Friday, November 4, 2016

On Rereading Burnbridge: A Reflection After Napping

“In a society increasingly constructed on the power of the computer, one would be well advised to hold fast the thought that the idea of God is the master algorithm.” ~ A. Burnbridge, Particle and Wave: A Navigational Guide to the Practical Transit of Light. 

I have, over the course of many years, spent considerable hours reflecting on the multitude of things conveyed to me by my revered mentor, an exercise of some difficulty given his writing style and teaching methodology. As a writer, Burnbridge is most often characterized --- many would say justifiably so --- as irrational, illogical, turgid, inchoate, fragmentary, fundamentally formless. In his retrospective overview of Burnbridge’s magnum opus, (re)Evolutionary Biotics, Philip Anthony Macklinmore, writing in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, says: “On the whole, the four volumes of this admittedly massive undertaking must be considered as a sort of tautological conundrum, a mash-up of thoughts each wrenched from its context in its home world of theology, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, literature, and science and arrayed across the four volumes as though on some infinitely multi-dimensional chessboard, free from the tyrannies of both time and space, a mental universe essentially and entirely self-referential resonant nonetheless beyond the boundaries of its tight closure, a bass line to a fugal music of the spheres. Largely unreadable in any ordinary sense of the word, it can only be experienced and allowed to gestate.”
His pedagogic style was no less idiosyncratic. He took on few students, perhaps no more than three dozen over the entire course of his career, and chose these by criteria incomprehensible to any but himself. One did not apply to be Burnbridge’s pupil, one was invited out of the blue. Nor did there appear to be any prerequisite for his tutelage. One was simply beckoned out of his own world and plunged, consciousness first, into Burnbridge’s. In his teaching as in his writing, he labored (if indeed for him it was a labor) not so much to impart knowledge as to produce an effect. He held no formal classes, conversed but did not lecture, suggested readings but did not guide them, and stressed above all else silently patient and reflective observation of the reality in which one found oneself submerged. “I am not a teacher,” he once said. “I am simply a vocabulary, a means whereby one day to speak.”
I note these few disjunct facts in hopes of giving some context, however vaporous, to what follows. I have been rereading Particle and Wave for several years now, rereading it in the only way possible to read Burnbridge, without hope of comprehension and driven simply by the recurrent desire to be intimately in his presence, rather as one stands before a fine painting or an ancient tree or an oceanside sunset. The quote at the head of this musing is one of many that has stuck with me throughout that endeavor. As with much of Burnbridge’s thought, it has seemed to me at one and the same time unintelligible and fecund with import. In particular, it has been what at first seems merely a minor detail of emphasis, that grace note of italization --- “the idea of God” --- that has confounded my understanding and troubled my imagination.
In reading him, I never lose sight of the fact that Burnbridge was a Jesuit, a profoundly religious person though never ostentatiously so, a thinker not an evangelizer, and it is that primal fact about him that oscillates through the whole of my reflection on this thought of his, a sine wave of vexing perplexity. Would it not have been more theologically conventional, more crisply metaphorical if a bit more mundane, to assert simply that “God is the master algorithm?” And what to make of the faintly threatening admonition “one would be well advised?”
Silently patient and reflective observation of the reality in which one finds oneself submerged. As I do often these days, I have been napping sunk in the plush brown recliner in the converted upstairs bedroom that serves as my study, drifting through the gauzy dreams induced by the dappled sunlight on my shuttered eyelids, the luminous rhythm of a crisply fall day’s brilliance conducted through the window by the gentle swaying of the maple on the treelawn beyond, until the sound of my wife’s vacuuming the hallway carpet nudges me back to the world. Returning from such a midday sleep --- itself a minor violation of the normal order of the day, a privilege of the very young and of the aging --- has always seemed to me a sort of fleeting rebirth, an instantaneous transit part improbable memory, part fragile fantasy across a dim and shifting boundary separating a distant unthought elsewhere from an insistent here and now. Were it not for the fragments of a personal past (or pasts) dragged along in the wake of the transition like scattered bits of flotsam pulled behind a speedboat, there would be no more to the change of state than the simple flipping of a switch, sudden and certain.
Today these images are of a distant youth, glimpses of my earliest education floating leaf like through my awakening consciousness as though gently fallen from the height of some great tree grown tall beyond the limits of my seeing, the catechism of my childhood rife with wonder and with terror, the germinal ideas of God planted in the furrows of my fertile reason and imagination, the notion of a reality omnipresent, all knowing, all seeing, all powerful. The thoughts that sprouted from these primal revelations --- all very early education is accepted by the nascent mind as revelation --- were not as wholly comforting as I am certain they were intended. Indeed, to my infant soul there was something about them vaguely unsettling, disquieting, an insistent drone of something faintly sinister, faintly threatening, just beneath the possibility of perception. Omnipresent, as in inescapably everywhere; all knowing, as in the repository of all possible knowledge; all seeing, as in ever and immediately conscious of every constituent datum of individual existence, mine and all others; all powerful, as in mediating all that makes human existence possible, and thus by reason or caprice the font both of reward and of catastrophe.
As I grew, the conclusions my imagination spun successively from such considerations, a complex web of consequentiality and obligation ever more extensive, ever weightier, seemed to me too immovable an impediment to the burgeoning liberty I so thirsted after, the unfettered freedom that was the promise of the world into which I was born. Offering no opposition to the swelling currents of that world --- increasingly rationalist, increasingly atheist --- I settled into a placid agnosticism and called it maturity.
Agnosticism is a species of skepticism, and the most certain fruit of skepticism is irony: this is the intuition that brings my reflection back to Burnbridge. Staring at the screen on which I type these words, I am suddenly, oppressively, conscious of the computer that makes it possible, of its wonder and its ubiquity. The highest achievement and chief instrument of our technological genius, it has quietly assumed the central role as prime architect of the reality in which we find ourselves. Increasingly inescapably everywhere, it is if not yet actually then certainly potentially the repository of all human knowledge, needing only the inexorable expansion of its capacity and the continuing transference of all of humankind’s memories. Deployed in the service of our security, extended by the smartphones in our hands even to the most trivial affairs of daily life, its eyes seem everywhere. It catalogues our thoughts, our desires, our votes, our preferences, the simplest facts of our birth and our aging and our dying, and of this catalogue constructs for each of us a collation of data points it then interprets as our selves. It controls the energies that make our lives comfortably livable and the weaponry that makes our destruction conceivable. 
“…the idea of God is the master algorithm.” Omnipresent, all knowing, all seeing, all powerful. No, the irony is not lost on me. It is as though, having dismissed the fact of God, we have constructed, out of some deep unconscious imperative essential to our nature, a working model of the mind of God and in doing so have confirmed Voltaire’s observation that “if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” I only wonder if we have somehow managed to include among those attributes we have unconsciously modeled the comprehensive beneficence of the divine love…and therein, I think, lies the import of Burnbridge’s disquieting “one would be well advised.”