Indirection in computer science and theology

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Originally uploaded by _gir_

Two ‘religion’ posts in a row. Hmmm. A little odd for an atheist.

Over the coffee machine last week I was chatting with Toby about another local Alpha Group discussion. One of the big problems with being an atheist (IMHO) is that my answer to the big questions, especially “Why are we here?”, seem inadequate (though true). In answer to “Why are we here?” I’d have to say that there isn’t really a ‘why’, we are here by accident, just as the result of a long series of often chance events. Clearly that answer doesn’t even feel of the same ilk as the question. So I am intrigued by how religious people answer the same question: “Why are we here?” When this discussion came up in our local Hardwick men’s Alpha Course I pointed out that the response I’ve often heard from Christians (“We are here to serve God”) isn’t really adequate – it is more a slight of hand. Any being with enough sentience to form the question will eventually ask “Why am I here?” So by answering that we are here to serve God all we have done is moved the question up a level. We are left wondering what God answers to the question “Why am I here?”. All we have done is added a level of indirection.

Toby’s response to that was fascinating. He can’t recall the conversation now but I was left perplexed when he pointed out that most of the hard questions in computer science are solved by adding a level of indirection, so surely I should be comfortable with that technique here. What a great retort. I’m now left wondering what is the class of problems, in computer science and beyond, that is helped with indirection. And importantly is the question “Why are we here?” one of those problems. At face value it isn’t. Surely it is easier to analyse the reasons for our own existence than the reasons for God’s existence. We have day-to-day experience of existing as people that should help us to intuit an answer. But perhaps that’s the point. By moving the problem up to a level that is more likely to be beyond our comprehension it helps us to let go of the problem.

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