Richard G. Epstein
Richard Gary Epstein
Department of Computer Science
West Chester University
West Chester, PA 19383
"We are in need of spirit
in order to know what to do with science."
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The weighty social importance of what we are doing is beginning to dawn upon those of us who work in the computer profession, whether in academia or in industry. Perhaps we have begun to realize the awesome power that fate has placed in our hands, the unleashing of a new form of intelligence that was implicit in the nature of things from the very start. In recent years, computer science educators have paid more and more attention to issues of professionalism, social responsibility, social implications, and computer ethics. I would now like to propose a strategy for getting students to see the importance of ethics and professionalism. This approach involves getting students to see their careers in the broadest possible terms. In particular, I am proposing that we get students to see their careers as being important for their own spiritual growth and evolution.
The major part of this essay follows the outline of a lecture that I gave to my undergraduate course on professionalism and software engineering this spring semester. I gave this lecture about half way through the semester. The students received an earlier draft of this essay as a handout.
On the very first day of class I told the students the story of "the wheel", which I shall soon share with you. I told the students this story before introducing myself, before giving out the syllabus, before saying anything to anybody. (I guess you have to be somewhat of a ham to pull this off.) I intended the story of the wheel to be a warning and a point of departure for the entire course. Here is the story of the wheel as I related it to my students on that first day of class:
THE ORIGINAL STORY OF THE WHEEL
A man was sentenced to thirty years in prison. During his years in prison he was forced to turn a gigantic wheel, day after day. Day after day he turned this wheel and he had no idea what the ultimate purpose of the wheel was. Was he grinding wheat? Was he milling corn? What was he actually doing? All he knew about the wheel was that it was on the outside wall of the prison. When he was finally released, after thirty years, the first thing he did was to run to see what the wheel was connected to, so that he would finally know what he had been doing for those many arduous years. Much to his chagrin he discovered that the wheel was not connected to anything. He had spent thirty years of his life turning the wheel with no apparent purpose or benefit to anybody. Upon realizing this, he shouted a great shout and he died.
This story seems to be an outstanding device for getting students to see their unstated attitudes towards their careers and towards their professional lives as computer scientists. I started the course with this story, with these words. I did not know at that point in time where I would be going with this wheel stuff, but I was attempting to address an ethical dilemma in my own work. That ethical dilemma has to do with the quality of the graduates that we are producing and, more importantly, the quality of the lives that they will be leading. At a school like my own, where most of our students are first generation college students from working class families, many students view their careers simply in terms of earning money. They do not see, nor does the computer science curriculum help them to see, their true potential and the true spiritual rewards that work can offer. The ethical dilemma is whether it is ethical for me to be part of a process that produces software developers who will live for the paycheck, who will look longingly at their watches for the end of the work week, and who will inevitably engage in all kinds of escapist activities in order to escape from the emptiness of their work. In other words, is it ethical for me to prepare students for a life at that wheel, the wheel of drudgery, the wheel of meaningless, life-destroying work?
I think it is important for all computer science educators to consider this ethical dilemma. I think it is important for us to not only teach our students about C++, Java, data structures, algorithms, programming language paradigms, but also about the liberating potential of work.
The bottom line is this: I assert that the key to teaching ethics and professionalism so that students will take it to heart is to get the students to see their careers in the broadest possible perspective, as a means of realizing their full human potential, as a means of spiritual enlightenment and liberation. I do not see how a work force that views work as drudgery, that views work merely as a means of earning a livelihood, can be an ethical work force. I do not see how a work force that views work as drudgery can produce a technology that is life-enhancing.
A work force that sees its work in spiritual terms, in terms of spiritual growth and in terms of serving and cooperating, in terms of growing self-awareness and perfection, will be a more ethical work force, because ethics and integrity are a part of a larger package, the package of human spiritual evolution. Furthermore, such a work force will be more likely to produce forms of technology that make a positive contribution to the quality of human life.
After I gave this lecture, one of my students came up to me and said that this an effective way to get students to see the value and relevance of ethics. This lecture came after about six weeks of discussing computer ethics, team work, organizational cultures, professional responsibilities, and so forth, but apparently for this student, nothing tied these topics together as effectively as this one, unified vision, this vision of work as a spiritual journey, as a tool for spiritual evolution. Thus, I offer this essay to my colleagues in the hope that they might consider this approach to the teaching of ethics in the computer science curriculum.
The rest of this essay closely follows the original lecture notes that I distributed to my students. The first part presents the "redeemed" story of the wheel, a version of the wheel story that brings out the liberating potential of our work. The second part presents a list of twenty-six ways in which our work can help us to grow and evolve spiritually. A new section has been added that applies some of these concepts to the teaching profession. I close with a quote from a book entitled Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership that summarizes very effectively what we need to communicate to our students, that the path of integrity is not a new path, it is not something that comes from the speculation of philosophers, it is something that can be seen directly in the heart, it is the timeless truth about the nature of reality.
During the first half of this course the emphasis has been on professional issues in computing. These included issues of professional responsibilities, risks and liabilities, computer ethics, teams and team dynamics, the ethics of speech, organizational issues and corporate cultures.
Part of my agenda has been to do some "consciousness raising" concerning our careers and the role that they play in our lives. I started the course with the story of the wheel, which I encountered in a book about traditional Jewish spirituality. The author of that book failed to explore the liberating potential of work. Indeed, the intention of the story of the wheel was to criticize people who devote too much energy to their work, and in this day and age, when workaholism is a problem, this is a valid point to make. However, I would like to explore the spiritual growth and the liberation that is possible within work, because while work is only part of our lives, it is an important part. If we cannot find meaning in the mundane, then any attempt at spirituality is just escapism. The purpose of spirituality is not to escape, but rather to imbue life with goodness, excellence, beauty, and meaning. I hope that this lecture will help you to see why work is so important for one's spiritual growth. I also hope you will come to realize that the wheel can be viewed as a metaphor for the Cosmos itself.
In this lecture I draw upon many of the spiritual traditions that I studied, including my own Jewish tradition. Insofar as I can tell, no tradition is more true than any other. What matters is that we, as human beings, develop hearts of goodness. A good heart can turn a tradition that has deteriorated into intolerance and meaningless rituals into a vehicle for enlightenment and truth. An evil heart can turn the beautiful teachings of the Christ or of Mohammed or of Moses into something truly evil and despicable. So, the particular rituals and traditions are not as important as the goodness that we develop in our own hearts. Spiritual traditions have no objective reality. They exist in hearts and minds of the followers. It is our responsibility to imbue our respective traditions with goodness and to redeem our traditions from the forces of darkness and intolerance that abound everywhere.
I would like to start with a conjecture that the Book of Exodus in the Bible is fundamentally about our relationship to work. I am bringing this out in order to help you to see that the idea of acknowledging the spiritual value and significance of work is not new. This has been a central preoccupation of religious thinkers since the dawn of the Judeo-Christian heritage over three thousand years ago. In this regard, I should mention the saying of the Prophet Mohammed to the effect that "a man without a profession is a man without a religion".
Here is a brief outline of the Book of Exodus from the point of view of the meaning of work:
a. the Israelites are enslaved by the Pharaoh, representing the ego, in Egypt, which in Hebrew means a narrow place. [The ego keeps us enslaved in a narrow place.]
b. liberation from slavery, which involves a transit through a narrow and dangerous passageway.
c. revelation of the Divine Law (i.e., the Ten Commandments which provide the general principles behind an intricate ethical system).
d. application of the Divine Law (the general principles given in the Ten Commandments) to developing a system of ethics, including business ethics and social justice, with special attention to the rights of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
e. the sanctification of work through the building of the Tabernacle, its vessels and utensils, and through the creation of the priestly vestments. Bezalel, the builder of the Tabernacle, is given Divine inspiration for his task that even exceeds the Wisdom of Moses in some dimensions.
f. the perversion of work as symbolized by the Golden Calf (not only do the Israelites devote their craftsmanship to building an idol, it is an idol of gold,symbolizing work for the sake of money, the worship of money).
g. reaffirming the sacred nature of work - the narrative returns to a description of the Tabernacle, thus reaffirming the sacred nature of work even if the true purpose of work is sometimes perverted or loss sight of.
Thus, the liberation from slavery in this primordial human saga did not mean the liberation from work. It involved the sanctification of work which could only occur after the Israelites were exposed to a new ethical code, which included ethical and moral obligations to the "other". Sanctification implies holiness, but what is holiness? The root meaning of holiness in Hebrew is to separate (and of course, the Christian notion of holiness derives from the Hebrew Bible). I interpret this to mean that we can use our work to separate ourselves from the illusions of the world. Actually, the illusions of the world are our own delusions. Thus, I see work as providing a means by which we can attain self-understanding and enlightenment, freedom and true creativity.
I also associate holiness with laughter. When we see the foolishness of the world and when we develop a little bit of wisdom, we can have ourselves a good belly laugh, or perhaps we will cry because of all of the terrible suffering that human stupidity has caused. Is there anything more holy than deeply-felt laughter shared between people who love and respect one another? So, even though the rest of this essay is fairly serious, let us not lose sight of the value of humor, especially in an age when there is so much anger, intolerance, frustration, and violence.
This course began with the story of the wheel. [I repeated the story of the wheel at this point for the students.] Now, I would like to present a revised story of the wheel, what I would like to call...
THE REDEEMED STORY OF THE WHEEL
A man was sentenced to thirty years in prison. During his years in prison he was forced to turn a gigantic wheel, day after day. At first his whole being rebelled against his predicament, but then he learned to surrender to the reality of his situation. In that surrender, he learned to recognize a part of himself that was beyond his body and his mind, a quiet, peaceful, and radiant presence. This was not only a presence, but an awareness, and that awareness was his own innate awareness, and in that awareness he could see himself more clearly. In seeing himself more clearly he got to understand how he wound up in prison in the first place, the secret of his birth, the story of the human race, the story of his ancestors, his family, his parents, and his siblings. He realized that they were all prisoners as much as he. He began to see his personal demons, and he confronted them, and with each confrontation, the peaceful radiance became more powerful and more clear. He identified less and less with the fluctuating energies of the body-mind complex and more and more with that inner radiance. Within that inner radiance he discovered timeless Wisdom, and then he discovered the Source of that Wisdom, the Source of Everything. He became aware of the other prisoners, who were suffering a fate just like his, and with the help of that inner Wisdom, he was able to help them to discover the inner treasures that he had discovered. After many years in prison, he discovered innumerable points of Wisdom within himself, and he realized that his own heart contained endless and inexhaustible wealth. He began to see the Wisdom in his work and in all of his prison-bound relationships. The radiance grew and grew, and he became more peaceful, loving and compassionate. His fellow prisoners improved as well and he realized that they were a part of him, and he was a part of them. His spiritual strivings affected them, and their spiritual strivings affected him. As his radiance grew, his laughter grew, and deepened, and he learned and could tell more wheel jokes than just about anybody. And the other prisoners, many of whom had a wheel of their own to turn, loved his wheel jokes and his sense of humor lightened everyone's burden. He became a source of peace and light for those around him, and each day he saw his fellow prisoners as being more and more beautiful, and they began to amaze him with their wisdom. Each day, as he turned the wheel, he dove deeper and deeper into himself, and each new insight and discovery brought more peace and more happiness, more self-acceptance and more love for his fellow prisoners and even for the prison guards, who didn't seem to have much Wisdom, but who in the end, were nonetheless the agents of the Eternal Wisdom of the Source of Everything. Finally, the day came for his release, and he was curious about the wheel. What had he been doing all of those years? Was he grinding wheat? Was he milling corn? He walked outside the prison and saw the wheel he had been turning outside the prison wall. The wheel was not connected to anything. For thirty years, he had been turning a wheel that was not connected to anything. With this realization, he found some wild flowers and placed them in front of the wheel and he made a gesture of reverence towards it, for he realized that the wheel had been an instrument of his liberation. He realized that the wheel was holy and that the prison was a sacred place.
26 Ways in Which Our Careers
Can Help us to Grow
The following list contains 26 ways in which our careers can help us to grow. I have included annotations (in italics) which expand upon these points. These annotations are based on some of the insights that I have gained from the various teachers that I have studied with. I am taking an eclectic approach to spirituality in this lecture for the following reason. Some of you may want to commit yourselves to this idea that your career is not just about making money. Some of you may want to commit yourselves to the idea that your career can be a tool for your own personal growth and liberation, for the realization of your full human potential. This commitment will require that you do a lot of studying on your own. I know from personal experience that this kind of venture cannot succeed if one goes off by oneself. You need to be part of a community of people who share your interest in excellence and in developing human potential to the fullest extent. Your community will have its own spiritual language, different from my eclectic language. My eclectic language is intended for an audience that consists of people from diverse backgrounds. Hopefully, your community will be one of tolerance, embracing all of humanity with love and appreciation. From within the social interactions and understandings generated within that community, in the language of your own faith, you should be able to develop your own list of ways in which your career can help your soul and spirit to evolve.
So, here is my list.
In our work we can learn ...
23. Creating new worlds and new knowledge. We can learn how to build new knowledge within ourselves. In the workplace this means developing new skills, both technical skills, social skills, and organizational skills. Outside the workplace this means to learn new things (turn off that television!), to express ourselves through art, craft, music, social action, and other activities that have enduring value. We can develop our talents and personalities to a feverish pitch, as that Zen master said. Ultimately, we can become truly creative, inspiring others, teaching others, while retaining the attitude of a student. We can create a new reality, freeing ourselves from social convention and the stultifying limitations that others believe in. We can do this from a wise and profound assessment of our own abilities and limitations.
24. Mastering the ethics of speech. We can learn how to control that thing between the teeth, perhaps our most difficult human challenge. We can realize that life is not a situation comedy and that our words have real consequences. Words can heal and words can create. Words can destroy and words can kill.
--- end of lecture ---
This lecture is just a bunch of meaningless words unless we commit ourselves to devoting our energies, with love and compassion, to our work, to helping others and improving the quality of life through the work that we do. For those of us in the teaching profession, it means continually renewing our energies and continually reminding ourselves what it is all about.
I believe that you and I are like explorers or astronauts. We have come from that Original Source of Everything into this hostile environment, this hostile environment that was created by many thousands of years of human evil. Our purpose in coming here is to investigate the nature of a barbaric world such as this, to realize the truth concerning our true natures and our true origins, and then by our commitment to truth and integrity, to civilize this barbaric world, to utterly transform it into an environment in which the soul can thrive and find peace and happiness. We civilize this barbaric world by working on ourselves, completely eradicating the barbarian within our own hearts, certainly not by becoming barbarians and murderers ourselves. Thus, I suppose there are various levels of success on a dangerous mission such as ours. Failure would be to fall into a state of confusion, to become a barbarian oneself, to lose touch with the Plenitude, the Outflow of Goodness and Blessing, the Effulgence, accepting conventional materialistic perspectives, losing touch with the true nature of reality. Better than a failure, but not quite a success, would be to understand the nature of the problem, to decontaminate oneself, to civilize oneself, to save oneself, while not accomplishing much in terms of civilizing the barbaric world. Total success would be to civilize the barbaric world, through the work of the Spirit, by peaceful means, which is the shared religious dream of establishing the Kingdom of God. This is the truth concerning this human birth insofar as I have been able to ascertain up until this point in my life.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
From Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership,
translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Press, Boston, MA.
"When you cut and polish a stone, as you grind and rub you do not see it decreasing, yet with time it will be worn away. When you plant a tree and take care of it, you do not see it increase, but in time it gets large.
"When you accumulate virtue with continued practice, you do not see the good of it, but in time it will function. If you abandon right and go against truth, you do not see the evil of it, but in time you will perish.
"When students finally think this through and put it into practice, they will develop great capacity and emanate a fine reputation. This is the way that has not changed, now or ever."
I am indebted to many people who helped me to appreciate different spiritual traditions. Professor Herbert Jehle, who was a member of the German Christian resistance to Hitler and Nazism, Eido Shimano Roshi (Zen), M. R. Bawa Muhaiyadeen (Sufism), and my own rabbi here in West Chester, David Glansberg-Krainin. I have also enjoyed quite a few books by Professor S. H. Nasr (Islam and Sufism). Skillful Means by Tarthang Tulku gives a Tibetan Buddhist perspective on the spiritual value of work.
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