I sometimes wonder, as I’m learning the ins and outs of coding, how the individual programs and methods and the like would conceive of their existence. I can picture skeptical, hard-headed programs saying “all that’s really happening is that we take one set of 0s and 1s, compare it against another set of 0s and 1s, and readjust our own sets accordingly. Isn’t that so much simpler than positing some intelligent user who has some unimaginable purpose for us?”
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, those 0s and 1s allow us to listen to this:
Of course, it is, at bottom, a series of logic gates programmed to act a certain way, just as even in person, it is, at bottom, a set of sound waves set on the air in a certain pattern.
Materialists of one stripe or another are fond of this ‘at bottom’ argument: “That nebula that you think is so beautiful and inspiring is really just a collection of atoms jostling together with no rhyme or reason,” or “what you call ‘love’ is nothing but biological processes.”
The question, though, is whether ‘at bottom’ is the same as ‘in the truest sense.’ And, as the example of the symphony indicates, there is a serious problem with that idea. The program that allows us to listen to Beethoven may be a set of simple logic gates ‘at bottom,’ but the only reason those gates are arranged as they are in the first place is for the sake of allowing us to listen to the symphony. That is, the symphony that we hear did not arise from those logic gates; they exist for the sake of the symphony.
It is the Aristotelian distinction of causes; the material cause (the logic gates) only exists because the Final Cause (the desire for the music) existed first. The material cause, in itself, is barren. In the same way, a series of electronic logic gates, if that is all you have and know, will get you nothing. They are only useful at all when you realize you can use them for a given purpose.
Thus, if you say “love is only biological processes”, it is at least as proper to say “those particular biological processes are really love; what love looks like on that level.” At best, they are equivalent. Because no one experiences simply biological processes, just as no one sees atoms; the experience of love or the nebula are the substance, the underlying mechanics the shadow.
And we’ll go one step further; we ourselves are in the same position as the programs; the things we do have significance beyond anything we can see or imagine. This is the idea of the Sacraments: seemingly simple material actions – words pronounced, bread consumed – but we trust on faith that they have meaning and effects that we couldn’t conceive of, any more than our sentient program could have imagined the symphony.
All created things, in fact, are like this; they flow into one another, not in the Eastern sense of being a single organism under different aspects, but in the sense that each, in its individuality, is part of something more than itself. I imagine that God enjoys the dance of the atoms for its own sake, but their interactions create the world of matter, which in turn creates the world of life, which leads to man, and the interactions of man create the family, then the nation, than the interplay of nations creates…well, who knows? Just as in a symphony each individual note and line may be beautiful in itself, but also goes to make up the whole, and just as in a good story every character and incident is properly placed to compose the whole, yet is no less itself for that, so God’s creation is a single, harmonious dance made up of things good in their individuality.
In other words, when speaking of things happening ‘at bottom’ it would be more accurate to say, not “this is only this” this but “this is also this.” It is part of the whole individual, glorious thing we call a symphony, or a program, or a nebula, or a man in love, which in turn is part of the whole, harmonious, glorious thing we call ‘Creation.’