Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Charles Babbage and the Divine Programmer

"We take the highest and best of human faculties, and, exalting them in our imagination to an unlimited extent, endeavour to attain an imperfect conception of that Infinite Power which created every thing around us."

Charles Babbage

ccording to David Attenborough’s recent programme, ‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’, everyone was a biblical literalist until 'On The Origin of Species' was published. This is complete rubbish. Instead what one often finds in the writings of the great figures of the time is the great success of the Industrial revolution beginning to work its way into the debate over organic origins. Nature, and the origin of nature itself, was being steadily recast in the image of a progressive, industrialising, Victorian Britain. In ‘The Darwinian Revolution’, Michael Ruse writes:

'For fifty years or more before our story opened, the British had with incredible success been harnessing the forces of nature: to man’s end, they used the laws that the elements obey, getting things done by machines without direct human intervention, more rapidly and efficiently than pre-industrial man had dreamed. Moreover, this industrial progress continued right through the period we are concerned with. The 1830s and 40s, for example, were the time of the railway, immeasurably speeding travel through Britain. All this was bound to have its effect on the Victorian frame of mind...Britons conquered nature: they used it’s laws to effect things mechanically without the need of human invention. Therefore God, since he has shown his love for the British in letting them do this, must himself be able to do no less. In short, God is the supreme industrialist. If Thomas Arkwright can show his strength by making thread automatically, God can certainly make species automatically, thereby showing his strength.'

One important contributor was Charles Babbage, the mathematician, philosopher and inventor who originated the concept of the programmable computer. In 1837 Babbage produced his own unofficial addition to the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of works of natural theology which had been inspired by William Paley’s framework of a divine designer (later on they would become known as ‘the bilgewater treatises’ by their critics such as Robert Knox).

Naturally enough, since he was thinking in terms of his beloved engines, Babbage conceived of God as a man of science and a programmer, who uses natural laws to create the cosmos. Instead of ‘perpetually interfering, to alter for a time the laws he had previously ordained; thus denying to himself the highest attribute of omnipotence’, a celestial program had been devised at the time of the creation. Such details as the creation of new species and miracles were therefore ingenious subroutines called down from the heavenly library (presumably things like sin, infectious diseases and vestigial organs are bugs in the system). Babbage speculated that God had created ‘one general and comprehensive law, from which every visible form, both in the organic and inorganic world flows, as the necessary consequence of the first impression of that law upon matter’, this law would be responsible for ‘all the combinations and modifications of matter’.

He then enthusiastically quoted a letter from Herschel which said:

‘Many will doubtless think your speculations too bold, but it is as well to face the difficulty at once. For my own part, I cannot but think it is an inadequate conception of the creator, to assume it as granted that his combinations are exhausted upon any one of the theatres of their former exercise, though in this, as in all his other works, we are led, by all analogy, to suppose that he operates through a series of intermediate causes, and that in consequence the origination of fresh species, could it ever come under our cognizance, would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process’

What we therefore see in Babbage and Herschel's thought, is a move away from miracle towards the Darwinian picture of the activities of natural laws. Yet for Babbage, ‘the greater the number of consequences resulting from any law, and the more they are foreseen, the greater the knowledge and intelligence we ascribe to the being by which it was ordained’. Hence the fact that organic origins are law bound, only serves to testify to the glory of God. He was happy to agree with Herschel’s ‘Discourses’, that the actions of laws on matter provides a proof for the existence of God ‘by giving to each of these atoms the essential characters, at once, of a manufactured article and a subordinate agent’. Hence the deity acts as both manufacturer and programmer.

But what of the apparent violation of inviolable natural laws which so outrages philosophers?. Babbage’s answer was to refer to his work in calculating machines. As Ruse writes:

‘he drew an ingenious analogy from his own work in calculating machines, showing that he could set such a machine so it would exhibit the natural numbers in sequence from 1 right up to 100,000,001, at which point it would start exhibiting a different sequence, the next number of which would be 100,010,002. Now argued Babbage, God’s laws would be like this – absolutely regular and discernible for times almost without number, but having the built in ability and necessity to do unexpected anomalous things....In other words, Babbage set the argument from law right on its head, arguing that the more anomalous something seem, the more it shows the magnificence of God’s laws.'

Babbage then laid into Hume’s argument against miracles with a discourse on mathematical probabilities, remarking that the philosopher ‘appears to have been but slightly acquainted with the doctrine’

Perhaps the most poetic of Babbage’s theological observations was his idea that the Newtonian physics of action and reaction would ensure that words once spoken would never entirely be lost. Thus ‘the air is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said, or woman whispered’ and the ‘earth, air and ocean are the eternal witnesses of the acts we have done’. In a denunciation of slave traders who throw their human cargo overboard he remarks that:

‘When man and all his race shall have disappeared from the planet, ask every particle of air still floating over the un-peopled earth, and it will record the cruel mandate of the tyrant. Interrogate every wave which breaks unimpeded on ten thousand desolate shores, and it will give evidence of the gurgle of the waters which closed over the head of his dying victim : confront the murderer with ever corporeal atom of his immolated slave, and in its still quiet moments he will read the prophets denunciation of the prophet king — And Nathan said unto David- Thou art the man..

He ends by looking forward to a future state in which we might turn from contemplation on our own reflections to a discovery of nature’s laws and ‘the invention of new methods by which our faculties might be aided in that research’. It is touching to note how erudite and poetic Babbage’s observations were in comparison to the rather dismal ‘natural a-theology' we are accustomed to nowadays. It is also interesting to see how they anticipated later developments. Perhaps if we discover a theory of everything, it will be close to Babbage’s ‘one general and comprehensive law’ from which all the details of our existence progressively emerge; the difference engine of nature which creates it's own programs.

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