maximus Confessor’s Orthodoxy with other religious traditions, however I do suggest that Orthodoxy has relevant insights into personhood which the artificial intelligence community still lacks.
Some decades ago, one could imagine a science fiction writer asking, ‘What would happen if billions of dollars, dedicated laboratories with some of the world’s most advanced equipment, indeed an important academic discipline with decades of work from some of the world’s most brilliant minds—what if all of these were poured into an attempt to make an artificial mind based on an understanding of personhood that came out of a framework of false assumptions?’ We could wince at the waste, or wonder that after all the failures the researchers still had faith in their project. And yet exactly this philosophical experiment has been carried out, in full, and has been expanded. This philosophical experiment is the artificial intelligence movement.
What relevance does AI have to theology? Artificial intelligence assumes a particular anthropology, and failures by artificial intelligence may reflect something of interest to theological anthropology. It appears that the artificial intelligence project has failed in a substantial and characteristic way, and furthermore that it has failed as if its assumptions were false—in a way that makes sense given some form of Christian theological anthropology. I will therefore be using the failure of artificial intelligence as a point of departure for the study of theological anthropology. Beyond a negative critique, I will be exploring a positive alternative. The structure of this dissertation will open with critiques, then trace historical development from an interesting alternative to the present problematic state, and then explore that older alternative. I will thus move in the opposite of the usual direction.
For the purposes of this dissertation, artificial intelligence (AI) denotes the endeavour to create computer software that will be humanly intelligent, and cognitive science the interdisciplinary field which seeks to understand the mind on computational terms so it can be re-implemented on a computer. Artificial intelligence is more focused on programming, whilst cognitive science includes other disciplines such as philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and linguistics. Strong AI is the classical approach which has generated chess players and theorem provers, and tries to create a disembodied mind. Other areas of artificial intelligence include the connectionist school, which works with neural nets, and embodied AI, which tries to take our mind’s embodiment seriously. The picture on the cover is from an embodied AI website and is interesting for reasons which I will discuss below under the heading of ‘Artificial Intelligence.’
Fraser Watts (2002) and John Puddefoot (1996) offer similar and straightforward pictures of AI. I will depart from them in being less optimistic about the present state of AI, and more willing to find something lurking beneath appearances. I owe my brief remarks about AI and its eschatology, under the heading of ‘Artificial Intelligence‘ below, to a line of Watts’ argument.
Other critics argue that artificial intelligence neglects the body as mere packaging for the mind, pointing out ways in which our intelligence is embodied. They share many of the basic assumptions of artificial intelligence but understand our minds as biologically emergent and therefore tied to the body.
There are two basic points I accept in their critiques:
First, they argue that our intelligence is an embodied intelligence, often with specific arguments that are worth attention.
Second, they often capture a quality, or flavour, to thought that beautifully illustrates what sort of thing human thought might be besides digital symbol manipulation on biological hardware.
There are two basic points where I will be departing from their line of argument:
First, they think outside the box, but may not go far enough. They are playing on the opposite team to cognitive science researchers, but they are playing the same game, by the same rules. The disagreement between proponents and critics is not whether mind may be explained in purely materialist terms, but only whether that assumption entails that minds can be re-implemented on computers.
Second, they see the mind’s ties to the body, but not to the spirit, which means that they miss out on half of a spectrum of interesting critiques. I will seek to explore what, in particular, some of the other half of the spectrum might look like. As their critiques explore what it might mean to say that the mind is embodied, the discussion of reason and intellect under the heading ‘Intellect and Reason‘ below may give some sense of what it might mean to say that the mind is spiritual. In particular, the conception of the intellects offers an interesting base characterisation of human thought that competes with cognitive faculties. Rather than saying that the critics offer false critiques, I suggest that they are too narrow and miss important arguments that are worth exploring.
I will explore failures of artificial intelligence in connection with the Greek Fathers. More specifically, I will look at the seventh century Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia. I will investigate the occult as a conduit between the (quasi-Patristic) medieval West and the West today. The use of Orthodox sources could be a particularly helpful light, and one that is not explored elsewhere. Artificial intelligence seems to fail along lines predictable to the patristic understanding of a spirit-soul-body unity, essentially connected with God and other creatures. The discussion becomes more interesting when one looks at the implications of the patristic distinction between ‘reason’ and the spiritual ‘intellect.’ I suggest that connections with the Orthodox doctrine of divinisation may make an interesting a direction for future enquiry. I will only make a two-way comparison between Orthodox theological anthropology and one particular quasi-theological anthropology. This dissertation is in particular not an attempt to compare Orthodoxy with other religious traditions.
One wag said that the best book on computer programming for the layperson was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but that’s just because the best book on anything for the layperson was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One lesson learned by a beginning scholar is that many things that ‘everybody knows’ are mistaken or half-truths, as ‘everybody knows’ the truth about Galileo, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and other select historical topics which we learn about by rumour. There are some things we will have trouble understanding unless we can question what ‘everybody knows.’ This dissertation will be challenging certain things that ‘everybody knows,’ such as that we’re making progress towards achieving artificial intelligence, that seventh century theology belongs in a separate mental compartment from AI, or that science is a different kind of thing from magic. The result is bound to resemble a tour of Wonderland, not because I am pursuing strangeness for its own sake, but because my attempt to understand artificial intelligence has taken me to strange places. Renaissance and early modern magic is a place artificial intelligence has been, and patristic theology represents what we had to leave to get to artificial intelligence.
The artificial intelligence project as we know it has existed for perhaps half a century, but its roots reach much further back. This picture attests to something that has been a human desire for much longer than we’ve had digital computers. In exploring the roots of artificial intelligence, there may be reason to look at a topic that may seem strange to mention in connection with science: the Renaissance and early modern occult enterprise.
Why bring the occult into a discussion of artificial intelligence? It doesn’t make sense if you accept science’s own self-portrayal and look at the past through its eyes. Yet this shows bias and insensitivity to another culture’s inner logic, almost a cultural imperialism—not between two cultures today but between the present and the past. A part of what I will be trying to do in this thesis is look at things that have genuine relevance to this question, but whose relevance is obscured by cultural factors today. Our sense of a deep divide between science and magic is more cultural prejudice than considered historical judgment. We judge by the concept of scientific progress, and treating prior cultures’ endeavours as more or less successful attempts to establish a scientific enterprise properly measured by our terms.
We miss how the occult turn taken by some of Western culture in the Renaissance and early modern period established lines of development that remain foundational to science today. Many chasms exist between the mediaeval perspective and our own, and there is good reason to place the decisive break between the mediaeval way of life and the Renaissance/early modern occult development, not placing mediaeval times and magic together with an exceptionalism for our science. I suggest that our main differences with the occult project are disagreements as to means, not ends—and that distinguishes the post-mediaeval West from the mediaevals. If so, there is a kinship between the occult project and our own time: we provide a variant answer to the same question as the Renaissance magus, whilst patristic and mediaeval Christians were exploring another question altogether. The occult vision has fragmented, with its dominion over the natural world becoming scientific technology, its vision for a better world becoming political ideology, and its spiritual practices becoming a private fantasy.
One way to look at historical data in a way that shows the kind of sensitivity I’m interested in, is explored by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation (1992); she doesn’t dwell on the occult as such, but she perceptively argues that science is far more continuous with religion than its self-understanding would suggest. Her approach pays a certain kind of attention to things which science leads us to ignore. She looks at ways science is doing far more than falsifying hypotheses, and in so doing observes some things which are important. I hope to develop a similar argument in a different direction, arguing that science is far more continuous with the occult than its self-understanding would suggest. This thesis is intended neither to be a correction nor a refinement of her position, but development of a parallel line of enquiry.
It is as if a great island, called Magic, began to drift away from the cultural mainland. It had plans for what the mainland should be converted into, but had no wish to be associated with the mainland. As time passed, the island fragmented into smaller islands, and on all of these new islands the features hardened and became more sharply defined. One of the islands is named Ideology. The one we are interested in is Science, which is not interchangeable with the original Magic, but is even less independent: in some ways Science differs from Magic by being more like Magic than Magic itself. Science is further from the mainland than Magic was, even if its influence on the mainland is if anything greater than what Magic once held. I am interested in a scientific endeavour, and in particular a basic relationship behind scientific enquiry, which are to a substantial degree continuous with a magical endeavour and a basic relationship behind magic. These are foundationally important, and even if it is not yet clear what they may mean, I will try to substantiate these as the thesis develops. I propose the idea of Magic breaking off from a societal mainland, and sharpening and hardening into Science, as more helpful than the idea of science and magic as opposites.
There is in fact historical precedent for such a phenomenon. I suggest that a parallel with Eucharistic doctrine might illuminate the interrelationship between Orthodoxy, Renaissance and early modern magic, and science (including artificial intelligence). When Aquinas made the Christian-Aristotelian synthesis, he changed the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist had previously been understood on Orthodox terms that used a Platonic conception of bread and wine participating in the body and blood of Christ, so that bread remained bread whilst becoming the body of Christ. One substance had two natures. Aristotelian philosophy had little room for one substance which had two natures, so one thing cannot simultaneously be bread and the body of Christ. When Aquinas subsumed real presence doctrine under an Aristotelian framework, he managed a delicate balancing act, in which bread ceased to be bread when it became the body of Christ, and it was a miracle that the accidents of bread held together after the substance had changed. I suggest that when Zwingli expunged real presence doctrine completely, he was not abolishing the Aristotelian impulse, but carrying it to its proper end. In like fashion, the scientific movement is not a repudiation of the magical impulse, but a development of it according to its own inner logic. It expunges the supernatural as Zwingli expunged the real presence, because that is where one gravitates once the journey has begun. What Aquinas and the Renaissance magus had was composed of things that did not fit together. As I will explore below under the heading ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic,’ the Renaissance magus ceased relating to society as to one’s mother and began treating it as raw material; this foundational change to a depersonalised relationship would later secularise the occult and transform it into science. The parallel between medieval Christianity/magic/science and Orthodoxy/Aquinas/Zwingli seems to be fertile: real presence doctrine can be placed under an Aristotelian framework, and a sense of the supernatural can be held by someone who is stepping out of a personal kind of relationship, but in both cases it doesn’t sit well, and after two or so centuries people finished the job by subtracting the supernatural.
Without discussing the principles in Thomas Dixon’s 1999 delineation of theology, anti-theology, and atheology that can be un-theological or quasi-theological, regarding when one is justified in claiming that theology is present, I adopt the following rule:
A claim is considered quasi-theological if it can conflict with theological claims.
Given this rule, patristic theology, Renaissance and early modern magic (hereafter ‘magic’ or ‘the occult’), and artificial intelligence claims are all considered to be theological or quasi-theological.
I will not properly trace an historical development so much as show the distinctions between archetypal scientific, occult, and Orthodox worldviews as seen at different times, and briefly discuss their relationships with some historical remarks. Not only are there surprisingly persistent tendencies, but Lee repeats Weber’s suggestion that there is real value to understand ideal types.
I will be attempting to bring together pieces of a puzzle—pieces scattered across disciplines and across centuries, often hidden by today’s cultural assumptions about what is and is not connected—to show their interconnections and the picture that emerges from their fit. I will be looking at features including intentionality, teleology, cognitive faculties, the spiritual intellect, cosmology, and a strange figure who wields a magic sword with which to slice through society’s Gordian knots. Why? In a word, all of this connected. Cosmology is relevant if there is a cosmological error behind artificial intelligence. There are both an organic connection and a distinction between teleology and intentionality, and the shift from teleology to intentionality is an important shift; when one shifts from teleology to intentionality one becomes partly blind to what the artificial intelligence picture is missing. Someone brought up on cognitive faculties may have trouble answering, ‘How else could it be?’; the patristic understanding of the spiritual intellect gives a very interesting answer, and offers a completely different way to understand thought. And the figure with the magic sword? I’ll let this figure remain mysterious for the moment, but I’ll hint that without that metaphorical magic sword we would never have a literal artificial intelligence project. I do not believe I am forging new connections among these things, so much as uncovering something that was already there, overlooked but worth investigating.
This is an attempt to connect some very diverse sources, even if the different sections are meant primarily as philosophy of religion. This brings problems of coherence and disciplinary consistency, but the greater risk is tied to the possibility of greater reward. It will take more work to show connections than in a more externally focused enquiry, but if I can give a believable case for those interconnections, this will ipso facto be a more interesting enquiry.
All translations from French, German, Latin, and Greek are my own.
Artificial intelligence is not just one scientific project among others. It is a cultural manifestation of a timeless dream. It does not represent the repudiation of the occult impulse, but letting that impulse work out according to its own inner logic. Artificial intelligence is connected with a transhumanist vision for the future which tries to create a science-fiction-like future of an engineered society of superior beings. This artificial intelligence vision for the future is similar to the occult visions for the future we will see below. Very few members of the artificial intelligence movement embrace the full vision—but I may suggeste that its spectre is rarely absent, and that that spectre shows itself by a perennial sense of, ‘We’re making real breakthroughs today, and full AI is just around the corner.’ Both those who embrace the fuller enthusiasm and those who are more modestly excited by current project have a hope that we are making progress towards creating something fundamentally new under the sun, of bequeathing humanity with something that has never before been available, machines that genuinely think. Indeed, this kind of hope is one of magic’s most salient features. The exact content and features vary, but the sometimes heady excitement and the hope to bestow something powerful and new mark a significant point contact between the artificial intelligence and the magic that enshrouded science’s birth.
There is something timeless and archetypal about the desire to create humans through artifice instead of procreation. Jewish legend tells of a rabbi who used the Kaballah to create a clay golem to defend a city against anti-semites in 1581. Frankenstein has so marked the popular imagination that genetically modified foods are referred to as ‘Frankenfoods,’ and there are many (fictional) stories of scientists creating androids who rebel against and possibly destroy their creators. Robots who have artificial bodies but think and act enough like humans never to cause culture shock are a staple of science fiction.  There is a timeless and archetypal desire to create humans by artifice rather than procreation. Indeed, this desire has more than a little occult resonance.
We should draw a distinction between what may be called ‘pretentious AI’ and ‘un-pretentious AI.’ The artificial intelligence project has managed technical feats that are sometimes staggering, and from a computer scientist’s perspective, the state of computer science is richer and more mature than if there had been no artificial intelligence project. Without making any general claim that artificial intelligence achieves nothing or achieves nothing significant, I will explore a more specific and weaker claim that artificial intelligence does not and cannot duplicate human intelligence.
A paradigm example of un-pretentious AI is the United States Postal Service handwriting recognition system. It succeeds in reading the addresses on 85% of postal items, and the USPS annual report is justifiably proud of this achievement. However, there is nothing mythic claimed for it: the USPS does not claim a major breakthrough in emulating human thought, nor does it give people the impression that artificial mail carriers are just around the corner. The handwriting recognition system is a tool—admittedly, quite an impressive tool—but it is nothing more than a tool, and no one pretends it is anything more than a tool.
For a paradigm example of pretentious AI, I will look at something different. The robot Cog represents equally impressive feats in artificial hand-eye coordination and motor control, but its creators claim something deeper, something archetypal and mythic:
Fig. 2: Cog, portrayed as Robo sapiens
The scholar places his hand on the robots’ shoulder as if they had a longstanding friendship. At almost every semiotic level, this picture constitutes an implicit claim that the researcher has a deep friendship with what must be a deep being. The unfortunately blurred caption reads, ‘©2000 Peter Menzel / Robo sapiens.’ On the Cog main website area, every picture with Cog and a person theatrically shows the person treating the robot as quite lifelike—giving the impression that the robot must be essentially human.
But how close is Cog to being human? Watts writes,
The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence.
The somewhat light-hearted frequently-asked-questions list acknowledges that the robot ‘has no idea what it did two minutes ago,’ answers ‘Can Cog pass the Turing test?’ by saying, ‘No… but neither could an infant,’ and interestingly answers ‘Is Cog conscious?’ by saying, ‘We try to avoid using the c-word in our lab. For the record, no. Off the record, we have no idea what that question even means. And still, no.’ The response to a very basic question is ambiguous, but it seems to joke that ‘consciousness’ is obscene language, and gives the impression that this is not an appropriate question to ask: a mature adult, when evaluating our AI, does not childishly frame the question in terms of consciousness. Apparently, we should accept the optimistic impression of Cog, whilst recognising that it’s not fair to the robot to ask about features of human personhood that the robot can’t exhibit. This smells of begging the question.
Un-pretentious AI makes an impressive technical achievement, but recognises and acknowledges that they’ve created a tool and not something virtually human. Pretentious AI can make equally impressive technical achievements, and it recognises that what it’s created is not equivalent to human, but it does not acknowledge this. The answer to ‘Is Cog conscious?’ is a refusal to acknowledge something the researchers have to recognise: that Cog has no analogue to human consciousness. Is it a light-hearted way of making a serious claim of strong agnosticism about Cog’s consciousness? It doesn’t read much like a mature statement that ‘We could never know if Cog were conscious.’ The researcher in Figure 2 wrote an abstract on how to give robots a theory of other minds, which reads more like psychology than computer science.
There’s something going on here that also goes on in the occult. In neo-paganism, practitioners find their magic to work, not exactly as an outsider would expect, by making incantations and hoping that something will happen that a skeptic would recognise as supernatural, but by doing what they can and then interpreting reality as if the magic had worked. They create an illusion and subconsciously embrace it. This mechanism works well enough, in fact, that large segments of today’s neo-paganism started as jokes and then became real, something their practitioners took quite seriously. There’s power in trying to place a magical incantation or a computer program (or, in programmer slang, ‘incantation’) to fill a transcendent hope: one finds ways that it appears to work, regardless of what an outsider’s interpretation may be. This basic technique appears to be at work in magic as early as the Renaissance, and it appears to be exactly what’s going on in pretentious AI. The basic factor of stepping into an illusion after you do what you can makes sense of the rhetoric quoted above and why Cog is portrayed not merely as a successful experiment in coordination but as Robo sapiens, the successful creation of a living golem. Of course we don’t interpret it as magic because we assume that artificial and intelligence and magic are very different things, but the researchers’ self-deception falls into a quite venerable magical tradition.
Computers seem quite logical. Are they really that far from human rationality? Computers are logical without being rational. Programming a computer is like explaining a task to someone who follows directions very well but has no judgment and no ability to recognise broader intentions in a request. It follows a list of instructions without any recognition or a sense of what is being attempted. The ability to understand a conversation, or recognise another person’s intent—even with mistakes—or any of a number of things humans take for granted, belongs to rationality. A computer’s behaviour is built up from logical rules that do certain precise manipulations of symbols without any sense of meaning whatsoever: it is logical without being rational. The discipline of usability is about how to write well-designed computer programs; these programs usually let the user forget that computers aren’t rational. For instance, a user can undo something when the computer logically and literally follows an instruction, and the user rationally realises that that isn’t really what was intended. But even the best of this design doesn’t let the computer understand what one meant to say. One frustration people have with computers stems from the fact that there is a gist to what humans say, and other people pick up that gist. Computers do not have even the most rudimentary sense of gist, only the ability to logically follow instructions. This means that the experience of bugs and debugging in programming is extremely frustrating to those learning how to program; the computer’s response to what seems a correct program goes beyond nitpicking. This logicality without rationality is deceptive, for it presents something that looks very much like rationality at first glance, but produces unpleasant surprises when you treat it as rational. There’s something interesting going on here. When we read rationality into a computer’s logicality, we are in part creating the illusion of artificial intelligence. ‘Don’t anthropomorphise computers,’ one tells novice programmers. ‘They hate that.’ A computer is logical enough that we tend to treat it as rational, and in fact if you want to believe that you’ve achieved artificial intelligence, you have an excellent basis to use in forming a magician’s self-deception.
Artificial intelligence is a mythic attempt to create an artificial person, and it does so in a revealing way. Thought is assumed to be a private manipulation of mental representations, not something that works in terms of spirit. Embodied AI excluded, the body is assumed to be packaging, and the attempt is not just to duplicate the ‘mind’ in a complete sense, but our more computer-like rationality: this assumes a highly significant division of what is essential, what is packaging, and what comes along for free if you duplicate the essential bits. None of this is simply how humans have always thought, nor is it neutral. Maximus Confessor’s assumptions are different enough from AI’s that a comparison makes it easier to see some of AI’s assumptions, and furthermore what sort of coherent picture could deny them. I will explore how exactly he does so below under the heading ‘Orthodox Anthropology in Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia,‘ More immediately, I wish to discuss a basic type of assumption shared by artificial intelligence and the occult.
The Optimality Assumption
One commonality that much of magic and science share is that broad visions often include the assumption that what they don’t understand must be simple, and be easy to modify or improve. Midgley discusses Bernal’s exceedingly optimistic hope for society to transform itself into a simplistically conceived scientific Utopia (if perhaps lacking most of what we value in human society); I will discuss later, under various headings, how society simply works better in Thomas More’s and B.F. Skinner’s Utopias if only it is re-engineered according to their simple models. Aren’t Utopian visions satires, not prescriptions? I would argue that the satire itself has a strong prescriptive element, even if it’s not literal. The connection between Utopia and AI is that the same sort of thinking feeds into what, exactly, is needed to duplicate a human mind. For instance, let us examine a sample of dialogue which Turing imagined going on in a Turing test:
Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A: Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.
Q: Add 34957 to 70764.
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.
Q: Do you play chess?
Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.
Turing seems to assume that if you duplicate his favoured tasks of arithmetic and chess, the task of understanding natural language comes along, more or less for free. The subsequent history of artificial intelligence has not been kind to this assumption. Setting aside the fact that most people do not strike up a conversation by strangely requesting the other person to solve a chess problem and add five-digit numbers, Turing is showing an occult way of thinking by assuming there’s nothing really obscure, or deep, about the human person, and that the range of cognitive tasks needed to do AI is the range of tasks that immediately present themselves to him. This optimism may be damped by subsequent setbacks which the artificial intelligence movement has experienced, but it’s still present. It’s hard to see an artificial intelligence researcher saying, ‘The obvious problem looks hard to solve, but there are probably hidden problems which are much harder,’ let alone consider whether human thought might be non-computational.
Given the difficulties they acknowledge, artificial intelligence researchers seem to assume that the problem is as easy as possible to solve. As I will discuss later, this kind of assumption has profound occult resonance. I will call this assumption the optimality assumption: with allowances and caveats, the optimality assumption states that artificial intelligence is an optimally easy problem to solve. This doesn’t mean an optimally easy problem to solve given the easiest possible world, but rather, taking into the difficulties and nuances recognised by the practitioner, the problem is then assumed to be optimally easy, and thenit could be said that we live in the (believable) possible world where artificial intelligence would be easiest to implement. Anything that doesn’t work like a computer is assumedly easy, or a matter of unnecessary packaging. There are variations on the theme of begging the question. One basic strategy of ensuring that computers can reach the bar of human intelligence is to lower the bar until it is already met. Another strategy is to try to duplicate human intelligence on computer-like tasks. Remember the Turing test which Turing imagined, which seemed to recognise only the cognitive tasks of writing a poem, doing arithmetic, and solving a chess problem: Turing apparently assumed that natural language understanding would come along for free by the time computers could do both arithmetic and chess. Now we have computer calculators and chess players that can beat humans, whilst natural language understanding tasks which are simple to humans represent an unscaled Everest to artificial intelligence.
We have a situation very much like the attempt to make a robot that can imitate human locomotion—if the attempt is tested by having a robot race a human athlete on a racetrack ergonomically designed for robots. Chess is about as computer-like a human skill as one could find.
Turing’s script for an imagined Turing test is one manifestation of a tendency to assume that the problem is optimally easy: the optimality assumption. Furthermore, Turing sees only three tasks of composing a sonnet, adding two numbers, and making a move in chess. But in fact this leaves out a task of almost unassailable difficulty for AI: understanding and appropriately acting on natural language requests. This is part of human rationality that cannot simply be assumed to come with a computer’s logicality.
Four decades after Turing imagined the above dialogue, Kurt VanLehn describes a study of problem solving that used a standard story problem. The ensuing discussion is telling. Two subjects’ interpretations are treated as problems to be resolved, apparently chosen for their departure from how a human ‘should’ think about these things. One is a nine year old girl, Cathy: ‘…It is apparent from [her] protocol that Cathy solves this problem by imagining the physical situation and the actions taken in it, as opposed to, say, converting the puzzle to a directed graph then finding a traversal of the graph.’ The purpose of the experiment was to understand how humans solve problems, but it was approached with a tunnel vision that gave a classic kind of computer science ‘graph theory’ problem, wrapped up in words, and treated any other interpretation of those words as an interesting abnormality. It seems that it is not the theory’s duty to approach the subject matter, but the subject matter’s duty to approach the theory—a signature trait of occult projects. Is this merely VanLehn’s tunnel vision? He goes on to describe the state of cognitive science itself:
For instance, one can ask a subject to draw a pretty picture… [such] Problems whose understanding is not readily represented as a problem space are called ill-defined. Sketching pretty pictures is an example of an ill-defined problem… There have only been a few studies of ill-defined problem solving.
Foerst summarises a tradition of feminist critique: AI was started by men who chose a particular kind of abstract task as the hallmark of intelligence; women might value disembodied abstraction less and might choose something like social skills. The critique may be pushed one step further than that: beyond any claim that AI researchers, when looking for a basis for computer intelligence, tacitly crystallised intelligence out of men’s activities rather than women’s, it seems that their minds were so steeped in mathematics and computers that they crystallised intelligence out of human performance more in computer-like activities than anything essentially human, even in a masculine way. Turing didn’t talk about making artificial car mechanics or deer hunters any more than he had plans for artificial hostesses or childminders.
Harman’s 1989 account of functionalism, for instance, provides a more polished-looking version of an optimality assumption: ‘According to functionalism, it does not matter what mental states and processes are made of any more than it matters what a carburetor or heart or a chess king is made of.’ (832). Another suggestion may be made, not as an axiom but as an answer to the question, ‘How else could it be?’ This other suggestion might be called the tip of the iceberg conception.
A ‘tip of the iceberg’ conception might reply, ‘Suppose for the sake of argument that it doesn’t matter what an iceberg is made of, so long as it sticks up above the surface and is hard enough to sink a ship. The task is then to make an artificial iceberg. One can hire engineers to construct a hard shell to function as a surrogate iceberg. What has been left out is that these properties of something observable from the surface rest on something that lies much, much deeper than the surface. (A mere scrape with an iceberg sunk the Titanic, not only because the iceberg was hard, but because it had an iceberg’s monumental inertia behind that hardness.) One can’t make a functional tip of the iceberg that way, because a functional tip of an iceberg requires a functional iceberg, and we have very little idea of how to duplicate those parts of an iceberg that aren’t visible from a ship. You are merely assuming that one can try hard enough to duplicate what you can see from a ship, and if you duplicate those observables, everything else will follow.’ This is not a fatal objection, but it is intended to suggest what the truth could be besides the repeated assumption that intelligence is as easy as possible to duplicate in a computer. Here again is the optimality assumption, and it is a specific example of a broader optimality assumption which will appear in occult sources discussed under the ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic‘ heading below. The ‘tip of the iceberg’ conception is notoriously absent in occult and artificial intelligence sources alike. In occult sources, the endeavour is to create a magically sharp sword that will slice all of the Gordian knots of society’s problems; in artificial intelligence the Gordian knots are not societal problems but obstacles to creating a thinking machine, and researchers may only be attempting to use razor blades to cut tangled shoelaces, but researchers are still trying to get as close to that magic sword as they believe possible.
Just Around the Corner Since 1950
The artificial intelligence movement has a number of reasonably stable features, including an abiding sense of ‘Today’s discoveries are a real breakthrough; artificial minds are just around the corner.’ This mood may even be older than digital computers; Dreyfus writes,
In the period between the invention of the telephone relay and its apotheosis in the digital computer, the brain, always understood in terms of the latest technological inventions, was understood as a large telephone switchboard, or more recently, as an electronic computer.
The discoveries and the details of the claim may change, and experience has battered some of strong AI’s optimism, but in pioneers and today’s embodied AI advocates alike there is a similar mood: ‘What we’ve developed now is effacing the boundary between machine and human.’ This mood is quite stable. There is a striking similarity between the statements,
These emotions [discomfort and shock at something so human-like] might arise because in our interactions with Cog, little distinguishes us from the robot, and the differences between a machine and its human counterparts fade.
The reader must accept it as a fact that digital computers can be constructed, and indeed have been constructed, according to the principles we have described, and that they can in fact mimic the actions of a human computer very closely.
What is interesting here is that the second was made by Turing in 1950, and the first by Foerst in 1998. As regards Turing, no one now believes 1950 computers could perform any but the most menial of mathematicians’ tasks, and some of Cog’s weaknesses have been discussed above (“Cog… cannot actually very much. Even its insect-like forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects…”). The more artificial intelligence changes, the more it seems to stay the same. The overall impression one receives is that for all the surface progress of the artificial intelligence, the underlying philosophy and spirit remain the same—and part of this underlying spirit is the conviction, ‘We’re making real breakthroughs now, and full artificial intelligence is just around the corner.’ This self-deception is sustained in classically magical fashion. Artificial intelligence’s self-presentation exudes novelty, a sense that today’s breakthroughs are decisive—whilst its actual rate of change is much slower. The ‘It’s just around the corner.’ rhetoric is a longstanding feature. For all the changes in processor power and greater consistency in a materialist doctrine of mind, there are salient features which seem to repeat in 1950’s and today’s cognitive science. In both, the strategy to ensure that computers could jump the bar of human intelligence is by lowering the bar until it had already been jumped.
The Ghost in the Machine
It has been suggested in connection with Polanyi’s understanding of tacit knowledge that behaviourists did not teach, ‘There is no soul.’ Rather, they draw students into a mode of enquiry where the possibility of a soul is never considered.
Modern psychology takes completely for granted that behavior and neural function are perfectly correlated, that one is completely caused by the other. There is no separate soul or lifeforce to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not otherwise. Actually, of course, this is a working assumption only….It is quite conceivable that someday the assumption will have to be rejected. But it is important also to see that we have not reached that day yet: the working assumption is a necessary one and there is no real evidence opposed to it. Our failure to solve a problem so far does not make it insoluble. One cannot logically be a determinist in physics and biology, and a mystic in psychology.
This is a balder and more provocative way of stating what writers like Turing lead the reader to never think of questioning. The assumption is that the soul, if there is one, is by nature external and separate from the body, so that any interaction between the two is a violation of the body’s usual way of functioning. Thus what is denied is a ‘separate soul or lifeforce to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not do otherwise.’ The Orthodox and others’ doctrine of unified personhood is very different from an affirmation of a ghost in the machine. To affirm a ghost in the machine is to assume the soul’s basic externality to the body: the basic inability of a soul to interact with a body creates the problem of the ghost in the machine. By the time one attempts to solve the problem of the ghost in the machine, one is already outside of an Orthodox doctrine of personhood in which spirit, soul, and body are united and the whole unit is not an atom.
The objective here is not mainly to criticise AI, but to see what can be learned: AI seems to fail in a way that is characteristic. It does not fail because of insufficient funding or lack of technical progress, but on another plane: it is built on an erroneous quasi-theological anthropology, and its failures may suggest something about being human. The main goal is to answer the question, ‘How else could it be?’ in a way that is missed by critics working in materialist confines.
What can we say in summary?
First, artificial intelligence work may be divided into un-pretentious and pretentious AI. Un-pretentious AI makes tools that no one presents as anything more than tools. Pretentious AI is presented as more human than is properly warranted.
Second, there are stable features to the artificial intelligence movement, including a claim of, ‘We have something essentially human. With today’s discoveries, full artificial intelligence is just around the corner.’ The exact form of this assertion may change, but the basic claim does not.
Third, artificial intelligence research posits a multifarious ‘optimality assumption,’ namely that, given the caveats recognised by the researcher, artificial intelligence is an optimally easy assumption to solve. The human mind is assumed to be the sort of thing that is optimally easy to re-create on a computer.
Fourth, artificial intelligence comes from the same kind of thinking as the ghost in the machine problem.
There is more going on in the artificial intelligence project than an attempt to produce scientific results. The persistent rhetoric of ‘It’s just around the corner.’ is not because artificial intelligence scientists have held that sober judgment since the project began, but because there’s something else going on. For reasons that I hope will become clearer in the next section, this is beginning to look like an occult project—a secularised occult project, perhaps, but ‘secularised occult’ is not an empty term in that you take all of the occult away if you take away spellbooks. There is much more to the occult than crystal balls, and a good deal of this ‘much more’ is at play even if artificial intelligence doesn’t do things the Skeptical Enquirer would frown on.
Occult Foundations of Modern Science
With acknowledgment of the relevance of the Reformation, the wake of Aristotelianism, and the via moderna of nominalism, I will be looking at a surprising candidate for discussion on this topic: magic. Magic was a large part of what shaped modernity, a much larger factor than one would expect from modernity’s own self-portrayal, and it has been neglected for reasons besides than the disinterested pursuit of truth. It is more attractive to our culture to say that our science exists in the wake of Renaissance learning or brave Reformers than to say that science has roots in it decries as superstition. For reasons that I will discuss below under the next heading, I suggest that what we now classify as the artificial intelligence movement is a further development of some of magic’s major features.
There is a major qualitative shift between Newton’s development of physics being considered by some to be a diversion from his alchemical and other occult endeavours, and ‘spooky’ topics today being taboo for scientific research. Yet it is still incomplete to enter a serious philosophical discussion of science without understanding the occult, as as it incomplete to enter a serious discussion of Christianity without understanding Judaism. Lewis points out that the popular understanding of modern science displacing the magic of the middle ages is at least misleading; there was very little magic in the middle ages, and then science and magic flourished at the same time, for the same reason, often in the same people: the reason science became stronger than magic is purely Darwinian: it worked better. One may say that medieval religion is the matrix from which Renaissance magic departed, and early modern magic is the matrix from which science departed.
What is the relationship between the mediaeval West and patristic Christianity? In this context, the practical difference is not yet a great one. The essential difference is that certain seeds have been sown—such as nominalism and the rediscovered Aristotelianism—which in the mediaeval West would grow into something significant, but had not in much of any practical sense affected the fabric of society. People still believed that the heavens told the glory of God; people lived a life oriented towards contemplation rather than consumption; monasteries and saints were assumed so strongly that they were present even—especially—as they retreated from society. Certain seeds had been sown in the mediaeval West, but they had not grown to any significant stature. For this discussion, I will treat mediaeval and patristic Christianity as more alike than different.
Renaissance and Early Modern Magic
Magic in this context is much more than a means of casting spells or otherwise manipulating supernatural powers to obtain results. That practice is the token of an entire worldview and enterprise, something that defines life’s meaning and what one ought to seek. To illustrate this, I will look at some details of work by a characteristic figure, Leibniz. Then I will look at the distinctive way the Renaissance magus related to the world and the legacy this relationship has today. Alongside this I will look at a shift from understanding this life as a contemplative apprenticeship to Heaven, to understanding this life as something for us to make more pleasurable.
Leibniz, a 17th century mathematician and scientist who co-discovered calculus, appears to have been more than conversant with the occult memory tradition, and his understanding of calculus was not, as today, a tool used by engineers to calculate volumes. Rather, it was part of an entire Utopian vision, which could encompass all knowledge and all thoughts, an apparently transcendent tool that would obviate the need for philosophical disagreements:
If we had this [calculus], there would be no more reason for disputes between philosophers than between accountants. It would be enough for them to take their quills and say, ‘Let us calculate!’
Leibniz’s 1690 Ars Combinatoria contains some material that is immediately accessible to a modern mathematician. It also contains material that is less accessible. Much of the second chapter (9-48) discusses combinations of the letters U, P, J, S, A, and N; these letters are tied to concepts ranging from philosophy to theology, jurisprudence and mathematics: another table links philosophical concepts with numbers (42-3). The apparent goal was to validly manipulate concepts through mechanical manipulations of words, but I was unable to readily tell what (mathematico-logical?) principle was supposed to make this work. (The principle is apparently unfamiliar to me.) This may reflect the influence of Ramon Lull, thirteenth century magician and doctor of the Catholic Church who adapted a baptised Kaballah which involved manipulating combinations of (Latin) letters. Leibniz makes repeated reference to Lull (28, 31, 34, 46), and specifically mentions his occult ars magna (28). Like Lull, Leibniz is interested in the occult, and seeks to pioneer some new tool that will obviate the need for this world’s troubles. He was an important figure in the creation of science, and his notation is still used for calculus today. Leibniz is not trying to be just another member of society, or to contribute to society’s good the way members have always contributed to society’s good: he stands above it, and his intended contribution is to reorder the fabric of society according to his endowed vision. Leibniz provides a characteristic glimpse of how early modern magic has left a lasting imprint.
If the person one should be in Orthodoxy is the member of Church and society, the figure in magic is the magus, a singular character who stands outside of the fabric of society and seeks to transform it. What is the difference? The member of the faithful is an integrated part of society, and lives in submission and organic connection to it. The magus, by contrast, stands above society, superior to it, having a relation to society as one whose right and perhaps duty is to tear apart and reconstruct society along better lines. We have a difference between humility and pride, between relating to society as to one’s mother and treating society as raw material for one to transform. The magus is cut off from the common herd by two closely related endowments: a magic sword to cut through society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy. In Leibniz’s case the magic sword is an artificial language which will make philosophical disagreements simply obsolete. For the artificial intelligence movement, the magic sword is artificial intelligence itself. The exact character of the sword, knot, and fantasy may differ, but their presence does not.
The character of the Renaissance magus may be seen as as hinging on despair with the natural world. This mood seems to be woven into Hermetic texts that were held in such esteem in the Renaissance and were connected at the opening of pre-eminent Renaissance neo-Platonist Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. If there is good to be had, it is not met in the mundane world of the hoi polloi. It must be very different from their reality, something hidden that is only accessible to an elite. The sense in which this spells out an interest in the occult means far more than carrying around a rabbit’s foot. The specific supernatural contact was valued because the occult was far hidden from appearances and the unwashed masses. (The Christian claim that one can simply pray to God and be heard is thus profoundly uninteresting. Supernatural as it may be, it is ordinary, humble, and accessible in a way that the magus is trying to push past.) This desire for what is hidden or very different from the ordinary means that the ideal future must be very different from the present. Therefore Thomas More, Renaissance author, canonised saint, and strong devotee of Mirandola’s writing, himself writes Utopia. In this work, the philosophic sailor Raphael establishes his own reason as judge over the appropriateness of executing thieves, and describes a Utopia where society simply works better: there seem to be no unpleasant surprises or unintended consequences.  There is little sense of a complex inner logic to society that needs to be respected, or any kind of authority to submit to. Indeed, Raphael abhors authority and responds to the suggestion that he attach himself to a king’s court by saying, ‘Happier! Is that to follow a path that my soul abhors?’ This Utopian vision, even if it is from a canonised Roman saint, captures something deep of the occult currents that would later feed into the development of political ideology. The content of an occult vision for constructing a better tomorrow may vary, but it is a vision that seeks to tear up the world as we now know it and reconstructs it along different lines.
Magic and science alike relate to what they are interested in via an I-It rather than an I-Thou relationship. Relating to society as to one’s mother is an I-Thou relationship; treating society as raw material is an I-It relationship. An I-Thou relationship is receptive to quality. It can gain wisdom and insight. It can connect out of the whole person. The particular kind of I-It relationship that undergirds science has a powerful and narrow tool that deals in what can be mathematically represented. The difference between those two is misunderstood if one stops after saying, ‘I-It can make technology available much better than I-Thou.’ That is how things look through I-It eyes. But I-Thou allows a quality of relationship that does not exist with I-It. ‘The fundamental word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The fundamental word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.’ I-Thou allows a quality-rich relationship that always has another layer of meaning. In the Romance languages there are two different words for knowledge: in French,connaissance and savoir. They both mean ‘knowledge,’ but in different ways: savoir is knowledge of fact (or know-how); one can sait que (‘know that’) something is true. Connaissance is the kind of knowledge of a person, a ‘knowledge of’ rather than a ‘knowledge that’ or ‘knowledge how.’ It can never be a complete knowledge, and one cannot connait que (‘know-of that’) something is true. It is personal in character. An I-It relationship is not just true of magic; as I will discuss below under the heading of ‘Science, Psychology, and Behaviourism,’ psychology seeks a baseline savoir of people where it might seek a connaissance , and its theories are meant to be abstracted from relationships with specific people. Like magic, the powers that are based on science are epiphenomenal to the relationship science is based on. Relating in an I-Thou rather than I-It fashion is not simply less like magic and science; it is richer, fuller, and more human.
In the patristic and medieval eras, the goal of living had been contemplation and the goal of moral instruction was to conform people to reality. Now there was a shift from conforming people to reality, towards conforming reality to people. This set the stage, centuries later, for a major and resource-intensive effort to create an artificial mind, a goal that would not have fit well with a society oriented to contemplation. This is not to say that there is no faith today, nor that there was no technology in the middle ages, nor that there has been no shift between the early modern period and today. Rather, it is to say that a basic trajectory was established in magic that significantly shapes science today.
The difference between the Renaissance magus and the mediaeval member of the Church casts a significant shadow today. The scientist seems to live more in the shadow of the Renaissance magus than of the member of mediaeval society. This is not to say that scientists cannot be humble and moral, nor that they cannot hold wonder at what they study. But it is to say that there are a number of points of contact between the Renaissance magus’s way of relating to the world and that of a scientist and those who live in science’s shadow. Governments today consult social scientists before making policy decisions: the relationship seems to be how to best deal with material rather than a relationship as to one’s mother. We have more than a hint of secularised magic in which substantial fragments of Renaissance and early modern magic have long outlived some magical practices.
Under the patristic and medieval conception, this life was an apprenticeship to the life in Heaven, the beginning of an eternal glory contemplating God. Magic retained a sense of supernatural reality and a larger world, but its goal was to improve this life, understood as largely self-contained and not as beginning of the next. That was the new chief end of humanity. That shift is a shift towards the secular, magical as its beginning may be. Magic contains the seeds of its own secularisation, in other words of its becoming scientific. The shift from contemplation of the next world to power in this world is why the occult was associated with all sorts of Utopian visions to transform the world, a legacy reflected in our political ideologies. One of the tools developed in that magical milieu was science: a tool that, for Darwinian reasons, was to eclipse all the rest. The real magic that has emerged is science.
Science, Psychology, and Behaviourism
What is the niche science has carved out for itself? I’d like to look at an academic discipline that is working hard to be a science, psychology. I will more specifically look at behaviourism, as symptomatic within the history of psychology. Is it fair to look at behaviourism, which psychology itself rejected? It seems that behaviourism offers a valuable case study by demonstrating what is more subtly present elsewhere in psychology. Behaviourism makes some basic observations about reward and punishment and people repeating behaviours, and portrays this as a comprehensive psychological theory: behaviourism does not acknowledge beliefs, for instance. Nonetheless, I suggest that behaviourism is a conceivable development in modern psychology which would have been impossible in other settings. Behaviourism may be unusual in the extreme simplicity of its vision and its refusal to recognise internal states, but not in desiring a Newton who will make psychology a full-fledged science and let psychology know its material with the same kind of knowing as physics has for its material.
Newton and his kin provided a completely de-anthropomorphised account of natural phenomena, and behaviourism provided a de-anthropomorphised account of humans. In leading behaviourist B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), we have a Utopian vision where every part of society seems to work better: artists raised under Skinner’s conditioning produce work which is ‘extraordinarily good,’ the women are more beautiful, and Skinner’s alter ego expresses the hope of controlling the weather, and compares himself with God. Skinner resemble seems to resemble a Renaissance magus more than a mediaeval member: society is raw material for him to transform. Skinner is, in a real sense, a Renaissance magus whose magic has become secularised. Quite a lot of the magus survives the secularisation of Skinner’s magic.
Even without these more grandiose aspirations, psychology is symptomatic of something that is difficult to discern by looking at the hard sciences. Psychological experiments try to find ways in which the human person responds in terms comparable to a physics experiment—and by nature do not relate to their subjects as human agents. These experiments study one aspect of human personhood, good literature another, and literature offers a different kind of knowing from a psychological experiment. If we assume that psychology is the best way to understand people—and that the mind is a mechanism-driven thing—then the assumed burden of proof falls on anyone saying, ‘But a human mind isn’t the sort of thing you can duplicate on a computer.’ The cultural place of science constitutes a powerful influence on how people conceive the question of artificial intelligence.
Behaviourism offers a very simple and very sharp magic sword to cut the Gordian knot of unscientific teleology, a knot that will be discussed under the heading of ‘Intentionality and Teleology‘ below. It removes suspicion of the reason being attached to a spiritual intellect by refusing to acknowledge reason. It removes the suspicion of emotions having a spiritual dimension by refusing to acknowledge emotions. He denies enough of the human person that even psychologists who share those goals would want to distance themselves from him. And yet Skinner does more than entertain messianic fantasies: Walden Two is a Utopia, and when Skinner’s alter ego compares himself with God, God ends up second best. I suggest that this is no a contradiction at all, or more properly it is a blatant contradiction as far as common sense is concerned, but as far as human human phenomena go, we have two sides of the same coin. The magic sword and the messianic fantasy belong to one and the same magus.
There is in fact an intermediate step between the full-fledged magus and the mortal herd. One can be a magician’s assistant, clearing away debris and performing menial tasks to support the real magi.  The proportion of the Western population who are scientists is enormous compared to science’s founding, and the vast majority of the increase is in magician’s assistants. If one meets a scientist at a social gathering, the science is in all probability not a full-fledged magus, but a magician’s assistant, set midway between the magus and the commoner. The common scientist is below the magus in knowledge of science but well above most commoners. In place of a personal messianic fantasy is a more communal tendency to assume that the scientific enterprise is our best hope for the betterment of society. (Commoners may share this belief.) There is a significant difference between the magus and most assistants today. Nonetheless, the figure of the magus is alive today—secularised, in most cases, but alive and well. Paul Johnson’s Augustinian account ofIntellectuals includes such eminent twentieth century scientific figures as Bertrand Russell, Noam Chompsky, and Albert Einstein; the figures one encounters in his pages are steeped in the relationship to society as to raw material instead as to one’s mother, the magic sword, and the messianic fantasy.
I-Thou and Humanness
I suggest that the most interesting critiques of artificial intelligence are not obtained by looking through I-It eyes in another direction, but in using other eyes to begin with, looking through I-Thou eyes. Let us consider Turing’s ‘Arguments from Various Disabilities’.Perhaps the people who furnished Turing with these objections were speaking out of something deeper than they could explain:
Be kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have initiative, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, enjoy strawberries and cream, make some one fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought, have as much diversity of behaviour as a man, do something really new.
Kindness is listed by Paul as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) in other words, an outflow of a person living in the Spirit. Disregarding the question of whether all kindness is the fruit of the Spirit, in humans kindness is not merely following rules, but the outflow of a concern for the other person. Even counterfeit kindness is a counterfeit from someone who knows the genuine article. It thus uses some faculty of humanity other than the reasoning ability, which classical AI tries to duplicate and which is assumed to be the one thing necessary to duplicate human cognition.
The artificial intelligence assumption is that if something is non-deterministic, it is random, because deterministic and pseudo-random are the only options one can use in programming a computer. This leaves out a third possibility, that by non-computational faculties someone may think, not merely ‘outside the box,’ in a random direction, but above it. The creative spark comes neither from continuing a systematic approach, nor simply picking something random (‘because I can’t get my computer to turn on, I’ll pour coffee on it and see if that helps’), but something that we don’t know how to give a computer.
Beauty is a spiritual quality that is not perceived by scientific enquiry and, given our time’s interpretation of scientific enquiry, is in principle not recognised. Why not? If we push materialist assumptions to the extreme, it is almost a category error to look at a woman and say, ‘She is beautiful.’ What is really being said—if one is not making a category error—is, ‘I have certain emotions when I look at her.’ Even if there is not a connection between physical beauty and intelligence, there seems to be some peasant shrewdness involved. It is a genuine, if misapplied, appeal to look at something that has been overlooked.
True as opposed to counterfeit friendliness is a manifestation of love, which has its home in the will, especially if the will is not understood as a quasi-muscular power of domination, but part of the spirit which lets us turn towards another in love.
Remarks could easily be multiplied. What is meant to come through all this is that science is not magic, but science works in magic’s wake. Among relevant features may be mentioned relating as a magus would (in many ways distilling an I-It relationship further), and seeking power over the world in this life rather living an apprenticeship to the next.
Orthodox Anthropology in Maximus Confessor’s Mystagogia
I will begin detailed enquiry in the Greek Fathers by considering an author who is foundational to Eastern Orthodoxy, the seventh century Greek Father Maximus Confessor. Out of the existing body of literature, I will focus on one work, his Mystagogia, with some reference to the Capita Gnosticae. Maximus Confessor is a synthetic thinker, and the Mystagogia is an anthropological work; its discussion of Church mystagogy is dense in theological anthropology as the training for a medical doctor is dense in human biology.
Orthodox Christians have a different cosmology from the Protestant division of nature, sin, and grace. Nature is never un-graced, and the grace that restores from sin is the same grace that provides continued existence and that created nature in the first place. That is to say, grace flows from God’s generosity, and is never alien to nature. The one God inhabits the whole creation: granted, in a more special and concentrated way in a person than in a rock, but the same God is really present in both.
Already, without having seriously engaged theological anthropology, we have differences with how AI looks at things. Not only are the answers different, but the questions themselves are posed in a different way. ‘Cold matter,’ such as is assumed by scientific materialism, doesn’t exist, not because matter is denied in Berkeleyan fashion but because it is part of a spiritual cosmology and affirmed to be something more. It is mistaken to think of cold matter, just as it is mistaken to think of tepid fire. Even matter has spiritual attributes and is graced. Everything that exists, from God and the spiritual creation to the material creation, from seraphim to stone, is the sort of thing one connects to in an I-Thou relationship. An I-It relationship is out of place, and from this perspective magic and science look almost the same, different signposts in the process of establishing a progressively purer I-It relationship.
Intellect and Reason
Maximus’ anthropology is threefold: the person is divided into soul and body, and the soul itself is divided into a higher part, the intellect, and a lower part, the reason:
[Pseudo-Dionysius] used to teach that the whole person is a synthesis of soul and body joined together, and furthermore the soul itself can be examined by reason. (The person is an image which reflects teaching about the Holy Church.) Thus he said that the soul had an intellectual and living faculty that were essentially united, and described the moving, intellectual, authoritative power—with the living part described according its will-less nature. And again, the whole mind deals with intelligible things, with the intelligible power being called intellect, whilst the sensible power is called reason.
This passage shows a one-word translation difficulty which is symptomatic of a difference between his theology and the quasi-theological assumptions of the artificial intelligence project. The word in question, which I have rendered as ‘authoritative power,’ is ‘exousiastikws,’ with root word ‘exousia.’ The root and its associated forms could be misconstrued today as having a double meaning of ‘power’ and ‘authority,’ with ‘authority’ as the basic sense. In both classical and patristic usage, it seems debatable whether ‘exousia’ is tied to any concept of power divorced from authority. In particular this passage’s ‘exousiastikws‘ is most immediately translated as power rather than any kind of authority that is separate from power. Yet Maximus Confessor’s whole sense of power here is one that arises from a divine authorisation to know the truth. This sense of power is teleologically oriented and has intrinsic meaning. This is not to say that Maximus could only conceive of power in terms of authority. He repeatedly uses ‘dunamis,’ (proem.15-6, 26, 28, etc), a word for power without significant connotations of authority. However, he could conceive of power in terms of authority, and that is exactly what he does when describing the intellect’s power.
What is the relationship between ‘intellect’/’reason’ and cognitive faculties? Which, if either, has cognitive faculties a computer can’t duplicate? Here we run into another difficulty. It is hard to say that Maximus Confessor traded in cognitive faculties. For Maximus Confessor the core sense of ‘cognitive faculties’ is inadequate, as it is inadequate to define an eye as something that provides nerve impulses which the brain uses to generate other nerve impulses. What is missing from this picture? This definition does not provide any sense that the eye interacts with the external world, so that under normal circumstances its nerve impulses are sent because photons strike photoreceptors in an organ resembling a camera. Even this description hides most teleology and evaluative judgment. It does not say that an eye is an organ for perceiving the external world through an image reconstructed in the brain, and may be called ‘good’ if it sees clearly and ‘bad’ if it doesn’t. This may be used as a point of departure to comment on Maximus Confessor and the conception of cognitive faculties.
Maximus Confessor does not, in an amoral or self-contained fashion, see faculties that operate on mental representations. He sees an intellect that is where one meets God, and where one encounters a Truth that is no more private than the world one sees with the eye is private.
Intellect and reason compete with today’s cognitive faculties, but Maximus Confessor understands the intellect in particular as something fundamentally moral, spiritual, and connected to spiritual realities. His conception of morality is itself different from today’s private choice of ethical code; morality had more public and more encompassing boundaries, and included such things as Jesus’ admonition not to take the place of highest honour so as not to receive public humiliation (Luke 14:7-10): it embraced practical advice for social conduct, because the moral and spiritual were not separated from the practical. It is difficult to Maximus Confessor conceiving of practicality as hampered by morality. In Maximus Confessor’s day what we separate into cognitive, moral, spiritual, and practical domains were woven into a seamless tapestry.
Intellect, Principles, and Cosmology
Chapter twenty-three opens by emphasising that contemplation is more than looking at appearances (23.1-10), and discusses the Principles of things. The concept of a Principle is important to his cosmology. There is a foundational difference between the assumed cosmologies of artificial intelligence and Maximus Confessor. Maximus Confessor’s cosmology is not the artificial intelligence cosmology with a spiritual dimension added, as a living organism is not a machine modified to use foodstuffs as fuel.
Why do I speak of the ‘artificial intelligence cosmology’? Surely one can have a long debate about artificial intelligence without adding cosmology to the discussion. This is true, but it is true because cosmology has become invisible, part of the assumed backdrop of discussion. In America, one cultural assumption is that ‘culture’ and ‘customs’ are for faroff and exotic people, not for ‘us’—’we’ are just being human. It doesn’t occur to most Americans to think of eating Turkey on Thanksgiving Day or removing one’s hat inside a building as customs, because ‘custom’ is a concept that only applies to exotic people. I suggest that Maximus Confessor has an interesting cosmology, not because he’s exotic, but because he’s human.
Artificial intelligence proponents and (most) critics do not differ on cosmology, but because that is because it is an important assumption which is not questioned even by most people who deny the possibility of artificial intelligence. Searle may disagree with Fodor about what is implied by a materialist cosmology, but not whether one should accept materialism. I suggest that some artificial intelligence critics miss the most interesting critiques of artificial intelligence because they share that project’s cosmology. If AI is based on a cosmological error, then no amount of fine-tuning within the system will rectify the error. We need to consider cosmology if we are to have any hope of correcting an error that basic. (Bad metaphysics does not create good physics.) I will describe Maximus Confessor’s cosmology in this section, not because he has cosmology and AI doesn’t, but because his cosmology seems to suggest a correction to the artificial intelligence cosmology.
At the base of Maximus’s cosmology is God. God holds the Principles in his heart, and they share something of his reality. Concrete beings (including us) are created through the Principles, and we share something of their reality and of God. The Principles are a more concrete realisation of God, and we are a more concrete realisation of the Principles. Thought (nohsis) means beholding God and the Principles ( logoi) through the eye of the intellect. Thinking of a tree means connecting with something that is more tree-like than the tree itself.
It may be easier to see what the important Principles in Maximus Confessor’s cosmology if we see how they are being dismantled today. Without saying that Church Fathers simply grafted in Platonism, I believe it safe to say that Plato resembled some of Church doctrine, and at any rate Plato’s one finger pointing up to God offers a closer approximation to Christianity than Aristotle’s fingers pointing down. I would suggest further that looking at Plato can suggest how Christianity differs from Aristotelianism’s materialistic tendencies, tendencies that are still unfolding today. Edelman describes the assumptions accompanying Darwin’s evolution as the ‘death blow’ to the essentialism, the doctrine that there are fixed kinds of things, as taught by Plato and other idealists. Edelman seems not to appreciate why so many biologists assent to punctuated equilibrium. However, if we assume that there is solid evidence establishing that all life gradually evolved from a common ancestor, then this remark is both apropos and perceptive.
When we look around, we see organisms that fit neatly into different classes: human, housefly, oak. Beginning philosophy students may find it quaint to hear of Plato’s Ideas, and the Ideal horse that is copied in all physical horses, but we tend to assume Platonism at least in that horses are similar ‘as if’ there were an Ideal horse: we don’t believe in the Ideal horse any more, but we still treat its shadow as if it were the Ideal horse’s shadowy copy.
Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that all organisms are connected via slow, continuous change to a common ancestor and therefore to each other. If this is true, there are dire implications for Platonism. It is as if we had pictures of wet clay pottery, and posited a sharp divide between discrete classes of plates, cups, and bowls. Then someone showed a movie of a potter deforming one and the same clay from one shape to another, so that the divisions are now shown to be arbitrary. There are no discrete classes of vessels, just one lump of clay being shaped into different things. Here we are pushing a picture to the other end of a spectrum, further away from Platonism. It is a push from tacitly assuming there is a shadow, to expunging the remnant of belief in the horse and its shadow.
But this doesn’t mean we’re perfect Platonists, or can effortlessly appreciate the Platonic mindset. There are things we have to understand before we can travel in the other direction. If anything, there is more work involved. We act as if the Ideas’ shadows are real things, but we don’t genuinely believe in the shadows qua shadows, let alone the Ideas. We’ve simply inherited the habit of treating shadows as a convenient fiction. But Maximus Confessor believed the Principles (Ideas) represented something fuller and deeper than concrete things.
This is foundational to why Maximus Confessor would not have understood thought as manipulating mental representations in the inescapable privacy of one’s mind. Contemplation is not a matter of closing one’s eyes and fantasising, but of opening one’s eyes and beholding something deeper and more real than reality itself. The sensible reason can perceive the external physical world through the senses, but this takes a very different light from Kant’s view.
Maximus Confessor offers a genuinely interesting suggestion that we know things not only because of our power-to-know, but because of their power-to-be-known, an approach that I will explore later under the heading ‘Knowledge of the Immanent.’ The world is not purely transcendent, but immanent. For Kant the mind is a box that is hermetically sealed on top but has a few frustratingly small holes on the bottom: the senses. Maximus Confessor doesn’t view the senses very differently, but the top of the box is open.
This means that the intellect is most basically where one meets God. Its powerful ability to know truth is connected to this, and it connects with the Principles of things, as the senses connect with mere things. Is it fair to the senses to compare the intellect’s connection with Principles with the senses’ experience of physical things? The real question is not that, but whether it is fair to the intellect, and the answer is ‘no.’ The Principles are deeper, richer, and fuller than the mere visible things, as a horse is richer than its shadow. The knowledge we have through the intellect’s connection with the Principles is of a deeper and richer sort than what is merely inferred from the senses.
The Intelligible and the Sensible
Maximus Confessor lists, and connects, several linked pairs, which I have incorporated into a schema below. The first column of this schema relates to the second column along lines just illustrated: the first member of each pair is transcendent and eminent to the second, but also immanent to it.
|holy of holies||sanctuary (2.8-9)|
|spiritual wisdom||practical wisdom (5.13-15)|
|unforgettable knowledge||faith (5.58-60)|
|New Testament||Old Testament (6.4-6)|
|spiritual meaning of a text||literal meaning of a text (6.14-5)|
|bishop’s seating on throne||bishop’s entrance into Church (8.5-6, 20-21)|
|Christ’s return in glory||Christ’s first coming, glory veiled (8.6-7, 18)|
Maximus Confessor’s cosmology sees neither a disparate collection of unconnected things, nor an undistinguished monism that denies differences. Instead, he sees a unity that sees natures (1.16-17) in which God not only limits differences, as a circle limits its radii (1.62-67), but transcends all differences. Things may be distinguished, but they are not divided. This is key to understanding both doctrine and method. He identifies the world with a person, and connects the Church with the image of God. Doctrine and method are alike synthetic, which suggests that passages about his cosmology and ecclesiology illuminate anthropology.
One recurring theme shows in his treatment of heaven and earth, the soul and the body, the intelligible (spiritual) and the sensible (material). The intelligible both transcends the sensible, and is immanent to it, present in it. The intelligible is what can be apprehended by the part of us that meets God; the sensible is what presents itself to the world of senses. (The senses are not our only connection with the world.) This is a different way of thinking about matter and spirit from the Cartesian model, which gives rise to the ghost in the machine problem. Maximus Confessor’s understanding of spirit and matter does not make much room for this dilemma. Matter and spirit interpenetrate. This is true not just in us but in the cosmos, which is itself ‘human’: he considers ‘…the three people: the cosmos (let us say), the Holy Scriptures, and this is true with us’ (7.40-1). The attempt to connect spirit and matter might have struck him like an attempt to forge a link between fire and heat, two things already linked.
Knowledge of the Immanent
The word which I here render ‘thought’ is ‘nohsis‘, cognate to ‘intellect’ (‘nous‘) which has been discussed as that which is inseparably the home of thought and of meeting God. We already have a hint of a conceptual cast in which thought will be understood in terms of connection and contemplation.
In contrast to understanding thought as a process within a mind, Maximus describes thought in terms of a relationship: a thought can exist because there is a power to think of in the one thinking, and a power to be thought of in what is thought of. We could no more know an absolutely transcendent creature than we could know an absolutely transcendent Creator. Even imperfect thought exists because we are dealing with something that ‘holds power to be apprehended by the intellect’ (I.82). We say something is purple because its manifest purpleness meets our ability to perceive purple. What about the claim that purple is a mental experience arising from a certain wavelength of light striking our retinas? One answer that might be given is that those are the mechanisms by which purple is delivered, not the nature of what purple is. The distinction is important.
We may ask, what about capacity for fantasy and errors? The first response I would suggest is cultural. The birth of modernity was a major shift, and its abstraction introduced new things into the Western mind, including much of what supports our concept of fantasy (in literature, etc.). The category of fantasy is a basic category to our mindset but not to the patristic or medieval mind. Therefore, instead of speculating how Maximus Confessor would have replied to these objections, we can point out that they aren’t the sort of thing that he would ever think of, or perhaps even understand.
But in fact a more positive reply can be taken. It can be said of good and evil that good is the only real substance. Evil is not its own substance, but a blemish in good substance. This parallels error. Error is not something fundamentally new, but a blurred or distorted form of truth. Fantasy does not represent another fundamentally independent, if hypothetical, reality; it is a funhouse mirror refracting this world. We do not have a representation that exists in one’s mind alone, but a dual relationship that arises both from apprehending intellect and an immanent thing. The possibility of errors and speculation make for a longer explanation but need not make us discard this basic picture.
Intentionality and Teleology
One of the basic differences in cosmology between Maximus Confessor and our own day relates to intentionality. As it is described in cognitive science’s philosophy of mind, ‘intentionality’ refers to an ‘about-ness’ of human mental states, such as beliefs and emotions. The word ‘tree’ is about an object outside the mind, and even the word ‘pegasus’ evokes something that one could imagine existing outside of the mind, even if it does not. Intentionality does not exist in computer programs: a computer chess program manipulates symbols in an entirely self-enclosed system, so ‘queen’ cannot refer to any external person or carry the web of associations we assume. Intentionality presents a philosophical problem for artificial intelligence. Human mental states and symbol manipulation are about something that reach out to the external world, whilst computer symbol manipulation is purely internal. A computer may manipulate symbols that are meaningful to humans using it, but the computer has no more sense of what a webpage means than a physical book has a sense that its pages contain good or bad writing. Intentionality is a special feature of living minds, and does not exist outside of them. Something significant will be achieved if ever a computer program first embodies intentionality outside of a living mind.
Maximus Confessor would likely have had difficulty understanding this perspective as he would have had difficulty understanding the problem of the ghost in the machine: this perspective makes intentionality a special exception as the ghost in the machine made our minds’ interaction with our bodies a special exception, and to him both ‘exceptions’ are in fact the crowning jewel of something which permeates the cosmos.
The theory of evolution is symptomatic of a difference between the post-Enlightenment West and the patristic era. This theory is on analytic grounds not a true answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ because it does not address the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ At best it is a true answer to the question, ‘How is there life as we know it?’ which people often fail to distinguish from the very different question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ The Enlightenment contributed to an effort to expunge all trace of teleology from causality, all trace of ‘Why?’ from ‘How?’ Of Aristotle’s four causes, only the efficient cause is familiar; a beginning philosophy student is liable to misconstrue Aristotle’s final cause as being an efficient cause whose effect curiously precedes the cause. The heavy teleological scent to final causation is liable to be missed at first by a student in the wake of reducing ‘why’ to ‘how’; in Maximus Confessor, causation is not simply mechanical, but tells what purpose something serves, what it embodies, what meaning and relationships define it, and why it exists.
Strictly speaking, one should speak of ‘scientific mechanisms’ rather than ‘scientific explanations.’ Why? ‘Scientific proof’ is an oxymoron: science does not deal in positive proof any more than mathematics deals in experiment, so talk of ‘scientific proof’ ordinarily signals a speaker who has more faith in science than understanding of what science really does. ‘Scientific explanation’ is a less blatant contradiction in terms, but it reflects a misunderstanding, perhaps one that is more widespread, as it often present among people who would never speak of ‘scientific proof.’ Talk of ‘scientific explanation’ is not simply careless speech; there needs to be a widespread category error before there is any reason to write a book like Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation (1992). Science is an enterprise which provides mechanisms and has been given the cultural place of providing explanations. This discrepancy has the effect that people searching for explanations turn to scientific mechanisms, and may not be receptive when a genuine explanation is provided, because ‘explanation’ to them means ‘something like what science gives.’ This may not be the only factor, but it casts a long shadow. The burden of proof is born by anyone who would present a non-scientific explanation as being as real as a scientific explanation. An even heavier burden of proof falls on the person who would claim that a non-scientific explanation—not just as social construction, but a real claim about the external world—offers something that science does not.
The distinction between mechanism and explanation is also relevant because the ways in which artificial intelligence has failed may reflect mechanisms made to do the work of explanations. In other words, the question of ‘What is the nature of a human?’ is answered by, ‘We are able to discern these mental mechanisms in a human.’ If this is true, the failure to duplicate a human mind in computers may be connected to researchers answering the wrong question in the first place. These are different, as the question, ‘What literary devices can you find in The Merchant of Venice?’ is different from ‘Why is The Merchant of Venice powerful drama?’ The devices aren’t irrelevant, but neither are they the whole picture.
Of the once great and beautiful land of teleology, a land once brimming in explanations, all has been conquered, all has been levelled, all has been razed and transformed by the power of I-It. All except two stubborn, embattled holdouts. The first holdout is intentionality: if it is a category error to project things in the human mind onto the outer world, nonetheless we recognise that intentionality exists in the mind—but about-ness of intentionality is far less than the about-ness once believed to fill the cosmos. The second and last holdout is evolution: if there is to be no mythic story of origins that gives shape and meaning to human existence, if there cannot be an answer to ‘Why is there life as we know it?’ because there is no reason at all for life, because housefly, horse, and human are alike the by-product of mindless forces that did not have us in mind, nonetheless there is still an emaciated spectre, an evolutionary mechanism that does just enough work to keep away a teleological approach to origins questions. The land of teleology has been razed, but there is a similarity between these two remnants, placeholders which are granted special permission to do what even the I-It approach recognises it cannot completely remove of teleology. That is the official picture, at least. Midgley is liable to pester us with counterexamples of a teleology that is far more persistent than the official picture gives credit for: she looks at evolution doing the work of a myth instead of a placeholder that keeps myths away, for instance. Let’s ignore her for the moment and stick with the official version. Then looking at both intentionality and evolution can be instructive in seeing what has happened to teleology, and appreciating what teleology was and could be. Now Midgley offers us reasons why it may not be productive to pretend we can excise teleology: the examples of teleology she discusses do not seem to be improved by being driven underground and presented as non-teleological.
Maximus’s picture, as well as being teleological, is moral and spiritual. As well as having intentions, we are living manifestations of a teleological, moral and spiritual Intention in God’s heart. Maximus Confessor held a cosmology, and therefore an anthropology, that did not see the world in terms of disconnected and meaningless things. He exhibited a number of traits that the Enlightenment stripped out: in particular, a pervasive teleology in both cosmology and anthropology. He believed in a threefold anthropology of intellect/spirit, reason/soul, and body, all intimately tied together. What cognitive science accounts for through cognitive faculties, manipulating mental representations, were accounted for quite differently by an intellect that sees God and the Principles of beings, and a reason that works with the truths apprehended by intellect. The differences between the respective cosmologies and anthropologies are not the differences between two alternate answers to the same question, but answers to two different questions, differently conceived. They are alike in that they can collide because they are wrestling with the same thing: where they disagree, at least one of them must be wrong. They are different in that they are looking at the same aspect of personhood from two different cultures, and Maximus Confessor seems to have enough distance to provide a genuinely interesting critique.
Maximus Confessor was a synthetic thinker, and I suggest that his writings, which are synthetic both in method and in doctrine, are valuable not only because he was brilliant but because synthetic enquiry can be itself valuable. I have pursued a synthetic enquiry, not out of an attempt to be like Maximus Confessor, but because I think an approach that is sensitive to connections could be productive here. I’m not the only critic who has the resources to interpret AI as floundering in a way that may be symptomatic of a cosmological error. It’s not hard to see that many religious cosmologies offer inhospitable climates to machines that think: Foerst’s reinterpretation of the image of God seems part of an effort to avoid seeing exactly this point. The interesting task is understanding and conveying an interconnected web. So I have connected science with magic, for instance, because although the official version is that they’re completely unrelated, there is a strong historic link between them, and cultural factors today obscure the difference, and for that matter obscure several other things that interest us.
This dissertation falls under the heading of boundary issues between religion and science, and some readers may perceive me to approach boundary issues in a slightly different fashion. That perception is correct. One of the main ways that boundary issues are framed seems to be for Christian theologians to show the compatibility of their timeless doctrines with that minority of scientific theories which have already been accepted by the scientific community and which have not yet been rejected by that same community. With the question of origins, there has been a lot of work done to show that Christianity is far more compatible with evolutionary theory than a literal reading of Genesis 1 would suggest. It seems to have only been recently that gadflies within the intelligent design movement have suggested both that the scientific case for evolution is weaker that it has been made out to be, and there seems to be good reason to believe that Christianity and evolution are incompatible at a deep enough level that the literal details of Genesis 1 are almost superfluous. Nobody conceives the boundary issues to mean that theologians should demonstrate the compatibility of Christianity with that silent majority of scientific theories which have either been both accepted and discredited (like spontaneous generation) or not yet accepted (like the cognitive-theoretic model of the universe). The minority is different, but not as different as people often assume.
One of the questions which is debated is whether it is best to understand subject-matter from within or without. I am an M.Phil. student in theology with a master’s and an adjunct professorship in the sciences. I have worked to understand the sciences from within, and from that base look and understand science from without as well as within. Someone who only sees science from without may lack appreciation of certain things that come with experience of science, whilst someone who only sees science from within may not be able to question enough of science’s self-portrayal. This composite view may not be available to all, nor is it needed, but I believe it has helped me in another basic röle from showing religion’s compatibility with current science: namely, serving as a critical observer and raising important questions that science is itself unlikely to raise, sometimes turning a scientific assumption on its head. Theology may have other things to offer in its discussion with science than simply offering assent: instead of solely being the recipient of claims from science, it should be an agent which adds to the conversation.
Are there reasons why the position I propose is to be preferred? Science’s interpretation of the matter is deeply entrenched, enough so that it seems strange to connect science with the occult. One response is that this perspective should at least be listened to, because it is challenging a now entrenched cultural force, and it may be a cue to how we could avoid some of our own blind spots. Even if it is wrong, it could be wrong in an interesting way. A more positive response would be to say that this is by my own admission far from a complete picture, but it makes sense of part of the historical record that is meaningless if one says that modern science just happened to be born whilst a magical movement waxed strong, and some of science’s founders just happened to be magicians. A more robust picture would see the early modern era as an interlocking whole that encompassed a continuing Reformation, Descartes, magic, nascent science, and the wake of the Renaissance polymath. They all interconnect, even if none is fully determined. Lack of time and space preclude me from more than mentioning what that broader picture might be. There is also another reason to question the validity of science’s basic picture:
Artificial intelligence doesn’t work, at least not for a working copy of human intelligence.
Billions of dollars have been expended in the pursuit of artificial intelligence, so it is difficult to say the artificial intelligence project has failed through lack of funding. The project has attracted many of the world’s most brilliant minds, so it is difficult to say that the project has failed through lack of talent. Technology has improved a thousandfold or a millionfold since a giant like Turing thought computer technology was powerful enough for artificial intelligence, so it is difficult to say that today’s computers are too underpowered for artificial intelligence. Computer science has matured considerably, so it’s hard to say that artificial intelligence hasn’t had a chance to mature. In 1950, one could have posited a number of reasons for the lack of success then, but subsequent experience has made many of these possibilities difficult to maintain. This leaves open the possibility that artificial intelligence has failed because the whole enterprise is based on a false assumption, perhaps an error so deep as to be cosmological.
The power of science-based technology is a side effect of learning something significant about the natural world, and both scientific knowledge and technology are impressive cultural achievements. Yet science is not a complete picture—and I do not mean simply that we can have our own private fantasies—and science does not capture the spiritual qualities of matter, let alone a human being. The question of whether science understands mechanical properties of physical things has been put to the test, and the outcome is a resounding yes. The question of whether science understands enough about humans to duplicate human thought is also being put to the test, and when the rubber meets the road, the answer to that question looks a lot like, ‘No.’ It’s not definitive (it couldn’t be), but the picture so far is that science is trying something that can’t work. It can’t work because of spiritual principles, as a perpetual motion machine can’t work because of physical principles. It’s not a matter of insufficient resources available so far, or still needing to find the right approach. It doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing which could work.
We miss something about the artificial intelligence project if we frame it as something that began after computer scientists saw that computers can manipulate symbols. People have been trying to make intelligent computers for half a century, but artificial intelligence is a phenomenon that has been centuries in the making. The fact that people saw the brain as a telephone switchboard, when that was the new technology, is more a symptom than a beginning. There’s more than artificial intelligence’s surface resemblance to alchemists’ artificial person (‘homunculus’). A repeated feature of the occult enterprise is that you do not have people giving to society in the ways that people have always given to society; you have exceptional figures trying to delve into unexplored recesses and forge some new creation, some new power—some new technology or method—to achieve something mythic that has simply not been achieved before. The magus is endowed with a magic sword to powerfully slice through his day’s Gordian knots, and with a messianic fantasy. This is true of Leibniz’s Ars Combinatoria and it is true of more than a little of artificial intelligence. To the reader who suggests, ‘But magic doesn’t really work!’ I would point out that artificial intelligence also doesn’t really work—although its researchers find it to work, like Renaissance magi and modern neo-pagans. The vast gap between magic and science that exists in our imagination is a cultural prejudice rather than a historical conclusion. Some puzzles which emerge from an non-historical picture of science—in particular, why a discipline with modest claims about falsifying hypotheses is held in such awe—seem to make a lot more sense if science is investigated as a historical phenomenon partly stemming from magic.
If there is one unexpected theme running through this enquiry, it is what has emerged about relationships. The question of whether one relates to society (or the natural world) as to one’s mother or as to raw material, in I-Thou or I-It fashion, first crept in as a minor clarification. The more I have thought about it, the more significant it seems. The Renaissance magus distinguished himself from his medieval predecessors by converting I-Thou relationships into I-It. How is modern science different? To start with, it is much more consistent in pursuing I-It relationships. The fact that science gives mechanisms instead of explanations is connected; an explanation is an I-Thou thing, whilst a bare mechanism is I-It: if you are going to relate to the world in I-It fashion, there is every reason to replace explanations with mechanisms. An I-Thou relationship understands in a holistic, teleological fashion: if you are going to push an I-It relationship far enough, the obvious approach is to try to expunge teleology as the Enlightenment tried. A great many things about magus and scientist alike hinge on the rejection of Orthodoxy’s I-Thou relationship.
In Arthurian legend, the figure of Merlin is a figure who holds magical powers, not by spells and incantations, but by something deeper and fundamental. Merlin does not need spells and incantations because he relates to the natural world in a way that almost goes beyond I-Thou; he relates to nature as if it were human. I suggest that science provides a figure of an anti-Merlin who holds anti-magical powers, not by spells and incantations, but by something deeper and fundamental. Science does not need spells and incantations because it relates to the natural world and humans in a way that almost goes beyond I-It; it relates to even the human as if it were inanimate. In both cases, the power hinges on a relationship, and the power is epiphenomenal to that relationship.
If this is a problem, what all is to be done? Let me say what is not to be done. What is not to be done is to engineer a programme to enlist people in an I-Thou ideology. Why not? ‘I-Thou ideology’ is a contradiction in terms. The standard response of starting a political programme treats society as raw material to be transformed according to one’s vision—and I am not just disputing the specific content of some visions, but saying that’s the wrong way to start. Many of the obvious ways of ‘making a difference’ that present themselves to the modern mind work through an I-It relationship, calculating how to obtain a response from people, and are therefore tainted from the start. Does that mean that nothing is to be done? No; there are many things, from a walk of faith as transforming communion with God, to learning to relate to God, people, and the entire cosmos in I-Thou fashion, to using forms of persuasion that appeal to a whole person acting in freedom. But that is another thesis to explore.
I look back at this piece six years later, and see both real strengths and things I wince at. This was one of my first major works after being chrismated Orthodox, and while I am enthusiastic for Orthodoxy there are misunderstandings. My focus on cosmology is just one step away from Western, and in particular scientific, roots, and such pressure to get cosmology right is not found in any good Orthodox theologian I know. That was one of several areas where I had a pretty Western way of trying to be Orthodox, and I do not blame people who raise eyebrows at my heavy use of existentialist distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. And the amount of time and energy spent discussing magic almost deterred me from posting it from my website; for that reason alone, I spent time debating whether the piece was fit for human consumption. And it is possibly theology in the academic sense, but not so much the Orthodox sense: lots of ideas, cleverly put together, with little invitation to worship.
But for all this, I am still posting it. The basic points it raises, and much of the terrain, are interesting. There may be fewer true believers among scientists who still chase an artificial intelligence pot o’ gold, but it remain an element of the popular imagination and belief even as people’s interests turn more and more to finding a magic sword that will slice through society’s Gordian knots—which is to say that there may be something relevant in this thesis besides the artificial intelligence critique.
I am posting it because I believe it is interesting and adds something to the convesation. I am also posting it in the hope that it might serve as a sort of gateway drug to some of my more recent works, and provide a contrast: this is how I approached theology just after being received into Holy Orthodoxy, and other works show what I would present as theology having had more time to steep in Orthodoxy, such as The Arena.
I pray that God will bless you.
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Maximus Confessor, Capita Gnosticae (Capita Theologiae et OEconomiae), in Patrologiae Graeca 90: Maximus Confessor, Tome I, Paris: Migne, 1860, 1083-1462.
Maximus Confessor; Berthold, George (tr.), Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, New York, Paulist Press,, 1985.
Maximus Confessor, Mystagogia, as published at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/browser?uid=&lang=eng&work=2892049&context=21&rawescs=N&printable=N&betalink=Y&filepos=0&outline=N&GreekFont=Unicode. Citations from the Mystagogia will be referenced by chapter and line number as referenced by Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.
Midgley, Mary, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, London: Routledge, 1992.
More, Thomas, Thomas More: Utopia, Digitale Rekonstruktion (online scan of 1516 Latin version), http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/diglib/more/utopia/, as seen on 2 June 2004.
Norman, Donald, The Invisible Computer, London: MIT Press, 1998.
Norman, Donald, Things That Make Us Smart, Cambridge: Perseus 1994.
Von Neumann, John, The Computer and the Brain, London: Yale University Press, 1958.
Polanyi, Michael, Personal Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Posner, Michael I. (ed.), Foundations of Cognitive Science, London: MIT, 1989.
Pseudo-Dionysius; Luibheid, Colm (tr.), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
Puddefoot, John, God and the Mind Machine: Computers, Artificial Intelligence and the Human Soul, London: SPCK1996.
Read, John, ‘Alchimia e magia e la ”separazione delle due vie”,’ in Cesare Vasoli (ed.), Magia e scienza nella civilté umanistica, Bologna: Societé editrice il Mulino 1976, 83-108.
Sacks, Oliver, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Basingstroke: Picador, 1985.
Searle, John, Minds, Brains, and Science, London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984.
Searle, John, The Mystery of Consciousness, London: Granta Books, 1997.
Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice, as seen on the Project Gutenberg archive at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext97/1ws1810.txt on 15 June 2004.
Skinner, B. F., Walden Two, New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Letchworth: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.
Turing, Alan M., ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence,’ in Mind 49, 1950, pp. 433-60, as seen at http://cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/archive/00000499/00/turing.html on 25 Feb 04.
Watts, Fraser, ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in Psychology and Theology, Aldercroft: Ashgate, 2002.
Webster, Charles, From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Yates, Frances A., The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London: Routledge, 1979.
Yates, Frances A., Selected Works, Volume III: The Art of Memory, London: Routledge, 1966, as reprinted 1999.
 These neural nets are modelled after biological neural nets but are organised differently and seem to take the concept of a neuron on something of a tangent from its organisation and function in a natural brain, be it insect or human.
 Cog, http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group/cog/images/cog-rod-slinky.gif, as seen on 11 June 2004 (enlarged).
 2002, 50-1.
 Searle 1998, Edelman 1992, etc., including some of Dreyfus 1992. Edelman lists Jerome Brunner, Alan Gauld, Claes von Hofsten, George Lakoff, Ronald Langaker, Ruth Garrett Millikan, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, and Benny Shannon as convergent members of a realist camp (1992, 220).
 Lee 1987, 6.
 ‘Intentionality’ is a philosophy of mind term for the ‘about-ness’ of mental states.
 By ‘teleology’ I understand in a somewhat inclusive sense that branch of theology and philosophy that deals with goals, ends, and ultimate meanings.
 ‘Cognitive faculty’ is a philosophy of mind conception of a feature of the human mind that operates on mental representations to perform a specific function.
 The spiritual ‘intellect’ is a patristic concept that embraces thought, conceived on different terms from ‘cognitive science,’ and is inseparably the place where a person meets God. Augustine locates the image of God in the intellect (In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, III.4), and compares the intellect to Christ as illuminating both itself and everything else (In Euangelium Ioannis Tractatus, XLVII, 3).
 C.S. Lewis critiques this project in The Abolition of Man (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1965). He does not address the question of whether this is a possible goal, but argues that it is not a desirable goal: the glorious future it heralds is in fact a horror compared to the present it so disparages.
 Encyclopedia Mythica, ‘Rabbi Loeb,’ http://www.pantheon.org/articles/r/rabbi_loeb.html, as seen on 26 Mar 04.
 Foerst 1998, 109 also brings up this archetypal tendency in her conclusion.
 United States Postal Service 2003 annual report, http://www.usps.com/history/anrpt03/html/realkind.htm, as seen on 6 May 2004.
 Cog, as seen on http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group/cog/images/scaz-cog.gif, on 6 May 2004 (enlarged).
 2002, 57.
 Cog, ‘Theory of Mind for a Humanoid Robots,’ http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics/group/cog/Abstracts2000/scaz.pdf, as seen on 6 May 2004.
 Adler 1986, 319-321.
 1992, 161-4.
 Utopias are often a satire more than a prescription literally conceived, but they are also far more prescriptive than one would gather from a simple statement that they are satire.
 Turing 1950.
 VanLehn 1989, in Posner 1989, 532.
 Ibid. in Posner 1989, 534.
 1998, 101.
 1992, 159.
 Foerst 1998, 103.
 Turing 1950.
 Hebb 1949, as quoted in the Linux ‘fortune’ program.
 Nominalism said that general categories are something in the mind drawn from real things, and not something things themselves arise from. This has profoundly shaped the course of Western culture.
 Lewis 1943, 46.
 Yates 1966, 380-382.
 Without submitting to the Church in the usual way, the magus is equal to its highest members (Webster 1982, 57).
 George Mason University’s Modern & Classical Languages, ‘Pico della Mirandola: Oratio de hominis dignitate,’ http://www.gmu.edu/departments/fld/CLASSICS/mirandola.oratio.html, as seen on 18 May 2004. See Poim 27-9, CH7 1-2 in Bentley 1987 for texts reflecting an understanding of the world as evil and associated contempt for the hoi polloi.
 Thomas More: Utopia, Digitale Rekonstruktion, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000017.jpg&jump=1, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000018.jpg&jump=1, etc. (pp. 35-6), as seen on 2 June 2004.
 Thomas More: Utopia, Digitale Rekonstruktion, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000039.jpg&jump=1, http://www.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/cgi-bin/button.cgi?pfad=/diglib/more/utopia/jpeg/&seite=00000040.jpg&jump=1, etc., (pp. 79-86), as seen on 2 June 2004. This runs through most of the book.
 Lewis 1943, 46.
 Ibid., 33-35.
 Ibid., 23-24.
 Ibid., 295-299.
 See Midgley, 1992, 80.
 1990, 195, 197-224,337-41.
 References will be to the online Greek version at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/wsearch?wtitle=2892+049&uid=&GreekFont=Unicode&mode=c_search, according to chapter and line. Unless otherwise specified, references in this section will be to the Mystagogia.
 5.1-10. ‘Intellect’ in particular is used as a scholarly rendering of the Greek ‘nous,’ and is not equivalent to the layman’s use of ‘intellect,’ particularly not as cognate to ‘intelligence.’ The ‘reason’ (‘logos‘) is closer to today’s use of the term, but not as close as you might think. This basic conceptualisation is common to other patristic and medieval authors, such as Augustine.
 1992, 239.
 ‘Punctuated equilibrium’ is a variant on Darwin’s theory of (gradual) evolution. It tries to retain an essentially Darwinian mechanism whilst acknowledging a fossil record and other evidence which indicate long periods of stability interrupted by the abrupt appearance and disappearance of life forms. It is called ‘punk eek’ by the irreverent.
 I.82. Material from the Capita Gnosticae, not available in Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, will be referenced by century and chapter number, i.e. I.82 abbreviates Century I, Chapter 82.
 See Lewis 2001, 522.
 What we usually mean by ’cause’ today: something which mechanically brings about its effect, as time and favourable conditions cause an acorn to grow into an oak.
 The ‘final cause’ is the goal something is progressing towards: thus a mature oak is the final cause of the acorn that would one day grow into it.
 As seen on the Project Gutenberg archive at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext97/1ws1810.txt on 15 June 2004.
 1992, 147-165.
 1998, 104-7.
Revisited after some time
Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.
There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).
That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.
I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.
Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”
So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.
Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”
So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.
His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.
One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”
And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.
One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.
A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.
But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?
Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?
I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.
There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.
My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.
As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.
While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”
In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”
Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”
To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!
Surgeon General’s Warning
I’m leaving this work up as a spectacular example of my barking up the wrong tree.
Some time centuries past, it was fashionable as a sort of rite of passage to create your “own art of memory,” as there were other times when it was fashionable to produce a new proof to a particular well-known theorem (the Pythagorean theorem). And this marks a spectacular effort to resurrect that dead fashion, even if I’m not sure it’s learnable enough to be useful. It also represents, to my knowledge, the first art of memory specifically optimized to work gracefully with abstractions, a point on which I have found little competition.
It also falls entirely into Barlaam’s domain, where in one defining moment for the Orthodox Church, the champion of Orthodox hesychasm St. Gregory Palamas engaged the champion of Renaissance man secular learning Barlaam, and the Orthodox Church decisively recognized that the hesychastic or silent tradition still living in the East was its norm, and the Western book learning that puts logic behind the wheel has no place in living Orthodoxy.
I am leaving this up as an example of my being wrong, and as a point of hope that someone wrong may still be brought to saving grace.
Abstract. Author briefly describes classic mnemotechnics, indicates a possible weakness in their ability to deal with abstractions, and suggests a parallel development of related principles designed to work well with abstractions.
Frances Yates opens The Art of Memory with a tale from ancient Greece:
At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honor of his post but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead.
After his spatial memory in this event, Simonides is credited with having created an art of memory: start with a building full of distinct places. If you want to remember something, imagine a striking image with a token of what you wish to remember at the place. To recall something naval, you might imagine a giant nail driven into your front door, with an anchor hanging from it; if you visualize this intensely, then when in your mind’s eye you go through your house and imagine your front door, then the anchor will come to mind and you will remember the boats. Imagining a striking image on a remembered place is called pegging: when you do this, you fasten a piece of information on a given peg, and can pick it up later. Yates uses the terms art of memory and artificial memory as essentially interchangeable with mnemotechnics, and I will follow a similar usage.
There is a little more than this to the technique, and it allows people to do things that seem staggering to someone not familiar with the phenomenon. Being able to look at a list of twenty items and recite it forwards and backwards is more than a party trick. The technique is phenomenally well-adapted to language acquisition. It is possible for a person skilled in the technique to learn to read a language in weeks. It is the foundation to some people learning an amount of folklore so that today they would be considered walking encyclopedias. This art of memory was an important part of the ancient Greek rhetorical tradition, drawn by medieval Europe into the cardinal virtue of wisdom, and then transformed into an occult art by the Renaissance. Medieval and renaissance variations put the technique to vastly different use, and understood it to signify greatly different things, but outside of Lullism and Ramism, the essential technique was the same.
In my own efforts to learn the classical form of the art of memory, I have noticed something curious. I’m better at remembering people’s names, and I no longer need to write call numbers down when I go to the library. I was able, without difficulty, to deliver an hour-long speech from memory. Learning vocabulary for foreign languages has come much more quickly; it only took me about a month to learn to read the Latin Vulgate. My weaknesses in memory are not nearly so great as they were, and I know other people have been much better at the art than I am. At the same time, I’ve found one surprise, something different from the all-around better memory I suspected the art would give me. What is it? If there is a problem, it is most likely subtle: the system has obvious benefits. To tease it out, I’d like to recall a famous passage from Plato’s Phaedrus:
Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.
There is clear concern that writing is not what it appears, and it will endanger or destroy the knowledge people keep in memory; a case can be made that the phenomenon of Renaissance artificial memory as an occult practice occurred because only someone involved in the occult would have occasion to keep such memory after books were so easily available.
What kind of things might one wish to have in memory? Let me quote one classic example: the argument by which Cantor proved that there are more real numbers between 0 and 1 than there are counting numbers (1, 2, 3…). I paraphrase the basic argument here:
- Two sets are said to have the same number of elements if you can always pair them up, with nothing left over on either side. If one set always has something left over after the matching up, it has more elements.
- Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are at least as many counting numbers as real numbers between 0 and 1. Then you can make a list of the numbers between 0 and 1:
1: .012343289889... 2: .328932198323... 3: .438724328743... 4: .988733287923... 5: .324432003442... 6: .213443765001... 7: .321010320030... 8: .323983213298... 9: .982133982198... 10: .321932198904... 11: .000321321278... 12: .032103217832...
- Now, take the first decimal place of the first number, the second of the second number, and so on and so forth, and make them into a number:
1: .012343289889... 2: .328932198323... 3: .438724328743... 4: .988733287923... 5: .324432003442... 6: .213443765001... 7: .321010320030... 8: .323983213298... 9: .982133982198... 10: .321932198904... 11: .000321321278... 12: .032103217832...
- Now make another number between 0 and 1 that is different at every decimal place from the number just computed:
- Now, remember that we assumed that the list has all the numbers between 0 and 1: every single one, without exception. Therefore, if this assumption is true, then the latter number we constructed must be on the list. But where?The number can’t be the first number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the first decimal place from the first number on the list. It can’t be the second number on the list, because it was constructed to be different at the second decimal place from the second number on the list. Nor can it be the third, fourth, fifth… in fact, it can’t be anywhere on the list because it was constructed to be different. So we have one number left over. (Can we put that number on the list? Certainly, but the argument shows that the new list will leave out another number.)
- The list of numbers between 0 and 1 doesn’t have all the numbers between 0 and 1.
- We have a contradiction.
- We started by assuming that you can make a list that contains all the numbers between 0 and 1, but there’s a contradiction: any list leaves numbers left over. Therefore, our assumption must be wrong. Therefore, there must be too many real numbers between 0 and 1 to assign a separate counting number to each of them.
Let’s say we want to commit this argument to memory. A mathematician with artificial memory might say, “That’s easy! You just imagine a chessboard with distorted mirrors along its diagonal.” That is indeed a good image if you are a mathematician who already understands the concept. If you find the argument hard to follow, it is at best a difficult thing to store via the artificial memory. Even if it can be done, storing this argument in artificial memory is probably much more trouble than learning it as a mathematician would.
Let me repeat the quotation from the Phaedrus, while changing a few words:
Jefferson: At the Greek region of Thessaly, there was a famous old poet, whose name was Simonides; totems seen with the inner eye were devoted to him, and he was the inventor of a great art, greater than arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts. Now in those days Rousseau was a sage revered throughout the West, and they called the god himself Rationis. To him came Simonides and showed his invention, desiring that the rest of the world might be allowed to have the benefit of it; he went through it, and Rousseau inquired about its several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Rousseau said to Simonides in praise or blame of various facets. But when they came to inner writing, This, said Simonides, will make the West wiser and give it better memory; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and of folly. Rousseau replied: O most ingenious Simonides, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact; for this invention will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not remember abstract things; they will trust to mere mnemonic symbols and not remember things of depth. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation and outer shell of knowledge without the reality of deep thought.
It is clear that if we follow Thomas Aquinas’s instructions on memory to visualize a woman for wisdom, we may recall wisdom. What is less clear is that this inner writing particularly helps an abstract recollection of wisdom. It may be able to recall an understanding of wisdom acquired without the help of artificial memory, but this art which allows at times stunning performance in the memorization of concrete data is of more debatable merit in learning abstraction. It has been my own experience that abstractions can be forced through the gate of concreteness in artificial memory, but it is like forcing a sponge through a funnel. While I admittedly don’t have a medieval practitioner’s inner vocabulary to deal with abstractions, using the artificial memory to deal with abstractions seems awkward in much the same way that storing individual letters through artificial memory is awkward. The standard artificial memory is a tool for being reminded of abstractions, but not for remembering them. It offers the abstract thinker a seductive way to recall a great many concrete facts instead of learning deep thought.
The overall impression I receive of the artificial memory is not so much a failed attempt at a tool to store abstractions as a successful attempt at a concrete tool which was not intended to store abstractions. It is my belief that some of its principles, in modified form, suggest the beginnings of an art of memory well-fitted to dealing with abstractions. The mature form of such an endeavor will not simply be an abstract mirror image of a concrete artificial memory, but it is appropriate enough for the first steps I might hazard.
Consider the following four paragraphs:
- Physics is like music. Both owe something of substance to the Pythagoreans. Both are aesthetic endeavors that in some way represent nature in highly abstracted form. Both are interested in mechanical waves. Many good physicists are closet musicians, and all musical instruments operate on physical principle.
- Physics is like literature. Both are written in books that vary from moderately easy to very hard. Both deal with a distinction between action and what is acted on, be it plot and character or force and particle, and both allow complex entities to be built of simpler ones. Practitioners of both want to be thought of as insightful people who understand reality.
- Physics is like an adventure. Both involve a venture into the unknown, where the protagonist tries to discover what is happening. Both have a mystique that exists despite most people’s fear to experience such things themselves. To succeed in either, one is expected to have impressive strengths.
- Physics is like magic. Both flourished in the West, at the same time, out of the same desire: a desire to understand nature so as to control it. Both attract abstract thinkers, are practiced in part through the manipulation of arcane symbols, and may be found in the same person, from Newton to Feynman. Magical theory claims matter to be composed of earth, air, fire, and water, while physics finds matter to be composed of solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.
What is the merit of these comparisons? They recall a story in which a literature professor asked Feynman if he thought physics was like literature. Feynman led him on with an elaborate analogy of how physics was like literature, and then said, “But it seems to me you can make such an analogy between any two subjects, so I don’t find such analogies helpful.” He observed that one can make a reasonably compelling analogy even if there’s no philosophically substantial connection.
The laws of logic and philosophy are not the laws of memory. What is a liability to Feynman’s implicit philosophical method is a strength to memory. The philosophical merit of the above comparisons is debatable. The benefit to memory is different: it appears to me that this is an abstract analogue to pegging. A connection, real or spurious, aids the memory even if it doesn’t aid a rigorous philosophical understanding. In pegging, it is considered an advantage to visualize a ludicrously illogical scene: it is much more memorable than something routine and sensible. Early psychological experiments in memory involved memorization of nonsense syllables. The experimenters intentionally chose meaningless material to memorize. Why? Well, if the subject perceived meaning, that would provide a spurious way for the subject to remember the data, and so proper Ebbinghausian memory study meant investigating how people investigate memory material which was as meaningless as possible. Without pausing to develop an obvious critique, I’d suggest that this spurious route to memory is of great interest to us. Meaningful data is more memorable than meaningless, and this is true whether the meaning perceived is philosophically sound or obviously contrived. I might suggest that interesting meaning provides a direct abstract parallel to the striking, special-effect appearance of effective images in pegging.
I intentionally chose not to compare physics to astronomy, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, metaphysics, or statistics, because I wanted to show how a different concept can be used to establish connections to a new one. Or, more properly, different concepts. Having a new concept connected to three very different ones will capture different facets than one anchor point, and possibly cancel out some of each other’s biases. A multiplicity of perspectives lends balance and depth. This isn’t to say similar concepts can’t be used, only that searching for a partial or full isomorphism to a known concept is easier than encoding from scratch. If memorable connections can be made between physics and adventure, music, English, and magic, what might be obtained from comparison with mathematics, chemistry, and engineering? A comparison between physics and these last three disciplines is left as an exercise to the reader, and one that may be quite fruitful.
Is this a desirable way to remember things? I would make two different comments on this score. First, when learning Latin words, I would first peg it to an English word with a vivid image, then later recall the image and reconstruct the English equivalent, then recall the image and remember the English, then the image would drop out so I would directly remember the English, and finally the English word would drop out too, leaving me with a Latin usage often different from the English equivalent used. Artificial memory does not circumvent natural memory; instead it streamlines the process and short-circuits many of the disruptive trips to the dictionary. Pegs vanish with use; they are not an alternate final product but a more efficient route for concepts more frequently used, and a cache of reference material. Therefore, even if remembered comparisons between physics and adventure/music/English/magic fall short of how one would desire to understand the concept, a similar flattening of the learning curve is possible. Second, I would say that even if you fail to peg something, you may succeed. How? In trying to peg a person’s name, I hold that name and face in an intense focus—quite the opposite how I once reacted: “I’ll never remember that,” a belief which chased other people’s names out of my mind in seconds. That focus is relevant to memory, and it has happened more than once that I completely failed to create a peg, but my failure used enough mental energy that I still remembered. If you search through your memory and fail to make even forced connections between a new concept and existing concepts, the mental focus given to the concept will leave you much better off than if you had thrown up your hands and thought the self-fulfilling prophecy: “I will never remember that!”
Certain kinds of emotional intelligence are part of the discipline. Learning to cultivate presence has to do with an emotional side, and I have written elsewhere about activities that can help to cultivate such presence. We learn material better if we are interested in it; therefore consciously cultivating an interest in the material and seeing how it can be fascinating is another edge. Cultivating and guarding your inner emotional state can have substantial impact on memory and learning abstractions. Much of it has to do with keeping a state of presence. Shutting out abstractions is one obvious way to do this; another, perhaps less obvious, is to avoid cramming and simply ploughing through material unless it’s something you don’t really need to learn. Why?
If there is a sprinkler that disperses a fine mist, it will slowly moisten the ground. What if there’s a high-volume sprinkler that shoots big, heavy drops of water high up in the air? With all that water pounding on the ground, it looks like the ground is quickly saturated. The appearance is deceptive. What has happened is that the heavy drops have pounded the surface of the ground into a beaten shield, so there really is water rolling off of a very wet surface, but go an inch down and the soil is as parched as ever. This sort of thing happens in studying, when people think that the more force they use, the better the results. Up to a point, definitely, and perseverance counts—but I have found myself to learn much more when I paid attention to my mental and emotional state and backed off if I sensed that I was leaving that optimal zone. I learn something if I say “This is important, so I’ll plough through as much as I can as quickly as I can,” but it’s not as much, and keeping on task needs to be balanced with getting off task when that is helpful.
Consider the following problem:
In the inns of certain Himalayan villages is practiced a most civilized and refined tea ceremony. The ceremony involves a host and exactly two guests, neither more nor less. When his guests have arrived and have seated themselves at his table, the host performs five services for them. These services are listed in order of the nobility which the Himalayan attribute to them: (1) Stoking the Fire, (2) Fanning the Flames, (3) Passing the Rice Cakes, (4) Pouring the Tea, and (5) Reciting Poetry. During the ceremony, any of those present may ask another, “Honored Sir, may I perform this onerous task for you?” However, a person may request of another only the least noble of the tasks which the other is performing. Further, if a person is performing any tasks, then he may not request a task which is nobler than the least noble task he is already performing. Custom requires that by the time the tea ceremony is over, all the tasks will have been transferred from the host to the most senior of the guests. How may this be accomplished?
Incomprehensible appearances notwithstanding, this is a very simple problem, the Towers of Hanoi. Someone who has learned the Towers of Hanoi may still solve the tea ceremony formulation as slowly as someone who’s never seen any form of the problem. A failure to recognize isomorphisms provides one of the more interesting passages in Feynman’s memoirs:
I often liked to play tricks on people when I was at MIT. One time, in a mechanical drawing class, some joker picked up a French curve (a piece of plastic for drawing smooth curves—a curly, funny-looking thing) and said, “I wonder if the curves on this thing have some special formula?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Sure they do. The curves are very special curves. Lemme show ya,” and I picked up my French curve and began to turn it slowly. “The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal.”
All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, holding their pencil up to it at the lowest point and laying it along, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this “discovery”—even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already “learned” that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they “knew.”
What is going on here is that Feynman perceives an isomorphism where the others do not. There may be a natural bent to or away from perceiving isomorphisms, and cognitive science suggests most people have a bent away. The finding, as best I can tell, is not so much that people can’t look for isomorphisms, as that they don’t. The practice of looking for and finding isomorphisms has something to give, because something can be treated as already known instead of learned from scratch. I might wonder in passing if the ultra-high-IQ rapid learning and interdisciplinary proclivities stem in part from the perception and application of isomorphisms, which may reduce the amount of material actually learned in picking up a new skill.
The classical art of memory derives strength from a mind that works visually; a background in abstract thought will help one learn abstractions. It has been thought that people can more effectively encode and remember material in a given domain if it’s one they have worked with; I would suggest that this abstract pegging also creates a way to encode material with background from other domains. An elaborate, intense, and distinct encoding is believed to help recall. Heightening of memorable features, in what is striking or humorous, should help, and mimetics seems likely to contain jewels in its accounts of how a meme makes itself striking.
Someone familiar with artificial memory may ask, “What about places (loci)?” Part of the art of memory, be it ancient, medieval, or renaissance, involved having an inner building of sorts that one could imagine going through in order and recalling items. I have two basic comments here. First, a connection could use traditional artificial memory techniques as an index: imagine a muscular man with a tremendous physique running onto the scene, grabbing an adventurer’s sword, shield, and pack, sitting down at a pipe organ which has a large illuminated manuscript on top, and clumsily playing music until a giant gold ring engraved with fiery letters falls on the scene and turns it to dust. You have pegged physics to adventure, music, literature, and magic; if you wanted to reconstruct an understanding of physics, you could see what it was pegged to, and then try to recall the given similarities. Second and more deeply, I believe that a person’s entire edifice of previously acquired concepts may serve as an immense memory palace. It is not spatial in the traditional sense, and I am not here concerned with the senses in which it might be considered a topological space, but it is a deeply qualitative place, and accessible if one uses traditional artificial memory for an index: these adaptations are intended to expand the repertoire of what disciplined artificial memory can do, not abolish the traditional discipline.
Symbols are the last unexplored facet. Earlier I suggested that a chessboard with mirrors along its diagonal may be a good token to represent Cantor’s diagonal argument, but does not bring memory of the whole proof. Now I would like to give the other side: an abstraction may not be fully captured by a symbol, but a good symbol helps. A sign/symbol distinction has been made, where a sign represents while a symbol represents and embodies. In this sense I suggest that tokens be as symbolic as possible.
Why use a token? Aren’t the deepest thoughts beyond words? Yes, but recall depends on being able to encode. I have found my deepest thoughts to not be worded and often difficult to translate to words, but I have also found that I lose them if I cannot put them in words. As such, thinking and choosing a good, mentally manipulable symbol for an abstraction is both difficult and desirable. My own discipline of formation, mathematics, chooses names for variables like ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ which software engineers are taught not to use because they impede comprehension: a computer program with variable names like ‘x’ and ‘y’ is harder to understand or even write to completion than one which with names like ‘trucks_remaining’ or ‘customers_last_name’. The authors of Design Patterns comment that naming a pattern is one of the hardest parts of writing it down. The art of creating a manipulable symbol for an abstraction is hard, but worth the trouble. This, too, may also help you to probe an abstraction in a way that will aid recall.
To test these principles, I decided to spend a week seeing what I could learn of a physics text and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I considered myself to have understood a portion of the physics text after being able to solve the last of the list of questions. I had originally decided to see how quickly I could absorb material. After working through 10% of the physics text in one day, I decided to shift emphasis and pursue depth more than speed. In reading Kant, the tendency to barely grasp a difficult concept forgotten in grasping the next difficult concept gave way, with artificial memory, to understanding the concepts better and grasping them in a way that had a more permanent effect. I read through page 108 of 607 in the physics text and 144 of 669 in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
The first day’s physics ventures saw two interesting ways of storing concepts, and one comment worth mentioning. There is a classic skit, in which two rescuers are performing two-person CPR on a patient. Then one of the rescuers says, “I’m getting tired. Let’s switch,” and the patient gets up, the tired rescuer lies down, and the other two perform CPR on him. This was used to store the interchangeability of point of effort, point of resistance, and fulcrum on a lever, based on an isomorphism to the skit’s humor element.
The rule given later, that along any axis the sum of forces for a body in equilibrium is always zero, was symbolized by an image of a knife cutting a circle through the center: no matter what angle of cutting there was, the cut leaves two equal halves.
These both involved images, but the images differed from pegging images as a schematic diagram differs from a computer animated advertisement. They seemed a combination of an isomorphism and a symbol, and in both cases the power stemmed not only from the resultant image but the process of creation. The images functioned in a sense related to pegging, but most of the images so far developed have been abstract images unlike anything I’ve read about in historical or how-to discussion of the art of memory.
The following was logged that night. The problem referred to is a somewhat complex lever problem given in three parts:
In reviewing the day’s thoughts at night, I recognized that the problems seem to admit a shortcut solution that does not rigorously apply the principles but obtains the correct answer: problem 12 on page 31 gives two weights and other information, and all three subproblems can be answered by assuming that there are two parts in the same ratio [as] the weights, and applying a little horse sense as to which goes where. It’s a bit like general relativity, which condenses to “Everything changes by a factor of the square root of (1 – (v^2/c^2)).” I am not sure whether this is a property of physics itself or a socially emergent property of problems used in physics texts.
I believe this suggests that I was interacting with the material deeply and quite probably in a fashion not anticipated by the authors.
In reading Kant, I can’t as easily say “I solved the last exercises in each section” and don’t simply want to just say, “I read these pages.” I would like to demonstrate interaction with the material with excerpts from my log:
…I am now in the introduction to the second edition, and there are two images in reference to Kant’s treatment of subjective and objective. One is of a disc which has been cut in half, sliced again along a perpendicular axis and brought together along the first axis so that the direction of the cut has been changed. The other is of a sphere being turned out by [topologically] compactifying R3 [Euclidean three-space] by the addition of a single point, and then shifting so the vast outside has become the cramped inside and the cramped inside has become the vast outside. Both images are inadequate to the text, indicating at best what sort of thing may be thought about in what sort of shift Kant tries to introduce, and I want to reread the last couple of pages. Closer to the mark is a story about three umpires who say, in turn, “I calls them as they are,” “I calls them as I see them,” and “They may be strikes, they may be balls, but they ain’t nothing until I calls them!”
Having reread, I believe that the topological example is truer than I realized. I made it on almost superficial grounds, after reading a footnote which gave as example scientific progress after Copernicus proposed, rather than that the observer be fixed and the heavens rotate, the heavens are fixed and the observer rotate. The deeper significance is this: prior accounts had apparently not given sufficient account to subjective factors, treating subjective differences as practically unimportant—what mattered for investigation was the things in themselves. Thus the subjective was the unexamined inside of the sphere. Then, after the transformation, the objective was the unexaminable inside of the new sphere: we may investigate what is now outside, our subjective states and the appearances conformed to them, but things in themselves are more sealed than our filters before: before, we didn’t look; after, we can’t look. What is stated [in Kant] so far is a gross overextension of a profound observation.
The below passages refer to pp. 68-70:
Kant’s arguments that space is an a priori concept can be framed as showing that there exists a chicken-and-egg or bootstrapping gap between them and sense data.
What is a chicken-and-egg/bootstrapping gap? In assisting with English as a Second Language instruction, I was faced with a difficulty in explanation. Assuming certain background, it is possible for a person not to know something while there is a straightforward way of explaining—perhaps a very long way of explaining, but it’s obvious enough how to explain it in terms of communicable concepts. Then there is the case where there is no direct way to explain something: one example is how to explain to a small child what air is. One can point to water, wood, metal, stone, food, and a great many other things, but the same procedure may not yield understanding of air. It may be possible with a Zen-like cleverness to circumvent it—in saying, for example, that air is what presses on your skin on a windy day—but it is not as straightforward as even an involved and difficult explanation where you know how to use the other person’s concepts to build the one you want.
In English as a Second Language instruction, this kind of gap is a significant phenomenon in dealing with students who have no beginning English knowledge, and in dealing with concepts that cannot obviously be demonstrated: ‘sister’ and ‘woman’, when both terms refer to an adult, differ in a way that is almost certainly understood in the student’s native tongue but is nonetheless extremely difficult to explain. When I first made the musing, I envisioned a Zen-like solution. Koans immortalize incidents in which Zen masters bypassed chicken-and-egg gaps in trying to convey enlightenment that cannot be straightforwardly explained, and therefore show a powerful kind of communication. That is what I envisioned, but it is not how English is taught to speakers of other languages. What happens in ESL classes, and with younger children, is a gradual emergence that is difficult to account for in the terms of analytic philosophy—a straightforward explanation sounds like hand-waving and sloppy thinking—but with enough repetition, material is picked up. It may have something to do with a mechanism of learning outlined in Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, which talks about how i.e. swimmers learn from coaches to inhale more air and exhale less completely so that their lungs act more as a flotation device than a non-swimmers, even though neither swimmer nor coach is likely aware of what is going on on any conscious level. People pick things up through at least one route besides grasping a concept consciously synthesized from sense data.
Kant’s proof that a given concept is a priori essentially consists of argument that the concept that cannot be synthesized from sense data through the obvious means of central route processing. He is probably right in that the concepts he classifies as a priori, and presumably others as well, cannot just be synthesized from sense data through central route processing. It does not follow that a concept must be a priori: there are other possibilities besides the route Kant investigates that one can acquire a belief. I do believe, though, that we come with some kind of innate or a priori knowledge: the difficulties experienced in visualizing four dimensional objects suggest that our dealing with three-dimensional space is not simply the result of a completely amorphous central nervous system which we happen to condition to deal with three dimensions; there is something of substance, comparable in character to a psychologist’s broader understanding of memory, that we are born to. An investigation of that would take me too far afield.
P. 87. “Now a thing in itself cannot be known throu[g]h mere relations; and we may therefore conclude that since outer science gives us nothing but mere relations, this sense can contain in its representation only the relation of an object to the subject, and not the inner properties of the object in itself.”
There is a near-compatibility between this and realist philosophy of science. How?
Recall my observation about chicken-and-egg gaps and how they may be surmounted (here I think of Zenlike short-circuiting of the gap rather than the vaguely indicated gradual emergence of concepts which haven’t been subject to a detailed and understood explanation). What goes on in a physics experiment? The truly famous ones since 1900—I think of the Millikin oil-drop experiment—include a very clever hack that tricks nature into revealing herself. People, not even experimental physicists, can grab a handful of household items and prove that electric charge is quantized. Perhaps that was possible in Galileo’s day, but a groundbreaking experiment involves a brilliant, clever, unexpected trickery of nature that is isomorphic to a Zen short-circuiting in a chicken-and-egg gap, or a clever hack, and so on and so forth. Even a routine classroom experiment uses technology that is the fruit of this kind of resourcefulness. People do something they “shouldn’t” be able to do. This is possibly how we might learn intuitions Kant classifies as a priori, and how experimental scientists cleverly circumvent the roadblock Kant describes here. It might be said that understanding this basic problem is prerequisite to a good realist philosophy of science.
‘Hack’, in this context, refers to the programming cleverness described in Programming Pearls. I analyzed that fundamental mode of problem solving and compared it with its counterpart in “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”. There are other observations and interactions with the text, but I believe these should adequately make the point.
I chose Kant because of his reputation as an impenetrable analytic philosopher. With the aid of a good translation and these principles, I was at times surprised at how easy it was to read. By the end of the week, I had another surprise when I decided to reread George MacDonald’s Phantastes, a work which I have greatly enjoyed. This time, my experience was different. I felt my mind working differently despite a high degree of mental fatigue. The evocative metaphor fell dead, and I found myself reading the text as I would read Kant, thinking in a manner deeply influenced by reading Kant, and in the end setting it down because my mind had shifted deeply into a mode quite different from what allows me to enjoy Phantastes. I was surprised at how deeply using abstract memory to read Kant had affected not only conscious recall of ideas but also ways of thought itself.
I do not consider my recorded observations to be in any sense a rigorous experiment, but I believe the experience suggests it’s interesting enough to be worth a good experiment.
Here are twelve proposed principles, or rules of thumb, of abstract memory:
- Be wholly present. Want to know the material. Make it emotionally relevant and connected to something that concerns you. Don’t take notes.
- Encode material in multiple ways. Some different ways to encode are: analogies to different abstractions, list distinctions from similar abstractions, paraphrase, search for isomorphisms, use the concepts, and create visual symbols.
- At least in the beginning, mix a little bit of reading material with a lot of processing. Don’t plough through anything you want to remember. Work on drawing a lot of mist in, not pounding with heavy drops that will create a beaten shield.
- Don’t read out of a desire to finish reading a text. Read to draw the materials through processed thought.
- Process in a way that is striking, stunning, novel, and counter-intuitive: in a word, memorable.
- Process material on as deep a level as you can.
- Search for subtle distinctions between a concept under study and its near neighbors.
- Converse, interact with, and respond to the abstractions. What would you say if an acquaintance said that in a discussion? What questions would you ask? Write it down.
- Know how much mental energy you have, and choose battles wisely. Given a limited amount of energy, it is better to fully remember a smaller number of critical abstractions than to have diffuse knowledge of many random ideas.
- Guard your emotions. Be aware of what emotional states you learn well in, and put being in those states before passing your eyes over such-and-such many pages of reading material.
- Review material after study, seeking to find a different way of putting it.
- Metacogitate. Be your own coach.
Committing these principles to memory is left as an exercise to the reader.
What can I say to conclude this monograph? I can think of one or two brief addenda, such as the programmer’s virtue of laziness, but in a very real sense I can’t conclude now. I can sketch out a couple of critiques that may be of interest. Jerry Mander critiques the artificial unusuality of television and especially advertising, in a way that has direct bearing on traditional mnemotechnics. He suggests that giving otherwise uninteresting sensation a strained and artificial unusuality has undesirable impact on how people perceive life as seen outside of TV, and the angle of his critique is the main reason why I was hesitant to learn artificial memory. There may be room for similar critiques about why making ridiculous comparisons to remember ideas creates a bad habit for someone who wishes to think rigorously. There is also the cognitive critique that the search for isomorphisms will introduce unnoted distortion. One thinks of the person who says, “All the religions in the world say the same thing.” There is a common and problematic tendency to be astute in perceiving substantial similarities among world religions and all but blind in perceiving even more substantial differences. That is why I suggest comparing with multiple and different familiar concepts, rather than one. I could give other thoughts about critiques, but I’m trying to explain an art of memory, not especially to defend it.My intention here is not to settle all questions, but open the biggest one and suggest a direction of inquiry by which an emerging investigation may find a more powerful way to learn abstractions.
- Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, hereafter AM, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 1-2. The text is a treasure trove on the development of mnemotechnics, also referred to here as artificial memory or the art of memory. Back
- Trudeau, Kevin, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory, hereafter KTMM, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995 is one of several practical manuals for someone who thinks the classical art of memory interesting and would like to be able to use it. Back
- AM, pp. 27ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 50ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 129ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 173ff. Back
- Ibid., pp. 231ff. Back
- Jowett, B., The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. III, hereafter DP, New York: National Library Company, pp. 442-443. Back
- AM, pp. 112ff describes one popularizer whose somewhat debased form advocated memorizing individual letters. This practice is awkward, much as it would be awkward to record the appearance of a room by taking a notepad and writing one letter on each sheet of paper. Back
- Feynman, Richard, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, hereafter SYJMF, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, pp. 338ff and other places in the text. He began his famous “Cargo Cult Science” address by talking about his occult diversions from scientific endeavors, and it is arguable that Newton’s groundbreaking work in physics and optics was a scientific diversion from his main occult endeavors. I find it revealing that, even with Feynman’s occult forays left in the book, the index shows curious lacunae for “ESP”, “Hallicunation”, “New Age”, “Reflexology”, “Sensory deprivation”, etc. Back
- 100 Ways of Kything, hereafter 1WK, by CJS Hayward, at CJSH.name/kything describes a number of activities which can embody presence and focus. Back
- Hayes, J.R., and Simon, H.A., “Understanding Written Problem Instructions”, 1974, in Gregg, L.W. ed., Knowledge and Cognition, hereafter KC, Hillsdale: Erlbaum. Quoted in Posner, Michael I. ed., Foundations of Cognitive Science, hereafterFCS, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989, pp. 534-535. Back
- FCS, pp. 559-560. Back
- SYJMF, pp. 36-37. A more scholarly, if more pedestrian, mention of the phenomenon is provided in FCS, pp. 559-560. Back
- FCS, p. 690. The authors do not necessarily subscribe to this view, but acknowledge influence among many in the field. Back
- Ibid., p. 691. Back
- “A Picture of Evil”, hereafter APE, by CJS Hayward, at CJSH.name/evil/ provides an example of communication which is striking in this manner. Back
- Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, hereafter DP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 3. The book describes recurring good practices that are known to many expert practitioners, but often only on a tacit level—and tries to explain how this tacit knowledge can be made explicit. The book is commonly called ‘GoF’ (“Gang of Four”) by software developers. Thanks to Ron Miles for locating the page number. Back
- February 9-15 2002. Testing abstract artificial and honing this article were juggled with other responsibilities. Back
- Black, Newton Henry; Davis, Harvey Nathaniel, New Practical Physics: Fundamental Principles and Applications to Daily Life, hereafter NPP, New York: Macmillan, 1929. Given to me as a whimsical Christmas gift in 2001. At the time of beginning, I was significantly out of practice in both physics and mathematics. Back
- Smith, Norman Kemp tr., Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, hereafter IKCPR, London: Macmillan, 1929. I had not previously read Kant. Back
- I knew that science doesn’t deal in proof; experiments may corroborate a theory, but not establish it as something to never again doubt. I was thinking at that point along another dimension, to convey a quality of physics experiments today. Back
- Bentley, Jon Louis, Programming Pearls, hereafter PP, Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1986. Back
- Hayward, Jonathan, “Of Technology, Magic, and Channels”, in Gift of Fire, June 2001, number 126. Back
- MacDonald, George, Phantastes, hereafter P, reprinted Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. Back
- Despite widespread endorsement of this practice, taking notes taxes limited mental energy that can better be used to understand the material, and acts to the mind as a signal of, “This can safely be forgotten.” KTMM, very early on, makes a point of telling readers not to take notes (p. 5). The purpose of attending a lecture or reading a book is to make internal comprehension rather than external reference materials. Back
- Tulving, Endel; Craik, Fergus I.M., The Oxford Handbook of Memory, hereafter OHM, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, refers on p. 98 to the picture superiority effect, which states that pictures are better remembered because of a dual coding where they are encoded as image and words and therefore have two chances at being stored rather than the one chance when material is presented only as words. Back
- OHM mentions on p. 94 the “levels of processing” view, a significant perspective which states that material is retained better the more deeply it is processed. Back
- Wall, Larry; Christiansen, Tom; Schwartz, Randal L., Programming Perl, Second Edition, hereafter PP2, Sebastopol: O’Reilly, pp. 217ff and other places throughout the book. Known by the affectionate nickname of “the camel book” among software developers. (This book is distinct from PP). Back
- Mander, Jerry, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, hereafter FAET, New York: Morrow Quill, 1978, pp. 299ff. Back
- I would like to thank Robin Munn for giving me my first serious introduction to the art of memory, Linda Washington and Martin Harris for looking at my manuscript, William Struthers for valuable comments about source material, and Chris Tessone, Angela Zielinski, Kent and Theo Nebergall, and people from Wheaton College and International Christian Mensa for prayer. I would also like to thank those who read this article, apply it, perhaps extend it, and perhaps tell others about them. Back