TOC God within reason Your Turn

July 10, 2012

"God is dead" Nietzsche wrote more than a century ago. Last week welcomed the official arrival of "the long sought Higgs boson, known in the media as the "god particle"" (*). Although by definition science must drop the God hypothesis from its work, scientists have no "better metaphor" for what "confers mass [...] on everything in the universe", Clive Cookson slyly reports. One more step in the long history of Man's struggles with God.

So long indeed this history, Israel came out of it literally (1). Metaphorically, it even includes Abraham. Fascinating, perhaps a bit out of step here? Are these fillips written by some theologian or do they come from a defender of eprivacy? Thought is swifter than words. Dear reader, you have already realized that, as far as our privacy is concerned, there can be no higher threat than God who "searcheth the reins and hearts" (2).

Having conceded this point, you will object that I cannot both claim to study social information theory and mix God in such a scientific endeavor. Yet the more men struggle to become like gods, the more pertinent to privacy what philosophers write about God and His attributes becomes.

Take the classic riddle purported to prove God does not exist (3). Starting with three of God's attributes, omnibenevolence, omniscience and omnipotence, it shows how the existence of evil leads to a logical contradiction as putting limits on either God's goodness, knowledge or power.

Mathematics is the highest fruit of reason but it can sorely mislead when faith blinds its users. While the above contradiction is logically impeccable and disproves its starting assumption, the conclusion does not bear on God's existence. It only reveals the limits of human language.

Must God's omnipotence withdraw free will from Man? Must God's omnibenevolence deny Man the test of adversity and the benefit of hindsight? Beware philosophers bringing answers, the questions they raise the more valuable gift, proof the love knot between the attributes of God and Man.

Truth be told, people are more likely today to idolize themselves than to aspire to God's absolute status. In this more demanding role, one must look for the creation of Man, another kind of person called the corporation. To believe Richard Waters' latest column, Google is a prime candidate (**).

Remember Google famously declared its own omnibenevolence. "Don't be evil".

Picking his words with a craftsman's care, Richard Waters adds "the key to Google's prosperity has been its ability to divine a user's intent".

Up to now actually, Google had shrunked from confessing such omniscience. Modestly, it only owned four years ago to delivering its users "the entirety of the world's information as just one of [their] thoughts". I was the one to remark at the time that in practice Google's "simple search box" meant "having the entirety of the user's thoughts as just one of [its] information records".

Such modesty is no longer tenable. "In the world of mobile apps, [...] the search box vanishes". Using Google Now to "infer intent" in its place, "your phone could one day automatically serve up answers to your most pressing questions - before you even think of asking them".

As Google "says it has no plans yet to put advertising into the service", it does not have to be omnipotent. But Richard Waters refuses to be duped. It "seems inevitable" that Google plucks "the fruits of personalization that technology has made possible". And how then can it avoid claiming omnipotence given the advertisers' "perennial conceit that they have the perfect product or service to satisfy your every unexpressed want"?

And therefore dear reader, your patience has been rewarded. Philosophical arguments about God give us the key to Richard Waters' column.

Suppose we insist on a fundamentalist reading of God's attributes. Logic tells us there must be a contradiction.

Richard Waters inclines to question Google's omnipotence. Current performance is on his side. "Online personalisation is a much stronger idea in theory than in practice". But when in 1985 he laughed with all of us at Windows 1.0 and its lack of overlapping, didn't Microsoft had the last laugh?

What scares me too is to see so few chinks in Google's omniscience. Richard Waters for one harbors no illusion. With its existing services, "Google certainly starts from a strong position". Hasn't it built its online services into the dominant diabolo? Beside search, I would have singled out Gmail but let us not quibble. To them all, "Google+ [...] is a powerful supplement" to gather "basic profile data", even if Facebook users spend more "time on the network". And "mobile devices add the new, all-important dimension of place". Can Man hope to escape Google's ogles?

We are left with Google's benevolence. Read Gillian Tett on the Libor debacle (***). Can bankers be the only sinners in the City of Man? Drop the restriction. "There are plenty of other parts of the [...] world that remain opaque and clubby, and continue to breach [the] basic [Adam] Smith principles - even as [...] chief executives present themselves as champions of free markets [...], one of the great ironies and hypocrisies of our age".

Thus Hell is paved with good intentions. But what if we took a more Catholic view to these formidable attributes of God?

It must come down to human free will. Some scientists feel free to think their experiments compel them to deny it. But once more language trips logic. Must free will enable Man to do all what he wants? Mustn't it account first for every natural constraint? And since habit is second nature, we are fully responsible for some of these constraints.

In spite of these fillips, "the recent history of rapidly changing privacy norms suggests [...] what seems creepy or odd today can quickly become part of the normal context of life". And as we condition ourselves into serfdom, the curse of the retrofit reinforces our choice through what Christopher Mims calls "a sort of evolutionary constraint" on what we design (****).

Can society stop Google from being evil? Man from willing his will away? The Higgs boson seems a more certain fact than the future of privacy.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....... Scientists hailed as 'god particle' found, by Clive Cookson (Financial Times) - July 5, 2012
  • (**) ..... Google now has to prove it can go beyond the search box, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - July 5, 2012
  • (***) ... Libor affair exposes big conceit at the heart of banking, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - June 29, 2012
  • (****) . The Problem of Path Dependence and LED Light Bulbs, by Christopher Mims (Technology Review) - July/August, 2012
  • (1) for more details, see Jacob's wrestling in the wikipedia
  • (2) For a French, it is a revelation to find how translators ennobled English for the King James Bible.
  • (3) for more details, see the problem of evil in the wikipedia
  • (4) for more details, see Don't be evil in the wikipedia
July 2012
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