Science, Religion, Dogma
“This figure of the algorithm as a quasi-mystical structure of implemented knowledge is both pervasive and poorly understood. We have never been closer to making the metaphor of fully implemented computational knowledge real than we are today, when an explosion of platforms and systems is reinventing cult practice and identity, often by implementing a me downloaded as an app or set up as an online service.”
—Ed Finn, What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing
There is a joke among computer coders: “Software and cathedrals are much the same—first we build them, then we pray.” The joke has more than a kernel of truth. In a similar way to religion, reliance upon computer code, software, and algorithms is an act of faith.
It’s only in recent years that ordinary people—end-users—have become fully cognizant of this, as the architecture of algorithm-directed technology has steadily encroached into our inner realms. For “The architecture of code relies on a structure of belief as well as a logical organization of bits” (Finn, p. 6). We appear to be locked into a symbiotic relationship, one between our consciousness and our technology. With culture (which is at the root of worship) as the binding medium.
More and more with each passing day, just as we once did with religion, we are placing our faith and trust in algorithms to determine our decisions. At the same time, it’s not entirely clear which is the original model here—science or religion—because, if we go back to ancient Egypt, there is evidence for both a “sacred science” and a scientistic kind of religion. As it was at the beginning, so it will be at the end, perhaps, because this seems to be the sort of society we are turning into. Finn writes,
the house of God that exists beyond physical reality: transubstantiation, relics, and ceremonies are all part of the spectacle of the cathedral that reflect the invisible machinery of faith. Yet most of that machinery inevitably remains hidden: schisms, budgets, scandals, doctrinal inconsistencies, and other elements of what a software engineer might call the “back-end” of the cathedral are not part of the physical or spiritual facade presented to the world. (p. 7)
The perilous intersection between science and religion is called “scientism.” In odd, perhaps surprising, ways, these supposed enemies make quite cozy bedfellows. Both religion and science offer an interpretation of reality that claims to be absolute and final, even while acknowledging a degree of incompleteness. For Christianity, there’s still a “revelation” to come, things yet to unfold. And so it is with science, in which there is (generally) an admission of things still to be worked out. Yet both offer an all-encompassing interpretation of reality, along with the promise that their method—and this is the key— is sound, valid, and provides all that’s required to fully understand existence.
A Computational Theocracy
Returning to Finn’s book:
A cathedral is a space for collective belief, a structure that embodies a framework of understandings about the world, some visible and some not. [W]e have fallen into a “computational theocracy” that replaces God with the algorithm: “Our supposedly algorithmic culture is not a material phenomenon so much as a devotional one, a supplication made to the computers people have allowed to replace gods in their minds, even as they simultaneously claim that science has made us impervious to religion.” We have . . . adopted a faith-based relationship with the algorithmic culture machines that navigate us through city streets, recommend movies to us, and provide us with answers to search queries.” (p. 7)
The more we get into this algorithmic state of consciousness, the more we are replacing a direct sensory experience of our physical environment with a technologically mediated one. Eventually, there will be no need to refer directly to organic reality at all. (I had to supplant the word “physical” with organic, since even a virtual realm has some physical aspects.)
As far as I know, members of the intelligentsia who claim to believe we’re living in a simulation generally don’t have a hypothesis about where our real bodies are. I presume this is partially because, if they started to try and hypothesize where their real bodies are, they would start to sound like idiots. If we’re in a simulation, either we are code that is also simulated, in which case it’s all irrelevant, game over; or, our bodies are somewhere else, and we have to figure out how to get back to them.
Probably, simulation theory is so compelling because it works as a metaphor, and metaphors have enormous power over our consciousness. The metaphor in question seems to have to do with how both scientific and religious dogma, when too heavily relied upon, become traps; and maybe this is due to how, at a certain point, they renege on their own principles? Scientism happens when science betrays itself by raising up the scientific method to the apex of a pyramid that is supposed to represent all of existence. A truly rigorous scientific method has to leave space for things that cannot be understood through the scientific method—in other words, for “divine revelation.”
In the same way, religion betrays itself by turning divine revelation into dogma, which breaks the covenant of divine revelation. In order to know anything, we need divine revelation—reference to God; but in order to know that, we need to refer to a scripture that has been received through divine revelation. This means that holy scripture is telling us that, essentially, we can’t trust holy scripture. The Bible doesn’t say this, of course. It doesn’t say “You cannot trust this book,” because this would be both self-contradictory and self-sabotaging. It’s the cosmological equivalent of the Cretan warning that “all Cretans are liars.”
There is another ideological framework (besides scientism) that has often been described as a synthesis of religion and science, and that is occultism. In Charles Upton’s 2018 book, Dugin Against Dugin, Upton describes a kind of magical “creative visualization” that either rejects “an objective metaphysical order” entirely or is blind to the need to conform to that order as “the precondition for any spiritually-based action.” He argues that magical thinking of this sort has become “a central praxis in a post-structuralist world.”
“And the notion that belief is a tool,” he continues, “that the use of words is not primarily to express truth but rather to make things happen, is obviously also an integral part not only of the craft of magic but of the practice of politics—right, left or center, green, red or blue in today’s world.”
This is also a good description of computing and of the function of code—not exactly “first build it, then pray,” but rather that prayer is an essential component in the building of (the ritual of entering) these virtual realms. Just so, computer code doesn’t actually describe or express anything real, but it’s becoming more and more efficient at causing things to happen (html code, CGI, and so on). If it can be made operational, it will bring about changes in what we recognize as “reality.” If we are living in a “post-truth” world, it is because belief has become a tool to generate artificial realities rather than a conduit to understanding objective reality, which is accordingly rendered obsolete, like God and Patriarchy. Truth then becomes nothing more than whatever people can be persuaded to believe it is.
There is a curious void at the center of this circle. Belief in magic is necessary to make magic effective. Magic is a tool, or a method, for manipulating perception that can thereby “restructure reality.” Yet a reality that can be restructured by human whim throws into doubt the very possibility of objective reality. This ideology is self-confirming; but also self-contradicting. It depends on affirming the belief that there is no objective, eternal reality, that there is no higher spiritual principle outside of the temporary and the subjective.
In occultism, these are the psychic realms, inter-subjective realms that are susceptible to influence by our own will and belief, yet which also allow us to affect other people’s subjective experience. For this reason, they provide us with the feeling of power—to alter and even generate reality by convincing others to submit to or enter into our own dream-state.
Both religion and science claim to offer a universal route to truth, a claim which rests on the assertion of an objective reality. Occultism—like postmodernism and its offspring, identity politics—seems to wish to trump both by making such an assertion both obsolete and unnecessary. If so, the idea of occultism as the synthesis of religion and science doesn’t hold up to closer inspection: a more accurate description would be that occultism has co-opted science, in order to turn it into a new religion. And that it has reformatted religion, to create a kind of pseudo-science.
It may even be (since Newton and many of other pioneers of western science were alchemists and astrologers) that occultism has created what we think of as Western science, as a Trojan Horse for itself.
The Apple of Knowledge
How does all this relate to algorithms? One way to define algorithms is as a set of symbols that function to interpret reality, combined with a computational model that will measure the changes in reality. And magic is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” (Aleister Crowley).
Occultism, in part at least, is about gathering knowledge—which is to say a set of symbolic beliefs—in such a way that it can be used to affect change, by reinterpreting the world through that lens. Finn writes:
Through black boxes, cleanly designed dashboards, and obfuscating application program interfaces, we are asked to take this computation on faith. . . . And we believe it because we have lived with this myth of the algorithm for a long time, much longer than computational pioneers Alan Turing or even Charles Babbage and their speculations about Thinking Machines. The cathedral is a pervasive metaphor here, because it offers an ordering logic, a super structure or ontology, for how we organize meaning in our lives.
The creation of a system of knowledge that synthesizes all symbols is akin to “the one-world religion” of scientism so feared (not wrongly) by Christian conspiracists. It can be traced back at least to the Enlightenment, but presumably further. Today it is taking a concretized, manifest form through the computerized superstructure of “the global village.” The ascended algorithm is the new totem and taboo that regulate our thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors.
The problem we are struggling with today is not that we have turned computation into a cathedral, but that computation has increasingly replaced a cathedral that was already here. This is the Cathedral of the Enlightenment’s ambition for a universal system of knowledge. When we juxtapose the two, we invest our faith into a series of implemented systems that promise to do the work of rationalism on our behalf, from the automated factory to automated science. Computation offers a pathway for consilience, or the unification of all fields of knowledge into a single tree, an ontology of information, founded on the idea that computation is a universal solvent that can untangle any complex system, from human consciousness to the universe itself.
It’s not simply that we are seeing algorithms in action, then, but that we’re becoming algorithmic ourselves. When we create a system of knowledge, and believe it’s complete or wholly accurate (when it isn’t), we effectively surrender all aspects of our experience that can’t be explained by that knowledge set over to it. It is like creating a map and then referring to it so blindly that we cease checking it against the territory: we end up lost. Worse, we end up compounding the error because our faith in the map (the algorithm cathedral) is so unshakeable that we no longer trust our senses to course-correct. We end up pretending that there is no territory, at all, and that the map is all we need.
The simplest way to understand this is by referring to the bodily senses. Our sensory experience in any given moment far outstrips the capacity of our minds to flatten it out into a linear narrative. Think about (!) trying to describe, mentally, all of the sensory data we are receiving and processing via our bodies—both internally and externally—in any moment, and perform this fast enough that we never fall behind. We may as well try and count snowflakes in a blizzard.
The more we try and process our lived experience through algorithms of knowledge, mind, and technology, through social media and phone apps, the less we are able to experience the living reality unfolding outside the confines of our minds. Of course, the conceptual realm comes up with an endless menu of reasons to stay plugged in, all driven by FOMO—the fear of missing out. By such subterfuges, our thoughts about snow become more compelling than snow itself, and our Smart phone interactions become more appealing than face to face encounters. Once the mind-tech has us, the supposedly essential data it is providing becomes secondary, even irrelevant, to the buzz provided by the tech itself. The medium has become the message, and it is us who are being mediated.
Eventually, we may decide never to leave the techno-mind realm. We may start to believe it is all there is, that there is no outer reality being referred to, because outside, where the blizzard rages, reality has become overwhelming to us. As we move further and further away from our bodies, we may end up telling ourselves they don’t exist, that we’re just consciousness, flying free and forever young like Peter Pan, inside a simulated dream realm of endless permutations.
The paradox about systems of knowledge is that, like simulations, they’re designed to help us navigate our experience, to understand better so we can live better lives. They’re designed to help us get free of whatever oppresses us, to solve problems and improve our circumstances. But the more immersed we become inside any system of knowledge, the more we convince ourselves it’s infallible, complete, and all-contained, the more trapped we become by it.
If such progress is allowed to progress indefinitely, we may regress to a literally infant state, in which we need our technology to feed, wash, cloth us, and remove our bodily wastes.
We will have been assimilated.
Outside the Black Box
So is there a way out of this trap, when we can’t even have a conversation without referring to a system of knowledge?
If knowledge—perceptual experience that coagulates into code—is what has ensnared us, over and over throughout the ages, is there a way to use this awareness to break the pattern and sneak past the ancient algorithms imprinted onto our souls, to freedom? Can we use a nail to drive out a nail? In other words, is there some way of approaching systems of knowledge that leads us away from reliance upon them rather than to increased dependence, without rejecting the systems outright? Can we apply knowledge in such a way that we can see the limits of our knowledge, without reifying the knowledge we’re using to see those limits?
To ponder this might be our opportunity, as techno-mediated humans, to experience an almost literal case of the head-fuck. And it’s no doubt fitting, if ironic, that such an anti-Promethean task seems akin to a kind of self-deprogramming. (We must know our enemy in order to know ourselves.) Just as the programmer is not the program, truth is not located in any knowledge set, but in the consciousness that assembled it—ours.
We are left like the heroine of many myths, surrounded by seeds—endlessly streaming digital code—with barely a clue of how to ever sort the ones from the zeroes. The only hope seems to be—if we can crack open enough of those data bytes to rediscover the original language-transmission (pre-Tower of Babel) hiding, like a nut inside a shell, inside them—we may start to remember, dimly but with a growing sense of excitement, that the signal we are seeking is within ourselves.
Simply stated: what if the body is the only algorithm we need to locate our souls?
 The term “cult” first appeared in English in 1617, derived from the French culte, meaning “worship,” which in turn originated from the Latin word cultus meaning “care, cultivation, worship.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_(religious_practice)