The Spirit in the Machine

By David Pearson

When Arthur Koestler wrote The Ghost in the Machine in 1967, he wanted to critique the up-and-coming hypothesis that the human mind could be viewed as a machine, a kind of chemical computer, and consider whether there was room for spirit and consciousness in such a worldview. I want to consider a different question: whether there is any spiritual side to computer technology. I can’t offer any clear answer, but can perhaps map out some of the further questions that one leads to, and maybe sketch out where we might look for answers. Along the way, we can touch on atoms, bits, Platonic mathematicians, what technology might be doing to the world, and the sorry state of software.

There are many people who believe that computers are “insanely great” (in Steve Jobs’ phrase), the next step in human and planetary evolution. There are many others who believe that they are, like most of humankind’s creations, a further blight upon the world, something taking us farther away from our roots, from God, and from nature. I have a lot of sympathy for both viewpoints.

Consider the evidence: the great majority of people, chronically short of time, find their lives accelerated even more by the withering pace of electronic communication. There is more and more information available to everyone, but less and less time to read it thoughtfully, less time even to write thoughtfully, with the result that in all this frantic exchange of information, there is almost no real insight to be gained. Instead of the early dream of computers as ethically acceptable slaves that could free us from the tedium of mindless tasks, they have snared us into more and more menial tasks we have somehow, unwittingly, invented for ourselves—painstakingly fixing the formatting once again after our email program thoughtfully altered it; telling that annoying dancing paper clip, for the thousandth time, to go away; carefully scanning our computers for viruses that someone else, presumably someone with much more time on their hands, just as carefully created; buying, installing, and upgrading software in the constant hope that this time, at least, the machine will really work like it ought to. And we haven’t even gotten to spam (junk email), the planned obsolescence that requires constant hardware upgrades, the video games that desensitize children to violence, or the general feeling that the nanosecond pulse of the machines is somehow instilling in us a permanent sense of panic.

All this is true, and I don’t wish to diminish the problems. But I want to suggest that there is another side to the story. Not by simply countering this with the good things that computers might bring us. Obviously they have some advantages as well as some drawbacks, but our question here is not how the positives and negatives stack up against each other (if they are even comparable), or which stack is more worthy, but how the computers might interact with our spiritual side.

Could there be a spiritual path involving computers? The people who program them often seem to feel that way. From the AI lab at MIT, a number of interesting stories were told, in the form of Zen Koans. They were collected by Danny Hillis, inventor of an innovative computer called the Connection Machine. Here is one of the “AI koans”, involving Knight, the main hardware designer of Lisp machines (one of the first computers to use graphical screens, windows, icons and a mouse, long before Microsoft or even Apple got the idea):

A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on. Knight, seeing what the student was doing spoke sternly – “You can not fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.”

Knight turned the machine off and on.

The machine worked.

What’s the meaning? Well, it is a koan, a story to contemplate, not one with a clear moral, so a commentary isn’t really appropriate. But here’s another story, one which happened to me: I was helping to fix a number of software and network problems for the hand-me-down office computers of a non-profit agency I worked with. Most of the time broken computers really means broken or misconfigured software, and with a good intuition for how the software must work, I was able to work through the problems of several machines. One machine, however, seemed to have a genuine problem, a hard disk error that intermittently—and with increasing frequency—prevented the machine from starting up. I found that when the computer didn’t start up, its BIOS (the built-in programming that tells the computer how to use its various attached devices) had forgotten all the information about the kind and size of the hard disk, and also forgot about the current date and time. Knowing that on many computers, this information was kept in a special memory (or for the time, a clock) powered by a battery, I thought that the battery might be weak.

This particular computer didn’t have a battery, though, just a large capacitor. I couldn’t understand what could be wrong with the capacitor, but I thought I might just try discharging it—it was probably broken and already fully discharged, right? Wrong. There was an audible “pop” as I did this, after which the machine wouldn’t even try to start up. After you turn on the power on an old PC, there was always a quiet “tick” from the speaker as the BIOS started. Not after my misguided remedy. “Great,” I thought, “I’ve burned out some essential circuitry.” I tried everything I knew of for the next hour, not wanting to have damaged this machine worse than it already was. No luck. Finally, in a rather desperate mood, I tried connecting to the Deva, or spirit, of the computer, as the Findhorn folks do with plants. I got the sense that the computer felt hostility, fear and tension, and that this was the cause of its illness. On this intuition I quietly sent it radiant love and light for a minute or two. Then I turned on the power and it worked perfectly. What I later realized was that this computer (the oldest of the pack) was used by a complete Luddite, someone who simply hated and feared computers in general, and this one in particular.

The most interesting thing about this story may not be the idea that there might be devas of computers, but the fact that there is a vanishingly small group of people that would even entertain the thought. The people who like computers generally don’t believe in Devas and nature spirits, the people interested in nature spirits don’t usually believe in computers, or they believe that computers aren’t really a part of nature. In 1959, C. P. Snow gave a famous lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” warning that intellectual life was splitting into two camps, literary and scientific. His two cultures are alive and well today, but in a slightly different form. Instead of the technocrats, we have the mechanists, who believe that science rules the world, and everything can be thought of as a machine—a human brain just as much as a computer. Instead of the literary intellectuals, we have animists, who believe that there is mind, intelligence and purpose acting through all these physical manifestations, whether God, spirit, mind, or angels. The difference in viewpoint might be seen as whether matter (like atoms or particles) is primary, or whether information (thought or intention) is primary

The scientists, at the start of the age of Enlightenment, were a persecuted minority, opposing the dogmatism of the Church with open-minded enquiry. In a fine irony, the scientists now are often the orthodoxy, holding strongly to the dogma that anything outside the current methods and models of science must be an error. Thus when J. Benveniste, following standard biomedical protocols, showed that homeopathic medicine had an unmistakable effect on tissue cultures, no true empiricists came forth to reproduce his work—only arguments that the work must be prima facie wrong, because it couldn’t be a chemical reaction, and a team descending on his lab to debunk his work, and failing. When Carl Sagan wrote The Demon-Haunted World, arguing against religious or spiritual belief, he wrote as a member of the dominant belief system, denouncing the heretics.

One would think that computers would favor the mechanistic trend. What could be more mechanistic than a computer, after all? But their effect in the world is quite different—computers and the Internet are constantly making information primary. That’s what they deal with, after all. Thought, ideas, intention all have elevated status in the on-line world. Where a physical book was once the only manifestation of a writer’s ideas, now the ideas circulate just as text, transmitted as light pulses across the world. The Internet has grown in use as people understood that more and more things we thought of as physical objects needing to be physically moved were seen to be information. Nicholas Negroponte, the visionary leader of MIT’s Media Lab calls it “atoms vs. bits.” Atoms are the physical objects that must be moved to where they are to be used—our food, for example, or bricks to build a house. Bits are units of information. He estimated conservatively that hundreds of billions of dollars are spent moving atoms around in order to move information. Going to the doctor’s office to be diagnosed is just exchanging information with the doctor, as is taking a book from the library. As communication gets faster, more of this is done virtually, with bits instead of atoms, and the physical forms of things become less important.

Consider the way telecommunication has enabled companies to tolerate far-flung employees, for example. I rarely go to my office, which is 150 miles from my home, but I can collaborate very well through phones, email and exchanging computer files. There are companies now that have no physical office, and even “manufacturers” like Nike that have no factories. There are lovers who have never met, making it plain how much of intimacy lies beyond the physical. The nature of experience changes, too, when flight simulators can routinely train pilots how to act in dire circumstances that would be too dangerous to try on a real plane. All this has an even more powerful effect on our way of thinking. From the start, computers became metaphors, first for our brains, now—with virtual reality—for our whole existence. They challenge our notions of what is real. In a film like The Matrix, in which all the “real” world proves to be virtual, we get a metaphor for physical incarnation, however distorted and incomplete, and for what the spiritual path might mean.

Some may argue that it is a bad thing to draw our consciousness farther away from the material world. I would suggest, though, that we have been exercising and developing our mastery of our physical selves for all human history, and that now our calling is to develop our mastery of the non-physical, our own consciousness, our minds and emotions, our relationships. We don’t want to turn our back on nature, but this human world is a part of nature too, including our houses and cities, our dreams, our telephone calls, our music, our rituals. As we make our interactions more ethereal, we can also tread more lightly on the world around us. There’s much less demand on nature for me to talk on the phone to Texas than to fly there, or to send a letter by email rather than through the post. If we follow the highest purpose of the new technology, we can have our cake and transcend it, too.

We can’t do it, though, if we are stuck with the two cultures, if the technologists who work with the machines don’t believe in the spiritual side of humanity, if those on a spiritual path believe that science and technology are empty.

Can there be a reconciliation? There are many people who try to sketch one, from Ken Wilbur to Einstein, by suggesting that science should answer the questions that are in science’s domain and religion or philosophy should address the questions of values. But this is like a perpetuation of the split, the non-meeting of the two cultures. Real progress has to come in the form of a synthesis by people who are comfortable in both worlds. Is it possible? We can’t know the answer until we start exploring. But it’s certainly possible that a discipline will emerge that has the mathematical precision of present-day science and a subject matter that looks beyond the material. Consider that most of mathematics (particularly the foundations, logic, set theory, even the theory of the integers) grew out of an attempt to understand thought, not matter. The biggest mystery of math is why it happens to apply so well to the physical world. Mathematicians are idealists, Platonists—they believe, and they have good evidence for believing, that there is an order and beauty to the world of mathematics that no person put there, but that we simply explore and discover. As unlikely as it may seem, mathematicians and physicists have had to start confronting philosophical issues: consciousness, the nature of knowledge, many worlds, and self-understanding.

Trying to see to far into the future isn’t a good idea at the most sedate of times, and we’re living in what appears to be a volatile slice of history. The technology of the past half century has followed a course that almost no one guessed at the outset, even in broad outline. If there are powers that guide the world, they are guiding this, because we humans aren’t smart enough to—technology has been like a tide, a wind, a force of nature. What we are called on to do is try to ride it out, to ride it in the direction we want to go. The more we look for, and focus on, the spiritualizing potential, the more we sway the technology in that direction. We don’t have a clue what the journey will be like, but like a character in Greek mythology, our path seems to have been chosen, and chosen so that technology is part of it. We must try to do right by it.

David Pearson is a farmer’s son, a computer scientist, and an editor of this paper.

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