[Humanist] 30.185 social media

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jul 19 07:15:22 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 185.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2016 10:48:18 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  30.178 social media vs truth; computer theology
        In-Reply-To: <20160716071527.4049F7B66 at digitalhumanities.org>

[The following was delayed; it refers to Humanist 30.178, which 
follows. --WM]

Dear Charles,

Very nice.  And very true, I think.  

As you say, and illustrate, numbers and computations have
pervaded religious beliefs and practices for eons, whatever
number that is.  And numbers and computations have been given
special places in the holding and telling of important truths
in many religions.

So how can a study of numbers and computation not, at least
sometimes, be theological scholarship?  But I think this is
what Clarke's "The nine billion names of God," is a particular
example of.

I think your analysis points to a further entanglement of
religious thinking and behaving and computers (machines that
do computations).

When humans were the computers, we took on trust the results
of their computations.  Since we gave the computations these
people did, and many more kinds of computations they didn't
do, to (machine) computers, we take on faith the results of
these computations.  We give computers (the machines) a
God-like quality: we adopt a religious or faith-based stance
towards computers.

At least this is how I see it in the way people use and treat
computers in practice.  The idea that we treat computers as
(impressive) human made tools [most say technology here]
derived from human designing and making, and rendered using
technologies discovered and developed by humans, and thus
accepted and treated as useful but mere human artifacts, just
doesn't correspond to observed human practices.

This is not peculiar to computers (the machines).  Being human
is tool using, and has been from the beginning(s) of human
beings.  And, in humans, this tools using is also tool making
and technology discovering and developing--both of which are
also tool using activities.  Yet, for eons, humans have
invested their tools with spirits and agency, sometimes with
God-like powers.

Our Gods have resided in our computing machines from the
beginning of these machines.  Perhaps our religions have yet
to catch up with where our Gods have moved into.

I pray [in effect] that this message is computed well all the
way to the recipients of this list.

There is no proper separating of humans from their tools and
technologies and religions and everything else they do and
believe in and think.

Sadly, horrendously, this includes lorries, not just

Best regards,


> On 16 Jul 2016, at 09:15, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 178.
>           Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                      www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>               Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> [2]   From:    "Charles M. Ess" <c.m.ess at media.uio.no>                   (95)
>       Subject: Re:  30.173 computer theology
> --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>       Date: Fri, 15 Jul 2016 21:05:43 +0200
>       From: "Charles M. Ess" <c.m.ess at media.uio.no>
>       Subject: Re:  30.173 computer theology
>       In-Reply-To: <20160715045735.340D57B58 at digitalhumanities.org>
> Dear Willard, Tim, and colleagues,
> Tickled to see the reference to the A.C. Clarke story - one I vividly
> recall. But would also add here what I'm not sure I've seen articulated in
> this thread so far?  If I've missed something, apologies.
> Computation has been affiliated with the sacred since its origins, beginning
> with Babylonian and Egyptian mathematics.  In these directions, the sky-disk
> of Nebra (<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebra_sky_disk>), if it can be
> counted as a computational device (I think it can), embodies the
> inextricable interconnection between calculation and the universe understood
> as a sacred order.  (Ditto for the Antikythera mechanism.)
> This is made more secular in some way by the Pythagoreans - but the
> Pythagorean belief that mathematics, and thus computation, articulates a
> fundamental order in nature, and thereby furthers a "religious" interest in
> seeking to better attune ourselves to that order as an ultimate form of
> "salvation" runs throughout our cultural, intellectual, and scientific
> histories.
> For example, Kepler's neo-Pythagorean search for the mathematical ratios of
> the planetary orbits that then fulfilled the ancient Pythagorean dream of
> actually hearing (an analogue of) the music of the spheres. Kepler's music
> was too difficult for human musicians to perform - nicely enough, it was
> realized using computers and synthesizers in the late 1970s, e.g., by Laurie
> Siegel (<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zp1R6TMvWTA>) and included in the
> Voyager probe.
> Still more directly, Leibniz was intrigued by the possibility of automating
> calculation, developing binary along the way (inspired in turn by the I
> Ching, which likewise takes number as an articulation of the sacred, however
> much the latter term has to be qualified in an ancient Chinese context) -
> again in service to the (neo-)Pythagorean project of understanding an
> ultimately sacred order.
> This interweaving between calculation and the sacred becomes sometimes
> radically disconnected in Enlightenment taxonomies that seek to separate
> "religion" from everything else. Whatever the advantages of what amounts to
> a resulting academic specialization, this disentangling threatens us with
> anachronism when we seek to understand earlier "religion" as well as the
> roles of calculation.
> But while there are plenty of contemporary understandings of computation as
> a strictly secular business (in every sense of the word) - there are also
> contemporary philosophers of information, most notably Luciano Floridi, who
> explicitly continue the thread from such ancients as the Pythagoreans and
> Plato, through Leibniz and Spinoza: very briefly and very roughly, so far as
> we understand the cosmos in terms of computable information, it is a cosmos
> whose default normative setting (my terms) is a basic affirmation of its
> goodness and value.
> If this sketch is anywhere close to correct - from a historical perspective
> then, it is the separation between computing and theology that is the
> anomaly, not their entanglement.
> Hope this is of some interest and help
> cheers,
> charles ess
> --
> Professor in Media Studies
> Department of Media and Communication
> University of Oslo
> http://www.hf.uio.no/imk/english/people/aca/charlees/index.html
> Editor, The Journal of Media Innovations
> <https://www.journals.uio.no/index.php/TJMI/>
> Postboks 1093
> Blindern 0317
> Oslo, Norway
> c.m.ess at media.uio.no

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