Belief Among The Bits

 

I have made things clear to some extent by the origin of numbers from 0 and 1, which I have observed is the most beautiful symbol of the continuous creation of things from nothing and of their dependence on God.
    Gottfried Leibniz

In the days in which mainframes ruled the earth, there walked among us a programming priesthood. Just like the monks of old who would studiously labor over the production of their elegant manuscripts, programmers would do likewise. Each character, each line was important and so required their utmost concentration and the perfection of form. Their work completed, they would cautiously carry their precious cards to the sacred place of computation and hand their offerings to intermediaries locked away in their cold, sterile rooms. The members of this programming priesthood would in turn submit those gifts to their waiting machines, all hoping that they had carried out their rituals just right. If the machines were indeed well pleased, they would signal their reply with precise although not necessarily useful answers; if displeased, they would offer curious divinations, requiring hours of study to decipher before the ritual could begin again.

The coming of the minicomputer and then the personal computer brought an abrupt end to this curious period of computing, in a fashion not unlike Martin Luther’s subversive declarations that similarly broke the stranglehold of the church in the Middle Ages. And therein lies a story: does technology liberate the individual or does it make us a servant to the machines we ourselves create? Does computing contribute to our spiritual well-being or does it disrupt it by encouraging an interrupt-driven life that is filled with the noise of digital ephemera?

No matter your individual position on the matter, it is a reality that faith is a powerful element of the human experience, and so it comes as no surprise that computing intersects with the story of belief in many profound ways. In this lecture, Grady examines several of these stories, leading to an understanding in how different faith traditions have reacted to and in some ways contributed to the advance of computing. From Pope Benedict’s blessing via Twitter to the growth of the Digital Sabbath movement, from the technology-driven exegesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the rise of the virtual church, computing has impacted the ways we believe and the means by which some make their faith manifest.

Belief systems came into being in part as a means of explaining the unexplainable, but along the way gave rise to important traditions that contributed to the advance of humanity in a number of unexpected ways. Yet, computing has been important tool in pushing back the edges of what we know we do not know, and so just as it has been with all technology, it is both a threat as well as an aid to faith. There’s even more: at the confluence of computing and physics, there are some who have proposed a very different kind of creation story for a fully digital universe, and so we are led to ask if there is even a deeper spiritual mystery that awaits us.

Thanks to the generous support of the Computer History Museum, this lecture was first presented publicly on October 25, 2013, as part of the CHM Soundbytes Lecture Series.