Ioan P. Couliano: The Glass Bead Game and Reality Engineering

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A game fascinates the human mind because the mind recognizes in it its own functioning… – Ioan P. Couliano

Ioan Petru Culianu or Couliano (5 January 1950 – 21 May 1991) was a Romanian historian of religion, culture, and ideas, a philosopher and political essayist, and a short story writer. He served as professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago from 1988 to his death, and had previously taught the history of Romanian culture at the University of Groningen.

An expert in gnosticism and Renaissance magic, he was encouraged and befriended by Mircea Eliade, though he gradually distanced himself from his mentor. Culianu published seminal work on the interrelation of the occult, Eros, magic, physics, and history.

Culianu was murdered in 1991. It has been much speculated his murder was in consequence of his critical view of Romanian national politics. Some factions of the Romanian political right openly celebrated his murder. The Romanian Securitate, which he once lambasted as a force “of epochal stupidity”, has also been suspected of involvement and of using puppet fronts on the right as cover.

The Game of the mind

The first book I ever read by Couliano was Eros and Magic in the Renaissance which dealt with the underpinnings of political manipulation. He would explore renaissance magic which he showed was a scientifically plausible attempt to manipulate individuals and groups based on a knowledge of motivations, particularly erotic motivations. Its key principle was that everyone (and in a sense everything) could be influenced by appeal to sexual desire. In addition, the magician relied on a profound knowledge of the art of memory to manipulate the imaginations of his subjects. In these respects, Couliano suggests, magic is the precursor of the modern psychological and sociological sciences, and the magician is the distant ancestor of the psychoanalyst and the advertising and publicity agent.

Underlying his history is the exploration of “eros” or affectivity and desire, and how from the time of the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle through the renaissance certain forms of conceptuality and praxis had shaped the political motivations of power in both the Catholic and Feudal systems in its ability to manipulate the emotions and physical systems of its peasantry.

The “eros” of Renaissance magic started out with optical theory and other medical concerns with Aristotle (and perhaps Plato), who held that there was a substance called the “pneuma.” In Aristotle’s thinking, the pneuma was a substance that was located as a thin shield around the body. In Stoic medical theory, this became a substance commesurate with the “soul” or “spirit.” This substance was a “prima materia,” a fundamental substance that contained the physiological ability to transmit information to the senses, especially the ocular sense. The heart was the center for a generational organ that in turn centered the pneuma, This pneumatic organ was called in Greek — the “hegimonikon.” Forming images in the pneuma for sensory transmission was necessary before a person could percieve something or someone. Through the works of late antiquity, such as the Corpus Hermeticum and medieval physicians such as Albert the Great, the doctrine of the pneuma became common discourse and was incorporated into popular culture such as the courtly love tradition. Taken by the bishop Synesius’s (d. ca. 415) synthesis of previous pneumatic doctrine and courtly love practices, Ficino develops a universal doctrine of the relation of man to the universe through Eros mediated by the Universal and Particular pneuma. While mentioning Pico della Mirandola as a sparring partner of Ficino, the main emphasis in this narrative turns to Giordano Bruno, whom Couliano believes modified and perfected this doctrine in terms of personal manipulation and excitation through the powers of Eros.

In the last part of the book he’ll strive to develop an alternate account of the “fall” of magic by highlighting the role of the Reformation. Having defended the notion that the Renaissance was about a revival of pagan culture, he in turn emphasizes the role of imagery and “phantasy” in the doctrine of the pneuma. The Reformation and the Counter Reformation were primarily about the eradication of pagan culture from Christiandom. As such they were about the eradication of imagery, manifested in terms of Luther’s accusations of Catholic “magic” in the Eucharist, iconoclasm, the witch hunts. For Couliano the witch hunts are a social counterpart to the eradication of religious-magical imagery— both are manifestations of “human phantasy.” When “qualitative” statements become suspect (as they involve imagery) then strictly “quantitative” science becomes the only legitimate route for knowledge. When these scientists wax inductive, they are threatened by the Church(es).

The Logics of reality gaming

In his book The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism Couliano would take up the theme of computation, cognitive strategies, and game logic to show how these elaborate systems of the gnostics were comparable to our current game board systems. As he’ll suggest the “morphodynamics of dualistic (binary) systems can be compared with a board game and could, as a matter of fact, be made into a board game of transformations. (p. 247).” He’ll continue:

Game stores today sell very advanced board games with numerous expansions. Theoretically a board game can expand limitlessly; yet in practice the minds of the potential buyers will remain interested in one game for a certain amount of time only. The more advanced among them might already have discovered that one game is all games; thus changing to a new game is not necessary. Why so? A game fascinates the human mind because the mind recognizes in it its own functioning, and this recognition does not depend on the kind of game offered to the mind. (p. 247).”

“One game is all games…” he says, sounding like a character in one of Jorge Luis Borges’ fables. This notion that in observing our participation in game play we become aware of the dynamics of the mind itself in its endless movement and strategizing, its decisional processes of selecting and distinctions, of choices and subtractions is at the core of this thought. As he’ll relate the “logic of any game is to set before the mind a multiple-choice scheme. The mind will immediately set upon its task of exploring all these possibilities. Theoretically it should do no more, but in practice the human mind is always faced with situations in which, among a plurality of solutions, only one or some are correct, and the incorrect ones may prove fatal. (p. 247).”

What he did in this book was to follow the logical iteration of the multiplicity of this board game of Gnosticism across three-centuries as if it were an information processing task of a multitude of minds seeking the solution to which ultimately orthodox Christianity as the power play of final telos became the only possible solution to the original system. Yet, as he says, this did not shut it down, in the same way that the mind can never be shut down but will seek further explications and try to gain further explorations of unyielding aspects of the game that cannot be answered.

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The glass bead game and reality engineering

We know that Deleuze and Guattari would study the distinction between striated, arboreal structures and smooth, rhizomatic structures between the game of Go (Chinese) and Chess (India) as typifying various symmetrical and asymmetrical systems of dynamic mind games. We’ve read works like Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, or The Glass-Bead Game which as his main character describes it:

Although we recognize the idea of the Game as eternally present, and therefore existent in vague stirrings long before it became a reality, its realization in the form we know it nevertheless has its specific history.

How far back the historian wishes to place the origins and antecedents of the Glass Bead Game is, ultimately, a matter of his personal choice. For like every great idea it has no real beginning; rather, it has always been, at least the idea of it. We find it foreshadowed, as a dim anticipation and hope, in a good many earlier ages. There are hints of it in Pythagoras, for example, and then among Hellenistic Gnostic circles in the late period of classical civilization. We find it equally among the ancient Chinese, then again at the several pinnacles of Arabic-Moorish culture; and the path of its prehistory leads on through Scholasticism and Humanism to the academies of mathematicians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on to the Romantic philosophies and the runes of Novalis’ hallucinatory visions. Although we recognize the idea of the Game as eternally present, and therefore existent in vague stirrings long before it became a reality, its realization in the form we know it nevertheless has its specific history.

The point here is that Reality is the board upon which the Game of the Mind is playing out its infinite moves, a game in which the Mind is always present and seems forever assigning itself the task of playing itself against the Real as if it were an endless game of chance – a system of infinite metamorphosis and transformations through which the mind constructs its unique solutions in its strange and bewildering existence. Yet, this is not to make the Mind into God, nor is it a universal system, but is the infinite play of the universe under a multiplicity and pluralistic plane of composition and decomposition without end or purpose. The only purpose if one likes is the game itself.

Each of us is the clone of this unique game playing system that manifests itself in infinite multiplicity. We are each the unique and singular nodes in a rhizomatic universe playing itself out in endless series of games that have no rhyme or reason, yet seem to the observers within the game to mark a linear movement that portends a final destination. Instead of some other realm outside the game, the game is for those who would like to use the metaphor the eternity-machine playing its game under rules that we as manifest players in a virtual/actual system of infinite complexity only have finite informational access too.  Our access to the game mechanics of the system of the mind – the brain itself, disallows us to know or have access to the algorithms of the game play itself.

We are blind to the very mechanisms of the game, yet we observe its systems in the reflective processes of the manifest not virtual game play. All we ever have is the ability to see not know these processes in action or experience. Like ministers or puppets of a game we do not know or control we move according to decisions that have already been made for us in the mind’s own capacity to play out its logical forms. We observe what has already been decided in the moment we become aware that we are acting on behalf of the mind’s choices. Even our sense of free-will is but the observance of the game, not of our actual manifest choices; for, the truth is, the move happens before our observation of the move; what we observe is always the history of the game, not the game itself. We discover the play of the game after the fact, not before; like an audience in the stands we cheer on our performances as if they were happening in the now, when in fact they are well choreographed stage plays made in the intricate mechanisms of our brain beyond our ability to know or reason. We are citizens of a game that has already been played ahead of time, we only observe in the micro-seconds of game play the truth of our actions as repetition and reporting of memory reflections on the screen our consciousness.

We make up fictional constructs, fables of the mind to tell ourselves we are alive, we have selves, we are the one’s who are the masters of the game. But the truth is we are the puppets of a game master over which we know little or nothing at all. Fatalism? No. Sadly not even that, just the mere truth that we are not what we think we are, and never have been. Language gave us certain advantages in the game. It allowed us to externalize our memory, thoughts, ideas as if they were ours, as if we had created them… and, the centuries and millennium went by and we fell into the habit of believing in our own lies. We even developed notions of distinction… we began to divide reality into us and it through distinctions that gave us power over “it”, the “thing”, the world of “substance”. But in our time this myth of matter as substance has fallen away and given rise to an immaterial game-world. With the emergence of quantum mechanics and information theory we discovered there is no distinction of inside/outside… the bluring of self and world is complete. We’ve entered a new era, transforming ourselves and the game into a new board with new pieces to play out. We’ve invented a whole new set of heuristically pertinent tools for reengineering reality and ourselves in ways we are only now beginning to imagine and understand.

Yet, we are only at the beginning, the genesis of this new game. A Genesis Project that will move us beyond our selves and into the next evolutionary stage, the posthuman transition of which we are but the momentary movement in a game we have as yet little knowledge of and even less access to its essential mechanisms. We can forget the old games of reality now, put them away as the childish pursuits of shamans and magicians who once developed wonders and signs. Our new shamans and magicians are the quantum engineers and architects of neurosciences who will soon begin constructing reality in ways we have yet to even imagine. This is the age of reality engineers, a time of metamorphosis and transformation of the human into the other it is becoming.

The Game of the Mind was reset and we are only now beginning to play the new pieces on the board of the Real: utilizing nanotech, biotech, information and communications systems against the new field of quantum reality boards. One can see this as opening Pandora’s box… but even this provides us with a fable of bifurcating codes: odds and probabilistic diagnoses – possibility spaces of a future that disconnects us from all we know and have been. A becoming other in a transition from which we will no longer exist as we have come to know the human. Becoming other in ways that no one can predict: the game board is empty and ready. But one has to ask: Do we even have a choice in the matter?

What is your next move?

The game is ready, the board empty and waiting.

Will you play?

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