Monday, May 21, 2007

Spirituality and the OSI Model

In my last post, I tried to describe the idea that spiritual reality could be understood in some fashion as “the next level up in abstraction”. That’s a confusing idea, so in the interests of muddying the waters further, and in standing with ancient philosophical and theological tradition, I’d like to try to explain one confusing, abstract idea by reference to another, even more confusing one.

The first thing that any book on networking does is try to explain the OSI Model. Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it than I could, but suffice to say that the OSI model is a way of thinking about the different layers in a network, from the physical layer on up through the applications that actually run on the network and make our lives alternately miserable and wonderful. (From here on out, I’ll assume that you understand the OSI model. My apologies if you don’t, or don’t want to: no offense taken.)

One of the very interesting things about the OSI model is that it makes you aware of the different levels of significance possessed by each bit on the wirestream. A given flux of electricity means one thing on the physical layer, yet something else entirely on the data-link, network, session, presentation and application layers. A given packet means something very different when it’s considered from the perspective “IP” vs. “TCP”, or when you add in the encrypted data that it’s carrying as a part of an SSL conversation, or the HTML or XML tags that it’s carrying.

It’s analogous, I think, to the significance of a neuron firing in our brain. Atomically, it is the result of such-and-such chemical forces; neurologically, it represents a particular configuration of the brain’s neural network; taken morally or emotionally, it could be part of the decision to die for a friend (or cheat on your wife or just to help yourself to another cookie). And in the same way, a free, moral decision has one meaning at the moral, individual level – and yet another on the social or communal -- perhaps quite another meaning (or level of meaning) at the “spiritual” level. Of course, there are probably many other levels that could be enumerated besides “quantum”, “chemical”, “physiological”, “neural”, “subconscious”, “conscious” and so forth. We don’t understand most of the mechanisms that sit in-between ourselves and our bodies. It’s sort of like we understand Manchester bit encoding and HTML, but not IP or TCP or HTTP.

I think this idea bears some similarity to neo-Platonism: perhaps you might call it “neo-neo-Platonism” (as ugly a neologism as ever there was). It’s similar in some ways. But I’m not really talking about forms, i.e., that what we’re talking about is the idea which is the model for all individual instantiations of reality. Rather, I’m saying that these entities arise out of physical (and mental and spiritual) existence at the same time that they order it. I don’t think these are absolutely abstract entities, but rather, relatively abstract entities. If I was to try to place it, I’d say that this approach is probably closer to Aquinas in its consideration of Universals than to either Plato or Hegel.

So how does God fit into this? It would be convenient in some ways to say that God is just the highest level of abstraction. But I don’t buy that – it’d just be pantheism all over again – uncomfortably close to Hegel. Rather, the right place for God in this model is to say that God is beyond the highest level of abstraction. The highest level of abstraction would be the Universe, the Whole Show. But God is the One who puts the Whole Show on and gets it started.

1 comment :

Ken Smith said...

My brother pointed out to me that the write way to end this post would have been, "God? He's the network administrator." He's right, dammit.