Creationism in Code
(Written March 2015)
In front of the Mormon Missionary Training Center in the mountaintop urban sprawl of Provo, Utah, there is a man. He has a gray beard. When a person wants to associate himself with Jesus the first thing he does is grow a beard. Beards are also associated with first-century men in general, but of course, Jesus is the preeminent surviving icon of the group and he gets to keep the beard. The man also has a fishing hat. Probably because Jesus is associated with good luck in fishing.
The man carries a one-half size American flag to remind everyone of his freedom of speech and a one-quarter-size white cross to remind everyone that he is a Jesus associate (in case the beard and fishing hat didn’t do the trick).
He is screaming: “All missionaries and teachers are disgusting to Almighty God. You are sickening.” The combination of screaming, cross, flag, hat, and beard serve to remind everyone that he is insane. I want to look inside his head. I want to find out what makes a man so committed to a cause, so alienated from the community, that he can walk back and forth for hours, screaming himself hoarse, not for a second worried that someone respectable will see him. There are a few of us departing the Center — we are paid employees — and he makes us smile because we were once missionaries and we were screamed at so often that it became a point of nostalgia. But I am not a missionary now, or a teacher, so I suppose I am not disgusting to Almighty God. I am a computer programmer.
When I say the man is “insane,” I do not mean it as an insult. I have a large number of insulting statements to make about the man but I will keep them to myself. Right now I mean “insane” in the literal sense. There are certain things that sane people cannot do; the moment a person gains insanity, he usually starts in on those things right away. I think that the things include shooting people, robbing convenience stores, getting a divorce in order to “find yourself,” moving into a bomb shelter, and, of course, screaming about hell on a public sidewalk.
As I said, I want to find out what makes this man tick. I want to play games with his existentialism: I have so many questions. For example, if I could cut away the world from around him, leaving him suddenly in an uninhabited void, would he continue to walk back and forth and scream? Or would the shock induce humanity in him — would he blink, tremble, rub his eyes, give a feeble “hello?”
I will not continue to call him “the man” because I don’t want to overlay his crucifying complexity with a stack of all-too-diagnosable connotations. I will call him Ron. I feel a gnawing desire to humiliate him, to serve him an unexpected bucket of ice water or a few broken eggs from the back of a moving pickup truck. This isn’t for the sake of retaliation, although it would be satisfying in that way. It’s about forcing him to do something sane: to gasp, to jump, to be angry for a reason I understand. It would humanize him the same way giving him a name like Ron does. I will refrain, though, lest passersby assault me with didactic like “that won’t make it any better” and “you’re stooping to his level.” Yes, I am stooping to his level, which is wrong because this is a competition. In other words, standing in front of a major religious institution and screaming insults is not straightforward as it seems. In other words, Ron has proposed a contest of Christianity, and if we react to his attack then we will be less Christian than him and we will lose. And if there’s anything Christians hate, it’s losing.
It may be our association with Jesus that makes us want to win so much. One of the main qualities of Jesus is how hard it is to keep him down. The first time you try to kill him, he departs through the crowd unnoticed even though everyone is looking for him. The second time you try to kill him he senses you coming and leaves the city before sunup. The third time you kill him as dead as you possibly can and he’s back later that week. The more followers you assassinate, the more materialize around you. You realize the effort is futile and retreat into your keeling religion, always a little unsure if he was the Messiah or not.
The Missionary Training Center houses young Jesus associates for a few weeks, preparing them for twelve-hour workdays teaching strangers to worship. Their tutors in this art are students not much older than them — students who pass one way and then the other through the lightly-guarded gates at the entrance to the Center, wearing a gentle solemnity, thinking about their responsibility to say memorable things to missionaries whose thoughts are elsewhere.
I am not one of them. I go from my car to a little room full of computers and I teach computers to teach missionaries to speak Spanish, Tagalog, Japanese. I am a programmer.
My profession presents the following as indisputable: the universe can be organized.
Take the ordinary tree branch as an example. Every branch is part of a tree. As a programmer, I’d say that the branch HAS_A tree. But there is a stronger relationship here, even a poetic one: the branch IS_A tree. You thought there was a difference. The symbolic processing mechanism of your brain was making a mistake. Every branch is the tree, contains the entire genetic code of the tree, has within itself the genre-crossing possibility to be recognized as the tree if nurtured correctly. The branch is not isolated. We cannot access it by itself because it is a property of the tree. Programmers say it is tree-dot-branch and we pronounce the dot aloud because it represents an inherent two-way relationship that cannot be stripped from either member.
Of course, our conceptual tree and branch are types, meaning that they have an infinite number of theoretical implementations. Thomas R. Taylor, a nineteenth-century minister, battled this concept briefly as he wrote the hymn “God is Love”. His hymn begins, “Earth with her ten thousand flow’rs.” I once retrieved my smartphone during the singing of this hymn to ask the Internets That Be how many flowers there actually are. The consensus was 400,000 species — species, not individual flowers. Undoubtedly there are billions of the latter. I poked my wife to show her this fact, then traced with my finger the offending line of the hymn, and we giggled aloud during the most sacred meeting in the Church. Trees are somewhat less various than flowers; there are only 23,000 species. Still, they are many. Catalog all the species you please: trees are trees and flowers are flowers and both are plants, and plants and animals and bacteria are life and life is a stroke in the slow wall-to-wall sketch of the universe with its everlasting deliberate concentric movements. Universe-dot-life-dot-plant-dot-tree-dot-branch, and if you attempt to add enough dots and indices and properties to define even the simplest of species, your thought process will hiccup and die as it encounters the complexity that humankind has chosen to call Creation.
All life has code in common, a straightforward scripting language called DNA which contains only five commands: A, G, C, T, and the elusive U. The indefinite presence of life is a compiler that translates these into a less abstract language based on a three-dimensional modeling convention called the atom. Its commands are proton, neutron, and electron, and these are read as quarks, bits so small that they take up no conceivable space, and this is where science loses its mind. Quarks cannot be seen, touched, or observed in isolation; they are the essence of every essence and infinitely problematic because they cannot be accurately represented by anything but a blank canvas. They are literalized concepts. They are numbers incarnate. They are the nothing that makes up everything. They are the binary code of the universe.
In a few short decades, the advance of cognitive biotechnology will allow a direct interface between the human brain and the computer chip. Man will write code with his thoughts, bringing about creation by an act of will: he will be practicing for Godhood. His relationship with deity will suddenly snap into focus as he realizes that the willful organization of raw materials into a Universe is no longer an idea owned exclusively by Genesis. He will discover that just as man HAS_A God, so also man IS_A God, a message that has been inherent in the categorical hierarchy of creation since the beginning. Man contains something of his making and thus also of his maker. As the blasphemous Psalmist says, ye are Gods.
Ironically, this will happen as other realms of science continue to strip away the superstitions of culture, disproving all notions of providence and chance in the universe. Nothing is truly random — but this is something programmers already know. How do you construct a random number? Standard random number generators need a seed — a user-defined set of values that can be plugged into the function to make its output unique. But two identical generators with the same seed will produce the same numbers. Not random. We fool ourselves by basing our seeds on things like atmospheric noise, atomic fluctuations, beta-particle emissions. But these are moved by consistent forces, which are only random because we don’t yet have instruments precise enough to predict them. Give us a few years.
Is Ron random? I don’t think so. I imagine Ron in a room with the world’s first biotech interface, muttering to himself because there is no one there to listen to him yell. His eyes are closed and he is whispering: “Delete. Delete. Delete.” He stands outside of the program flow, prevented by firewalls from doing any real damage. He paces back and forth and issues commands that are potent in nature and harmless in execution. He cannot get to us. He cannot delete us. He cannot force us to disappear, to hide from the gaze of God. But he wants to. So, so much.
God’s first day on the job: pacing between computer and whiteboard, diagramming, snapping his fingers, biting his lip, slipping his shoes off and putting them on again. Writing the human genome would make anyone nervous. The specifications are infinite by design: this genome needs to instruct lusty stem cells so that they become elaborate networks of neurons, spectrum-specific eye lenses, shoulders, umbilical cords, prostates, toenails, self-aware bodies with rampant emotional conflicts. The genome needs to make little mistakes when it replicates so that each of hundreds of billions of people will be unique, but only rarely so unique that they die young. It needs to create cells that know how to metabolize sugars, store fats, carry electrical impulses. It needs to produce beings that can withstand hunger, heartbreak, nuclear war, pesticides, hurricanes. It needs to know how to produce oxytocin so that humans will want to touch each other, want to band together, want to perpetuate — and testosterone so that they will fight off wild animals and each other.
It needs to be simple enough that the beings it lives in can someday discover it, sequence it, and fix its most harmful mistakes.
God considers these needs again, scribbles a note on his whiteboard, then sits down at his keyboard to begin the impossible. He types slowly at first, and then as the concepts begin to flow together in his mind, he types more confidently, more passionately, looking less and less like a reclusive programmer and more and more like a concert pianist. He knits oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen in with little bits of himself, cross-sections of light, hints of sublimity too fine for an electron microscope to see. Forces emerge from the void, twirling his lines into helixes that tumble, orbit each other, embrace each other. When the last line has been written, a feeling of incompleteness remains; God scrolls up, scrolls down, checks his alignment and spacing, runs the linter to check for spelling errors.
There is no way to test the code in abstraction, so it’s all or nothing. God types compile into his console window. The cells in front of him awake, then join and divide for hours, and finally, a silent breath parts the mist, followed by the cry of a child. The moment is so beautiful and so important that God weeps. He is exhausted.
The rest is debugging. God watches his work increase by exponents and tries to curb its insolence, sometimes gently, sometimes with a formidable assertion of his own status as Maker. Sometimes it is better than he hoped and sometimes worse. It never seems futile. He falls in love with his creation over and over again because it is captivating and because it is like him.
God is laid-back. If he weren’t, he never would have made it through grad school.
God understands why we paint Heaven with clouds and wings and harps. In spite of that, he hopes we’ll recognize it when we get there.
God does things for us that he knows we’ll never notice because that’s the only genuine way to form a relationship.
God wishes that Ron, the Missionary Training Center street screamer, would take more time to smile.
God accepts calls for Allah, Vishnu, Demeter, Yahweh, Santa Maria, and Mommy.
God doesn’t run an exclusive club for Christians. God doesn’t run an exclusive club at all.
God works methodically, thoughtfully, says very little, always says what he means, doesn’t waste anyone’s time, obsesses over order.
God is deliberate and paints reality by the book. He reveals his intentions beforehand and binds every atom in the universe to a set of virtually unbreakable laws.
Man is inscrutable.
Most programmers are predictable to a fault. This is because the computers and software we work with are predictable in excess — in fact, they are usually too rigid, too precise in their predictability, and our brains can’t meet their standard. The average programmer spends ten percent of his time writing code and ninety percent of his time fixing it — no study has been performed on the topic, but it is common knowledge among us. Ask the nearest programmer; his response will be a solemn, predictable nod.
Do you know how many mistakes you make each day? If you spend all day coding, you know exactly how many because your anal-retentive computer system calls you out on every single one. You spend hours chasing errors through the metaphorical stack, perusing thousands of lines of code with a surgeon’s eye, applying solutions one by one by one and gradually getting more and more determined. After the first few hours it becomes personal, it is a battle between you and a churning ecosystem of frameworks and technologies, it is a competition for your soul and you must win it alone. You will not request help. You will not show signs of weakness. You will not eat and you will not leave. Your brain fills with heaps of function calls, array indices, and pointers — and then you find it on line 1167, a blank space where there should be a semicolon. You lay that semicolon down — it is a semicolon of pure, superconductive gold — and the floodgates open and everything works, pulsating in rhythm, politely passing data back and forth like salt at the dinner table.
Your only map in this quest is the stacktrace, a list of all the lines of code that were running at the exact moment that the error occurred. Sometimes it is like a third-grade treasure map and there really is a chest of gold underneath the X on the first line; sometimes it is a veritable Bridge to Nowhere, coyly wasting your time and funding.
Not all mistakes have symptoms. There are deeper mistakes, cancerous ones that don’t provide any error messages or stacktraces. In fact, they don’t seem to affect your code at all until someone just a little smarter than you finds them.
Heartbleed. Shellshock. Cupid. Entire nations worth of code can hold silent mistakes deep within and the results are cataclysmic: the password-protected shrines of the world’s circuitry are violated and sacred things are touched with unclean hands. Thousands of programmers worldwide struggle to clean up the wreckage, terrified by this manifestation of their own humanity. Every one of them prays never to be found responsible for this kind of mistake.
These are common cases: the program fails visibly when something is wrong, or else it suffers quietly, leaving you with nothing but your intuition and heavy testing to find out. But computers never give an error message if nothing is wrong. Perhaps that is what fascinates me about Ron: he is a bearded error message with a cross and a stacktrace. He’s yelling that there’s something wrong with the Missionary Training Center. We’re certain there’s something wrong with him. Is there something wrong, or is our programming instinct contrary to divine design?
If there is one thing that humankind has inherited from God, it is the urge to create — babies, mostly, but also rap music, plastic-spoon sculptures, iPhone factories and films and computers. The Creation — the original one — was a template, a set of building blocks. God left us silicon and we refined it, arranged it, built circuits out of chaos.
These circuits are the climaxes of mankind’s longest stories.
My computer is a family of circuits and it does miraculous things. It is alive. As I type doggerel on an array of silicone nubbins, it types component markup in a foreign language, a Unicode derivative, into its own binary brain, translating instantaneously. At the same time, its immune system is vigilantly watching for foreign contaminants, constantly researching the best tools to destroy them. The napping part of its processor is rearranging and rationing resources to keep each organ pulsating. The power cell in the corner is regulating a heavy flow of electrons, using some immediately and storing some for later. A network of noisy glands is venting hot air to prevent internal damage.
A well-worded command in the right place can stop any one of these processes, killing the entire organism in its tracks.
Different words, soft-spoken suggestions between curly brackets, can paint worlds of information into the open discourse between computer, router, modem, fiber optic line, domain name server, resource server, and brain. A few hundred lines of code, fed to a computer processor through the ribs, can teach it to calculate in seconds what other men have spent lifetimes on. And this function can be made available to the entire world without an advertising campaign or a printing press. The culminating discovery of the age is that any man becomes a genius when handcuffed to a computer.
With the cuffs off, I am a twenty-two-year-old boy who still thinks poop jokes are funny. I spend my days feigning enthusiasm for my country’s self-righteous epidemic of universities. Just a student. In life’s spare minutes, I lean over a keyboard canvas and am brilliant, creating life out of raw concepts with my fingertips.