Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 204.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
 From: Steven Robinson <Robinsons@BrandonU.CA> (78)
Subject: Re: 14.0200 fingerprints of genius and "The Nine
Billion Names of God"
 From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org> (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 <email@example.com>
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.
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