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Winston Churchill said that the contributions of Alan Turing in winning World War II, who is the subject of the film Imitation Game, were the most important made by any single person. Turing broke the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma code. By doing so, it is estimated he shortened the war by over two years and saved millions of lives. To break Enigma, he built what was a prototype of the first super-computer – one that the original IBM computer, ENIAC, was based. He helped establish the Church-Turing math thesis which is the foundation of computational and computer science theory. His mathematical algorithms are widely recognized as laying the theoretical basis for internet search engine algorithms used today by Google. When President Obama spoke to the British Parliament in 2011, he cited Turing as one of the five greatest scientists of all time – joining the ranks of Newton and Einstein.
Despite all of his achievements, Turing was arrested in 1952 by British police and charged with gross indecency after he was found having sex with another man. During questioning and at his trial, Turing admitted to the liaison but claimed he was not guilty. Being homosexual is not a crime, he asserted. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to spend two years in prison or, as an alternative, to undergo chemical castration. That is what he chose, so that he could continue his work. Injected with massive doses of synthetic estrogen, Turing gained weight, lost all his body hair, grew breasts, became lethargic and was profoundly affected mentally. Medical experts confirm mental confusion and depression result from rapid replacement of testosterone with estrogen.
In 1954, Turing was found dead in his apartment from an apparent suicide. A large amount of liquid cyanide was found in his stomach. He had been deeply depressed by his chemical castration and by an inability to continue his work. Since many of his wartime accomplishments were kept secret for national security reasons, his death was barely noted. By 1967, when the British law forbidding homosexual acts ended, over 49,000 men had been convicted and punished for breaking it. In 1995, Queen Elizabeth posthumously pardoned Turing even as she refused to acknowledge the law had been a mistake or to pardon any of the other men convicted by it.
A few years ago Stuart Blersch held a Gathering Book Club in which we read of the imprisonment of homosexuals by Nazi Germany. They were the first concentration camp prisoners. While many countries share in the shame of persecuting gays and lesbians, it is shocking that a country like Great Britain was doing so during many of our lifetimes.
Much of what I’ve just discussed is alluded to in The Imitation Game, one of this year’s Academy Award Best Picture nominated films. The title is borrowed from Turing’s theoretical work exploring the subject of machine intelligence or, what we today call artificial intelligence. The title also points to the major theme of the movie – that of imitation versus reality. During most of his life Turning was forced to imitate a straight man – even at one point becoming engaged to his code breaking colleague, Joan Clarke. In the film, he rhetorically asks one of his police interrogators “what is genuine love and what is an imitation?” Well ahead of his time, he asked in a letter to a friend if going to bed with a man was not the equal to that of being with a woman? I like vanilla, you like chocolate. What is the problem? Why is one form of sex condemned as indecent, criminal and an imitation, while the other is considered ideal and good?
Turing was also far ahead of his time in predicting that machines could mimic many forms of human thought – even claiming that machines think and process mathematical equations far better. He conducted “imitation games” during which people were tasked with trying to guess whether they were playing chess against a computer or a human. Most people could not tell the difference. As he wondered, what is real intelligence and what is an imitation?
And the movie also pointedly asks what constitutes genuine morality versus one that is situational and seemingly imitation. In order not to tip off the Germans that the Enigma code had been broken, Turing and war generals had to decide which German military actions would be prevented, and which would not – thus forcing them to choose between British and American soldiers who would live and those who would die. Is genuine morality a fixed constant as found in the Ten Commandments – “Thou Shall Not Kill”, or is it flexible – perhaps allowing for the killing of some so that far more are saved? Which morality is the imitation and which is real?
Since my task is to find spiritual insight from this film, the question of what is real and what is an imitation must be asked. Indeed, that is the great philosophical and spiritual question of all time. Why do we exist? What is it that determines our existence? What determines reality? What is truly and universally good – the One Great Truth – what some call God? What things, thoughts or morals are ideal and what are simply imitations?
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote at length about his understanding of reality. Humans use art, he said, through media such as music, painting, sculpture and literature to portray what they believe is life reality. Plato wrote that human representations of life are more true, or perfect, than the actual object. A painting of a flower is a better representation of the object since the artist idealizes it – eliminating distracting elements that occur in real life like imperfections of shape, color or things that diminish its beauty.
Plato elaborated on this idea by suggesting that even artistic representations of life are not truth, nor is the actual object. Instead, what is true is our collective idea of an object or emotion – a fixed universal constant – of what, for example, a flower should look like. That amorphous idea of an object, thought or emotion is Truth, according to Plato. It’s not the actual object or our representation of it. Ultimate Truth and goodness are intangible ideals. In other words, human representations of objects or thoughts in art are imitations of the actual thing – and those actual things are imitations of universal ideals of that object or emotion. For Plato, art imitates life which imitates a universally accepted perfect ideal.
All of this is heavy philosophy and if it seems too cerebral, I apologize. But Plato’s influence on Christianity and its theology of an imperfect world contrasted against an ideal God and heaven has had a profound impact on western morality. Confronting this issue of what is real and what is a flawed imitation helps us in our spirituality.
I assert that the perfect ideal truth of which Plato theorized is what many religions call God, Yahweh, Allah or Brahmin. For many of us who choose to define Truth as something which is not a supernatural, theistic being, we are still left with question of what is Ultimate Truth and goodness? What is the original creative power? What is the purpose and meaning for all creation? What is universally good?
Turing posed existential and spiritual questions with his development of the first machine that could act like a brain. While we often believe that our hearts and souls are the seats of personhood, it is our brains that lead us to form moral and spiritual identities. If we can build an artificial brain, can we thus build an artificial soul? And if we do so, which is the real brain, the real soul – our flawed and fallible ones influenced by desires, hatreds and jealousies or, machines which employ constant mathematical truths to think in ways that are untainted by other influences? Does a computer represent the perfect ideal of thinking and intelligence – one that Plato might have recognized? Or, are our minds and thus our souls something far more complex – ones that are made perfect and ideal precisely because they are seemingly imperfect?
In Turing’s life, he constructed a prototype of the modern computer and called it “Christopher” – named after a schoolmate who introduced him to cryptography and with whom he had fallen in love. The tragedy of Turing’s life was his struggle with the purity of Christopher the machine – something that could “think” and crack complex codes – versus the seeming imperfection of his highly intelligent brain which was strongly influenced by homosexuality. Society told him such thoughts and behaviors were immoral and imperfect. By building a machine without such impulses, and naming it after his beloved Christopher, Turing seemed to agree. Math, codes, puzzles and computers are pure of thought, he asserted. Human brains and thus human souls are beset by other influences like desire and emotion. Which intelligence is better?
Turing was adamant, however, in asserting that being gay was an intrinsic part of his being. While he imitated a straight man to persons who did not know him, to his very close friends he was fully out of the closet. In order to be a friend of Turing, one had to accept his homosexuality as a part of his personhood and thus his reality.
But Alan Turing struggled with this idea of perfect intelligence. He was able to conceive of theories and math far beyond other humans. His brain was brilliant – one almost the superior of computers since he invented them. But his thinking was also subject to sexual desire – a kind of thinking that would unfairly cause his ruin. Logically, he knew the consequences in Great Britain for engaging in homosexuality. But for him, that way of thinking was very real and thus not like the analytical machines based on math – a kind of thinking that logically eliminates non-procreative sexual desire.
My point is this: does the story of Alan Turing call us to better define the spiritual realms of Ultimate Truth and Ultimate goodness? We assume that ideal human thought and behavior are not influenced by illogical actions such as anger, lust, arrogance and jealousy. But Turing’s life and his homosexuality tell us the opposite. Ideal human thought IS subject to illogical influences like emotion and desire. In other words, Ultimate Truth – or God, if that is your word for it – is all about the supposedly imperfect. Plato was therefore wrong and much of religious theology is also wrong.
To rebut Plato, the ideal flower is not a perfect concept of what we believe a flower to be. The ideal flower is slightly mis-colored, misshapen or absent a few petals. The ideal form of intelligence and thus the soul is not one that would never think of lust or anger, but one that does. We can believe what we want but reality is reality. Ultimate Truth – or God – is right here, right now, in each of us with all of our supposed imperfections. We might change the here and now to improve it – much like we work to eliminate racism and hatred – but with all due apologies to those who are scientists and mathematicians, God is not a perfect mathematical equation. She’s not logical with a fixed ideal of morality and goodness. She’s often illogical, imperfect and certainly not like a computer.
In an ideal existence, what religions often call heaven, homosexuality and anger would not logically exist. But, as I often claim, heaven is not an otherworldly idea. Heaven is right here, as Jesus taught. Indeed, people and things that seem to many religions to be imperfect are, ironically, ultimately true and good.
I assert my theory of Ultimate Truth and goodness is found in the Bible. Jesus was good not because he was a supernatural God but because he was fully human with anger, temptation, doubt and fear. He was good because he worked to change such things in himself and in others. Indeed, I can even accept Jesus as a type of God, in an ironic way, precisely because he was not perfect.
This is the same truth I find in Alan Turing and which took me decades to find in myself. It’s discovery profoundly changed my spirituality as it has with many others. Platonic, Christian and western philosophy has twisted a sense of what is perfection. They claim that certain thoughts or actions are not true, ideal or good. But that has no basis in reality. Religions and many societies tell people they must live up to their version of what is ideal even though that is impossible. The greatest saints and heroes throughout history were often imperfect in thought or character. Why do we, even those who are not religious, choose to judge human character using false notions of goodness – on matters like sexuality, reproductive choices or faith? In my own life, I’ve had to come to terms with this question – am I good because I am human and imperfect or am I bad because I don’t try to imitate some religious standard?
Alan Turing was a tragic hero brought down by forces in our world that falsely determines what is ideally good. Turing’s idealized visions of his boyfriend Christopher, his computer and all future computers – these are not representations of what is ideal intelligence and the soul. And that is because they are too perfect. Good and true is a way of thinking that includes seemingly illogical desires and emotions. It is a man who loves another man just as much as good is also a straight woman who loves a man. Good and real is a human soul who strives to be ethical and compassionate – even as he or she falls short with lapses of intolerance, fear or bitterness. Goodness is is not to play an imitation game as religions tell us we must. We are good, we are Ultimate Truth precisely because we are each occasionally NOT good or not a supposedly perfect ideal. God is you, God is me, in all of our illogical, imperfect but beautiful humanity.