Imagine a World Without Imagination

Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, has joined the cawing voices of academic atheists with the publication of his new book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. I haven’t read the book, and don’t see any reason to support the author’s rise to bestseller stardom. The supporting reviews on the book’s brag sheet are enough for me. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker all celebrate the book as another sledgehammer blow against the project that has occupied humanity’s greatest thinkers for millennia: how to get people to work together for the common good.

Is science a catalyst in that regard? I didn’t see that in evidence at the Skeptics Conference last year. In a panel discussion with an advocate for CERN and an advocate for advancement of space exploration, Leonard Krauss responded with “That’s just a stupid idea” to the latter’s appeal for money to clear the space junk that threatens our low-earth-orbit satellites.  Krauss’s statement came without technical analysis – it was a baldly political statement meant to ensure that the community represented by Krauss kept its stranglehold on the money that flows through CERN.

And then we have the double-edged sword of global climate research and toxicology studies. We cannot consider as a statistical anomaly the trifecta among the technical communities that advised the tobacco, fossil fuel and chemicals industries. Drawing upon the science of economics, they invested their resources for the benefit of their shareholders. Each of them, confronted with irrefutable scientific evidence of harm to the public, chose to invest in contrarian science and secrecy to secure their access to profitable markets.

Obviously, the contention that science in of itself disproves faith is supportable only if we discard the long history of spiritual experience. Fundamental physics has no explanation for that history, and as it has become clear that there is no explanation for spirituality in current theory, the position of rejection has hardened because to accept the need to explain spirituality is to cast into doubt the entire body of particle physics.

But the men listed in my introduction are not physicists, they are evolutionary biologists. They have waged a long war against scriptural literalists, and appear eager to crucify religion for the prejudices of its ugliest zealots. That zealotry arose in an era that lacked the evidence of the fossil record, and so had no means for explaining the obscure record of the Bible except to assert the power of the Almighty. With the fossil record, however, the story of Genesis is readily interpreted as the occupation of ecosystems by living things. Even more, the trumpets of Revelation are clearly correlated with the billion-year history of mass extinctions that occurred along the way.

Of course, how could the writers of the Bible have known all that without the benefit of modern paleontology? The program of destruction pursued by Coyne and his cronies would be completely undermined by that consideration.

What they would be left with is to pursue a proof, such as I have outlined here, that love is the most powerful force in the universe. This is the conclusion reached by all the great religious avatars, not-with-standing the hateful rhetoric of the zealots. What is really wrong with attempting to prove that conclusion?

Surely not something more wrong than lacking the imagination to believe that it is possible.

Don’t Blame Love

In the final chapter of Love Works, the feminine personality of life, irritated by the disorder generated by the masculine personality of intellect, grabs him by the short hairs, prompting him to observe:

Choice is a bitch. Let’s hope the kids do better next time. Now, will you let go? (How does she make it hurt so much?)

It’s undeniable that the spread of life across the earth has been driven by primitive urges.

Life’s procreative greed causes ecosystems to become saturated, stunting evolutionary opportunity. The great extinction episodes of paleohistory terminated biological dead-ends, and were all followed by eras in which life took off in new directions.

Conversely, the ability to use tools requires a large brain and flexible digits, both of which limit the growth of organic armor (which traps heat) and organic weapons (which must be anchored to large bones). Thus creatures of intellect such as humans are biologically vulnerable, and so spread only when they can produce tools that overcome the weapons and armor of other animals.

Once those tools were available, however, fear and greed drove us to consume natural resources without restraint, bringing the globe today to the point of ecological collapse. Deflecting the force of these natural tendencies is the challenge we have laid at love’s door.

In the history of religion, that struggle began with the worship of the two polar opposites of procreation and death. With the rise of the hydrological civilizations, an intellectual class of priests began to envision gods with subtle ethical character. But it was really only about 3000 years ago (and only among the intellectual elite) that humanity dared to suppose the gods should be devoted to us, rather than the other way around.

Monotheism is the culmination of this process, and led eventually to the declaration that God is love. This is common to all of the great religions.

But is it to our advantage? Given that we have free will, why should we feel constrained to draw only upon love when we face challenges? When our treasurer embezzles the retirement fund, do we just shrug our shoulders? Or do we get a noose? And when the hanging is done, can’t we justify the act with the assertiong that we are loving our spouse, children and/or co-workers?

The retort to this logic is that if you had really cared about your treasurer and paid attention to her psychological well-being, you would have seen the trouble long before it manifested. But, damn, that seems like a lot of work, and didn’t we pay them to do the right thing? So we keep the noose handy, and that means that the old deities of death get in through the back door of our religions. They stay alive there, and as ecological collapse sweeps across the globe, they will appear once again to grow in power.

But, fundamentally, they are the disease. Sexual indulgence and fear of death are what drove us to exploit the natural world. That love did not have a magic wand to drive them away is not its fault. So we need to stop blaming monotheistic religions for our refusal to hew to the dictates of love. Rather, we need to double down, even as fear sweeps over us, and invest in the love that creates the strength to resist the urge to exploit the world around us.

On Poverty and Riches

Just taking the long view (I mean – the long, long, long view), I consider the time-scale of the cosmos and the saga of biological evolution and we have the precious experience of living in this 10,000 year period in which our intelligence and the natural resources stored up from the past are available for us to do really deep work on our personalities. Simply to be alive in this time is such an incredible gift – to be able to play at being a creator, each in our own limited way.

Even if only to be able to plant a field, or tend a herd, or write a blog. Even if only to be the voice that reminds “There are still problems to be solved” in a way that motivates others to seek for solutions. Not to place fault, but to exhort greatness in others – to guide them into the only form of self-creation that opens to God.

Yes, the window is closing, as it was prophesied in Revelation. No, it’s not the fault of any single individual, and if we collectively had been more considerate of the forms of life that occupied the planet before us, maybe it wouldn’t be so traumatic. But that’s not under my control, so the question I constantly confront myself with is: what am I doing with my opportunity? Am I offering my creative capacities in the service of Life, or do I expect Life to serve me? Because when I finally lose my grip on this body, it is Life and Love that awaits to embrace me with the eternal embrace, if only I know how to receive it.

Looking Ahead

It’s such a beautiful experience, moving through a crowd of gentle people, and then getting hooked on life, stretching out a hand and feeling the pulse of the Amazon, caressing the Andes and then making the leap from Tierra del Fuego to Cape Hope, gently cupping the Congo and pausing before merging into the thrum of Ethiopia. Stuck there, I reached across with the other hand and felt the rainforests of Southeast Asia, roamed over the Russian tundra, and then slowly squeezing inward around the pustule that is the Middle East, soaking it with the healing energy of life and love.

And later she said, hesitantly “It seems that it’s going to get worse.”

“I’m afraid that is what I see, too.”

With the air of one surrendering innocence, she hazarded “But it’s not going to affect people like us.”

I had to look away, trying to find a formulation that did not take air out of the joy she was sharing with me. “Well, in order to bring healing, we have to make a diagnosis. That means getting close enough to feel their pain.”

It’s the last hurrah of selfishness. It knows it, and so figures there’s nothing to lose.

As Matt Maher promises in “Hold Us Together”:

It’s waiting for you knocking at your door
In the moment of truth when your heart hits the floor

And you’re on your knees

And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I’ll be my brother’s keeper
So the whole world will know that we’re not alone


I’ve begun reading Lewellyn’s Spiritual Ecology, a collection of essays by those representing the unheard voices that suffer from human exploitation of nature. The authors’ shared diagnosis is that we are rushing towards the limits of the Earth’s restorative capacities, with the prescription that we must regain the spiritual bond with nature that we once had as tribal peoples.

I have provided some reaction to this perspective in my review of The Lost Language of Plants. I believe that the history of tribal peoples is far more complex than the celebrants recall. This myopia tends to cause them to forget that Western civilizations, propagators of the twin “evils” of scientific reductionism and monotheism, also arose from tribal cultures. Whatever defects they possess arose from seeds sown in humanity’s past – which is also part of nature.

To my understanding, the important factors are testosterone and feedback. Testosterone is the hormone that stimulates aggression. It is most powerful in males, but also influences females. Aggression facilitates change, and when that change is rewarded with success, our bodies are designed to amplify the biochemical signals that generate the success. What this means is that aggressive people tend to produce more and more testosterone until something checks their behavior.

As I see it, this primitive biological drive is the root cause of the ecological crisis we face. Once we learned to fashion tools, humanity freed itself from Darwinian evolution. There was nothing to check our behavior except perhaps the Earth itself. Aggressive people then turned every tool at our disposal to gather power to themselves. That included not only machinery and oil, but also rationalization of aggression through  selective and context-free application of the wisdom passed on through our intellectual and spiritual authorities. Jesus did say, for example, “No man can serve two masters. You cannot love both God and money.” And long before Marx, Adam Smith advocated for governments to secure workers’ rights against the destructive efficiencies of capitalism.

What was perhaps different in tribal cultures is that the feedback provided by nature was immediate. Do not work at harvest, and there is no food in January. In almost every society in which those constraints were removed aggression rose. This was true in African cultures, as well as in the Aztec and Mayan cultures of Central America.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Catholic Philosopher, published a synthesis of Christian and evolutionary ideas in 1955 titled The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard observed that whenever a species arises with a new competitive advantage, it spreads as far as possible across the globe. In recent times, this is true not only of man – European songbirds brought with the settlers have largely displaced their smaller Native American cousins. But once the spread is complete, the parent species refines its occupation of the inherited territory through a process called inflorescence. This was visible to Darwin in the variety of the Galapagos finches, each of which had evolved from a common parent. Some had beaks adapted to crack nuts, others to fishing insects out of holes.

Teilhard observed that man was the first species to dominate the globe in its entirety. He predicted that in our inflorescence we would create a noosphere – an emanation of our thought that would allow us to manage not only the local environment entrusted to native tribes, but the planet as a whole.

It is in this process that I find hope – a hope echoed by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization. There is no going back. Rather than rejecting the insights of our dominant culture, we must amplify them. The subculture of testosterone will immolate itself on the altar of its own greed. The quiet, calm, thoughtful successors will marshal understanding to the service of sustainability, and bring healing and peace to the Earth.

Reconciling Scripture and Evolution

Posted in a discussion of our symbiotic relationship with mites, this summarizes my position succinctly:

The biologists that rely upon strictly biochemical processes of evolution will never be able to calculate rates, because the forcing conditions have been lost in prehistory. I found it interesting to ask “why does every civilization develop the concept of a soul”, and eventually concluded that Darwin was half right: life is the co-evolution of spirit with biological form. The addition of spirit influences the choices made by living creatures, and so changes the rates.

Given this, I went back to Genesis and interpreted it as an incarnation (“The SPIRIT of God hovered over the waters” – and then became God for the rest of the book), with the “days” of creation reflecting the evolution of senses and forms that enabled Spirit to populate and explore the material conditions of its survival (photosensitivity, accommodation of hypotonic “waters above”, accommodation of arid conditions on the “land”, accommodation of seasons with sight (resolving specific sources of light), intelligent species in the waters and air, and mammals on earth (along with man)).

Couple this with the trumpets in the Book of Revelation, which pretty clearly parallel the extinction episodes identified by paleontology – including injection of the era of giant insects – and it looks like science and scripture actually support each other.

The only point of significant disagreement is spirit itself. Given my knowledge of the weaknesses of modern theories of cosmology and particle physics, I found myself considering the possibility of structure inside of the recognized “fundamental” particles. It became apparent to me that it wouldn’t be too difficult to bring spiritual experience into particle physics. To my surprise and delight, I became convinced that this reality is constructed so that love inexorably becomes the most powerful spiritual force.

Welcoming the Light of Love

Stephen Harrod Buhner closes The Lost Language of Plants just as I would have hoped. After recounting a healing session with a young lady, the book closes with four autobiographic sketches, each by a herbologist recounting immersion in biophilia. Left behind are the recriminations and the tone of moral superiority that marred the preceding chapters. Each of the writers focuses on the opportunity before us now – an opportunity to call into being relationships built around affirmations of love shared with the world around us.

As the book progressed, lunging between the yin and yang of natural and industrial chemistry, I found myself remembering my experiences of being stalked by predators. One was at a Webelos overnighter, of all things, at Camp Whitsett in the Southern Sierras. A Native American elder inducted a number of the senior scouts in a fire ceremony. As the ceremony progressed, I had a strong sense of the bear in the man, and felt the fire of predation building in the camp as the boys settled in to sleep. Rather than hiding from it, I let it enter into my heart, sent my will into the forest to demonstrate that no bears were present, and then breathed peace into the space I had cleared. The fear resided, and the camp settled into slumber. Several years later, I was driving home from work on Friday night, knowing that my youngest son had been sent to the Sierras on a camping trip, and felt the bear again in his presence. I sent the warning “Wake up, Gregory! Get Mr. Povah!” When he returned that Sunday, I learned that on Saturday morning, he had woken early, and heard a noise as Mr. Povah’s son Braden was dragged away from the camp by a black bear. The onrush of shouting campers scared the bear off, and Braden survived with only a bruised ankle.

Given his immersion in the natural world, I doubt that Buhner has not had similar experiences. But perhaps not – he has been chosen by the world of chlorophyll, the deep, patient source of renewal. That touches the animal realm through the herbivores, an intimate co-creative process that Buhner documents in loving detail. But the animal kingdom has another dimension as well: in Love Works, I enumerate the rites of blood – sex, maternity, the hunt and sacrifice. Each of these has its unique pathologies, and the fragility of animal existence means that those pressures are often driven into fear and rage.

In Dune, the great science-fiction author Frank Herbert advances the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

It was this discipline that I exercised in Camp Whitsett. It is the discipline of the rational mind, a discipline that safeguards our ability to perceive clearly and so to exercise our intelligence when facing circumstances that our natural talents could never hope to overcome. It is to perceive the forces in play with the aim of negotiating a win-win outcome when the predator’s zero-sum mentality holds sway.

As I finished the life sketches that close The Lost Language of Plants, I was filled with the desire to find these people and join forces with them. A great barrier arose, followed by a vision and memory. Buhner shares the plant kingdom’s experience of light, that great source of love that originates from the sun and desires to merge with us through them. But when discussing with my sister the ecological disasters that will confront our children, I told her,

This is how we heal the world: by teaching the plants not simply to receive passively the light, but to reach up to the sun and guide its power to rebuild the devastated forests and savannahs.

This may seem like a little thing, but to accomplish it we have to convince them to surrender the conventions of the chemistry that Buhner celebrates so tenderly. It is to recognize that it is not the plant that is important, but the spiritual transformation that gives courage to the fearful through its physical manifestations.

Buhner touches on this metaphorically in describing his healing work. He testifies that he meets people that are missing parts, and is guided by visions of plants that can fill those voids. It is in establishing those relationships that healing arrives, through an expansion of spirit that occurs when our hollowness is filled.

I spent the rest of the day struggling with the grief that filled me then.

It has two parts. The first is that the plant is only an intermediary – it is a reservoir in which love gathers, but it is not the source itself. It was the source that disciplined me, forcing me stand apart until people realize that all intermediaries are imperfect. Secondly: in that place apart we are beset by those that would ravage the gardens that Buhner and his peers create. We plant the seeds of knowledge, and watch as they are corrupted by the predators. We heal the wounded, and set them again into the world, hoping that each time the light of love reaches more deeply into them.

It is hard to be told that our path has led us into evil. I wish that Buhner could see that scientific reductionism is a means of removing the primitive triggers of predation from the world. Yes, it has gone too far, but it has also created the field in which he and his friends plant their garden.

Lest we wish to repeat the experience of Eden, we must leave recrimination behind. I take solace that in his closing Buhner celebrates the light of love that will ultimately unite us all.

A Species of Thinking

When I stepped to the counter with The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner, I broke in on a conversation between the proprietress and a customer hawking her capabilities as a spirit healer. Unaware that I was incubating a serious respiratory infection, I went looking for a juice bar hoping to restore the energy expended earlier in the day while dancing in Culver City. It was kind of a random walk up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, trying to orient myself to the addresses provided by Cortana, but as I waited to cross Fifth Street I was accosted by the customer, who broke in hopefully “I saw that book you bought, too.” Without turning my head, I observed “Yeah, I bought it because I realized that I am paying too much attention to people,” and stepped into the crosswalk as the signal changed.

The first chapter of the book was a balm to my soul. Buhner writes of being introduced to “wild water” by his grandfather, a man that maneuvered through brush as though guiding a lady across a crowded dance floor (my image, not Buhner’s). Like Buhner, I feared the consequences to my sons of the lack of access to wild places, and lugged 50-pound backpacks up and down the Sierras to be where I could share my affinity with them. In reading how trees will irrigate the soil by pulling water to the surface while their stoma are closed at night, I remembered walking by a reservoir surrounded by parched stands of oak, and trying to tell the trees closest to the water to lift some to their brothers further up the hill. In celebrating the mystical insights of tribal peoples, Buhner reveals the richness and suggestiveness of their taxonomic terminology, and exposes again and again how their myths reflect the biochemical dependencies between species. The book also dwells lovingly on the transformations that occur as life propagates into a receptive environment. This poetical celebration of the tenacity and interdependence of the lower orders of life is one thread of Buhner’s exposition.

The second thread warns of the disaster that looms due to humanity’s disruption of the chemical balance of the natural world. This takes many forms: replacement of complex biomes with industrial monocultures such as wheat and corn; dispersal of long-lived cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that disrupt natural endocrine responses and breed superpests; replacement or suppression of wildlife that served to cycle nutrients through soil; and mass harvesting of plant life that releases natural chemicals to soil in amounts that overwhelm the bacteria and fungi that process them for reuse. Each of these factors contributes to the impending extinction of many plant species.

As a reader, both threads serve to illuminate the reality experienced by the plant kingdom, so I cannot complain about this book in the same way that I complained about A Global History of Christians. But, confronting the loss of so much that he holds dear, Buhner beats a straw man: scientific reductionism. In the rush of each discipline to grasp the mechanisms that determine that characteristics of its subject, science has ignored the systemic interactions that ensure the fertility and robustness of natural biomes. This includes our symbiotic relationships: the bacteria, fungi and nematodes that live within and on us in a balance that medicines disrupt, sometimes irrecoverably.

But I find that Buhner goes too far in asserting the wisdom of the natural world. His claims are disproven by the impact of invasive species. If nature always kept balance, how do:

  • cane toads run amok in Australia,
  • kudzu and Spanish moss infest the forests of the American South,
  • European songbirds wipe out the smaller songbirds of the New World, and
  • European grasses choke out the sagebrush of the West?

Such imbalances are only restored through extinction and restoration of diversity through exploitation of new opportunities in the devastated habitats. While human transportation serves to facilitate such traumas, in the modern era it is only the pace of disruption that is unnatural, not the phenomenon itself.

This extends, of course, to the most invasive species of all: homo sapiens sapiens. While Buhner decries scientific reductionism, yet its terminology and tools provide the insights that he uses to cast his poetic glamour over the reader. In describing the formation of humus (p. 165) he identifies “flavonoids, degraded lignin, terpenes, lignans, and tannins,” then continues:

Humus is mostly two substances, humic acid and a combination of polysaccharides or sugar molecules. No one knows how humic acid forms, but once formed it acts like a living substance and possesses a number of unique characteristics. It forms crystals, much like snowflakes in a sense, and, like snowflakes, no identical ones have ever been found.

While humus is a biochemical reservoir that facilitates growth, the virtue of plant medicine also reflects strategies used by plants to destroy competitors and parasites.

As Buhner documents, this natural biochemical productivity dwarfs human activity. The difference is that the products of natural biochemistry are introduced slowly enough that bacteria learn to process them. Sometimes that adaptation requires millions of years – lignin, for example, is the substance that trees use to form wood. When it first evolved, trees did not decompose after falling, but accumulated on the forest floor until burning. Oxygen content in the atmosphere soared to 30%, and the giant insects displaced other land animals. When bacteria finally learned to digest lignin, conditions reverted, triggering another jarring disruption to the global ecology.

How is the human incursion different in kind from these events? To Buhner, it seems to boil down to “once we knew better.” This is not to say that we understood. In contrast to the reductionist scientific epistemology of a mechanistic reality, Buhner celebrates the epistemology of “pre-industrial” cultures. Their medical practitioners universally ascribe their wisdom to (page 33):

“nonordinary” experiences, specifically: dreams, visions, direct communications from the plant, or sacred beings.

Was this good enough? Did Life make a mistake in creating humanity? Or do we exist because Life sought for solutions to problems that could be solved no other way?

Consider our agriculture: corn, wheat and rice are not naturally occurring varieties. Their utility as foodstuffs reflects the pressure of human selection, and is manifested in both the quantity and chemical stability of their output. As a result, humanity invests far less mental effort gathering food than it did, liberating a privileged class to the pursuit of understanding.

Buhner decries the regimentation of scientific disciplines which is accompanied by the growth of intellectual barriers that impede systems thinking. But is this not just as in the natural world? Buhner describes the intermingling of distinct species in the soil layer, each contributing to the survival of the others. Is that not the situation in the sciences?

As each natural species can be traced back to bacteria, yet is considered distinct from it, could we not celebrate the emergence of distinct disciplines from the common root of humanity? Perhaps, over the long run, what Life is interested in is a liberation from random evolutionary pressures punctuated by traumatic extinctions. In the short term, humanity was bound to make a mess before mastering our practice, and our pride and myopia is certainly exacerbating our difficulties. In the end, though, I believe that we will enter into a golden era of thoughtful evolution, empowered by the human capacity to evolve new species of thought.


Anti-Christ Anti-Scientist

A few years back, National Geographic ran a photo essay on the Alaskan tundra. In the publication notes at the back, the photographer recounted a conversation with a native regarding the urban tourists that passed through each year. When asked to characterize them, the native, a man who lived in solitude for most of the year, remarked that “They seem lonely.” That loneliness reflects not a lack of human association Rather, it is a deep disconnection in our souls from the root of life.

This problem is so characteristic of modern societies that, in our search to escape our constructed reality, we tend to gloss over the defects of ancient cultures. Pagan worshippers extol the virtues of Roman worship for its naturalism, ignoring the paternalism that gave license to fathers to murder their dependents. The homeopathic intuition of native healers is lauded, ignoring the vicious lore of hexes and curses. And nobody appears to want to reflect that xenophobia was endemic to all the ancient cultures, with outsiders that looked and spoke differently treated as inferiors.

But if the ancient world mixed its spiritual vices and virtues, it is still fair to ask why the spread of modern civilization has resulted in a spiritual divorce. Naturally, critics seeking to heal the divide focus on the dominant elements of modern culture. I am sympathetic to these concerns:

  • Science applies methods of analytical reductionism to reveal creative possibilities. Unfortunately, reducing things to their constituent parts is not something that souls engage willingly: to do so would be a form of suicide. Therefore, science achieves its most impressive manifestations in the material realm. Scientists seeking funding for fundamental research have a strong motivation to ignore their failure to explain spiritual phenomena, and tend actually to pretend that souls just don’t exist.
  • Capitalism heralds the efficiency of the free market in responding to unforeseen public needs and opportunities. Unfortunately (as recognized by Adam Smith), the metric of success – the accumulation of wealth – is too crude to support political control of resource exploitation by the greedy. Worse, concentration of wealth has allowed the exploiters to broadcast rationalizations for their behavior, almost all of which cast the exploited resources as spiritually deficient, and therefore not deserving of protection.
  • The traditions of Abraham (dominated by Christianity in American society) tackle the problem of masculine aggression by heralding the power released through submission to unconditional love. Unfortunately, the target population persists in its aggressive recidivism, to the extent that scripture is often quoted selectively (when not completely rewritten) to justify destructive behaviors that are decried universally by the avatar(s). This perversion divorces us from the noblest masculine manifestations of spiritual maturity.

Given the problems outlined above, I would be surprised if it were impossible to assemble evidence that each of the three elements can facilitate depravity. The science of eugenics justified medical experiments on populations (both human and animal) that were considered to lack souls, and therefore believed to be unable to feel pain. Unbridled greed first drove the adoption of slavery in the New World – both of native populations and imported Africans, and now drives us pell-mell down the road to ecological collapse. And the “Great Commission” to propagate the good news of Christ’s resurrection has been used to justify violent suppression of indigenous cultures.

But is it fair to stop there? After all, is not the material construction of our modern reality, with its buildings, appliances and tools, far more conducive to liberty from fear than the natural world we inhabited previously with its predators, diseases, weather and natural disasters? Does not capitalism also distribute wealth and create monetary velocity that supports personal initiative, thereby providing an escape from exploitation? And have not the traditions of Abraham been foremost in providing charitable support of those in need?

For those seeking spiritual reconnection, this seems to leave us in a limbo of ambiguity. If we cannot find the seeds of disconnection in our history, then how are we to escape from the mistakes of the past?

The answer I have held out here is that the way out is to recognize that it’s not just about us.

One of the great gifts of the Bible is that it charts the progression of human spiritual maturity from the heralded “era of innocence” experienced by primitive cultures. In The Soul Comes First, I explain the Biblical days of creation as the history of the evolution of the senses as revealed by the souls that survived the experience. The Garden of Eden is a similar metaphor, in my view. It describes the ideal state sought by the pagans – man and spirit united to create a world of peace. But that unity is sundered by the serpent, who tempts the woman – the nexus of life-engagement – into partaking of the “fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” For that sin, man and woman are cast out of the Garden.

As I expressed it recently to a friend, the great tragedy of the Fall was the sundering of trust. That trust was not only between mankind and spirit, but between man and woman. Ever since, we have been engaged in the sterile course of trying to fix blame for the problem. What we fail to realize, however, is that the source of the problem existed before the Garden. We did not create the serpent, although we were susceptible to its wiles.

We were cast out of Eden not because application of our intelligence was evil, but because we had admitted sin as a guide to our intelligence. Rather than allowing Life to guide our intelligence for good, we became committed to a course of resolving the difference between good and evil, and of developing the strength to choose the good. This is an extremely dangerous path, and the spiritual collective decides that we must be cast out lest we partake of the “Tree of Life” and live forever.

Again, we can think of this in material terms, but from the perspective of the soul of life, this is to say “if man, having admitted the serpent into his mind, enters into the Soul of Life now, then we will never be rid of the serpent.” In Revelation, this aim is made quite clear: the serpent/dragon attempts at one point to assault heaven, and is ultimately destroyed in the final confrontation with Christ.

But what is the serpent? The best way to characterize it is in the contrast between reptilian and mammalian parenting: while the mammalian newborn is nurtured for weeks or years before being forced into independence, the baby Komodo dragon must climb a tree to avoid being eaten by its mother. The reptile manifests the virtues of the predator, seeing in others only resources to be consumed.

So the problem is not science, or capitalism, or Christianity – it is with the ancient reptilian spiritual infection that we must purge. It is our path, on the knowledge of good and evil, to master that influence. It is a skill first encouraged in Cain (“sin crouches at your door, but you can master it”) and delivered by Jesus to the Apostles when he says “what you loose here on earth will be loosed in heaven, and what you bind here on earth will be bound in heaven.”

But until we as a species accede to the disciplines taught by Christ, we will discover, the further we walk with sin down the path of knowledge, the more distant will become our relationships with the Spirit of Life. Not because we can be expected to do differently, nor as punishment for our weakness, but as a matter of its own self-preservation.

The Modern Tower of Babel

I alluded to the problem of language in my introductory post on programming. The allusion was hopeful, in that our machines are learning to understand us. Or rather, they are learning to understand those of us that speak supported languages.

The dominant language of international discourse today is English. That can be attributed to the success of the English Empire in the colonial age, and then to the industrial and diplomatic dominance of America in the aftermath of World War II. But the proliferation of English has affected the language itself.

The most significant changes impacted many of the colonial languages: they were simplified and regularized to make them easier to teach. Study of tribal languages reveals that they defy analysis. Few patterns are discerned in verb conjugations, and sentence structure obeys arbitrary rules. But the languages of major civilizations can also be daunting: the ideograms and subtle intonations of Chinese are a case in point. For both types of language, it is impossible for an adult to become fully proficient. But the education of adult leaders and manual laborers was critical to the stability of Empire. In the absorption of foreign populations, the complexity of the original language was eroded by the logistics of minority control.

And yet today the Brits like to say that England and America are divided by a common language. While the grammar and basic terms of the language are shared, cultural development and ambition still drive change. The physical sciences are characteristic. While my professors focused on physics as applied mathematics, it was clear to me that it was also a foreign language, with arcane terms such as “Newton’s Third Law”, “Lagrangian” and “Hamiltonian” use to distinguish alternative formulations of the mathematics used to describe the motion of classical particles. As cultural developments, the latter two came to prominence because their mathematical formulations were generalized more readily to non-classical systems. And as regards ambition, we need only note that all three formulations bear the name of their originators.

But language can also be used consciously as a political tool. Newt Gingrich created the modern Republican media machine around 1990 by distributing cassette tapes each month with terms to be applied in derogating Democratic and lauding Republican policies. Many oppressed minorities encode their conversations to prevent authorities from interfering with the conduct of their lives, and those can emerge as full-blown languages in their own right (The “Ebonics” movement reflected such a development in America).

But in other cases, new usage arises as a form of entertainment. I had to ask my son to clarify the meaning of “sick” as used by today’s youth, and was surprised to discover that, as in Chinese, nuances of intonation were essential to understanding.

Most of these variations can be expected to be ephemeral. “Cool” was “sick” when I was growing up, and all attempts to obscure meaning will eventually founder on the rock of economic realities. People that can’t describe accurately the world around them seem bizarre if not outright insane, and ultimately excuse themselves from collaboration with others. While the linguists are fascinated by variation, they predict that the number of living languages will continue to decline.

As a programmer, however, I have the opposite experience. Fred Brooks and Martin Fowler have decried the “language of the month” phenomenon in software engineering. I myself feel a certain insecurity in my job search because the applications that I develop can only be created using fifteen-year-old technologies that most programmers would consider to be “archaic.”

To understand the root of this proliferation, it is amusing to backtrack to 1900 or so. Mathematicians had developed categories for numbers: the integers (used for inventory tracking), rational numbers (ratios of integers) and real numbers that seemed to have no repeating pattern. Two very important branches of mathematics had been proven to depend upon real numbers: geometry and calculus. In geometry, the real number pi is the ratio of a distance across a circle and the distance around it. In calculus, Euler’s constant e is the number that when exponentiated has a slope equal to the value at every point on the curve.

However, philosophers pointed out that while calculation of the exact value of these numbers was impossible, even in the case that we could, any calculation performed using them could only be performed with finite precision – and that is good enough. If we can’t cut a board to better than one thousands of an inch, it doesn’t matter if we calculate the desired length to a billionth of an inch. Practically, the architect only needs to know pi well enough to be certain that the error in his calculation is reasonably smaller than one thousandth of an inch.

Given that binary notation could be used to represent numbers as well as common numerals, it was clear that computers could be used for practical calculations. When Alan Turing defined a simple but comprehensive model for digital computation, the field progressed confidently to construct machines for general purpose applications, encompassing not only mathematics but also language processing.

Now in Turing’s model, the digital processor operates on two kinds of input: variable data and instructions. The variable data is usually read from an input at execution. The instructions could be built into the actual structure of the processor, or read in and interpreted at run-time. The machine that Turing built to crack the Nazi Enigma code was of the first type, but his general model was of the second.

Turing’s original specification had fairly simple instructions (“move tape left”, “move tape right”, “read value” and “write value”), but it wasn’t long before Turing and others considered more complex instruction sets. While after the Trinity test, Oppenheimer famously penned a poem comparing himself to “Shiva, the destroyer of worlds”, I can’t help but wonder whether the original computer designers saw the parallels with Genesis. Here they were, building machines that they could “teach” to do work for them. They started with sand and metal and “breathed life” into it. The synaptic relays of the brain that implemented human thought have operational similarities to transistor gates. Designs that allowed the processor’s output tape to be read back as its instruction tape also suggested that processors could modify their behavior, and thus “learn.”

The Turing test for intelligence reflects clearly the ambition to create a new form of intelligent life. But creating the instruction tape as a series of operations on zeros and ones was hopelessly inefficient. So began the flourishing of computer languages. At first, these were simply mechanisms for invoking the operation of blocks of circuitry that might “add” two numbers, or “move” a collection of bits from one storage location to another. Unfortunately, while these operations provided great leverage to programmers, they addressed directly only a small part of the language of mathematics, and were hopelessly disconnected from the language used to describe everything else from banking to baking.

Still fired with ambition, the machine designers turned to the problem of translating human language to machine instructions. Here the most progress was made in the hard sciences and engineering, where languages such as FORTRAN attempted to simulate the notation of mathematical texts. The necessary imprecision of business terminology was refined as COBOL, allowing some processes to be automated. And as machine architectures grew more complex, with multi-stage memory models, communication with external peripherals including printers and disk drives, and multi-processing (where users can start independent applications that are scheduled to run sequentially), C and its variants were developed to ease the migration of operating systems code through architecture generations.

These examples illustrate the two streams of language development. The first was the goal of recognizing patterns in program structure and operation and facilitating the creation of new programs by abstracting those patterns as notation that could be “expanded” or “elaborated” by compilers (a special kind of software) into instructions to be executed by the machine. So for example, in C we type

c = a + b;

To anyone that has studied algebra, this seems straight-forward, but to elaborate this text, the compiler relies upon the ‘;’ to find complete statements. It requires a declaration elsewhere in the code of the “types” of c, a and b, and expects that the values of a and b have been defined by earlier statements. Modern compilers will report an error if any of these conditions are not met. A competent programmer has skill in satisfying these conditions to speed the development of a program.

The other stream is driven by the need to translate human language, which is inevitably imprecise, into instructions that can be executed meaningfully upon zeros and ones. Why is human language imprecise? Because more often than not we use our language to specify outcomes rather than procedures. The human environment is enormously complex and variable, and it is rare that we can simply repeat an activity mechanically and still achieve a desirable output. In part this is due to human psychology: even when the repetitions are identical, we are sensitized to the stimulus they provide. We desire variability. But more often, it is because the initial conditions change. We run out of salt, the summer rains come early, or the ore shipped to the mill contains impurities. Human programming is imprecise in part because we expect people to adapt their behavior to such variations.

Both abstraction and translation have stimulated the development of programming languages. Often, they go hand-in-hand. Systems developers expert in the use of C turn their skills to business systems development, and find that they can’t communicate with their customers. C++ arose, in part, as a method for attaching customer terminology to programming artifacts, facilitating negotiation of requirements. When the relational model was devised to organize business transaction data, SQL was developed to support analysis of that data. And when the internet protocols of HTTP and HTML became established as the means to acquire and publish SQL query results in a pretty format on the world-wide web, languages such as Ruby arose to facilitate the implementation of such transactions, which involve a large number of repetitious steps.

What is amusing about this situation is that, unlike human languages, computer languages seem to be almost impossible to kill. Consider the case of COBOL. This language approximates English sentence structure, and was widely used for business systems development in the sixties and seventies. At the time, the language designers assumed that COBOL would be replaced by better alternatives, and so adopted a date format that ran only to the end of the century. Unfortunately, the applications written in COBOL became services for other applications written in other languages. The business rationale for the logic was lost as the original customers and developers retired, and so it was effectively impossible to recreate the functionality of the COBOL applications. As the century came to a close, the popular press advertised the “Year 2000” crisis as a possible cause of world-side financial collapse. Fortunately, developers successfully isolated the code that depended upon the original date format, and made adaptations that allowed continued operation.

This trend will be magnified by the economics of software solutions delivery. Unlike other industries, almost the entire cost of a software product is in the development process. Manufacturing and distribution is almost free, and increasingly instantaneous. This means that the original developer has almost no control over the context of use, and so cannot anticipate what kinds of infrastructure will grow up around the application’s abstract capabilities.

The popular ambitions for software reflect this reality. The ability to distribute expert decision making as applications operating on increasingly precise representations of reality, all in the context of data storage that allows the results to be interpreted in light of local conditions: well, this implies that we can use software to solve any problem, anywhere. Some people talk about building networks of digital sensors that monitor everything from the weather to our respiration, and automatically deploy resources to ensure the well-being of everyone everywhere on earth.

In the original story of Babel, the people of the Earth gathered together to build a tower that would reach to heaven. Their intention was to challenge God. The mythical effort was undermined when God caused people to speak different languages, thus frustrating their ability to coordinate their efforts. In the modern era, we in effect seek to approximate the Biblical God using digital technology, but our ambitions lead us to create ever more abstract languages that we cannot rationalize, and so we find our efforts frustrated by the need to backtrack to repair our invalid assumptions.

In the terms of the programming discipline we will propose, however, the fundamental problem can be put this way: the digital realm is an abstract representation of reality. Why basis do we have for believing that the applications created using those abstractions accurately translate the needs described by human users? If we can’t solve that problem of describing and analyzing that correspondence, then our software must inevitably become a form of black magic that rules over us.