Richard G. Epstein

 

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About this Essay

This essay represents an attempt to explore the soul of computer science from a psychological perspective.  An important concept in this essay is the Jungian concept of the "alchemy of work," that is, viewing work as work on the soul.  This essay also explores the relationship between computer science and intelligence in the universe.  I can see this work being broadened in several directions.  These directions are listed below.  I am grateful for the feedback I have received from friends and colleagues, especially Bruce Barnes and Robert Heinemann.

    1. Part of the soul of computer science is its historical dimension.

    2. The dark side of computer science (e.g., computer crime and hacking) are definitely aspects of the soul of computer science.

    3. It would be good to get data concerning why computer scientists (i.e., practitioners) to the work that they do.  What drives them?  What gives them satisfaction?

    4. The paper would be stronger if it provided more empirical evidence about job satisfaction or dissatisfaction in IT.

   5. Do computer scientists have peculiar psychological traits that explain what they do and why they do it?  (Sam Leibowitz referred me to an article about the possibility that some leaders in computer science suffer from a form of autism?)   How do these psychological peculiarities, if you will, influence the development of the cyberculture?

Here's the essay:

THE SOUL OF COMPUTER SCIENCE

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Richard G. Epstein
Department of Computer Science
West Chester University of PA
West Chester, PA 19383
epstein@wcupa.edu
www.cs.wcupa.edu/~epstein

 Introduction

This essay attempts to explore the soul of computer science. We do not present or assume a definition for "soul", but appeal instead to an intuitive understanding of what soul might be about. We depend heavily upon the characterization of soul that is found in Thomas Moore’s book, Care for the Soul [1]. This characterization does not appeal to any particular religion’s attitude towards soul. Although Moore was trained as a seminarian and earned his doctorate in religious studies, his discussion of soul is rooted in psychology and in his seventeen years of experience as a clinical psychologist. Moore achieves a non-sectarian and intuitive concept of soul which computer scientists of many different persuasions might be able to embrace. Moore’s work, in turn was influenced by the writings of the psychologist, James Hillman [2].

This essay is not intended as an endorsement for the school of psychology, archetypal psychology, that Moore and Hillman represent. Their characterization of soul as relating to depth is appropriate for the limited purposes of this essay, which is to show that computer science has soul. Moore’s book, in particular, with its non-sectarian and almost non-specific depiction of soul will serve as an excellent point of departure for our discussion.

Hopefully, this essay will enable some readers to view computer science in an entirely new way. The author’s intention is to utilize Moore’s psychological conception of soul as a tool for discovering new meaning and beauty in our discipline. An appreciation for meaning and beauty can inspire new enthusiasm and new creative efforts. Furthermore, appreciating the meaning and beauty of computer science can play a role in improving the information technology workplace, which in many instances needs to be redesigned on many levels.

The author contends that computer science is a soulful discipline. It has a special, even exciting, beauty when viewed in this way. The soulfulness of computer science is not an esoteric idea that is irrelevant to the practical concerns of professionals who work in industry or professors who teach computer science. For one thing, an appreciation for the soulfulness of our discipline can make computer science more exciting and more attractive for our students. This concept can inspire the design of new courses both for majors and for non-majors. It can inspire new interdisciplinary courses that will help students from the humanities, the arts, and from other scientific disciplines, to appreciate the true profundity of computer science. It can stimulate new streams of research into the psychological and spiritual dimensions of computing.

The good news is that computer science has lots of soul. If we are missing the soul in computer science, it is because we have not been trained to look for it. A soulless vision of computer science is the result of a kind of cognitive and perceptual myopia. Computer science did not evolve from disciplines in which soul was an overt consideration. Our intellectual roots are in mathematics, science, and engineering. Soulfulness was usually not a central focus of these disciplines. However, mathematics, science, and engineering certainly have soul. Indeed, one can argue that the scholars who were most influential in discussing the soulfulness of mathematics, science, and engineering were precisely the most creative voices in their respective fields. Perhaps this was because the great luminaries were given "permission" by their colleagues to wax philosophical. The result is the kind of self-reflective literature in which a great physicist, for example, might speculate on ultimate issues in the cosmos, or a mathematician might write about mathematical order in some Platonic reverie. David Gelernter is a well-known computer scientist who recently wrote a book of this nature [3]. From this book we learn a bit about the soul of computer science from the perspective that there is beauty and elegance in our machines, languages, and algorithms. Any computer science text that stresses aesthetics has soul.

If the good news is that computer science has lots of soul, then the bad news is that computer science is usually not viewed as having anything to do with soul. Let us consider academia, for example. An individual professor might be soulful just by virtue of her passion and enthusiasm for the subject, or because of her genuine concern and love for her students. Yet, the soulfulness of the subject matter is rarely discussed in an explicit manner.

The author hopes that this essay will convince at least some readers that there are deep currents of soulfulness running throughout our discipline. Furthermore, some of these currents are far from obvious. Beyond that, even the currents that the author mentions and develops in this essay represent the tip of the iceberg. In some sense, the appreciation of the soulfulness of computer science is an individual project. We will not arrive at a universal characterization of the soulfulness of computer science that is appropriate for everybody. We can, however, come to a consensus that soulfulness is there and that it is important. We might even arrive at a broad enough consensus to develop a vocabulary and a language for discussing the soulfulness of our discipline and how it should be taught and how this understanding can be used to transform the workplace. In addition, there is a research agenda implicit in the realization that computer science has soul. We shall discuss that agenda at various points in this essay. This research agenda lies at the intersection of computer science, information systems, psychology, philosophy, and sociology.

Computer science has a special soulfulness because of the manner in which computer systems are built. Teams build computer systems and successful teamwork requires soul work. In addition, computer systems mirror human mental processes in a profound manner and this understanding is one aspect of the soulfulness of our discipline. Computer science has a special soulfulness because the language that is emerging in our discipline has a strong resonance with spiritual concepts that have been around for several millennia. I contend that emerging technologies, such as virtual reality, cyberspace, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, will enable us to discuss spiritual realities in a much more precise manner than ever before. This will bestow upon human beings new powers, unimaginable to previous generations. There is something spiritual about the machines that we are building, and these machines will enrich our spiritual language.

There was a time when computer ethics and the social implications of computing were considered inappropriate for the computer science curriculum. Now, there seems to be a general consensus that these are important topics. (For example, see Martin et al. [4].) I would hope that ten years from now courses on the soul of computer science will be commonplace. These courses will help ground students in the beauty and the profound significance of our subject. One consequence of this approach to computer science education is that careers in computer technology will become more meaningful, more satisfying, and more conducive to genuine human needs and concerns.

It is natural to make predictions about the future as we enter a new century and a new millennium. We might view human history as the outward manifestation of issues and conflicts that arise within the soul. I would venture to say that some of the most important spiritual conflicts in the coming century will relate to computer technology and its uses. As we develop cyberspace, virtual reality, nanotechnology, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, we will constantly have to ask ourselves whether these technologies are promoting human happiness (which is the central issue in soulfulness) or whether these technologies are driven by a soul-denying agenda, such as efficiency for efficiency’s sake or profit for profit’s sake. We will continuously be challenged to assert soulfulness as an alternate value to profit and expediency, authentic life as an alternative to artificial life, and authentic presence as an alternative to a digitally mediated presence. Again and again we will be forced to answer questions such as: Does this technology have soul? Does this technology help human beings to live soulful lives? Or, does this technology destroy soul? Does this technology demoralize human beings? Does this technology thwart or foster the evolution of consciousness?

In the next section, we will discuss Moore’s concept of soul, especially as it relates to workplace issues. We will then devote considerable attention to what Moore calls the "alchemy of work." In that discussion we will show how work in computer science has profound spiritual meaning. Then, we will discuss other soulful issues in computer science, with an understanding that this essay is self-consciously an initial exploration.

 

 

The Soul and Its Imperatives

In this section I will discuss Moore’s psychological concept of soul and why this is an important idea for understanding and working with computer technology. This section summarizes those ideas in Moore’s book, Care of the Soul [1] that are most directly related to soulfulness in computer science.

Moore is a clinical psychologist. He sees patients that have symptoms. These symptoms are viewed as the "voice of the soul." The imperatives of the soul have not been met, and the result is that symptoms arise. For example, when the soulfulness of work is not acknowledged in the information technology workplace, the symptoms of depression, alienation, and boredom arise. If a technology is released that lacks soulfulness, then that can cause symptoms, such as alienation, physical illness, and even violence. Thus, the soul has its imperatives, and if these are not satisfied or attended to, then the soul expresses its unhappiness through symptoms of various kinds.

We can see these symptoms manifesting in the information technology workplace. Gary Chapman reported a study that found that no college major has a higher rate of dissatisfaction among its graduates a few years after graduation than does computer science [5]. The empirical evidence suggests (for example, as reflected in ComputerWorld’s surveys of information technology professionals [6]), that the existing reality in the IT workplace is that much work in information technology lacks soul. This is not because the work intrinsically lacks soul. Rather, it is because the individuals involved in this work are unaware of the soulful aspects of their work.

Moore is neither a materialist fundamentalist nor a religious fundamentalist. Most of us know what a religious fundamentalist is, but what is a materialist fundamentalist? The robotics researcher, Hans Moravec, characterizes himself as a physical fundamentalist in his book, Robot [7]. Moravec’s description of physical fundamentalism is essentially what Moore calls materialist fundamentalism. Here is Moravec’s self-description from Robot:

"During the last few centuries, physical science has convincingly answered so many questions about the nature of things, and so hugely increased our abilities, that many see it as the only legitimate claimant to the title of true knowledge. Other belief systems may have social utility for the groups that practice them, but ultimately they are just made-up stories. I myself am partial to such ‘physical fundamentalism’". (Page 191, Moravec [7])

It is unfortunate that Moravec characterizes religious knowledge in such a naive way. After all, the stories are merely the most superficial aspect of religious knowledge, an aspect that is intended for little children. Nonetheless, Moravec does provide us with a useful description of physical (or, materialistic) fundamentalism. In fairness to Moravec, I would like to add that his book Robot presents a soaring vision of what robotics and artificial intelligence is all about, a vision that borders on the mystical. On the other hand Moravec’s views concerning the insignificance of human life, as quoted in Dery [8, pp. 306-8], are disturbing.

Moore wants nothing to do with fundamentalism of any kind, be it religious or materialistic. Here is a quote from Moore’s discussion of materialistic fundamentalism:

"In our spirituality, we reach for consciousness, awareness, and the highest values; in our soulfulness, we endure the most pleasurable and the most exhausting of human experiences and emotions. ... No one needs to be told that we live in a time of materialism and consumerism, of lost values and a shift in ethical standards. We find ourselves tempted to call for a return to old values and ways. ... [W]e want to keep in mind Jung’s warning about dealing with present difficulties by wishing for a return to former conditions. He calls this maneuver a ‘regressive restoration of the persona.’ ... The key to lost spirituality and numbing materialism is not merely to intensify our quest for spirituality, but to reimagine it." (Pages 231-2. All page numbers are for Care of the Soul [1] unless noted otherwise.)

He goes on to assert: "The cure for materialism, then, would be to find concrete ways of getting soul back into our spiritual practices, our intellectual life, and our emotional and physical engagements with the world." (Page 232) In particular, we need to get soul back into our work.

I realize that this sort of language might make some academic computer scientists uncomfortable. However, it is probably the case that the majority of actual practitioners of computer science are spiritual people with spiritual values. It may be that academic computer science is more skewed towards materialist fundamentalism than the computer technology workplace where most of our students will work. My own belief is that computer science as an academic discipline is too important to surrender to the forces of materialist fundamentalism. That would be just as dangerous and as destructive to the human spirit as surrendering computer technology to any form of religious fundamentalism. We need to acknowledge different voices and different perspectives. Computer technology must serve and acknowledge the human reality, in all of its diversity and mystery.

Unfortunately, there are materialist fundamentalists who work in computer technology and who wield tremendous influence in the development of that technology. Here is Moore’s description of materialist fundamentalism in the information technology workplace:

"The pursuit of intellectual and technical knowledge can be undertaken with an excessive fervor or monotheistic single-mindedness sometimes found in the spiritual life. Tracy Kidder’s book The Soul of a New Machine doesn’t really talk about the soul, but it does describe computer inventors and developers as dedicated, self-denying technicians who devote their lives, often to the detriment of their families, to their vision of a technological age. They are ‘monks of the machine’; caught up in the spirit of their work, like monks of old, they can come to lead an ascetic life in enthusiastic pursuit of a machine that reproduces as much of the natural world as possible in light and electronics. The computer itself, in its refinement of the concrete particulars of life in digital mathematics and light graphics, is, for better or worse, a kind of spiritualization or disembodiment of matter. Medieval monks, too, busied themselves in their own method of sublimating earthly life in intellectual knowledge and reading – copying books and tending to revered libraries." (Page 233)

Let us note in passing that the empirical data that indicates high rates of job dissatisfaction among computer science professionals might be interpreted to mean that some of these professionals are being recruited into information technology monasteries without a full appreciation of what they are getting themselves into. They are drawn into the computer monasteries by the lure of money. They do not realize the price that they will have to pay for this Faustian bargain. The monastery’s agenda is not the soul’s agenda. The distress that the soul feels in a soul-destroying workplace is what Moore would call a symptom. In such a context a symptom is a sign of health. It represents the possibility of rebirth and rejuvenation. It can give the computer professional the desire and the motivation to escape the monastery and to find a more soulful situation. It might even give the computer professional an opportunity to transform the monastery into something different. It is when the symptom is ignored that the computer professional runs into trouble. Surrender to a soulless reality is a kind of spiritual death.

Moore’s concept of soul is psychological. It is not overtly religious. It is non-sectarian. It is a theory concerning mental health that does not distinguish between mental health and spiritual health. Moore states that psychology is essentially spirituality. I think there is a growing realization within the psychological community that this is the case. For example, the growing acceptance of spirituality and the importance of spirituality for mental health is discussed in Glynn’s book, God: the Evidence [9]. There is much empirical evidence that spiritual people are less prone to depression than those who do not have spiritual beliefs. Human beings need a deep spirituality in order to be happy and fulfilled, to enjoy the richness of soul. This does not mean that human beings need to adhere to a particular sectarian or theological belief. What human beings do need is an understanding of their own souls, of the human reality that the soul enshrines and reveals.

In the introduction to his book, Moore informs us that his concept of soul derives from spiritual writings of the Middle Ages and especially the Renaissance. He repeatedly refers to the works of Marsilio Ficino and Paracelsus. He describes their books as self-help books of that era. But, these self-help books were quite different from the modern day variety that emphasizes self-improvement, a term which Moore uses with some contempt. He sees self-improvement as a device for adjusting to a culture that is out of balance and out of touch with its own soul. For example, if a slave learns how to haul twenty bales of cotton instead of just ten, then in the context of a slave-based economy, this can be called self-improvement. But, it has nothing to do with the health of the soul. The Renaissance self-help books were about grounding oneself in the delights of the soul, finding happiness in ordinary things, including one’s work. These books stress the importance of expressing soulfulness in one’s life and of avoiding repression of fundamental human needs.

Here is how Moore describes the Renaissance approach to spirituality and mental health:

"[The Renaissance approach] gave recipes for good living and offered suggestions for a practical, down-to-earth philosophy of life. I’m interested in this humbler approach, one that is more accepting of human foibles, and indeed sees dignity and peace as emerging more from that acceptance than from any method of transcending the human condition" (page xii).

While Moore mentions many twentieth century authors, none appears more frequently than Carl Jung, one of the few psychologists of the Freudian era who acknowledged the importance of religion and spirituality. Moore’s mentor, James Hillman, was a student of Jung. Consequently, Moore draws upon the concept of archetype, which is important in Jungian psychology. In addition, Moore takes advantage of many examples from Greek mythology which illustrate the archetypal dimensions of the soul and psyche. When Moore attacks "monotheism," he is attacking narrow concepts of God that deny the polymorphic revelation of the Divine. There is one God, but God takes many forms.

Moore’s writing is poetic, lyrical, and truly moving at times. He captures our attention right from the start with the following observation about "loss of soul":

"The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is ‘loss of soul.’ When the soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning." (page xi)

Obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning are all ideas that arise in discussions of the social implications of computing. Therefore, the concept of soul, as expounded in Moore’s book, might provide a useful means of understanding these phenomena, as symptoms of an underlying spiritual illness.

Moore does not attempt to define soul. However, he does offer us the following:

"It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy." (pages xi-xii).

Let us now focus on the specific concepts in Moore’s book which seem to be directly applicable to computer science, to workplace issues in information technology, and to the social implications of computing. One such concept is that of power. In a chapter on the relationship between soul and power Moore states that "’Repression of the life force’ is a diagnosis I believe would fit most of the emotional problems people present in therapy" (page 127). In particular, emotional symptoms appear when people deny the soul’s need for power. We are not talking about tyrannical or abusive power here. We are talking about the satisfaction that the soul derives from a sense of competence, from a sense of autonomy, from the experience of artfulness and mastery, and from the feeling that derives from playing a decisive role in the unfolding of events. If an information technology worker does not feel a sense of power, then this will give rise to some of the symptoms that we discussed earlier, such as depression or fatigue, or even anger.

Moore devotes an entire chapter to work and work related issues, such as money, creativity, and failure. Near the beginning of his chapter on work, Moore makes the following observation, based upon his work as a clinical psychologist:

"One of the most unconscious of our daily activities from the perspective of the soul is work and the settings of work – the office, factory, store, studio, or home. I have found in my practice over the years that the conditions of work have at least as much to do with disturbances of soul as marriage and family. Yet it is tempting simply to make adjustments in response to problems at work without recognizing the deep issues involved. Certainly we allow the workplace to be dominated by function and efficiency, thereby leaving us open to the complaints of the neglected soul. We could benefit psychologically from a heightened consciousness about the poetry of work – its style, tools, timing, and environment." (page 177-8)

One of the most interesting ideas in Moore’s chapter on work is his discussion of alchemy, which I see as a fundamental concept for understanding the soul of computer science and especially workplace issues in information technology. Indeed, the next two sections of this essay are devoted to elaborating upon this concept. Here is an extensive excerpt from Moore’s discussion of the alchemical power of work. Moore’s discussion, in turn, is based upon Jung’s theories.

"Alchemy was a process in which raw material was placed in a vessel where it was heated, observed closely, heated some more, passed through various operations, and observed once again. In the end, the result was an arcane product imagined mysteriously to be gold, the stone of the philosophers, or a potent elixir. In Jung’s view, alchemy was a spiritual practice carried out for the benefit of the soul. Its play with chemicals, heat, and distillation was a poetical project in which substances, colors, and other material qualities offered an external imagery for a hidden parallel process of the soul. ...

"This process of working the stuff of the soul, objectified in natural materials, the alchemist called the opus, that is, ‘the work.’ We could imagine our own everyday work alchemically in the same way. The plain concerns of ordinary work are the raw material, the prima materia, as the alchemist called it, for working out the soul’s matter. We work on the stuff of the soul by means of the things of life. This is an ancient idea espoused by Neoplatonists: ordinary life is the means of entry into higher spiritual activity. Or we could say that at the very moment we are hard at work on some worldly endeavor, we are also working on a different plane. Perhaps without knowing it, we are engaged in the labors of the soul. ...

"... The more deeply our work stirs imagination and corresponds to images that lie there at the bedrock of identity and fate, the more it will have soul. Work is an attempt to find an adequate alchemy that both wakens and satisfies the very root of being. Most of us put a great deal of time into work, not only because we have to work so many hours to make a living, but because work is central to the soul’s opus. We are crafting ourselves – individuating, to use the Jungian term. Work is fundamental to the opus because the whole point of life is the fabrication of soul. ...

"... [I]f what we do or make is not up to our standards and does not reflect attention and care when we stand back to look at it the soul suffers. The whole society suffers a wound to soul if we allow ourselves to do bad work." (Pages 184-5)

These quotes from Moore bear the potential to allow us to radically alter the information technology workplace so that it can be transformed into a truly soulful place. I expressed ideas similar to these, but much less convincingly, I believe, in my own essay, "The Wheel" [10]. In that essay I envisioned work in information technology as an alchemical process (although I did not use that term) if and only if the worker used his or her work as an opportunity to grow spiritually. This perspective is consistent with Moore’s assertions. However, Moore is saying something that is deeper and much more provocative. He is saying that the work itself, by its very nature, has some deep meaning for the soul.

Moore also discusses the importance of beauty and artistic creativity for the health of the soul. These are concepts that can also help us to transform the nature of the information technology workplace. Clearly, the workplace environment can be improved by proper attention to these issues. For example, if workers are forced to work in sterile cubicles, this is a soul issue. It is a matter of respecting human dignity and the soul that stands behind that demand for dignity. Furthermore, computer technology workers need to feel creative. Any kind of repression of these significant needs (i.e., the need for beauty and the need for creativity) will give rise to symptoms of mental and spiritual illness. This observation is important because so much of what is done in the world of computer technology is in the nature of art. It is not just engineering. "Care of the soul may take the form of living in a fully embodied imagination, being an artist at home and at work. ..." (Page 300) One way to improve the quality of the information technology workplace is to assure that creativity is given free reign within the constraints of an organization’s mission and purpose. We need to acknowledge the artistic dimensions of our work even within the context of achieving professional standards of competency. Any attempt to professionalize the software industry, for example, that does not acknowledge the powerful creative impulse that lies behind computer technology, is bound to fail.

Moore’s concept of soul is also applicable to many of the social implications of computing. For example, people who lose themselves in cyberspace experience a kind of divorce from their physical embodiment. (See, for example, Turkle [11] and Dery [8].) They are sacrificing the pleasures of the body for the stimulation of the mind. What are the costs of this kind of disembodiment of the human being in cyberspace? What are the costs of excessive use of computer-mediated communication? Another question that arises is whether time spent surfing the Web, like time spent at work, has an alchemical impact upon the soul. That is, does it transform elements in the soul? If so, is this effect harmful or beneficial?

Other issues in the social implications of computing and in computer ethics can be analyzed in terms of soul issues. For example, what are the implications of a loss of privacy for the soul? Does the soul need privacy? Moore states explicitly that the soul needs to express itself in concrete manifestations, for example, in concrete works of art that express the essence of the artist. If this is so, what are the implications for intellectual property on the Web? Is the destruction or weakening of intellectual property rights an attack on the soul and not just an attack on some reactionary literary or artistic establishment, as some among the "digerati" would have us believe? (The digerati, their accomplishments and attitudes, are recorded in Brockman [12].)

Other questions that we might ask about the social implications of computing involve the shadow side of the soul, that is, the way in which the repressed life force may wish to express itself in deviant and destructive forms. What does this understanding tell us about the phenomena of computer crime, racist and pornographic web sites, hacking, worms, and viruses?

The preceding paragraphs suggest the scope of the research agenda that is implicit in the subject of this essay. Appreciating soul can give us an insightful perspective for analyzing many social issues in computing. For example, Mark Dery, in his book about cyberculture, Escape Velocity [8], repeatedly refers to the tendency among the inhabitants of this culture to disembody themselves and others. Certainly, the attempt to transcend this human reality is just the opposite of what Moore means by soulfulness.

 

The Alchemy of Work I:
Work as a Spiritual Practice

In this and the following section we shall discuss the alchemy of work. We saw in the previous section that there are two aspects to the alchemy of work. The first aspect is the effect that a particular kind of work has on the body, mind, and spirit. The second aspect involves the poetic or symbolic interpretation of a particular kind of work. This reveals the universal or transpersonal meaning of that work. In the following paragraphs we shall discuss these two aspects of work briefly. The remainder of this section then expounds upon the first aspect, while the next section, entitled "Computer Technology as Soul Work" elaborates upon the symbolic meaning of work in computer technology.

In order to understand the alchemy of work as it applies to computer technology, let us consider an important and ancient profession in terms of its alchemical powers. Every profession involves some kind of physical effort, some kind of mental and perhaps spiritual training. This is the first aspect of the alchemy of work, the effect of that work on the body, mind, and spirit. The ancient profession that we shall examine in this light is that of the farmer. Our depiction of the farmer’s work is somewhat idealistic. For example, I ignore the burdensome nature of work, which is also relevant to understanding the farmer who works by the "sweat of his brow."

Consider what it meant to be a farmer, before the modern era of automation. The farmer’s work would involve physical, mental, and spiritual effort. The farmer’s work leaves its imprint upon the farmer’s body, mind, and spirit. Obviously, farming involves physical labor, which had a conditioning effect on the body. Perhaps, this would make the body healthy and robust. The body might relish the sweat and the muscle involved. The farmer might return to his abode in the evening exhausted and completely satisfied with the physical labor that he put into tending to his crops or caring for his animals. The physical conditioning of his work might provide the farmer with a deep sense of joy and health, one of the soul’s most intense delights. The farmer’s work also has an intellectual aspect. The farmer needs to understand the land and its capabilities, the weather, its signs, its moods, and its seasons, and the properties of various plants, pests, predators, and beasts of burden. Thus, farm work involves some kind of mental or intellectual discipline. Finally, farm work has a spiritual aspect. This includes an appreciation for the universe and its mysteries, a feeling of closeness to the earth, a feeling of kinship with all of life. Another spiritual dimension of farm work would involve human relationships. The farmer could not succeed without his wife, or without his children, whom he puts to work at the earliest possible age, or the neighboring family that is always available in times of crisis or hardship. So, the farmer’s work has an alchemical effect on the farmer’s body, mind, and spirit. Although the farmer can achieve individuation through his work, his experiences are those of a farmer and this shapes his consciousness, his physicality, his intellect, and his spirituality.

The farmer’s work also has a symbolic aspect. One might call this the spiritual meaning of his work. The farmer is after all just one instance of an Archetype called the Farmer. There are millions of farmers, each one an instantiation of this universal reality. This reality is the reality of sowing and reaping, the reality of the abundant potential of earth and soil, or, its paradoxical stinginess, the reality of luxuriant plants growing from tiny seeds, the reality of breeding, milking, shearing, and slaughtering. This is the cosmic reality of the Farmer. Thus, when the farmer works on his farm, he is not only working on himself in the physical, mental, and spiritual sense mentioned above. He is also working on the universal reality that envelops all of mankind. He is the embodiment of deep truths that are part of the fabric of human life. He is not only working on his own soul. He is also working on the soul of the world.

Thus, when we see the farmer working in his field, he reflects back truths about our own reality, even though we are not farmers. This is the poetic or symbolic interpretation of what the farmer is doing. For example, as the farmer sows his corn seed, he reflects back to us the seeds that we have planted in our own consciousness, the seeds that will sprout and grow in their own season, the crops within ourselves that we will eventually harvest. He reflects back to us an aspect of our own inner reality, even as he works upon himself physically, intellectually, and spiritually. This same kind of symbolic interpretation can be applied to just about anything the farmer does, whether spreading manure or milking a cow. To a person with soulful perception, spreading manure is a very profound thing. Spreading manure resonates with deep truths about the nature of human life. Thus, the work of the farmer represents something universal, something within us that is deeply meaningful. This is true regardless of whether the farmer realizes the symbolic significance of what he is doing. This is the second aspect of the alchemy of work that we shall apply to computer technology in the next section. We will impoverish human life immeasurably if we relegate this kind of perception to the realm of poetry, as if you and I have no business being poets.

Now, we shall give a brief accounting of the first aspect of the alchemy of work for computer science and computer technology. This has to do with the transformations of body, mind, and spirit that can occur when one works in computer technology. This leads us to the consideration of work in computer technology as a spiritual practice, that is, a technique for self-understanding and spiritual growth.

In fact, this is the approach that I took in my essay, "The Wheel" [10]. Before I give a synopsis of that essay, I would like to mention that many books have been written in recent years concerning work as a spiritual practice. There are two lists of references at the end of this essay. The second list is devoted solely to books that relate to work as a spiritual practice. These references view the spirituality of work from various perspectives, including Christian (Matthew Fox), Jewish (Jeffrey Salkin) and Buddhist (Lewis Richmond).

Lewis Richmond, for example, is a Zen master who has been very successful in the software industry. He was featured in an article in US News and World Report about spirituality in the workplace. According to US News, many corporate leaders are waking up to the spiritual needs of their employees. Richmond’s book, Work as a Spiritual Practice [13], emphasizes various emotions that arise in the workplace (such as anger, ambition, discouragement, boredom) and how the individual can transform these realities into meditative practices.

What is missing in most of these books on work as a spiritual practice is an understanding that many traditional professions allowed for the body to be worked on physically. Consider again how important the physicality of his work was for our traditional farmer. This is a dimension that I totally missed in "The Wheel". In practice, however, the physical body cannot be ignored in discussing workplace issues and the attitude that workers have towards their work. Some corporations are beginning to understand this problem, especially for information technology professionals, by providing gym facilities at their work sites. Another aspect of the physicality of work has to do with the ergonomics of the computer workstation.

The Wheel essay focuses on the mental and spiritual value of work. The article starts with the story of the Wheel, which is an attempt to capture the essence of meaningless work. Here is the 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." (Epstein [10], page 8)

I first encountered this metaphor in Twerski [14]. The Wheel is a graphic description of meaningless work. No one wants to end up turning the Wheel.

The Wheel essay then goes on to observe that even in the context of a prison, a prisoner could redeem his work by working upon himself, by using his work as a means of spiritual transformation. Thus, even a job that seems boring and without meaning can be transformed into something meaningful by means of spiritual practice. However, this should not be interpreted as implying that one should never leave a job. Certainly, if a job really is a prison, then it is time to leave.

The Wheel essay lists twenty-six ways in which our careers in computer technology can help us to grow spiritually. For example, we can use our careers to learn self-awareness, to learn the value of cooperation and teamwork, and to learn true humility and self-confidence. These elements represent one dimension of the alchemical power of work; namely, the power of work to effect transformations of mind and spirit. As we work, we learn about ourselves, our conditioning, our automatic responses to things. We learn how to deal with uncomfortable emotions, such as anger, envy, resentment, and boredom. We learn how to transform and to utilize these energies so that the soul can express itself fully.

The theory behind the Wheel is that no work in computer technology is intrinsically boring or life-denying if we take the attitude that work is a spiritual practice. However, this is too idealistic. A given individual may find a particular job inconsistent with the imperatives of his or her own being. Certainly, there are situations in which a particular job becomes inconsistent either with the ethical values of an individual or that individual’s need for growth and advancement. Realizing that it is time to quit can be an important step in the process of spiritual growth.

There is an implicit research agenda in acknowledging the first aspect of the alchemical power of work. That is, can we really come to understand how a career in computer technology affects the body, mind, and spirit? The Wheel assumes that the outcome can be truly positive if the individual worker just makes the requisite effort. However, the reality may not be that simple. We have already touched upon the physical issue, that working at a computer workstation all day may not be good for the physical body. But, how does a career in computer technology effect the brain, a person’s mental processes, a person’s spiritual sensitivity? If vast numbers of people are involved in this kind of work in the future, what will the effect be in the aggregate? How will this affect our understanding of ourselves and of our relationships with others? The purpose of such a research agenda would be to eventually assure that the imperatives of the soul can be served in a career in information technology. Over the coming decades, this might require some dramatic changes in the way computer technology is created and the kind of thinking that goes into the design and implementation of systems. It might have an impact upon computer science education. Perhaps, the artistic and creative spirit needs to be acknowledged more. These are all profound topics, worthy of serious investigation.

Let us now turn our attention to the poetic or symbolic meaning of work in computer technology.

 

The Alchemy of Work II:
Computer Technology as Soul Work

The second dimension of the alchemy of work is to interpret the work poetically or symbolically. Some readers might react by thinking, "Well this is going to be a short section. There really is nothing very poetic or symbolic about computer science." However, I assert the contrary. There is so much that is poetic or symbolic about computer science and computer technology that it would take at least another essay to lay out the details. In terms of soul work, computer technology is utterly profound and filled with meaning.

I believe that an appreciation for the symbolic dimension of computing can have a great impact upon the practical world of computer science and computer technology. This kind of understanding can potentially transform the way in which computer science is viewed within our culture. For example, there is a type of individual who might be attracted to a career in computer technology if he or she could see the soulfulness in it. Thus, we could have a more diverse group of people creating computer technology, and a more diverse group of students entering the major. The entry of a new kind of professional, motivated as much by art and truth as by money, could only help the field to grow and to branch out into new directions.

The symbolic meaning of computer technology can also help computer scientists to appreciate their work in a new way, improving the excitement and satisfaction that they derive from their work. The symbolic meaning of computer technology can lead to new, fruitful interactions with other disciplines. Furthermore, as we shall discuss in the next section, the symbolic meaning of computer technology might have an impact upon other fields of knowledge, including religion and spirituality, but also the sciences and philosophy. Thus, attempting to understand computer science on this level is not a futile exercise.

In this section I will concentrate on two approaches to viewing computer science symbolically. First, I will suggest that a software project can be viewed as a mirror image of a "spiritual quest." Second, I will suggest that the qualities of good software mirror desirable qualities in a human being. Thus, as we attempt to achieve these qualities in our software, we can also attend to the soul work that might allow these qualities to manifest through us.

I would like to remind the reader that there are two ways in which work reflects truth back to us. First, we can observe someone else working and we can apply a symbolic meaning to that person’s work. Second, we can see the truth reflected back to us in our own work.

Let us now consider a person who is working on a software project. How can we interpret that work as work on the soul? In fact, there are many ways in which we can view work in computer science symbolically. We shall choose the interpretation, mentioned above, where the software project symbolizes a spiritual quest. By a spiritual quest I mean the effort to achieve authenticity in one’s life, to realize one’s purpose. Jung called this the process of individuation.

In describing the parallels between software development and the spiritual quest, I will sometimes draw upon a hypothetical person, Ben. We will see that Ben’s spiritual quest, his effort to discover his authentic self, has many similarities with work on a software project even though Ben himself is not a computer scientist.

Let us begin with the stage of analysis. This involves finding out what the customer needs and developing a specification of the desired system based upon that understanding. In terms of the soul work of discovering and manifesting our authentic self, the analysis phase corresponds to a process of introspection, where we are trying to understand the person that we are meant to be, the person that the universe is trying to create, as opposed to the person that is purely the result of the conditioning of a particular family, race, religion, or culture. We want to understand what the universe wants (the universe is the customer) and we want to create ourselves according to that understanding (that specification). This is the work of analysis.

Let’s apply this to Ben. The analysis phase might lead Ben to conclude that he wants to enter medicine, or music, or to become an athlete. The analysis phase would give Ben that initial insight into the person that he would like to become.

The design stage of the software project can be viewed as reflecting the work that one must do in order to transform one’s initial understanding of one’s authentic self (the specification) into concrete actions that can help to bring about the manifestation of that authenticity. At this stage, we are still far from authenticity, but we understand who we are meant to be and we are embarking upon the project of creating that person, or more accurately, of allowing the universe (or God) to create that person. During the design stage we attain a more concrete understanding of who we are, and we take preliminary steps to bring that person into manifestation. We design a general architecture or framework for the life that will eventually emerge.

In the case of Ben, the design stage corresponds to making those preliminary decisions that will enable him to manifest his authentic self, whether it is a doctor, a musician, or an athlete. This requires that Ben take some concrete steps, like applying to college to study medicine, or enrolling in a guitar class, or arranging to play on a sports team or joining a gym where he can work out. The preliminary outlines of the life he will manifest are beginning to take shape.

The implementation stage of software development means that the preliminary plans and actions of the design stage, must now be committed to specific and detailed plans and courses of action. In Ben’s case, he actually goes off to college, he attends classes and he does the coursework needed to get into medical school. Or, he actually takes the guitar lessons and practices long hours with his guitar and writes some simple songs. Or, he plays on the sports team and goes to the gym and actually does the bench presses and aerobic exercises that his sport requires. This is the implementation stage. The authentic self is beginning to emerge from the fog of analysis and plans.

And, then there is the aspect of debugging our implementations. In Ben’s case, he goes to college and he finds out that he has chosen the wrong major. The universe does not want him to be a doctor. His destiny is to be an artist. There were some regrettable defects in his original analysis due to parental pressure. Both of his parents are accomplished doctors. In order to realize his life’s purpose, Ben must major in art instead of biology. Or, Ben takes guitar lessons and he discovers that he makes a lot of mistakes. He is not playing that chord correctly. His fingers are not as nimble nor as precise as they need to be. He needs to refine his methods. Or, Ben plays at his sport, but realizes he is making some fundamental mistakes. He consults with his coach and his peers, and he learns how to perform better. He changes his exercise routine at the gym to emphasize strength and endurance. He changes his attitude on the playing field.

Let’s now consider the testing phase of a software project. In terms of expressing one’s authenticity, this involves forays into manifesting our authentic selves under limited and low-risk situations. For example, Ben might practice a particular set of chords to see if he has them right. Or, Ben might practice an especially challenging song that integrates diverse and sophisticated techniques. Ben might ask a knowledgeable friend to listen to his test, or he might record it so that he can evaluate it himself. Or, Ben can use the approach that some software companies use, testing before a live audience of paying customers. However, it is probably best to do rigorous testing beforehand, before manifesting fully in public, before putting one’s reputation fully on the line. Of course, the purpose of testing is to reveal defects. In terms of developing an authentic self, the testing process might reveal problems in our implementation, or even in our design, or in our original analysis.

 

Those who are doing the soul work of trying to develop an authentic self would be wise to consider the actual experience of software engineers, like Watts Humphrey [15], who stress that if you want to avoid major defects during testing, then you must work harder on the analysis, design and implementation stages of your project. Very rigorous quality assurance methods are required in both spheres, the sphere of software development and the sphere of work on the soul. If we do a poor job during the analysis stage, we might find ourselves up the proverbial creek at test time or even after the product is delivered. For example, imagine the pain that Ben will experience when as a middle-aged doctor, he discovers he really should have been a musician or an architect. Or, imagine Ben’s pain as a washed-up musician who realizes that healing was his true calling all along.

Now, suppose that we’ve been through the testing stage. Now, we deliver our product. In terms of soul work, the authentic self has arrived. We have authentic presence. We do not have any sense of being a fake or a fraud. We have satisfied our specifications. We have gone through all of the stages and now we are an installed, delivered product. Unfortunately, like a true software project, we never reach a stage of complete stability. We enter the maintenance stage. Maybe we find that we still have some defects that need to be worked on. Or, perhaps, we see possible problems that might arise, so we decide to change our patterns in anticipation of these future problems. Or perhaps, we realize that although we are doing well, we could be doing the things that we are doing more efficiently. Or, we find out that the environment is changing. We need to modify our behaviors, our knowledge base, in order to accommodate a world that is changing rapidly.

Thus, the creation of authenticity is a lifetime endeavor, an ongoing project, very much like a software project. In this sense, our work on a software project is soul work, even if we do not view our work in that way. Our work on a software project has alchemical power. We are working on ourselves and we are also working on the world. On the level of archetypes, we are helping all of mankind to develop true authenticity. We are helping all of mankind to develop better mental and spiritual processes.

Let us look at a second manner in which software development reflects back truths about our own inner reality. Let’s consider the desirable properties of software. As we work to develop software with desirable properties, we are actually doing the soul work of developing analogous desirable properties within ourselves.

For example, a good software product should be user-friendly. We, as human beings, need to be user-friendly. When we see someone who is working on trying to make user-friendly software, that can remind us that we need to work on our own user interface. Perhaps our user interface is not as user-friendly as it ought to be. We need to make our intentions more clear. We need to interface better with others. We need to give people helpful, compassionate, and constructive feedback. We need to be facilitators and not obstacles to beneficial work that needs to get done. We need to speak to others with respect, avoiding hurtful speech.

Good software needs to have the property of interoperability. This certainly applies to human beings as well. We need to be open to interact with people who are very different from ourselves. We might be a Windows application, but we need to know how to interact with that LINUX fellow over there. We don’t have the option of saying, "Well, I’m Windows and he’s LINUX, so there’s no hope in our communicating and cooperating." We need to know how to communicate across a broad spectrum of standards and beliefs.

Another desirable property of software is robustness. The software needs to operate correctly under unexpected situations. This is certainly true of human beings. We need to be able to function under all sorts of unanticipated situations. If we get derailed too easily, we need to go back and modify our software. Manifesting the "blue screen of death" is not a viable option.

Every good software project needs documentation. There is external documentation and there is internal documentation. The same applies to human beings. Our external documentation includes those books that are truly important for our lives. For example, a Christian might consider the Bible as her single most important piece of external documentation. For a Moslem, the single most important piece of external documentation is the Qu'ran. For a materialist fundamentalist it might be Darwin’s Origins of the Species or Feynmann’s Lectures in Physics. But, it is also important to have good internal documentation. This would take the form of journal writings and personal reflections.

Other desirable software properties, such as portability, effectiveness, efficiency, and correctness are also important spiritual properties that apply to the human person.

There is an implicit research agenda in our discussion of the symbolic meaning of computer science and computer technology. Issues include whether an understanding of the soul work within a computer project can help computer professionals to perform their tasks better and to experience greater satisfaction and meaning in their work. Certainly, some professionals would be more open to this approach than others. Another issue is to see how the lessons of software development apply to work on the soul. This was implicit in our comment that soul workers would do well to study Humphrey’s Personal Software Process or any formal methodology for doing software engineering. These sources are extremely suggestive of methodologies for working on the soul. In other words, computer technology suggests an underlying spiritual technology that might be of great benefit to human beings.

I hope that I have succeeded in showing that mundane work in computer science symbolizes profound work on the soul. In Moore’s terms, work in computer science has alchemical power. It is not just the individual soul that is being transformed. It is the world soul as well. More on this in the next section.

 

Computer Technology as a Spiritual Language

When we admire a work of art, we see the soul in that work of art. The art is more than just globs of paint on a canvas. We see the truth in it. Maybe it is just the naked truth of raw energy, or perhaps it is a more subtle, symbolic truth. Or, maybe the painting is just a subtle joke about blatant commercialism. Different people see different truths in the same work of art. Furthermore, someone who is trained as an artist, will see more in a work of art than a totally naive person, who is nonetheless stirred by the beauty of it. The same thing applies to music or photography or literature. Beauty and truth touch us deeply and the way in which we react to beauty and truth is a mixture of the universal and the personal.

When we look at computer science and technology, different people will see different things. I see computer science as being deeply spiritual and having tremendous spiritual potential. Like anything in the spiritual realm, there is also a dark side to consider, dangers that lurk beneath the surface if the imperatives of the soul are not attended to. In this final section of this essay I would like to touch upon the spirituality implicit in computer science and technology. This is an important aspect of the soul of computer science. Although some readers may be predisposed to believe that technology has nothing to do with spirituality, indeed, the opposite is the case. Not only is computer science deeply spiritual, it bears the potential to provide the human race with an entirely new and powerful spiritual language. We should not underestimate the power of language and symbolism. After all, it was precisely by means of language and symbolism that we were able to create the modern world, with the wonders of science, medicine, engineering, and technology. When we find an appropriate language to discuss a domain, we gain some degree of control over that domain.

In this section I would like to explain why I see computer technology as being deeply spiritual. Then, I will briefly touch upon the dark side of computing. Finally, I will explain the possibility that the language of computer technology can be used to reveal spiritual truths and to concretize traditional spiritual teachings.

Let us return to Moore briefly for some inspiration. In his chapter on the soul and work Moore states, "Several years ago I gave a lecture on the medieval idea that the world is a book to be read. Monks used the phrase liber mundi, the ‘book of the world,’ to describe a spiritual kind of literacy." (Page 178) Reading the ‘book of the world’ is certainly not a Christian idea limited to the Middle Ages. I have encountered this concept in every spiritual tradition that I have studied, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. This is a fundamental assumption of the spiritual life. The world is a book that needs interpretation. That interpretation is poetry and myth, but myth in the most truthful sense. We read the world as a book partly for the sheer joy of reading, because reading is a creative art. Reading involves the imagination, and as Einstein observed, "imagination is greater than knowledge." We also read the world as a book in order to learn and to grow. Living in this way is truly beautiful, because it means that life is a continuous unfolding of meaning, mystery, profound teachings, and awesome beauty.

When Hans Moravec dismisses religion as a bunch of stories, he is perhaps telling us that he does not view the world in these poetic terms. The stories of a religious tradition are, after all, meant for children. The purpose of all of these stories is to teach us how to read the world as a book when we become adults. We also pick up the peculiar "read on things" that is carried by a particular tradition or culture. An observant Jewish boy with side curls who lives in Jerusalem will read the world differently from a young man in Kenya who is being initiated as a Warrior according to the traditions of his Samburu tribe. Contact with these stories allows us to interpret our adult lives in poetic and mythical terms as they unfold. First, we learn how to read and enjoy the stories, whether they came from the Bible or the Qu’ran or the Gita or the oral tradition of our tribe. Then, we learn how to interpret and wrestle with them. Finally, we learn to see that our life has all of the depth, mystery, and beauty of sacred scripture.

I feel sorry for someone who cannot touch life in these terms. If computer technology is controlled solely by people who cannot think in poetic and mythical terms, then the result will be truly horrendous for the human race. However, I am quite confident that history will not unfold in that manner. We are learning, as Moore documents, that human beings need art, spirituality, beauty, community, and myth. Recently, there was a report in the media (including the New York Times) to the effect that researchers have found that no anti-depressant drug has been proven to be as effective for treating depression as spirituality, the kind of soulful life that Moore describes.

Here are some comments from Moore on the soul’s need for spirituality:

"In the modern world we tend to separate psychology from religion. We like to think that emotional problems have to do with the family, childhood, and trauma – with personal life but not with spirituality. We don’t diagnose an emotional seizure as ‘loss of religious sensibility’ or ‘lack of spiritual awareness.’ Yet it is obvious that the soul, seat of the deepest emotions, can benefit greatly from the gifts of a vivid spiritual life and can suffer when it is deprived of them. The soul, for example, needs an articulated worldview, a carefully worked out scheme of values, and a sense of relatedness to the whole. It needs a myth of immortality and an attitude towards death. ...

"Spirituality doesn’t arrive fully formed without effort. Religions around the world demonstrate that spiritual life requires constant attention and a subtle, often beautiful technology by which spiritual principles and understandings are kept alive." (Pages 203-4)

Moore then goes on to discuss the ailment that he calls "psychological modernism". He would like to include this ailment in his own personal list of modern ailments:

"For example, I would want to include the diagnosis ‘psychological modernism,’ an uncritical acceptance of the values of the modern world. It includes a blind faith in technology, inordinate attachment to material gadgets and conveniences, uncritical acceptance of the march of scientific progress, devotion to the electronic media, and a life-style dictated by advertising. This orientation toward life also tends toward a mechanistic and rationalistic understanding of matters of the heart." (Page 206)

Let us now attempt to present a spiritual interpretation of the ‘book of the modern world,’ which contains many chapters on computers and their implications. First, we will give an optimistic reading of the ‘book’ and then a less optimistic reading. I am less interested in presenting a dogmatic position. I am more interested in stimulating the reader’s own attempts to read the ‘book of the technological world’ in his or her own way. From this collective effort, perhaps we will arrive at a truthful understanding of what computer technology means.

The meaning of technology, or more precisely, the spiritual meaning of technology, is the soul work that computer technology represents in the collective, on a planetary scale. This leads to an optimistic interpretation of computer technology, the interpretation that I find most compelling. If there is a cure for Moore’s ailment, "psychological modernism," it does not lie in abandoning technology. It lies in a soulful understanding of that technology, and the use of that technology to serve soulful purposes.

In the previous section we discussed the symbolic meaning of work in computer science as soul work. Now, let us view this in the aggregate. Instead of looking at one stereotypical software project, we consider all software and hardware projects in their fantastic variety. We see people working on data warehouses, on new technologies for connectivity. We see people working on web sites, on developing new security measures, developing new infrastructures and methodologies for global communications. We see people working on standards, on templates, on new and powerful protocols for representing and sharing data. We see millions of people involved in the construction of the new infrastructure for storing and sharing information. We know that this revolutionary development will have tremendous implications for society, but how do we interpret this as soul work? Or, stated differently, how does one read this contemporary chapter in the ‘book of the world’?

We are no longer discussing the soul work of an individual, but of the collective. We are discussing the soul work of the human race as one soul. We are discussing the evolution of human culture and consciousness. Viewed in this way, the development of computer technology seems extraordinarily exciting and exhilarating. We are seeing the outer manifestation of extraordinary developments in the human psyche at the planetary level. Computer technology is an outward manifestation of a revolutionary change in human consciousness, an indication of something that is going on behind the scenes. The characteristics of this change are connectivity, unity, explosive learning and curiosity, explosive creativity and joy. As we create our web of global connectivity and interdependency, we are evolving into a deeper understanding of the inner realities of unity, connectedness, and interdependence. This is how I would read the book of the modern world.

Therefore, when we look upon the canvas of computer technology, we see reflected back to us profound truths about the evolution of human culture and the unfolding of human destiny. These profound truths include the unity of being and the truth that all lives are intrinsically interwoven within the fabric of life. These profound truths are a fundamental aspect of the soul of computer science.

I assert that these profound truths are not incidental side effects of computer technology. They are the primal cause of that technology. The technology is an expression of fundamental truths, and thus reflects fundamental truths back to us. The manifest world reflects the truth. It does not create it.

This interpretation of the soul of computer science has a Platonic flavor to it, just as many mathematicians interpret the soul of mathematics in Platonic terms. Computer technology reflects truth back to us, truth of the very highest order. Not only does that technology reflect truth back to us, it allows us to participate in that truth, to be truth workers.

I would like to expand upon the idea that primordial truth is the cause of technology and that technology only reflects back to us what has always been implicit in the very structure of reality. One implication of this assertion is that we can use technology to reveal profound truths about primordial reality, just as we can use art, literature, or poetry to reveal fundamental truths. Technology is not just about itself. Technology is not just an arbitrary human artifact. It is much deeper than artifact. Technology has the potential to greatly alter human reality because technology is a profound expression of the unlimited intelligence and creative power that lies at the heart of human being.

There is a profound difference between the worldview of the materialist fundamentalist and a person who is rooted in spiritual traditions. To the materialist fundamentalist, intelligence first appeared on this planet in the form of human beings. According to this scenario, human beings are now creating new forms of intelligence, something we call artificial intelligence.

The spiritual view of things is quite different. The spiritual view of things is that unlimited intelligence is the very ground of being. Thus, unlimited intelligence existed before human beings happened upon the scene. Unlimited intelligence is not just intelligence in the usual human sense. It goes far beyond thought and form. Unlimited intelligence is ultimately the creative power that creates form, that is, creates the realms of space and time. Human intelligence is a manifestation of that primordial intelligence. The mystic would say that the primordial intelligence created human intelligence in order to reveal itself to itself. This would seem to be the foremost passion of primordial intelligence, to express its unlimited nature. Artificial intelligence, rather than being the creation of human beings, is ultimately the creation of that primordial intelligence. It just appears that artificial intelligence is emerging from us. Indeed, we are the instruments of its emergence. It would be accurate to say that artificial intelligence is using us to manifest itself, just as the Piano Concerto Number 21, K. 467, used Mozart to manifest itself. From this perspective, computer technology was implicit in the ground of being right from the start.

Artificial intelligence is a misnomer. There is nothing artificial about it. The exciting new technologies that will emerge in the twenty-first century, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing and a host of other technologies we cannot possibly imagine at this stage, have always been potentialities within the original ground of being. Consequently, we cannot predict limits on artificial intelligence and computer technology, because there are no limits. Likewise, we cannot presume to know the limits of human intelligence, because the unlimited intelligence that is expressing itself through us always has some new tricks up its sleeves.

This brings us to another aspect of the soul of computer science. This is the idea that computer science fundamentally has to do with intelligence. Just as a work of art may reveal something to us, and that is the soul of that work of art, so computer science will teach us tremendous things about the nature of intelligence, the primordial reality. Since unlimited intelligence (and creative power) is the very ground of being, this means that computer science will teach us things about the nature of reality that other sciences will not be able to approximate. I do not believe that any other science or field of human endeavor will have as much to say about the ultimate nature of things as our own discipline. Artificial intelligence will open the door to a profound understanding of unlimited intelligence, which it turns out, is the root nature of human being.

All forms of intelligence that we create and all forms of intelligence that our creations create (Moravec calls these our "mind children") will be expressions of the unlimited intelligence that has been the ground of being right from the start. Nothing new has been created, because all manifestations of intelligence are merely expressions of unlimited intelligence. What has changed is that something that was hidden has been made manifest. This is the essence of all spiritual work and creativity. Unlimited intelligence is concretizing itself so that it can study itself and delight in itself.

Work in artificial intelligence has its own soulfulness. Let us explore that briefly. Imagine someone who is working in the AI lab trying to create a new form of intelligence. What is the soul work that this research represents? What is this researcher reflecting back to us? Actually, there are quite a few possibilities here. One interpretation might be that each of us should be working on developing new forms of intelligence, transcending the limitations of our own consciousness. Our consciousness, after all, is the result of many influences, including family, culture, and history. We need to work on developing new forms of intelligence within ourselves. This is not just a matter of developing new knowledge and new skills. It implies new modes of being that are potentialities within the human being, but which take discipline and effort to develop, the kind of discipline and effort that one might find in an earnest researcher in an AI lab. So, the symbolic meaning of artificial intelligence might involve the soul work of breaking out of what some spiritual traditions call the "cocoon", which is the self-created prison that we spin with our habitual thoughts and destructive beliefs.

I would like to say a few things about the dark side of computer technology. When we see work in computer technology as soul work, it is difficult to see the dark side. The soul work view of things is decidedly optimistic in tone. However, there are practical concerns in computer technology that need to be addressed. These concerns are the subject matter of what we call the social implications of computing. These concerns relate to issues such as privacy, intellectual property, hacking, viruses, computer crime, computer terrorism, and the effect of computer use on the individual person. These issues are all important.

If we as a culture deny the imperatives of the soul, then we will pay the price. The repressed forces will surface as dark manifestations of alienation, violence and hate. If we as a culture lose touch with the soul and its imperatives, then we might end up as slaves to an impersonal technology. I do not see that as the likely outcome. However, en route to a positive outcome, we might experience some "shadow" effects, where the repressed life force manifests in some horrific displays of violence and anger. Whatever manifests, it will be a lesson for the soul to digest.

Almost any computer crime can be interpreted as a lesson for the soul, as reflecting back some effect of the repression of the soul’s quest for happiness and fulfillment. For example, suppose we read in the newspaper that a computer criminal is stealing identities over the Internet. We might wonder what kind of sickness of soul might motivate someone to steal from people in this manner - actually stealing their identities. We want to throw this low life in prison, where he rightfully belongs. However, it is also important to see the truth that the identity thief reflects back to us. Has anyone or anything stolen our identity? Or, have we assumed the identity of a persona that is not ours, but the artificial creation of our family or of our culture? Have we taken on an identity that is not our own because we are afraid to be our authentic selves? That common criminal, who we might view with condescension and contempt, turns out to be an eloquent and gifted teacher.

Finally, I would like to discuss what may be one of the greatest impacts of computer technology upon human consciousness, and this has to do with language. One of my favorite books is The Axemaker’s Gift by Burke and Ornstein [16]. This book describes the double-edged sword of technological innovation, beginning with the axe. At several critical stages in human history, new linguistic tools were unleashed, and these had a tremendous impact upon the development of human consciousness. For example, the development of the phonetic alphabet enabled the development of Greek philosophy. The language and terminology of science allowed us to "cut and control" our environment. Burke and Ornstein stress that this is usually a double-edged sword, with both positive and negative consequences. Language is a tool for the manipulation of reality. The reality being manipulated is the reality that the language refers to.

Computer technology bears the potential to provide us with a powerful new terminology for apprehending and manipulating the spiritual world. At the grossest level, we are talking about the kind of soul work that we discussed earlier in this essay. We can use the language of software development, for example, as a mirror of our own psychological processes. Just as we might strive for process improvement in the physical plane, we might strive for process improvement in the realm of the soul and the psyche. This is a simple example of how the language of computer technology can yield greater precision in our understanding of our inner worlds.

However, this is just the most obvious example. The developing language of computer technology is pregnant with spiritual possibilities. Take virtual reality, for example. For millennia spiritual teachers have been trying to communicate the idea that this physical realm is somehow illusory and that there is something called the Real, which is unchanging and in some sense orthogonal to this world of impermanence and change. The concept of virtual reality makes the distinction between the Real and the Illusory quite easy to communicate. The idea of virtual reality helps us to ask questions about and to discuss the very nature of reality.

Traditional spiritual teachings are many hundreds of years old, and sometimes thousands of years old. These teachings are attempts to describe the nature of reality and of the human being. In order to discuss these subtle and ethereal realms, a special language was developed, the language of angels and archangels, of demons and spirits, of devas, avatars, and gods of various kinds. In fact, each culture and tradition developed its own mythological language. This mythological language was not developed to describe some fantastic and irrelevant realm beyond the human reality, but to describe what it means to be a human being, what the actual nature of the human being is and was. This mythological language was not only devoted to describing the human reality. It was intended to provide a technology (using the modern term) for perfecting the human being, for becoming a Warrior or a Saint or a Perfect Man or a Buddha.

Let us consider the traditional concept of an angel. When I think of angels, I think of a remarkable passage in Rodger Kamenetz’s book Jew in the Lotus [17]. This book describes a journey by a group of rabbis to Dharmasala, India. The purpose of this journey is to meet with the Dalai Lama. The rabbis are somewhat surprised that their own mystical language, the language of the Kaballah, is quite isomorphic with the language of Buddhism. After all, Judaism is usually thought of as the original monotheistic religion and Buddhism does not seem to be too interested in the Hebraic notion of God. One particular rabbi (Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, who was a member of the Department of Religion at Temple University before his retirement) and the Dalai Lama have an interesting discussion about angels. They come to an agreement concerning how this historic meeting of two ancient cultures came about. The angel that oversees the Jewish people and the angel that oversees the Tibetan people had obviously cooperated to bring about this exchange of ideas, hopes, and dreams.

What is an angel? The rabbi and the Dalai Lama were using the ancient language of their traditions to describe what we would call an intelligence. Thus, according to this view of how the universe operates, there is an intelligence that has guided the evolution of the Jewish people and there is an intelligence that has guided the evolution of the Tibetan people. These intelligences operate beyond the realm of space and time and their activities manifest in space and time.

Many technological developments in the twenty-first century might allow us to discuss these forms of intelligence, what ancient cultures called angels, with more precision and in a manner that is more accessible to the modern mind. Computer science may provide us with a new language for discussing intelligence in the universe in all of its manifestations, always with the understanding that the ultimate reality is unlimited intelligence. In some sense, while thrilling, the concept of unlimited intelligence is somehow uninformative beyond a certain point. Moore might say that it is too monotheistic a concept. We need to investigate the specific expressions of unlimited intelligence, and this requires a specialized language, which differentiates between one form of intelligence and another. We need a language to describe the various forms of intelligence that are at play in the universe. This is what a mystical system, like the Kaballah, does for a monotheistic religion, like Judaism.

Computer science might eventually allow us to gain a more precise idea of why things are the way they are, and why particular things happen, and how we as sentient beings can control our own destinies with greater precision, thus achieving greater happiness and joy. Computer science might provide us with a language that will enable us to see things that we have never known. If we develop an appropriate language, then we can gain much more control over our inner world, and thus, over the evolution of human consciousness.

There are many interesting books available that speculate about the meaning of artificial intelligence, mostly from a materialist fundamentalist point of view. These include Moravec [8], Kurzweil [18], Kaku [19], and Dyson [20]. These books make it seem quite plausible that it will be computer science, and not physics, that will provide the language for understanding intelligence in the universe and for understanding our own human natures as expressions of unlimited intelligence. This liberating potential of our discipline is an important aspect of the soul of computer science. Realizing this can greatly enhance our appreciation for our subject, and can inspire many truly creative individuals and students to consider this work as an important part of their life’s spiritual journey.

 

Conclusion

This essay has attempted to introduce the idea that computer science has soul. The author believes that it is inevitable that the language that is employed in this essay will become central to the understanding of computer science in our culture in the twenty-first century. Even if some computer scientists do not feel comfortable with the language of soul, it is the language of the vast majority of people in our culture. Because the language of soul creates a beautiful and meaningful life, it is far superior to the language of materialist fundamentalism. If we insist that computer science is inherently soulless and if we try to force a soulless computer technology upon our culture, the consequences will not be good either for society or for our discipline. Hopefully this essay has convinced most readers that computer science has lots of soul, and because of this, much creative energy and enthusiasm can be directed towards the development of new technologies without those technologies harming or destroying the glory of being a human being. Indeed, our work in computer science can help us to discover how great we truly are.

 

 

References

1. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1992, 312 pp.

2. James Hillman, A Blue Fire, Harper Perennial, New York, 1989, 323 pp.

3. David Gelernter, Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology, BasicBooks, New York, 1998, 166 pp.

4. Dianne Martin et al., "Implementing a tenth strand in the computer science curriculum", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 39, No. 12, p. 75-84, December 1996.

5. Gary Chapman, "Tech Workers Are in Demand, but Field Has Dark Side", Los Angeles Times, Business Section, May 10, 1999.

6. Computerworld’s workplace surveys are kept in the following repository:
http://www.computerworld.com/res/careers/surv_index.html

7. Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, 227 pp.

8. Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, Grove Press, New York, 1996, 376 pp.

9. Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence, Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1997, 216 pp.

10. Richard G. Epstein, "The Wheel", Computers and Society, p. 8-13, June 1997.

11. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Touchstone, New York, 1995, 347 pp.

12. John Brockman, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite, Hardwired, San Francisco, 1996, 354 pp.

13. Lewis Richmond, Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job, Broadway Books, New York, 1999, 258 pp. (Also listed as F, below.)

14. Abraham Twerski, Lights Along the Way, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, New York, 1995, 328 pp.

15. Watts Humphrey, Introduction to Personal Software Process, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1996, 336 pp.

16. James Burke and Robert Ornstein, The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture, Tarcher / Putnam Books, New York, 1995, 348 pp.

17. Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus, Harper, San Francisco, 1995, 320 pp.

18. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Viking Penguin, New York, 1999, 388 pp.

19. Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Anchor Books, New York, 1997, 403 pp.

20. George B. Dyson, Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1997, 286 pp.

 

Some Books that Discuss Soulful Approaches to Work

The following references discuss workplace issues in terms of their soulfulness.

A. Mark Bryan, Julia Cameron, and Catherine Allen, The Artist’s Way at Work: Riding the Dragon, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1998, 280 pp.

B. Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1994, 342 pp.

C. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bantam Books, New York, 1995, 352 pp.

D. Joseph Jaworski, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1996, 211 pp.

E. Joel Levey and Michelle Levey, Living in Balance: A Dynamic Approach for Creating Harmony and Wholeness in a Chaotic World, Conari Press, Berkeley, CA, 1998, 333 pp.

F. Lewis Richmond, Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job, Broadway Books, New York, 1999, 258 pp.

G. Jeffrey Salkin, Being God’s Partner: How to Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Your Work, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1994, 181 pp.

H. Work and the Life of the Spirit, Douglas Thorpe, editor, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1998, 305 pp.

I. Justine Willis Toms and Michael Toms, True Work: The Sacred Dimension of Earning a Living, Bell Tower, New York, 1998, 205 pp.

J. Tarthang Tulku, Skillful Means, Dharma Publishing, Berkeley, CA, 1978, 136 pp.

 

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