Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 216.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Fri, 08 Sep 2000 06:54:29 +0100
From: Elisabeth Burr <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: 14.0204 naming and specifying
For me, there are too many he's in this interpretation. In order
to be able to efface himself this male good had to do away
with nature, earth etc. first. The earth was there long before
this male god came around and drew everything up into his
head and rationalised it. I am sure, this is not the only way of
interpreting it all.
At 09:00 31.08.00 +0100, you wrote:
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 204.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>  From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA> (78)
> > Billion Names of God"
>  From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com> (40)
> Subject: specification as apotropaic gesture
> Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 07:37:09 +0100
> From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA>
> Subject: Re: 14.0200 fingerprints of genius and "The Nine Billion
>Names of God"
>I read with some surprise Willard's allusion to Clarke's story -- surprise
>at the depth of the question he used it to prompt. I read "The Nine Billion
>Names of God" many years ago as a child, and hadn't really thought about it
>since then. Now his question brings it back with a wave of recognition and
>enlightenment: "Of course!!" Of course, back then the whole idea of the
>world existing so that God might be fully named struck me as "silly", not
>to mention a little self-indulgent on god's part. But as Josephine Tarvers
>says, it's not silly at all. Think of the lamas' naming as a (dare I say
>it) metaphor for human activity as such, or, for that matter, any and all
>activity (i.e., the activity of the world, of which our activity is a
>Here, I'd draw your attention to an article by Hans Jonas: "Immortality and
>the modern temper" (available in *Phenomenon of Life*, Harper & Row 1966).
>Jonas tells a different story (he calls it a myth) which I now see has
>provided me the key to understanding the story about the Tibetan lamas --
>and the role of technology therein. Jonas' myth is, it seems to me, a
>brilliant re-interpretation of Christian, Gnostic and Jewish motifs in a
>distinctly modern, even "existentialist" vein. Here's how it goes.
>Jonas asks us to consider the creation of the world as a complete
>self-effacement of divinity, out of which the image (name?) of divinity
>slowly and painstaking arises over cosmic aeons. But here's the kicker:
>there is simply no guarantee that the Divine will ever get itself back
>again, because its restoration depends upon the free agency of active
>selves (i.e., us). And we could screw it up. And we do screw it up. The
>Divine depends upon us to restore itself through us; hence our immense
>responsibility. Every action of ours is inscribed on the face of divinity
>for all eternity; every action of ours is like a "naming" of God. Let me
>quote a few lines:
>"in order that the world might be, and be for itself, God renounced his own
>being, divesting himself of his deity -- to receive it back from the
>Odyssey of time weighted with the chance harvest of unforseeable temporal
>experience: transfigured or possibly even disfigured by it." [Eons pass,
>"And then he [God] trembles as the thrust of evolution, carried by its own
>momentum, passes the threshold where innocence ceases and an entirely new
>criterion of success and failure takes hold of the divine stake. The advent
>of man means the advent of knowledge and freedom, and with this supremely
>double-edged gift the innocence of the mere subject of self-fulfilling life
>has given way to the charge of responsibility under the disjunction of good
>and evil. To the promise and risk of this agency the divine cause, revealed
>at last, henceforth finds itself committed; and its issue trembles in the
>balance. The image of God, haltingly begun by the universe, for so long
>worked upon -- and left undecided -- in the wide and then narrowing spirals
>of pre-human life, passes with this last twist, and with a dramatic
>quickening of the movement, into man's precarious trust, to be completed,
>saved, or spoiled by what he will do to himself and the world."
>"Having given himself whole to the becoming world, God has no more to give:
>it is man's now to give to him. And he may give by seeing to it in the ways
>of his life that it does not happen, or happen too often, and not on his
>account, that 'it repented the Lord' to have made the world."
>Technology is a major concern of Jonas's, though in this piece he is more
>concerned with questions of immortality. Here, though, he simply alludes to
>the crucial role that technology plays both in elevating humanity, and in
>"But even if not in their shadow [e.g. Auchwitz], certainly the Bomb is
>there to remind us that the image of God is in danger as never before, and
>on most unequivocal, terrestrial terms. That in these terms an eternal
>issue is at stake together with our temporal one -- this aspect of our
>responsibility can be our guard against the temptation of fatalistc
>aquiescence or the worse treason of apres nous le deluge"
>I hope these quotations are not too long, and I've not put you all off. I
>also hope I have cast a flicker upon the profundity of Willard's question:
>philosophy, science -- and technology -- are all part of the
>self-transcendence of the world. They are not themselves among "the nine
>billion names of God", but they are the means for us to find those names.
>And only in the eternality of the inscription of those names (by our
>actions) can we see the true depth of our responsibility not to falter.
>Dr. Steven Robinson
>R7A 6A9 CANADA
>FAX: (204) 726-0473
> Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000 07:41:27 +0100
> From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> Subject: specification as apotropaic gesture
>Further to the talk on "The Nine Billion Names of God" I've been wondering
>this bright though slightly chilly London morning more or less
>anthropologically about specification as a magical gesture meant to turn
>away or avert (apo-trope, thus "apotropaic") some evil. In other words,
>about the deep cultural history behind the impulse we have to deal with
>what troubles us by telling or spelling it out. Trouble that gains its
>power by being kept in the dark, against which the light of reason seems so
>effective. To what extent, I'm wondering, are we misled in our applications
>of computing by this impulse to spell out the troubling mysteries of our
>cultural artefacts until they have all become safe data?
>If you don't think this is a good thing, then you'll be hearing the other
>side of the apotropaic story already, according to which the lurking evil
>is the unknowable good, the enumeration or specification of its analysed
>parts is the evil means by which the essence of it is lost, or (again) as
>William Blake said, the means by which we reply to words of doubt and so
>put the light of knowledge out.
>If we regard the idea of the unknowable as essentially wrong, i.e. a stupid
>way to think about the unknown, then does it not follow that we take to
>computing with the notion that scholarship is essentially reducible to
>algorithms? I recall once, when my place in the academic world did not
>allow me to say what I thought, a profoundly ignorant senior academic
>telling me that a team of professors should be funded to take up the work
>of a certain very famous literary critic and prove or disprove it. (So
>astonishing was this remark to me, so clearly did it reveal the nature of
>the beast, that I recall exactly where it was said, what time of day, etc.)
>Yes, I know, one sputters at the silliness of such an attitude, but it
>doesn't seem to be going away, not anytime soon.
>My question continues to be, how do we reply constructively? What is the
>argument in our terms (i.e. the terms of humanities computing) for the
>unknowable? Which, it seems to me, is basically the question, how do we as
>computing humanists put the case for the study of the humanities?
>I enjoy (to speak in mythological terms) seeing the army of darkness, with
>its banners of progress, on the fields of ancient magical practice; this
>gives me a certain appreciation for the deep underlayer of fear that powers
>so much of what's done with computing. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate -- but
>it is to make a point, so perhaps you'll allow it.) But I do think we have
>to do better than that. I think we need to have a constructive reply, even
>if the magical beliefs in progress are never articulated as such or seldom
>in the terms I was fortunate to hear them expressed.
Prof'in Dr. Elisabeth Burr
Ex-president of SILFI:
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