The Mythology of Programming Language Ideas

Tomas Patricek offers a stimulating analysis of program language design in the framework of science as a practice. As tools advance, later generations often deride their predecessors as “unscientific,” seeing their theories as myth. This is a point that I have advanced in defense of ancient philosophers and theologians: they were thinking rigorously within the limitations of the evidence that they could perceive. More, their thinking encompassed types of experience (what we call “spiritual”) that modern scientists, trapped in materialism, fail to honor.

Patricek is particularly interested in the evolution of programming languages, which are subject to rigorous scientific analysis both as regards expressiveness and efficiency. My comment to him:


I greatly enjoyed your article. I do have one specific vision regarding the future: programming language design is about bridging the mismatch between the digital and organic perceptions of reality. For much of the history of programming languages, the burden was on the organic participants to conform to the limitations of digital devices. That boundary is shifting rapidly to allow digital devices to interpret utterances of non-programmers.

Within any one paradigm for adaption between the two domains of perception, “developers” (which may include the general public) are not really involved in science as  a search for first principles that constrain possibilities. Rather, they are exploring and evolving an ecosystem. An analogy is the human genome which can be understood – but probably not justified in scientific terms (missing initial conditions), nor optimized in engineering terms (due to complex functional dependencies).

Authority in Scriptural Interpretation: The Value of Science

I keep on getting caught up in debates on other sites (The River Walk and There’s a Thing Called Biology come to mind) that tend to end with charges against my intellectual integrity. The progression goes something like:

  1. I observe that the people that wrote the Bible were recording experiences that they lacked the scientific understanding to describe accurately.
  2. I propose alternative interpretations of the events in modern scientific terms.
  3. I am told that the events recorded in the Bible could not have happened because they violate scientific knowledge.
  4. I suggest that science is not as iron-clad as many believe, and direct the conversation to my “New Physics” page.
  5. The responder offers the unsophisticated interpretation of the Biblical record (i.e. – Creation occurred in seven days) as evidence that people that believe in God do not understand science, and accuses me of being a poor scientist.
  6. I offer that my personal experience of God contradicts their science, and re-iterate that that I have offered models that integrate science and spirituality for their consideration.
  7. I am accused of intellectual dishonesty and ignoring scientific truth.
  8. I break off the discussion.

This may seem like just whining, but there’s a really fundamental point that nobody seems to have grasped just yet: the reason that religious authorities offered an “unscientific” understanding of scripture was because they didn’t have enough science to interpret scripture. Receiving a document through a long chain of translation from dead languages, they interpreted the words as literal truth because they had nothing else to guide their understanding.

But we do have science as our guide. So why not make use of it?

Given what we know about paleontology, for example, we can clearly interpret the days of creation as the history of biological development, running from single-celled organisms that learned to use light as a source of energy, and ending with the mammals and man on “day” six. Along the way, the development of eyesight replaces “light” with the more specific sun and moon.

Similarly, the trumpets of Revelation are seen to correspond almost exactly with the ancient mass extinctions. The era of giant insects is noted, and the final extinction episode (involving a meteor strike, volcanic vents and egg-eating mammals) describes distinctly the mechanisms that terminated the age of the dinosaurs.

Scripture and Darwin don’t contradict each other, they support each other. In the other direction, I think that the most powerful tool we have to advance our understanding of fundamental science is not the billion-dollar satellites and particle accelerators, but rather the well-documented record of spiritual experience.

Really, I would think that we’d be getting together to shake hands and pat each other on the back, not trading barbs.

The Moral Arc

As a scientist and mystic, I am frustrated with the conflict that divides the scientific materialists from the Biblical literalists. Both camps contain people that are well-meaning who tend to focus on the defects in the world-view of their disputants, rather than considering the good that can be done by joining forces.

When I first framed this debate at everdeepening.org, I celebrated three great threads of human thought: science, which is concerned with creating languages that accurately model objective reality; philosophy, which refines language to ensure that we understand one another; and spirituality, which is concerned with the negotiation of the boundaries between the I and the we (encompassing politics as well as religion). I have argued here that science can explain spiritual experience, but we cannot avail ourselves of its predictive powers to control spiritual growth. We simply cannot establish initial conditions without mutilating the personality that we would like to study. As a result, moral growth is unavoidably consensual.
The Moral Arc
Looking at the moral liberation of humanity from that perspective, with a balance between material and spiritual experience, I summarize our moral growth in the figure. We began as animals, completely amoral creatures. This is to say that morality was not initially a consideration of our existence: we simply did what needed to be done to survive. As relative newcomers on the spiritual scene, the weight of mammalian behavior patterns overwhelmed rational analysis. The exit strategy towards moral discourse was monotheism: a cold and callous rejection of all spiritual associations that were not wholly human in their origin.

Was this a clean process? No, it was a bootstrap process (witness the Bible). People exhibiting animalistic behaviors had to learn painfully from experience the consequences of failing to think carefully about the consequences to others of our actions. They had to develop languages to support moral analysis (philosophy), and they had to form communities willing to surrender resources to those pursuing that study. The Bible is best understood as one culture’s experience of that growth.

The rise of moral philosophy that culminated with Jesus of Nazareth asserts that Unconditional Love, which is the divine presence, propels our ascent. In part, it is because the contract is that the moral analyst must commit himself to the service of others.

Not everyone can master the nuances of moral discourse. What the faithful can do instead as moral actors is to invest their hearts and souls in caring for the world. There is no social system that can guarantee that investment – in fact, most of our social structures tend to consolidate the gains of those that abuse the contract. Only by reliance upon a divine external source can the less clever be ensured that their investment in moral conduct will be made good. Does this presence actually exist? Well, that is a matter of faith and personal experience (see the closing paragraph).

The difficulty in modern moral discourse is that the power of science outraced our philosophy. The world is changing rapidly around us, and most of humanity is still mired in amoral patterns of behavior. The power of science is often unleashed with terribly destructive consequences. This creates fear in the faithful that the institutions that safeguard our spirituality will be destroyed.

The counter of the scientist is to reject spirituality in favor of pure rationality (top of the diagram). What they seem not to understand is that most of humanity is not capable of participating in the discourse under those terms, but requires the deep psychological immersion of religion to substantiate trust in the mysteries tended by the intellectual elites. The faithful can only judge the trustworthiness of that elite by their pronouncements. Words like “stupid”, “sheep”, and “irrational” obviously will be interpreted as inconsistent with reliable moral stewardship, and tend to push the faithful into the arms of sociopaths that promise to protect them (as if that were possible, given the problems that we have mounted up against ourselves).

My experience is that economic exchange exploits our strengths and exacerbates our weaknesses. Obviously, it is in the interest of intellectuals to trumpet and enhance their virtues. But what I find, with Hume, is that spiritual engagement with such people is often hollow in the heart. The substitution of science for monotheism elevates rationality without replacing the guarantee of moral stewardship. In my own experience, that guarantee takes this form: when my heart is ready to break under the burden of the pain in the world, I open it a little wider and a great flood of love rushes through. I know that power is not mine.

The Writing of The Soul Comes First

In Catholic terminology, thaumaturgy is the working of miracles through love. Raised by a skeptical father and steeped in science that disproved the possibility of such experiences, for most of my life I disbelieved.

That changed with the millennium, when personal and political crises brought fear into my life. I began to read widely on spiritual and religious experience. Then one Sunday I entered the sanctuary at St. Kolbe’s in Oak Park, CA. A thirty-foot statue of Christ hangs from the ceiling, not nailed to the cross, but suspended before it. Confronted with this powerful image of human suffering, I instinctively put my hand over my heart, held it out to him, and thought, “Use this for healing.”

In the intervening years, I have learned a great deal about healing through divine love. I learned that many “evil” people are simply doing what was done to them, and desperately looking for someone with the strength to show them how to get over it. I learned that people used to being in control find the sensations that come with being loved to be frightening, almost a betrayal by the thirst of their hearts. I learned that many intellectual atheists are “spiritual”, and those that are not do not realize how frightening others find the strength of their minds. I realized that Biblical literalists use their dogmatism to hold those minds at bay.

As I sought for answers, the astrophysicists announced the discovery of Dark Energy. To those that remember the philosophical roots of modern physics, this discovery was shattering. Einstein’s theories of relativity are based upon the assumption that space is empty. Dark Energy demolishes that assumption. With that called into doubt, we might notice another oddity in the history of physics: where from Ancient Greece to 1950 the complexity of nature was always understood by positing structure inside the smallest objects we could observe, in the modern era physicists assumed that no additional structure was needed. Taking away relativity and adding additional structure reveals a whole new class of theories that have the potential to reconcile science and spirituality (see Generative Orders (GO) and GO Cosmology).

I began to share these insights in 2005 with the web site at http://www.everdeepening.org, in which, as a Greek philosopher might have, I try to prove that love works. Realizing that the material was really difficult, I wrote a “layman’s” treatment back in 2008, the unpublished “Love Works.” Unfortunately, attempts to teach others demonstrated that the ideas were still difficult to grasp.

Then, in 2013, I was moved to re-read the Bible cover-to-cover, and saw it in a completely new light. I realized that what Darwin and paleontology had revealed about natural history was written right into the Bible. No conflict existed, and in fact the consistency of science with the Bible served to substantiate everything else written within.

Reading through the book in such a short time, I also saw the greater work on human nature, and the majesty and brilliance of God’s efforts to prepare us for the manifestation of Christ.

So I sat down at my computer and wrote The Soul Comes First in three weeks. In it is contained all the hopes that I pray I share with Christ: the unification of reason and faith, the hidden strength that will give humanity victory over fear, and the healing of the world through the power of love.

The message may be frightening to some. The job that we forsook in Eden is a big job, and difficult. All I ask is that you remember that it is not in human hands that the work is held. We all do our part, and the farm hand that plants a sustainable crop is no less essential than the ecologist that plans the restoration of a forest. The housewife serving in the soup kitchen is no less essential than the CEO commissioning a new factory. The counsellor that saves a marriage is no less essential than that politician that negotiates a peace treaty. With love, the strength of Christ, and the unifying wisdom of the Holy Spirit, all things are possible.

The Absolute Theory of Relatives

At this summer’s Buddhist Geeks conference in Rosemead, I was impressed in particular by two of the presenters: Diane Hamilton and Ethan Nichtern.

Ethan was until recently the head of the InterDependence Project in New York City. IDP offers a certificate program in Buddhist studies, so when Ethan sent me a notice that he was starting a lecture series on the Bodhisattva path, I signed up for the study-at-home program.

As I understand Ethan, the Bodhisattva path is the pursuit of Bodhichitta, or compassion for all sentient beings. Achieving a consistent expression of that perspective requires that we consciously dissolve the separation between ourselves and the other. On this path, the seeker is offered four reliances to guard against a descent into narcissism. Trust the teaching more than the teacher. Trust the meaning, not the words. Hold ultimate guidance above provisional guidance. Trust wisdom (with Ethan characterizes as the melding of understanding and intuition) above knowledge.

From the recorded discussion, both Bodhichitta and the final reliance are difficult to grasp. They define states of being, rather than describing the transformative potential of achieving those states. That means that we don’t know how those states will influence behavior, nor how to interact with or support the work done by people that achieve those states.

One of the most powerful concepts in Buddhism, although it takes several formulations, is the distinction between absolute and relative forms of truth. I first encountered these concepts in the chapters on “Other Buddhist Teachings” in Thich Naht Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Ethan observes that there is a slippery correlation between “ultimate” and absolute. I’ll start by explaining my understanding of the nature of absolute and relative forms of truth, and elaborate from there.

This axiom is fundamental: Life is the co-evolution of material and spiritual forms. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of spiritual power. That power can be used for two purposes: to gain influence over material reality, or to liberate the self from attachments with the goal of returning to the realm of the Divine. There are two kinds of attachments: entanglement with selfish personalities that seek to tie us down, and material concerns, which are driven by pain.

The paradox of this reality is that to separate ourselves from selfish personalities, we either have to brace our spirits against matter or purge our intimates of their selfishness. If we choose the former, we expose our selves to pain, which leads us naturally to question our choices, and so to enter into the trap of suffering. If we choose the latter, the only way to establish buy-in to the program is to express with complete authenticity our concern for the other.

Now it seems like we’re almost to the end, as in that last sentence we can almost see the principle of Bodhichitta in action. But let’s backtrack a bit: spirit did not start out knowing the endpoint. In the early, highly dynamic stages of material evolution, patterns of spirit that were universally applicable to their needs would have been the only patterns to survive. These would be patterns that we would now characterize as principles. Examples might be “stability”, “consumption” and “proliferation”. Association with “stability” facilitates the survival of a spiritual pattern, adding “consumption” facilitates coupling to material forms that acquire resources to support growth (undermining stability), adding “proliferation” extends access to resources while limiting physical growth (harmonizing stability and consumption).

So here is the realm of the absolute truths, in the realm of spiritual principles. They are persistent resources that various and diverse biological forms can draw upon to more effectively organize and acquire spiritual power. The problem, of course, is that the principles themselves are in competition. It’s amusing here to recall the challenge of competition in Tolkein’s words:

One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In other words, competition is itself a principle. It’s action is to force principles into intimate and self-corrupting engagements that eventually squeeze the life out of them. A benefit can be rationalized: competition is one way of breaking stasis, and thereby producing new principles.

The counter-acting principle, and it’s no accident that its avatars shed light, is unconditional love. It involves the intelligent and conscious practice of helping principles organize themselves in ways that strengthen the aggregate. The primary advantage of this approach is that it doesn’t eat itself as competition does (one of the truths that informed the choice of the title “Love Works”). It tends to view differences through the lens of comparison.

In contrast, the realm of the relative is full of events dominated by dumb matter. This includes things like supernovae and volcanic eruptions, but also many of our autonomous functions (breathing and hunger). Obviously, experience is often a composite of the relative and absolute. Principles influence our concrete behaviors, and our behavior injects energy (either supportive or corrupting) into the principles.

While I wouldn’t claim to be a Bodhisattva, so the suggestion is “provisional” (Ouch! Not enough words!), I believe that the action of a Bodhisattva is to participate in the organization of principles. Their formulation of ultimate guidance express that work. The Bodhisattva’s engagement affords them a certain clarity of perception regarding the relationship between relative behaviors and intimacy with absolute principles. They make suggestions to students intended to improve their associations, which are presented to the student as provisional guidance. Once the student achieves intimacy, of course, the provisional guidance fall away.

At this point, I think that we have arrived at one of the aspects of “wisdom” described by Ethan, but there’s more to be said. This is less well supported here – Chapter 4 of “Love Works” describes a class of physical theories that support this perspective – but my experience is that spiritual forms have a different experience of “time” than do material forms. This has to do with the “relative” (Ouch again! Take the mathematical sense) speeds of signal propagation. When we enter into collaboration with the principles, the future becomes visible to us through the lens of their evolution. I have taken to saying that “holy moments join the past and future through a conduit of love”. That’s the basis of the old adage about “women’s intuition”. I’m hoping (closer to expecting?) that people like Ethan find it readily available to them.