Parallels, algorithms & Akhenaten
How algorithms will help us pierce the future
Human beings interpret their world particularly by distinguishing its differences. Already in kindergarten, we learn to spot the differences between lookalike pictures. Adults continue to fall for such tasks, usually posted in one of the magazines of the barber shop where they wait for a haircut. The anthropologist and systems theorist, Gregory Bateson, was acutely aware of this. It was reason for him to beg his readers to look away from differences and focus on parallels. What does this or that thing have in common with other things? You’d discover so much more about our world this way, he argued. But alas, such philosophical matters have a hard time reaching the commoner. Scientists continue to think that they create ‘science’ by classifying things, leaning on the statistics involved. Our focus on differences is compounded in our obsession for racial differences, national borders, and what we ignorantly call ‘the normal’, all matters that, in the end, divide rather than unite us. Algorithms, on the other hand, have no idea of differences. In fact, algorithms learn to distinguish things by searching for parallels. For example, to identify a cat as a cat, they munch through a multitude of cat photos to record the parallels, eventually to arrive at a set of parallels that these cat photos have in common.
As I’ll show further on, our focus on differences blocks us from the future. Algorithms, on the other hand, have a better chance of seeing ‘the promised land, down there’. I use this metaphor not without reason. A little less than 3400 years ago, an Egyptian pharaoh, who could have been the Moses that we know from the Bible, was on the verge of a transition from ‘difference’ to ‘parallel’. What can we learn today from what happened then? This is one of the underlying questions in this article about ‘how algorithms will help us pierce the future’. To start, I’ll briefly show how we typically perceive our world, I mean, the place where different things come together
Yes, we tend to explain our world as an odd assembly of things. We imagine it as a body of matters, such as sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, people, laws, stories, tribes, organizations, nation states. This is not at all surprising. About twenty four hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, insisted that our world is made up of things that may or may not be in motion, each such thing having attributes of its own. In the mean time, we have made darned sure that our kids stick to this line of reasoning. For decades now, we have been teaching them to prearrange Lego bricks, based on color and shape, to facilitate their assembly task. “From a very young age, indeed, our kids [including future scientists at CERN] learn to interpret the origin and development of our world as a grand assembly of things across a broad range of applications, from the very small to the very big, from the factual to the imaginary.” So, our view of reality as assembly is an example of what I coined the “Lego’s worldview”.
The assumption that our world comprises assemblies leaves us at odds with the question of how it self-assembles, which it does. Remember, assemblies consisting of building blocks require assemblers, if not an ultimate, divine assembler at some point — I trust you see my drift. Moreover, to paraphrase Jim Collins, an author of management books, we seek to build things that last. So, from pyramid to enterprise, we apparently hope to construct realities that can survive the test of time. This is grand, of course, but it comes at a price: we have a hard time foretelling the future of a world that, in our imagination, has been designed and created to last forever. As a result, the future remains opaque to us because our view is anchored in the past by our creations and extrapolations. Understandably, it’s pretty difficult to see, let alone accept that our world tomorrow is going to be different from the world we know, give or take a few changes, which, we pray, will turn out to be improvements.
There is a way around this problem but it requires letting go the idea that our world is made up of ‘things’. In the late 1970s, the physical chemist, Ilya Prigogine, earned a Nobel prize for explaining why motion shapes things. Prigogine illustrated that things exist because they are actually being shaped by repeated motion of a sort. He specifically investigated why the repeated motion of molecules in a layer of liquid magically creates honeycomb-like shapes at the surface when the liquid is heated from underneath. He discovered that they particularly do so when they start following paths of least action, which is a natural law. When migrating geese fly in the slipstream of their peers, they too follow paths of least action. As they do, their repeated flapping behavior shapes their V-formation. In much the same way, the repeated patterns of behavior of people that work in the slipstream of leaders and peers shape companies. Such examples, indeed, range “from the very small to the very big, from the factual to the imaginary.” Take the atoms that shape your body, for instance. It is hard to imagine that 99.9999999% of the space they occupy is empty! Each atom gets its shape through the repeated motion of the electron cloud that orbits its nucleus, which itself is shaped by a vibrating lot of ultra-tiny quarks.
The crux of Prigogine’s findings is that every-thing is actually no-thing. It’s just evidence of repeated motion of a sort. Everything, in other words, can be traced back to cascades of various types of repeated motion. So, here is a world of parallels that algorithms can make sense of, parallels of emerging repeated motion that shape all the things that we are familiar with. Counterintuitively, we cannot “assemble” things in this world. No matter whether it involves increasing the temperature underneath a thin layer of liquid or setting goals in a company, only the necessary conditions will make repeated motion gradually emerge which only then shapes matters, such as Bénard cells, flocks, companies, atoms… you name it.
Contrary to the assembled world that we identified in the past, a world of motion will not last forever. Sure, some of it may last a long time but cycles determine the emergence of conditions as much as the repeated motion that these conditions produce. Of course, algorithms, dependent on parallels as they are, can and will help us identify causally connected occurrences of repeated motion, either rising or declining, throughout our world. It is in this way that algorithms will help us pierce the future. For the ‘philosophers of science’ among you, a world shaped by motion embodies the promised land that the physicist, Ernst Mach, once saw. Short of the time needed to reach it, he pictured an interconnected universe where every motion and cycle is somehow connected with all other motion and cycles. History has produced at least one more such incredible visionary.
The tenth pharaoh of the eighteenth Egyptian dynasty, Akhenaten assumed the throne a little less than 3,400 years ago as king Amenhotep IV. Under his father, Amenhotep III, the Egyptian civilization had entered its wealthiest and most influential period, its territory stretching into Canaan and Syria. The Egyptian society, at the time, worshiped various gods. Amun-Ra, the dominant deity, had emerged as “solar god of fertility” from an earlier fusion between the Egyptian-Berber god, Amun or Amen, and the sun god, Ra. The royal name of Amenhotep means, in fact, “Amen is gratified”. We do not often realize the impact of the ancient Egyptians on our world today. Every time when people finish their prayers with “Amen”, they give tribute to the ancient Egyptian-Berber god, Amun.
When his older brother Prince Thutmose died prematurely, Akhenaten succeeded his father. Fascinated by a new cosmological insight that was inspired by the sun’s cycle and its life-nurturing effect, Amenhotep IV changed his name into Akhenaten, which stands for “Beneficial for the Aten”, “the Aten” being the sun. He then set in motion what is known as the “Amarna revolution”. This involved the construction of a new city, “Akhetaten” or “horizon of the Aten”, on the Amarna site. Located on the East bank of the Nile, the Amarna site commemorated the rise of the Aten in the East. Akhenaten insistent on building a city for thousands of people from the ground up in just a few years. This triggered a wave of innovation, from open-roofed temples and colorful material-saving relief illustrations to the use of mud bricks. Art also changed in that Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and the royal women and children appeared in more realistic artistic portrayals. Akhenaten’s cosmology hinted at an understanding of the universe as never-ending cyclical phenomenon with the sun symbolizing the energy and cyclicality involved.
In the first few years, Akhenaten allowed the worship of long-established gods. In the ninth year of his reign, however, he ordered the destruction of the their statues and the removal of all representations of Amun’s face. When Akhenaten passed away in the seventeenth year of his reign, his son, Tutankhaten, influenced by his advisors, changed his name into Tutankhamen or Tutankhamun and moved back to his city of birth, Thebes. This is where he reestablished the capital. The Amarna city, plagued by misfortune, soon withered away, its temples taken down to serve as construction material elsewhere. Later rulers bluntly rejected Akhenaten’s natural philosophy, even prevented his historical reign from appearing in public records.
Akhenaten’s ideas have been widely discussed. At the heart of these discussions are his Great Hymn and Shorter Hymn, both of which were composed by Akhenaten himself, according to the Egyptologist, Jan Assmann. Their resemblance to biblical texts, which were written some 700 years later, fostered the idea that these hymns inspired the biblical story of Moses. After evaluating hieroglyphic sources in the light of various analyses, including, even, those of Sigmund Freud, Assmann concluded that the story of Moses is the story of Akhenaten or, more boldly, that Moses is Akhenaten. For one, the anger of Moses about the worship of a golden calf meets the records of Akhenaten eradicating the worship of a similar Egyptian god. This also explains why the burial site of Moses has never been found in the Sinai and why, so far, archeological evidence of a wandering Hebrew people is lacking. Of course, Canaan has long been part of the Egyptian empire, also during Akhenaten’s reign, and this is how the story of Akhenaten must have reached the scribes who eventually authored the Torah.
Akhenaten has mistakenly been depicted as originator of monotheism. Instead, the authors of the Torah invented it when they reshaped Akhenaten’s Aten into the Hebrew god, Yahweh, a god in the image of man. The American Egyptologist, James Allen, adheres to this analysis. The Amarna period, Allen writes, is about an “intellectual movement”, not a religion. It involved a “natural philosophy”, a new understanding of the universe and how to relate to it. In line with Allen’s findings, I figure that Akhenaten did not see a god but “a process”. In fact, the idea that Akhenaten invented “monotheism” is rooted in the religiously tinted period, in which this very idea surfaced. To paraphrase the historian of science, Robert Proctor, this appears to be a case of culturally constructed ignorance.
Back to the Future
The cyclical world of repeated-motion emergence builds on Akhenaten’s hunch. It expands his cyclical cosmology into a cosmology where choreographies of repeated motion shape the world that we experience. Whereas Akhenaten’s views were constrained by metaphor, the “choreographic worldview” rides natural laws on paths of least action. It explains the cyclical emergence of our world, not just life, based on an interpretation of reality that is rooted in repeated motion. Like Akhenaten’s cosmology, energy and cyclicality are central to the “choreographic worldview”. Yet, unlike Akhenaten’s cosmology, it offers an explanation of our world also after the Aten, the sun, has set. It depicts and predicts the seasons of reality emergence both in the physical and social domain.
To conclude, the story of Akhenaten offers crucial lessons about the capacity of society to adopt such insights. Push too hard and they might be denied or removed from the fabric of society, even prevented from entering public records. The same might happen now. After all, eager to make a difference, we still cling to our world assembled. Then again, this is where algorithms can help us, that is, if we let them search for parallels, free of bias.
For Further Reading
Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature — A Necessary Unity, Bantam Books, London, 1979.
Jim Collins, Jerry Porras, Built to Last — Successful habits of visionary companies, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1994.
Jan Assmann, Akhanyati’s Theology of Light and Time, Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, VII 4, Jerusalem (1992), p. 143–176.
Jan Assmann, Moses The Egyptian: The memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, Harvard University Press (1998).
James Allen, The Natural Philosophy of Akhenaten, in W.K. Simpson [ed.], Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt [Yale Egyptological Studies, III], New Haven (1989).