Is God an Algorithm?                                (978 words)

by Norman Walford      

“Norman, what do you think about gay marriage?”

That was Linda, from across the table over dinner at the Singapore Swiss Club under a dark warm
tropical night sky.

I launched into my standard answer.

“Marriage is essentially a contract. An exclusive contract between two people in which they pledge a
commitment to love and respect one another, and to refrain from sexual relations with anyone else as
long as they live. It seems to me that if two people wish to enter into a contract not to have sex with
anyone else, then that’s no one’s business but their own.”

I went on to explain, as I usually do since a lot of people seem unaware of it, that marriage is by no
means an exclusively Christian institution. It was practiced in many cultures all over the world
thousands of years before Christianity was ever thought of. The church may think to have adopted it
but they certainly don’t own it.

At that point Robert entered the discussion from my left.
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      In mathematics and
    computer science, an
    algorithm (
    i/ˈælɡərɪðəm/ AL-gə-ri-
    dhəm) is a step-by-step
    procedure for
    calculations. Algorithms
    are used for calculation,
    data processing, and
    automated reasoning.

      An algorithm is an
    effective method
    expressed as a finite list
    [1] of well-defined
    instructions[2] for
    calculating a function.[3]
    Starting from an initial
    state and initial input
    (perhaps empty),[4] the
    instructions describe a
    computation that, when
    executed, proceeds
    through a finite [5]
    number of well-defined
    successive states,
    eventually producing
    "output"[6] and
    terminating at a final
    ending state.
It’s surprising really that people should see God in that way (though I must admit to having done it
myself for many years)—after all we humans transcended the merely algorithmic long ago, and it’s
hard to see that God should be constrained in a way that his creation has moved beyond. But there it
is. Among the many negative attributes that we regularly heap on our God, this is one.

To elaborate this example, the bible tells us that God in certain times and places may choose to
overlook sins, and in other times and places He ‘commands all men to repent’ . What, the algorithm
has changed? At one time God can overlook a sin, and at another time take it seriously and demand
action? That’s what it says. Or perhaps God never really had an algorithm at all. Perhaps He’s just
not an algorithmic God.

And it’s not just a change over time, is it? God overlooks many, many sins in my life. Then every so
often, He picks up on one particular one and demands I address it. Why this one and not that one? I
don’t know. That’s God’s business, not mine.

This is where we get into trouble when we start pontificating about gay marriage or gayness in
general or any kind of relationship for that matter. God can look at two relationships which to our eyes
may be identical and say, This one I overlook, but on that one I demand action.  That’s His right and
we need to respect it. I can start criticizing something, and I may even have a point; but what if God
has decided that He wants to overlook at this time?  How much damage might I be doing by my own
narrowly algorithmic approach?

This is why we need to be careful when discussing other people’s real or supposed sins. We could
even be right—who know? But it’s not really our call, is it. God may be working outside our algorithm.
Algorithmic thinking is contrary to the principle of love, it’s contrary to God’s nature. It’s fundamentally
legalistic, and it’s a basic Pharisee trait. It’s a trap we need to avoid.
Robert’s view on gay marriage and gayness in general  is quite rigid.
It reflects a widely held evangelical view that I think is so well known
that I don’t need to spell it out. I attempted a rational discussion but
was met by rising voices and a tide of hostility verging on abuse.
Argument over.

A big part of Robert’s problem in this is that he’s probably never met
a gay Christian in his life. I’ve met lots—living for more than three
years in Amsterdam, the ‘gay capital of Europe’, one can hardly not.
Some of them are good friends. I’ve heard their anguish, empathized
with their pain.

Robert hasn’t. For him it’s an abstract problem. Theoretical. A bit like
Hitler’s ‘Jewish problem’. Hitler had never actually met any of his
victims, he’d never been to the camps. The problem was a
theoretical one for which a theoretical solution could be worked out
on paper and then executed by others. Abstract. Algorithmic.

An algorithm describes a standard set of instructions to be executed
on an initial input in order to come up with an output.

Addition is an algorithmic process.  I type “2 + 2 =”, press ENTER,
the internal computer algorithm runs through, and the answer comes
up “4”. I can do it a million times over, and a million times I will get the
answer 4. It can never be different. That’s what algorithms do.
Standard input, standard set of instructions executed, standard

A lot of Christians think of God in algorithmic terms—that is, that God’
s primary modes of decision-making and analysis are essentially
algorithmic. Meaning that in a given situation, God is constrained to
respond in a given way, and have a standardized output.
Like for example, SIN —> ANGRY GOD  —>  PUNISHMENT . That
sort of thing. As if God is so rigidly constrained by his internal nature
as to have no actual choice in the matter, no free will.