The Lost Language of the Body: Algorithms, Occultism, & the Limits of Knowledge

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[1]) 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.”

 

Enter Occultism

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?

***

[1] 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)

30 thoughts on “The Lost Language of the Body: Algorithms, Occultism, & the Limits of Knowledge”

  1. For the masses,’knowledge’ is whatever ranks highly on Google, the default search engine for Android phones and several popular web browsers. Ranking, Google wants us to believe, is calculated by having links from ‘authoritative’ websites. SEO ‘experts’ claim to game the algorithm, but Google decides the game since the algorithm is undisclosed.

  2. Yeah to use the tree of life metaphor , we are The Hanged Man at the moment, and Fortuna , or chanced happenstance is what is required to unbalance the present unhealthy state of affairs. I guess throughout history , war, disease and climate upheaval are the typical avatars of this. FOMO is quickly replaced by FONGO.

    As one who works in the corporate sector, the captivity by process you describe is well advanced. Everything is reduced to a standardised conceptual model of pre ordained data and processes , modifiable only by the high priesthood , usually in response to some setback where some type of reality has intruded upon the conceptual model which hitherto had excluded it. Case in point – the recent travails of Boeing aerospace.
    Anyone who tries to show initiative and respond independently or worse, mod the model themselves is quickly marginalised and excluded. This process has accelerated markedly over the last ten years.

    The ancient Egyptians seemed to cycle from Solar patriarchal off world gods back to more feminined Sky Gods such as Amen (Internet) or Nuit. This seemed to herald the onset of the relativist deconstructive flood, wherby the civilisation was dramatically remade.

    Seems to be about where we are at. Lillith, Kali , Amen (Inter web) is a destroyer god and not the next phase for us, which explains why it is easy to have reservations about these people pushing the onset of the flood. The identity politicians , algorhythmists and so on.

    https://aeon.co/essays/why-did-an-ancient-egyptian-king-erase-all-gods-but-aten?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=0d698f2f23-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_11_01_59&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-0d698f2f23-68789165

    Great essay, thanks

    The Egyptians used to oeriodicall

    • thanks for the feedback – especially since you are speaking with some inside experience of things I am happily distanced from, while sorting ladies’ blouses & making world-weary chit-chat with the lower classes and walking wounded in our thrift store.

      that last word in your post is either a typo or mysterious code…

  3. Sorry that was a typo ,
    and i should have clarified that FONGO is ‘fear of not getting out’ .

    Some inside experience , yes, but from a strictly intellectual standpoint.
    I do find some of these old metaphysical frameworks interesting and somewhat useful in representing the world to myself.

  4. “In the same way, religion betrays itself by turning divine revelation into dogma, which breaks the covenant of divine revelation.”

    Good point. It follows that the founder of dogma betrays humanity by making revelation heretical.

  5. I was just wondering, since we here at Auticulture mostly riffing and spliffing about things that are more or less invisible or unnoticed by the masses, does that not automatically make us ‘Occultists’ ? Studying that which is hidden. Obviously this must be distinguished from the mad Nietzschean power trip of those who have lost contact with spirit.

  6. Wow that is cool thanks Martin, a keeper. Daves trailer incorporates a cryptic paradox, but i spose one must inevitably travel through paradox while wearing a meat suit.

    • @RdelaC

      Maybe more a “meet” suit? The body gets hopelessly short shrift in spiritual circles except in a thrift store in Hope.

      Cryptic paradoxes: word plays and irony, I like. Jasun can use paradox as checkmate, I like to use it as “watch your cheeks, mate”. The methods are different but the aim is same.

      To which trailer and paradox do you refer?

  7. And i spose when one imagines onesel as perceiving the unnoticed whole while still wearing a meat suit, one must beware of the Dark Oasis of false unity.

  8. Coincidentally i just saw this on the inside cover of a book of Plotinus philosophy, it seems to jibe with what Dave is saying

    All Truth is a Shadow except the last. But

    every Truth is Substance in its own place, though

    it be but a Shadow in another place. And the

    Shadow is a true Shadow, as the Substance is a

    true Substance.

    – Isaac Pennington

    • Do you mean what I am saying about dogma, RDLC?

      I can relate to the quote; my approximation to truth yesterday was my best ever, until today.

      Shades of “the Cretan warning that “all Cretans are liars” ” ?

  9. also the notion of the body as a suit or container creates what may be an unnecessary (mind-based) duality.

  10. Subtle, perceptive, and timely. I have felt drawn towards similar conclusions, and with an increasing feeling of urgency–especially since beginning to read Upton.

    One of Upton’s most important points, I think, shows through in your piece: that the modernistic glorification of instrumental fact, being based as it is on a spiritual and moral nullity, actually makes it not the antidote but the perfect host-organism (boot-loader, if you like?) for postmodernism.

    The hard-core scientistic assertion of “reality”, however proudly and forcefully enunciated, is actually internally compromised and unstable; it soon turns inward & becomes pregnant with virtuality-qua-reality. Next stop: societal mass-psychosis… aided, mayhap, by a flood of legalized deliriants & hallucinogens? (psilocybin now decriminalized in Denver, for example)

    • I just heard about this latter & my heart sunk to see “friends” on Faceborg presumably seeing it as a positive step towards social liberation; fool the people once, shame on the social engineers; fool them twice, shame on the people.

  11. Thats also the main idea and therapeutic goal of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. the need for the invisible Objective reality to show what it looks like as a person so that we can understand it beyond Code. Eg, energy or God behaves like Christ, specifically the person of Jesus. We really only understand people, so we would need God, the True reality, as a person to understand that stuff with out just deluding ourselves further. The humility of christ, etc. And all the other stuff coded in his life stories that was based on the observation of a body, but the body was also all the transcendent mind stuff. The bridge and all that.

    Thats how the Orthodox see it. Its not a religion. Its literally using the nail to drive out the other nail. A life that is also a perceptual rosseta stone. Orthodox faith/action is that the personality of God, the unmanifest eternal non moving mover creator consciousness, all the logic of all of reality and in all things, entered fully into the belief of our code reality, as a normal person, showing what the objective personality of existence is. aka the ruling principality of principalities. Not knowing or denying truth would be hell/the darkening of the soul’s eye. Looking away from God at something else.

    In theory its The story that all stories serve but it cant be told or heard outside of physical action. .

  12. What an appropriate title. I wonder if the intellectual ‘middle class’ trend toward being word dense and sense-less, offering obscurity instead of meaningfulness, is a reaction to feeling overwhelming powerlessness?

  13. bueno me pares muy oportuno y muy importante los comentarios contectuales de una realidad paralela de lo desconocido hacia la aproximacion de lo importante llegando a un punto hacia el vacio donde exite la gravedad y la gravedad fue superada por la teoria de la sustentacion estaria sustentado todo lo explicito de ante mano muy amable a los dos

  14. It strikes me very much that Rupert Sheldrake has to a degree solved many of the problems you’re grappling with in this and the proceeding post by positing a theory which encompasses the phenomenal world without first denaturing the world, especially of all those aspects most troubling to the scientific rationalist view, and precisely those which most interest many of us. He’s also a reasonable and elightened advocate of psychedelics who see’s them, quite reasonably, as a useful tool for some but not necessarily all, and as a potential path but not necessarily the only path.

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