• Artificial Intelligence & the Absurd Part III

Artificial Intelligence & the Absurd Part III

How did the absurd come into the world?

In my previous essays, my reference to the fact that we have completely shifted to recognising only rational thinking as a faithful mirror of the human being, and to wanting to find the reason for this shift, has so far led back to the time of the "Latin Middle Ages". Its language and categories of thought shaped the structure of all forms of cultural life during this European epoch for over 1200 years. The rational structure of the Latin language decisively shaped people's thinking and continues to do so right up to the present. A striking example of this is our entire jurisprudence. It is still based on Roman legal thinking, although it would also have been possible to refer to an existing Germanic law, which is characterised by a more pictorial and preventive view of law and less by a purely causal one. However, the openness and breadth of the pictorial could not prevail over the inferential causal principles of Roman legal doctrines. The latter's action from the opposition of cause and effect of a particular case, or its principle of causality, then later became decisive especially in the thinking and action of natural sciences. There, a purely causal-mechanistic approach developed in research which is currently reflected in the AI debate. This is only one, but possibly the most decisive, of the reality of our lives.

This reality is contrasted by a completely different attitude to life on the part of humans, which is closed to purely causal access and to which I referred earlier: this is the space of spiritual inwardness in a creative human being who wants to shape herself. If the conclusive, certain proof of a fact is the desired goal of rational thinking, then this proof does not exist in the inner space in the centre of the human being, which is constantly rediscovering, re-experiencing and re-designing itself. Here the idea of infinity prevails! It weaves through and guides us more than she might consciously (rationally!) allow, because it seems risky and is not comfortable.

In this context, I would like to recall one of the founders of Renaissance/humanism, Pico della Mirandola (1463 -1494), who in his writing: "On the Dignity of Man" has God say the following to mankind:

"Not heavenly, not earthly have We created thee. For thou shalt be thine own workmaster and molder, and shalt fashion thyself out of the material that suits thee."

That there is this space of inwardness at the centre of the human being goes back in the tradition of European thought to insights of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Pherékydes of Syros (b. 584 - 581 BC) and Pythagoras (c. 570 - 490 BC). Pythagoras was probably a student of Pherékydes. In European culture, Pythagoras is considered the first representative of the view that the soul of man is immortal and thus has infinity. From this conviction, he developed the concept of the transmigration of souls and recorded this concept of infinity in a textbook.

Pythagoras is also regarded by many as the discoverer of a theory of harmony. He laid its foundation on two levels:

That of a concept of friendship, which has as its heart the ideal of universal friendship and harmony. With splendid clarity he taught

  • the friendship of all with all;
  • Friendship of the gods with men through piety and knowing worship;
  • friendship of doctrines with one another and, in general, friendship of the soul with the body;
  • Friendship of the rational with the species of the irrational through philosophy and its own spiritual view;
  • Friendship among men;
  • Friendship among fellow citizens through law-abidingness, which keeps the state healthy;
  • Friendship between people of different origins through correct knowledge of nature (A. of A. = perception of reality);
  • Friendship between husband and wife, children, brothers and sisters and housemates;
  • Friendship of the mortal body within itself, pacification and reconciliation of the opposing forces hidden within it.

His idea of the common good of friends did not exclude private property, but Pythagoras turned with all severity against luxury and taught a simple, frugal way of life. (from: Lamblichos; De vita Pythagorica, p. 229 - 230; Cornelia J. de Vogel: Pythagoras and Early Pythogoreanism, Asse 1966, p. 233)

In this Pythagoras shows himself as a philosopher and I have deliberately included his teaching here because it seems modern and appropriate.

However, he is better known as a cosmologist and mathematician. As such, he developed the second level, in which he was concerned with finding the symbolic relations between numbers and tones, in order to develop a theory of harmony from this as well. In this way, he wanted to place musical sound in the building of his cosmology. He proceeded empirically and used the monochord.

The monochord is a musical instrument-like but physical apparatus consisting of a resonance box over which a single string is stretched lengthwise. Its name is derived from the Greek: monos = single; chorde = string. Or from the Latin: canon, for scale.  Further explanations would lead too far, self-study could be recommended here.

His teachings on friendship and harmony served to eliminate "discords". Discordance was contradictory and therefore absurd.

Two thousand years later, the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) wrote "Five Books on the Harmonics of the World": "Harmonice Mundi" (Heavenly Harmony). He arranged the planetary orbits according to musical harmonies, which God perpetuated in the solar system: Kepler's 3 planetary laws, which are still valid today. In modern astronomy it is called the anthropic principle. It says that the universe is the way it is because otherwise we would not be there to observe it. It contains all the properties that make life possible for the observer. If it were not for the development of conscious life, there would be no one to describe it. The anthropic principle is highly controversial among physicists today and is still under controversial discussion.

At this point, as an artist, I would like to remind you that in the aesthetics of reception, it is always assumed that the image and the viewer are mutually dependent. The viewer creates the image and the image creates the viewer.

I would like to quote a passage from Kepler's theory of harmony here, because it refers to a space in the human being, which I call the soul space and in which other modes of being prevail than in our three-dimensional world order.

"To recognise means to bring together what is perceived externally with the inner ideas and to judge their correspondence, which has been expressed very beautifully with the word "awakening" as if from a sleep. For just as what we encounter externally makes us remember what we knew before, so sense experiences, when they are recognised, lure out the intellectual realities that are present to them, so that they then shine forth in the soul, whereas before they were hidden there as if veiled in potentia."

To this end, I would like to draw the attention of my readers to the long periods of time in which we must learn to comprehend the development of humanity in order to be capable of judgement. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) composed his music from a cosmologically oriented world view, which only changed into an earthly oriented music after his death, especially through his sons.


In Kepler's music, it becomes clear how the outer world shines in the soul of mankind. The Greeks used the term "nous" for this and understood it to mean the faculty of purely spiritual perception as the noblest part of the three sides of the soul: the harmoniously ordering world force towards happiness, salvation and perfection.

The world of sound is the world that is perceived with feeling and not with intellectual thinking. "Sound as the logic of the soul" (Martin Rabe) is regarded as the supreme faculty of knowledge, through which the concepts of understanding can be connected into a self-contained whole of knowledge in the first place. All this can only be possible by transcending reality.

How can this be understood?

We experience the external world through physical experiences. There, sensual perception and spiritual reality (the soul) meet. In this process, the qualities of the real become perceptible to the individual subject: the non-measurable: the feeling! It arises from the logic of the soul brought to sound. It’s purely instrumental sound character is marked by infinity in contrast to the clearly marked logic of the mind. The painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866 - 1944) repeatedly called for the necessity of listening to this inner sound on his way to abstraction in art. He extracted the forms of art from the natural forms that had been valid until then and found a new world of forms in the sound space of his soul. There, completely new dimensions of artistic creation opened up for him, in which even the contradictory, the dissonance can be combined as the new consonance, as he enthusiastically wrote to his friend the composer, Arnold Schönberg.

That which Pythagoras rejected as contradictory and absurd, namely disharmony, was, as it were, mentally reworked into harmony.

And now back to my question: How did the absurd come into the world? What prepared the ground for the absurd as such to find acceptance in artistic, philosophical and meanwhile also in scientific thought?

The answer is perhaps perplexing: Christian teaching is the source of the absurd, of being able to experience and understand the absurd! From this source also flowed a concept related to the absurd: the numinous! I will come back to this later.

After the complete disintegration of ancient culture around 500 AD, Christianity took over its inheritance and the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire. Teachers of the Church took over the spiritual religious leadership. For my topic, I would like to turn to two of them: that is the teacher Quintus Septimus Florenz Tertullianus (Tertullian for short). He was born about 160 AD in Carthage (now Tunisia), the son of a Roman soldier and thus a pagan. He converted to Christianity and probably died around 220 AD. He was the first to write the Christian doctrine in Latin. From him comes the momentous and famous sentence:

"Crucified was the Son of God; that is no disgrace, because it is; and die did the Son of God; that is credible, because it is inconsistent (lat. ineptum est = nonsense); and buried was he risen; that is quite certain, because it is impossible."

 The Viennese cabaret artist and important cultural historian, Egon Friedell (1878 - 1938), writes about this in his work: "Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit", p. 92 - 93, "... precisely this was the "physics" of medieval man: for him, the miracle was the real thing, the natural world of appearance only the pale reflection and insubstantial shadow of a higher, lighter and truer spiritual world. In short: he led a magical existence.

... the closeness was felt in faith. It was the firm, immovable foundation stone, while the epistemology of the modern age, starting from reason, also ends in faith.

... the world is a phenomenon of faith: hardly any medieval man ever doubted this elementary proposition. They had just fully grasped the teaching of Jesus, the core of which is the serious and simple admonition to believe; not to doubt that this world is and that it is the work of God; that all is, even the least and the lowest: the poorest and the most simple, the children, the sinners, the lilies and the sparrows; that all this is if one believes in it or, what is the same, if one loves it.

... all things live and weave in God and feel secure in him; but how can they be sufficient for him? This is how the medieval soul lies before us.

In the middle of the 14th century, a very different kind of humanity enters the scene. Henceforth the world is no longer a mystery willed by God, but a rationality created by man."

The second Doctor of the Church is Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (born c. 480-85? Died c. 524 AD in Pavia), a late ancient scholar, politician, Neoplatonic philosopher and theologian. Through his translations from Greek into Latin, he became the most important mediator of Greek logic, mathematics and, above all, music theory. His work "De Institutione Musica" (Introduction to Music) draws on the harmony theory of Pythagoras (after 1000 years!).


Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (born around 480-85? died around 524 AD in Pavia)

Source: art_prints_on_demand.com

Interesting for my search for the absurd is the fact that Boethius, as a preacher of the Word of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, as a canonised church teacher and martyr, on the day of his execution by the Gothic emperor Theodrich the Great, did not place the salvation of his soul after death in the hands of Jesus Christ - that was too irrational for him - but explicitly in the hands of Plato and Aristotle. He thus placed their rational philosophy above the Christian absurd worldview of Tertullian. He sought comfort in the abstract teachings of the Greek logical mind. The absurd offered him no comfort.

Here, two worlds meet within early Christian teaching: the world from the belief of the absurd and the world from rational reasoning. These forces, which act like two poles, continue to live in us right up to the present and have led to diverse theological, philosophical and also scientific steps towards knowledge and debates among scholars. But there is also a real world of the non-rational, which is at least as important as the rational understanding of the world that predominates. Perhaps it is even a more significant force in human cognition?

Do we not need both worlds and forget this? Don't we all know the eerily beautiful feeling? Something absurd?

The German Protestant religious scholar Rudolf Otto (1869 - 1937) coined the term "numinous" for the presence of an absolutely transcendent formless divine in his major work "The Sacred", in 1917. The miracle of being detached from all associations that emanate from words of natural, meaning language. The numen is not describable, stands outside human reality for the sphere of the sacred, and yet is still connected to human thought and action: fear and attraction. Absurd?

No work of Protestant-oriented religious studies has since been translated into so many languages and is still considered a foundation of Christian doctrine.

 Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto (1869 - 1937)

Source: Wikipeadia.com

He borrowed the term from the Latin "numen", which means divine will; divine majesty; a power emanating from the Godhead. He writes about the irrational in the idea of the divine and its relationship to the rational, about the tension between something unfathomable and something fascinating; what quakes in fear and delights; what makes your soul sing and is in equal measure disturbing. Thus, in the middle ground between the fascinating and the shocking, the experience of the sacred emerges through the providence of the logic of the soul, the power of faith. Otto speaks in this context of the "Mysterium Tremendum" and "Mysterium Fascinosum", both of which always occur together and awaken the experience of the numinous in us.

I see in this a proof of the unavoidable existence of the absurd and its culture-creating power.

In order to perhaps lead to an even better understanding of what Otto has already clearly written down, I would like to draw on an example from the visual arts. Art is considered to be something irrational.

It is the so-called "Isenheim Altar" by the painter Matthias Grünewald, (1470/74 - 1528), which is kept in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

 Isenheim Altar

"Isenheim Altar" by the painter Matthias Grünewald, (1470/74 - 1528)

Source: Etsy.com

Compared to nature, where harmony determines everything - remember Pythagoras and Kepler - there is another possibility in artistic representation. It is the ability to combine the harmonious with the disharmonious, the ugly, in one and the same work. In this way of combining the beautiful with the ugly, the pictorial elements elude the comprehensibility of the intellect and, mediating between the earthly and heavenly worlds, lead to a new numinous world connected in thought and feeling: fear and attraction! This Christ on the cross has arguably become the symbol of the painful death of the cross par excellence and yet is "beautiful" because of his promised resurrection through the darkness of death.

This newly created, commensurable (comparable) sphere of being in a completely new and quite different relationship to concepts, moral principles and positive religions, the divine appears via the representation of the irrational (absurd) in its relationship to the rational: tension between something abysmal and fascinating. It shocks and delights. I recall the words of Tertullian!

The all-pervading absurdity of the event is accentuated by John's anatomically elongated index finger: a finger that says everything, but which in reality does not exist. It is absurd. The logic of our soul's experience of sound allows us to understand this. An understanding characterised by infinity. Infinity is the idea inherent in mankind: the permanent.

 Isenheimer Altar Detail

"Isenheim Altarpiece" by the painter Matthias Grünewald (1470/74 - 1528) - the anatomically elongated index finger of John.

Source: Offenburger Tagblatt

Tied to matter is the finiteness of the machine and, in our case, machine intelligence. I will go into this further in the following essay, especially in the relationship of theatre to the absurd, which had its new beginning on the occasion of a performance in a French school on the evening of 10 December 1896. Here the pupils, the children, showed that they were still open to the contradictory.

To this I quote once again Egon Friedell, who threw himself to his death from a window when Hitler entered Vienna:

"... for indeed it is precisely the unrhymed things that appear to children as the most credible, the most impossible as the most conscientious: they have much more confidence in a fairy tale than in a sober narrative, and generally regard all phenomena that break through the course of natural causality not only as the higher, but also as the more real. This was precisely the "physics" of medieval man.

... we must ask ourselves whether he (A. the man of the Middle Ages) was not guided here by a deeper, albeit darker, knowledge and whether he was not closer to the root of the mystery than we are..."

Today, our world appears to children on screens or mobile phones, filling their imaginations. I wonder what Friedell would say about this?

 Egon Friedell

Egon Friedell (1878 - 1938)

Source: clivejames.com

Text: © Sibylle Laubscher & Martin Rabe