Does God Always Get What He Wants?

A question someone posed on Facebook today that has kind of stuck with me. The way they posed it, however, was as though it were some sort of irresolvable cosmic paradox, or perhaps a christian version of Zen philosophy’s Koan – but it seemed to me there were a couple of problems with asking such a question.

It seems intractable, because from inside contemporary Christian theology both answers are obviously wrong: if “yes” God always gets what he wants, then since we also know God loves and wants the best for his children including salvation, and yet his children do not always find salvation. This is only the most obvious contradiction within the “yes” position.

Taking the “no” position poses a near identical problem, but here we encounter problems around the structure of the “want” or the desire (and this, I think, is my point). For a truly omnipotent entity by definition obtaining anything is facile  Anything ‘wanted’ could be obtained trivially easy, with the proviso that belief in human free will complicates this picture. Most modern Christian theologians (barring calvinists, I think?), however, believe in some degree of human free will, as it is crucially essential at least in the whole effort of salvation (i.e. one must “choose” to be saved, etc – the notion of “the elect” being pre-chosen, secret knowledge known only by god is a weird complicating factor, but we’ll forget about that).

But that also leads to another incompatibility between the notion of omnipotence and unlimited availability of acquisition or the realisation of everything, all potential, and the idea of not getting what one wants. For any omnipotence, not getting what one wants must be an act of choice. And why choose not to get what one wants, particularly if this same omnipotence is the source and originator of all virtue? A “no” answer poses a problem for omnipotence itself.

But I actually think there’s a flaw in this whole train of thinking – applying the structure of “want” to an omnipotence is already an idiotic anthropomorphism. How could an omnipotence even possibly be in want? It’s a linguistic (or categorial?) mistake, more than any actual revealed insight into the nature of divinity. Likewise, our idea of omnipotence is culturally and historically informed, bearing litte-to-no meaningful relationship with anything like a divinity. One of the most intriguing and surprising parts of Meillassoux’s interview with Graham Harman was when he talked about the work of his partner, Gwenaëlle Aubry, who “[wrote] a thesis on the notion of potency in Aristotle and its transformation into omnipotence in medieval Christian theology.” (Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, p.161). Such a pity that it doesn’t seem to have been translated, I would love to read that thesis. Anyway, Meillassoux continues:

Gwenaëlle has unearthed a historical process that I already suspected in very imprecise fashion in L’Inexistence divine, but which in her work appears in all its force: Christian theology, or at least an essential portion of it, is based on the idea that it is blasphemous to say that God is good. For to say this would amount to saying that God is subordinated to an order of value that he is powerless to overturn (and above all unjustified in overturning). The essence of the Christian God, which makes him the opposite of Aristotle’s God, is the power freely to create or de-create the standards of good or evil, not being devoted to some eternal good independent of his own power. This thesis, which I am reformulating here with a brutality for which I alone am responsible, is an essential element of my own reflections on the divine. (p.161-2)

The stakes involved in this claim “God is good” for Christian theology reminds me of the intense theological battles that Reza Aslan describes taking place between the rationalists and the traditionalists in early Islam, centering on whether or not the Qur’an was “created” or “uncreated”. Since the Qu’ran is held literally to be the word of god by the traditionalists, and by implication just as coexistent, divine, unchanging as Allah, on these grounds the traditionalists instigated a fierce inquisition which persecuted the rationalists who were more open to the idea of interpretation, context and the historicity of the book. Theological questions tending to proceed (knowingly or otherwise) in reverse in an attempt to justify certain ends is something of a clear pattern, perhaps even codified in the practise of apologetics (though more understandable for it’s transparency than more covert efforts). Needless to say, I think that Meillassoux’s proposal is much more bold, and ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is also a great answer to the apparent difficulty of the “does god get what he wants” problem, since a god who does not exist (yet) clearly cannot want anything (yet).

Here’s a quick overview of that idea which Meillassoux himself gives to Harman in the same interview:

Here’s how I look at it. If I take supercontingency seriously (or super-chaos, an expression that I now prefer to hyper-chaos), then I ought to divide the possible into potentialities (which are submitted to the natural laws of our universe) and virtualities (which are not submitted to those laws). If potentialities can be probabilized, in my view virtualities cannot, by reason of the transfinite character of the number of possibles. Thus it is pointless to ask what the chances are of one virtuality arising rather than another, or to think that a par- ticular virtuality has an infinitely small chance of arising in view of the immense number of other possibilities. On the other hand, I can do two things with respect to the virtual that are able to transform my subjective relationship with the experience of this world. First of all, I can grant prominence to the most radical novelties of the past: the emergence of life understood as a set of qualitative contents by contrast with an inorganic matter that feels neither sensation nor perception; then the emergence of rational thought by contrast with a life that cannot attain the concept of the infinite or eternal truth (of the mathematical or speculative type). This having been done, I can ask what the next advent would be that is capable of just as much novelty in comparison with thought as thought compared with life, or life with matter. For if we grant that thought can attain the absolute (that is to say, contingency considered as necessary), if time is still capable of a novelty just as radical in comparison with thought as thought with life, or life with matter, this novelty can only be the emergence of egalitarian Justice for the living and the dead. (p.162-163)

As an aside: this final point is perhaps where I find a use for Meillassoux’s contingency in my own work. I’m currently thinking about what it means to think of god as a non-human with a particular agency. Of course, in realist terms I’d say I don’t believe in god (I wonder if I believe the virtual, inexistent god? Maybe I can hope at least for it, since believing in a non-existence doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, lol) but the role played by god’s supposed omnipotence (or just potency, even) in people’s lives could be an anchor or a latch for people to begin to understand and rethink the problem of non-humans. Although I guess non-human agency is more like a kind of paganism, really, in that everything gets a slice of the agency potential. The attitudes that people have, and can assume towards agency are interesting and often defined by religious beliefs and different theologies.

Links from Avatar of the Book event

I’m at the Avatar of the Book event in Sydney today, and a couple of interesting talks with some great examples that I just wanted to link to, mostly so I don’t forget. Grouped according to the speaker who mentioned it:

Mitchell Whitelaw

Just like at CODE2K12, Mitchell had some really fantastic examples, this time they were (mostly) his own.

One that wasn’t is the spam-based artwork of Alex Dragulescu. Architecture from spam, and also ‘plants’ from spam. Spam emails become spaces. V cool.

Here’s Whitelaw’s page for his projects, and here’s a piece based on ‘generous interfaces’ more about exploring or browsing through collections rather than being search/query based – Manly Images. He’s keeping a blog about ‘generous interface’ experiments here. And here’s a search/query based interface that still allows some ‘browsing’ – Trove Mosaic.

Jason Nelson

I made a lotta tweets. Mostly it was Nelson talking about his cool art experiments, and what his art/work process is, which is always interesting and valuable to me. Jason Nelsons site with all his art projects is here. I love his ‘game, game, game and again game’ which went massively viral around the place, especially in the videogame blogosphere. Another really cool thing of his is the poetry cube – very cool computer mediated poetry. Interesting spatial reconfiguration stuff.

Jason uses a Google app/product/thing that converts Flash to HMTL5, called Swiffy.

This is a strange site.

Ned mentioned a piece to me, think it was this one, I forget why exactly. I might put it aside to read later. Something about metamodelling.

The afternoon’s talk by Peter Sefton was good but his examples are harder to link to, here’s his website anyway. UWS has an eResearch position now, and Sefton is it. Huh. He seems to know his stuff too.

Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘Spectral Dilemma’

The following incredible quote is from Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘Spectral Dilemma’, which is available online here, as part of Collapse vol.IV.

Is it possible, after a twentieth century whose history was dominated by odious deaths, to live a non-morbid relation with the departed, for the most part unknown to us, and yet still too close for our lives not to be secretly gnawed away at by them? At first glance, we seem to find ourselves constrained to respond in the negative. For this essential mourning seems impossible to envisage if it is referred to the general alternative of which the relation to the departed seems to admit. This alternative can be stated, summarily, in very simple terms: either God exists, or he doesn’t. Or more generally: either a merciful spirit, transcending humanity, is at work in the world and its beyond, bringing justice for the departed; or such a transcendent principle is absent. Now, it becomes rapidly apparent that neither of these two options – let’s call them for convenience religious or atheistic, however innumerable the ways in which they can be configured – allows the requisite mourning to take place.

“Your politics are boring as fuck”

Your politics are boring as fuck‘ by Nadia C.:

The truth is, your politics are boring to them because they really are irrelevant. They know that your antiquated styles of protest—your marches, hand held signs, and gatherings—are now powerless to effect real change because they have become such a predictable part of the status quo. They know that your post-Marxist jargon is off-putting because it really is a language of mere academic dispute, not a weapon capable of undermining systems of control. They know that your infighting, your splinter groups and endless quarrels over ephemeral theories can never effect any real change in the world they experience from day to day. They know that no matter who is in office, what laws are on the books, what “ism”s the intellectuals march under, the content of their lives will remain the same. They—we—know that our boredom is proof that these “politics” are not the key to any real transformation of life. For our lives are boring enough already!

 Something something videogames something something AltLit something something #nodads something something something alcohol something something fuck it.

Diablo 3’s missed opportunity

You know how the story of Diablo 3 just doesn’t make any sense? And you know how Deckard Cain is kind of like the unofficial “hero” of the story, even though he gets killed off in the first act (OOPS SPOILERS)? He does all that research on weird esoteric stuff, and he knows all the batshit-crazy lore about which devil fought which angel and when, and then all he managed to do is tell it all to you as a disembodied voice over… I mean, the guy basically knows everything. According to this reading, Diablo 3 is an expression of the tortured mind of Deckard Cain and his attempts to stave off dementia and senility.

Read this way his own “death” in Act 1 becomes a transcendent event that, far from being a fearful one (Deckard is suppressing the reality of his condition by retreating into his deteriorating mind – that’s why the story keeps getting worse as it goes along!), is actually his imaginary escape from the limitations of his own body, into the safe realms of disembodied knowledge.

Small wonder then that the hero/player-character is such an insufferably confident egomaniac: “guided by prophecy” is just the convenient excuse to express the innermost desires of Deckard’s repressed Ego (scholars are always repressed). It’s also a fantastically simple explanation for why every character repeats the same story four times! The repetition reveals Cain’s desperate attempts to hold onto his failing memory, as he goes over and over his knowledge again and again, returning to rote learning exercises in a tragic, yet futile gesture. No wonder it’s so grindy.

This “story” would only ever end, if – or rather, when – the player forgets to ever return to Diablo 3 and never plays again, thus completing Cain’s slide into mental oblivion.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Diablo 3 actually supported this interpretation? Now that would be a story.

When a glitch inspires culture

This story of Microsoft Office programs’ mangling the ‘smiley face’ emoticon in emails is excellent. For some reason related to the horrible Wingdings font (yet another crime) Office programs often end up replacing smileys with a ‘J’:

I recall a story (possibly apocryphal) of somebody who regularly exchanged a lot of e-mail with Microsoft employees and who as a result started signing their own messages with a J, figuring this was some sort of Microsoft slang. The Microsoft employees who got the J-messages scratched their heads until they were able to figure out how their correspondent arrived at this fabulous deduction.

The full post has more explanation, but the idea of a glitch or a non-human computer activity infecting human culture with ‘wrong’ or ‘fabulously deduced’ cultural activity seems like a lot of fun to me. I’m struggling to come up with a similar example of a technical error being mistaken for a cultural peccadillo – obviously all technological features in the broadest sense (“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”) can inform or even determine human behaviour, but we often infuse our explanations with the caveat that someone, somewhere intended something about the feature even if the actual results are less than perfectly predicted.

But there’s something about the origin of this glitch that sets it apart – there never was an intent behind the glitch-intoduced ‘J’. It’s not even the result of a well meaning typo missed in QA, nor is it likely the result of mental confusion, poor planning or oversight.  The glitch happened when software talked to other software and got confused.

We can deal with culture as coming form other people, and we’re getting better at dealing with it as it arises from the technologies we engage with, but even when talking about technology there is always the knowledge at the back of our mind that someone made this. In the case of our strange J-glitch, no one made it.

But perhaps we might say it “emerged” from the unforeseen interactions of systems (“You should have anticipated this, Jeff.”) but I like the idea of emergence less and less as I’ve read about theories of it. It’s too much of a kludge for me – a half-way-house between the human-oriented world of intentions and (yep) the object-oriented. The archaeology of intention and the uncovering of human plans and designs twice-and-thrice removed begins to feel extremely tired.

I didn’t mean to make this a blog post about object-oriented otology, honest!


Data scrobbling and identity/mystery

Back in about 08 or 09 I joined and at the time music scrobbling very much appealed to me. The idea that an algorithm could take my data, crunch it, then tell me something about myself that I couldn’t see; in the vague hope that something would emerge from the Big Data and the algorithm.

At some point I gave up on the not insignificant commitment to perfect scrobbling – catching everything I listened to. About the same time I gave up on the idea of data crunching algorithms telling me anything about myself worth knowing.

Zadie Smith:

“I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery…”

Sometime between then and now that idea – being a mystery, even to myself (I certainly don’t know precisely who I am) really took hold.

There’s a great line in an episode of Mad Men where Don Draper tells his daughter Sally, who is going through a period of older sibling anxiety over her brother Eugene:

“He’s only a baby, and we don’ t know who he is yet, or who he’s going to be.”

In that sense, we are all babies – always babies.