aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude ס: Binary

“Today I will expound unto you the kabbalistic theory of the creation of the world,” said Ana. “It all starts with Leibniz…”

We were sitting together on the couch after dinner. Erica and Eli Foss were on the other couch. Zoe Farr was in the armchair. Ana was wearing a blue t-shirt saying “I WENT TO THEODICY CON 2014 AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS CRAPPY TSHIRT, AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY A JUST GOD WOULD ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN.” It was pouring outside, and the occasional gust of wind added eerie punctuation to her argument.

“See, there’s this idea called divine simplicity. People keep asking, okay, so God created the Universe, but who created God? The answer is that God doesn’t need creating. He’s perfectly simple. He’s just a natural thing for there to be. People act like you need God to explain why the universe isn’t just nothing. But why should the Universe be nothing? Why shouldn’t it be, I don’t know, a piece of bread? The only reason people think ‘nothing’ needs no explanation, but a piece of bread does need an explanation, is that nothing is simpler than bread. Well, God is just as simple as nothing. So there.”

“How is this Leibniz?” asked Eli Foss.

“I’m getting to Leibniz! Right now we’re at information theory. A well-defined mathematical explanation of simplicity. We can measure the complexity of a concept in bits. The number of binary digits it would take to specify the concept in some reasonable encoding system. We can do it with numbers. The numbers 0 and 1 are one bit. Two is 10, three is 11; those are two bits. Four is 100, five is 101, six is 110, seven is 111; so three bits. And so on. We can do it with computer programs; just count how many bits and bytes they take up on a computer. We can do it with images if you can get them into a format like .gif or .jpg. And we can do it with material objects. All you have to do is figure out how long it would take to write a program that specifies a description of the material object to the right level of complexity. There are already weather simulators. However many bits the most efficient one of those is, that’s how complex the weather is.”

“And God?” asked Zoe Farr.

“God is one bit. The bit ‘1’”.

“I find that…counterintuitive,” was the best Zoe could answer.

“Well, it’s easy to represent nothingness. That’s just the bit ‘0’. God is the opposite of that. Complete fullness. Perfection in every respect. This kind of stuff is beyond space – our modern theories of space take a bunch of bits to specify – but if it helps, imagine God as being space filled with the maximum amount of power and intelligence and goodness and everything else that it can hold, stretching on to infinity.”

“The maximum amount of purple?” I objected.

“Sure. And the maximum amount of red, green, blue, et cetera.”

“So God is kind of an off-shade of brown, is what you’re telling me,” I told Ana. “Because in third grade I tried mixing all the colors of paint together, and that was what I got.”

“Well, what color should He be?”

“Brilliant golden light,” suggested Erica.

“Exodus 20:23,” I objected. “You shall not make a god out of gold.”

“And,” said Ana, “if you don’t think God can be brown, then you’re racist.”

“But,” said Erica, “if God contains everything alike, then He is evil as well as good. Weakness as well as strength. Sadness as well as happiness.”

“I know the answer to this one,” said Zoe. “Goodness is the same as existence. To exist infinitely is to be infinitely good. A human who was really human, who fulfilled her humanity to the utmost degree, would be a truly excellent human, one who was good at being a human and exemplified all the human virtues. Insofar as you are less of a human than that person, you exist less than them. God is pure existence, so He has to be pure good as well.”

“No,” I said. “That’s assuming the conclusion. It’s saying that humans exist to be good. Why can’t humans exist to be bad? There are three numbers that need no justification – zero, infinity, and negative infinity.”

“Negative infinity isn’t simple!” said Ana. “You have to put the minus sign in front of it! That’s a whole extra pen stroke!”

“That’s only convention,” Erica protested.


“Aren’t religious people always talking about how the Bible is a source of absolute values?” I proposed.

“Maybe,” said Eli seriously “existence is like distance. There’s only one direction you can go. God went that direction and we called it ‘good’. Bad is something else.”

“Bad is just the absence of God,” said Zoe.

“We’ve had this discussion!” said Ana. “No it isn’t! Nothingness is the absence of God! Hitler requires a design decision! Four arms on the swastika! Two sides to the mustache! One testicle!”

“I thought that was a myth,” I said.

“I still don’t get how this is Leibniz,” said Zoe. “Or the creation of the world.”

“Leibniz was studying the I Ching, and he noticed that its yin and yang sticks, when arranged in hexagrams, corresponded to a new form of arithmetic, because he was Leibniz and of course he noticed that. So he invented binary numbers and wrote a letter to the Duke of Brunswick saying that he had explained how God could create the universe out of nothing. It goes like this. You’ve got God, who is 1. You’ve got nothingness, which is 0. And that’s all you need to create everything. 1s and 0s arranged in a long enough string.”

“How, exactly?”

“The kabbalistic conception is that God withdrew from Himself to create the world. I, for example, am beautiful and intelligent, but not so physically strong. God is perfectly beautiful and intelligent and strong, so by withdrawing a little bit of His beauty and intelligence, and a lot of His strength, and some other things, we end up with an Ana.”

“Except you’re not an off-shade of brown,” said Erica.

“And also, God mostly just withdrew from the original universe in such a way that made it have laws of physics that generated you,” I added.

“Same difference,” said Ana.

“How did God decide which 1s to change to 0s?” asked Erica.

“And there’s the rub,” said Ana. “To change any 1s to 0s at all is making the world worse. Less Godly. Creation was taking something that was already perfect – divinity – and making it worse for no reason. A wise woman once said that those who ask how a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil miss a greater conundrum – why would a perfect God create a universe at all?”

We were all silent just a little too long.

“I have a question,” Zoe Farr said, finally. “If God is just the binary digit 1, and nothingness is the binary digit 0, and the both contain one bit of information – then isn’t neither one the simplest thing? Wouldn’t the simplest thing be zero bits, neither God nor nothingness?”

“That’s Atzmus and you’re not supposed to talk about it!” said Ana.

“Okay, jeez,” said Zoe.

“Any other dumb objections?” Ana asked, play-acting a death glare at all of us.

“I might have one,” said Eli Foss. “I…appreciate what you’re trying to do, Ana, but I have to remind you that kabbalah isn’t just the word for whatever cool theory you happen to come up with by combining information theory and the I Ching and the doctrine of divine simplicity. It literally means ‘received tradition’. It’s a body of work that’s been designed and created according to specific rules set forth by the rabbis, and it’s within the tradition of a relatively insular religion that’s really strongly against mixing its concepts with those of other ideas, especially ones from different faiths the way that the I Ching is from Daoism. So I think your theory is interesting. But it isn’t kabbalah. It’s not from the ARI, or the Baal Shem Tov, or anybody like that. So when you say that it’s the kabbalistic theory of the world, I think you need to walk that back a little unless you think real orthodox kabbalists are actually going around saying that God is just the binary digit ‘1’.”

“I don’t just think it,” said Ana. “Every single Jewish person says exactly that, twice per day. ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL, THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS 1.'”

“I retract my objection,” said Eli.

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128 Responses to Interlude ס: Binary

  1. JustFinishedBinging says:

    Remember to vote on topwebfiction! Unsong’s currently second only to Wildbow’s works, with a decent chance of overtaking Worm.

  2. Pickle says:

    Typo post:

    “We can it with numbers.” -> “We can do it with numbers.”
    “God is one bit. The bit ‘1’” -> “God is one bit. The bit ‘1’.”
    “That’s only convention,” Erica protested -> “That’s only convention,” Erica protested. (And not a typo, but a stylistic observation: you use “protested” as the dialogue verb three times in a row.)
    “Maybe,” said Eli, seriously “existence is like distance. -> “Maybe,” said Eli seriously, “existence is like distance.
    “How, exactly.?” -> “How, exactly?”

  3. fsdadf says:

    1) What, no time/date header?

    2) “A wise woman once said” – is this a reference to someone IRL, or in-story? If in-story, I suspect Robin.


    “Maybe,” said Eli seriously “existence is like distance. There’s only one direction you can go. God went that direction and we called it ‘good’. Bad is something else.”

    God exists on the Riemann sphere.

    4) Eli Foss has an interesting point – Aaron and Ana love connecting the Kabbalah to all sorts of random things, but to what degree are these relations actually true (in the sense that they are useful in applied Kabbalah)? Uriel seems to use them too, so probably non-zero, but it sounds here like this is more of an Aaron/Ana quirk.

    • Pickle says:

      I know it’s an out-of-universe reference: Can’t remember if it’s shown up in-story yet.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      God exists on the Riemann sphere.

      More generally, the projective line.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Aaron said something in an early chapter about how in order to do Kabbalah, you need to see connections everywhere, even when they aren’t there. You need to look for connections much harder than any sane person would in order to become a good Kabbalist.

      Uriel says that the world of Unsong really does contain all sorts of crazy connections.

      That says to me that Aaron and Anna see both the real structure of Adam Kadmon, and also random coincidences, because they’ve had to force themselves into a mindset where the are no coincidences in order to spot the real non-coincidences linking unconnected-looking things.

      For example, Aaron’s reading of American Pie contains both real prophecy (Levy=Levi=priest), and also random nonsense that Aaron made up out of coincidences to fit his theory.

      • MugaSofer says:

        Correction: Aaron said this in the first chapter.

        It would be a lie to say I stayed sane by keeping my mind sharp. The sort of mental sharpness you need for the kabbalah is almost perpendicular to sanity, more like a very specific and redirectable schizophrenia. I stayed functional by keeping my mind in a very specific state that probably wasn’t very long-term healthy.

  4. fsdadf says:

    5) This interlude seems strange. They’re talking about very abstract philosophical ideas, and it’s hard to see how they’d turn out to be plot-relevant. But this story’s contemplate-our-navels moments so far have usually been plot-relevant in some way or other.

    • Wait no, it’s because the letter ס looks like a zero. I am dumb.

    • Deiseach says:

      This interlude seems strange. They’re talking about very abstract philosophical ideas, and it’s hard to see how they’d turn out to be plot-relevant.

      Some of us just like discussions about theology, I guess 🙂

      And I see why Ana started off with Leibniz; from the Catholic Encylopedia of 1912:

      The same general lines have been followed by most of the modern attempts to account in terms of Theism for the existence of evil. Descartes and Malebranche held that the world is the best possible for the purpose for which it was created, i.e. for the manifestation of the attributes of God. If it had been less fitted as a whole for the attainment of this object. The relation of evil to the will of a perfectly benevolent Creator was elaborately treated by Leibniz, in answer to Bayle, who had insisted on the arguments derived from the existence of evil against that of a good and omnipotent God. Leibniz founded his views mainly on those of St. Augustine and from St. Thomas, and deduced from them his theory of Optimism. According to it, the inverse is the best possible; but metaphysical evil, or perfection, is necessarily involved in the constitution, since it must be finite, and could not have been endowed with the infinite perfection which belongs to God alone. Moral and physical evil are due to the fall of man, but all evil is overruled by God to a good purpose. Moreover, the world with which we are acquainted is only a very small factor in the whole of creation, and it may be supposed that the evil it contains is necessary for the existence of other regions that are unknown to us. Voltaire in “Candide”, undertook to throw ridicule at the idea of “best possible world”; and it must be admitted that the theory is open to grave objections. On the one hand, it is scarcely consistent with the belief in the Divine omnipotence; and on the other, it fails to account for the permission (or indirect authorship) of evil by a good God, to which Bayle had specially taken exception. We can not know that this world is the best possible; and if it were, why, since it must include so much that is evil, should a perfectly good God have created it? It may be urged, moreover, that there can be no degree of finite goodness which is not susceptible of increase by omnipotence, without ceasing to fall short of infinite perfection.

    • AnthonyC says:

      My guess: This is not the first reference to “God is one and his name is one,” and a big part of the plot is about the various names of god.

      Also, I don’t remember which chapter, but they have discussed the trio 1, 0, -1 before, specifically referring to 1 and -1 as “song” and “unsong.” Random speculation: This could play into why UNSONG exists/needs to exist. Or how the messiah arrives during the best or worst generation. Or maybe hell is -1 and the world exists not just geometrically but mathematically between it and heaven as a kind of linear combination.

      • Daniel says:

        Found it—you must be remembering this conversation:

        There’s good music. And then there’s total silence. And then there’s [the national anthem of Hell]. It’s not silence. It’s the opposite of music.

    • Lambert says:

      Scott is probably loading a round into Chekhov’s gun here.

  5. 75th says:

    Probably relevant, somehow:

    “You really think I’m still in the crack? Listen, Houston. The tzimtzum, the Lurianic contraction of God to create the world, from a higher perspective it wasn’t a contraction at all, it was an expansion. An unfolding of divinity into new possibilities. The vessels didn’t shatter, they rearranged themselves into shapes that only become apparent from a pleroma beyond any dimensions but containing the potential for all of them. Houston, is this making sense?”

    • jzr says:

      My guess would be that this refers to the vast numbers of different ways you can use to represent and understand the same thing. This interlude uses individual integer numbers, which is… clunky at best. Try sets. For the sake of argument, think of the set of all integer numbers as our universum. There are two trivial subsets: the empty set, which contains no numbers (conventionally denoted by symbol for zero, usually with line crossing it), and the full subset, which contains every number (conventionally denoted by symbol for one, usually also with minor mod to distinguish it, if needed). These two are complementary, and as such both equally simple by nature. Then there is potentially an infinite number of other subsets. Each subset other than the full subset contains less numbers than the full subset, but at the same time they are more complex, contain more information. So the contraction in one perspective is the same as expansion in other.

      As for why the God would deliberately become less perfect… well there’s just two ways to be perfect, which I imagine would be perfectly boring 😛 compared by the infinite possibilities offered by imperfection.

  6. Sniffnoy says:

    So we have 24 chapters left (not a lot!) and 7 remaining interludes. I guess the remaining weeks are going to be relatively interlude-heavy!

  7. lvn says:

    I almost thought this was a trick.

  8. Rand says:

    Knew that was coming.

    Also, three times per day. Four on the Sabbath and Holidays. A whole bunch of times on Yom Kippur. (I could be missing some.)

    • Are you sure? Wikipedia says “In Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Shema should be recited twice daily, whether or not one is able to attend services with a congregation. The recitation should be performed in a suitable place that expresses reverence.”

      And the verse involved is something like “and you shall say this when you lie down and when you get up”.

      • Snowis says:

        Twice daily during formal prayers (once in the morning and once in the evening). However, many orthodox Jews also say the Shema before going to sleep as is stated in the Talmud. On Shabbat and holidays Shema is not recited any extra times, but an additional Amida prayer is said.

      • greghb says:

        As that same Wikipedia article says, “The term “Shema” is used by extension to refer to the whole part of the daily prayers that commences with Shema Yisrael.” It’s that whole service which is recited twice.

        The single verse Deuteronomy 6:4 is said more frequently. E.g., in the preliminary prayers of shacharit, when going to sleep, and when the Torah is removed from the ark on Shabbat.

      • Rand says:

        Well the “verse involved” is:

        You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

        (Deut 6:6, ESV)

        (Though in context this refers to “the words I command you today” not simply the Shema declaration, but it is often interpreted as such.)

        In any case, as per the other comments, the Shema verse is said at morning and evening prayers, before going to sleep, the Musaf amidah, the opening of the Ark, and several other locations.

        That said, saying Shema twice a day is fairly common, though that would tend to be in the morning prayer and before going to sleep, rather than morning and evening prayer (which has a lesser status than morning/afternoon prayers).

        • Jason GL says:

          From personal experience with the traditional Jewish liturgy in many Conservative and Orthodox settings:

          The “title” verse of the Shma (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) shows up in several different prayers, and as such is recited more than twice a day on sabbath and holidays. Even on just a regular Thursday (a BabylonIan market day on which the Torah was read aloud in public), you’d say the title verse three times.

          The full three paragraphs, running to some 200 words, known as the “Shema prayer”, are always said exactly twice a day, regardless of which day on the calendar it is.

          That said, there’s nothing wrong with Ana’s statement that traditional Jews say the Shema twice a day. That’s a true statement, whichever way you interpret “Shema.”

    • Warren Peace says:

      Can soneone please explain why the God is 1 line is supposed to be funny? I guess everyone thinks it’s obvious, but it’s not.

      I live less than a mile from the entrance to NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain. I don’t know a single practicing Jew now, and I’ve met less than a handfulbin Colorado. So it’s not my fault I don’t know this stuff. But I like getting jokes. Please help .

      • Andrew M says:

        I think the idea is that ‘God is one’ in its original context means ‘there is one God, not many’, and perhaps ‘God is a unity, not divided’, but Ana is reading it as ‘God is the number 1’. (Though how different these are is perhaps open to debate. Plato said ‘Good is one’, and people are still arguing about what he meant by it.)

  9. Aegeus says:

    I looked up Atzmus on Wikipedia. It means “essence,” and while the wiki page is clear as mud, the idea seems to be that it’s sort of a divine unity of everything. Like, God is infinite in nature, but God’s essence is in everything that exists, so “God plus the universe” is something even bigger, which we call Atzmus.

    So I guess “zero bits of information” – not 1, not zero, but both together – is a good way to describe it.

    I don’t know why you wouldn’t talk about it, though.

    • Anaxagoras says:

      That sounds a lot like Spinoza, who was famously heretical. Spinoza would probably love to be in a world like this one.

    • Deiseach says:

      I don’t know why you wouldn’t talk about it, though.

      Panentheism, which can degrade down into pure or simple pantheism, both of which are no-noes in monotheism.

      That’s probably the most easily comprehensible definition of absolute divine simplicity I’ve encountered 🙂

      Ana is a bit wrong on this part, though, or perhaps I am attributing to her something she does not intend and did not say:

      Creation was taking something that was already perfect – divinity – and making it worse for no reason.

      Matter is not intrinsically evil. And, as we say every year at the Easter Vigil with the reading from Genesis:

      God looked at everything He had made, and He found it very good.

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        Finding something “very good” implies that it can have varying degrees of goodness, and that it is not maximally good. The problem might not be the matter but the particular pattern.

        • Deiseach says:

          Well, that is the culmination of the creation account, where at the end of each ‘day’ of creation “God saw that it was good”.

          “Very” is being used as an intensifier here, to emphasise that the entirety of creation is indeed good both in its parts and as a whole. This is before the Fall but that is the point: the Fall damaged a creation that was good in its start, not that creation itself is a lessening or a decrease.

      • Rand says:

        G‑d looked upon all that He made, and behold it was very good (1:31)

        “Behold it was very good”—this is the good inclination; “and behold it was very good”—this is the inclination for evil.

        “Behold it was very good”—this is good fortune; “and behold it was very good”—this is suffering.

        “Behold it was very good”—this is paradise; “and behold it was very good”—this is hell.

        “Behold it was very good”—this is the angel of life; “and behold it was very good”—this is the angel of death.

        (Midrash Rabbah)

    • Rand says:

      I didn’t catch this either. My thought was that maybe it’s related to the Talmud dictum:

      “Whoever reflects on four things it were better for him that he had not come into the world: “what is above? what is beneath? what is before? and what is after?”

      And the prohibition on “Atzmus” is some kabbalistic extension of that?

      But I think Ana’s already violated that one pretty badly.

    • Archon says:

      Did anyone else looking that up also find a cool band of the same name into the bargin? or was that just me?

  10. teucer says:

    Doesn’t this mean Eve, in listening to temptation, fully obeyed the Shema? “Hear 0, Israel…”

  11. Correction says:

    The shema translation should say “our God” rather than “your God”. The divine name in Deuteronomy 6:4 ends with נוּ- rather than ךָ-.

  12. Arancaytar says:

    A wise woman once said that those who ask how a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil miss a greater conundrum – why would a perfect God create a universe at all?

    -Sister Miriam Godwinson!

    • Pickle says:

      Yep, I posted the audio upthread.

      Fellow SMACfan: here’s a cool blog that deep dives into the story and themes. I’m linking the relevant one for this quote, but it covers literally all the VOs from the base game.

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        Very fun. SMAC is still my favourite game, and I often recite the quotes by heart. One in particular is Chairman Yang’s:

        “What do I care for your suffering? Pain, even agony, is no more than information before the senses, data fed to the computer of the mind. The lesson is simple: you have received the information, now act on it. Take control of the input and you shall become master of the output.”

        (Works wonders when you stub your toe.)

        I wonder if this is Unsong relevant? We can view it as dissolving the theodice problem *if it is seen as suffering*: there is just information, process your information right and there will be no pain. Everything is perfect. However, if one regards the problem as the existence of *moral evil*, then it is less clear that processing the information well will remove all evil (some clearly is due to lack of comprehension of the Big Picture, but there is no guarantee that all evil is due to a myopic view of the world).

    • Error says:

      Damnit, now I need to play AC again. …except last time I tried, it either violently objected to Win10 or violently objected to multiple monitors, I’m not sure which. 🙁

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        Good Old Games sell an updated version that is compatible with modern operating systems. It still runs pretty hot on my laptops, though. The self-modifying graphics code is apparently a mess.

    • Arky says:

      Reading Unsong for the first time at the very end of 2021, I was so excited to see my all time favourite game referenced and was scrolling down and down to see if this reference had actually been missed by commenters past… Great to know it did get picked up

  13. Sniffnoy says:


    I just want to, like, upvote this, because it is great

  14. Anders Sandberg says:

    The Kolmogorov complexity (complexity is the number of bits of the shortest, most succinct description) approach to the issue is fun. As is well known, changing the UTM/language only leads to an additive change in complexity measure. So in the True Language (or on the True UTM, rather than Uriel’s machine) God is “1”: the language is presumably defined by this.

    It also helps suggest things about Adam Kadmon. The complexity of a generic integer is maximal: it is equal to the number of bits in the integer representation. Some integers like 1111111 or 1010101010 are less complex, but on average complexity (or randomness) is maximal. So as we move to larger integers complexity goes up. However, the *entire set* of integers has low complexity since it can be generated by a short program (“X=0; while(1) {print(X); X++}” – which incidentally in Unsong theology would be a bit of a psalm…and essentially what Lull is singing) .

    Adam Kadmon is presumably the program that generates the set of things in the universe. Presumably a bit more complex than the above program, it generates some but not all possibilities. It has a complexity, which could be very low or high. Also, we do not know the halting state for it.

    Adam Yedidia and Scott Aaronson proved that there exist fairly small (7918 state) Turing machines whose behaviour cannot be captured in Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice. So if the True UTM is like that, then there will be behaviour of Adam Kadmon that cannot be captured by ZFC; in general, the True UTM might be such that many important aspects of Adam Kadmon, not just halting undecidability, are beyond the reach of finite theories.

    • Decius says:

      The haltingness of Adam Kadmon as a program is provable as a special case. Probably Adam Kadmon does not halt IFF it has finite reduced complexity, because if it has infinite complexity every instruction must be executed at least once, and there is no finite number of steps which can do so.

      If it is of finite complexity, it cannot halt either, because then it would halt in some finite number C steps, which must be larger than any other halting program (because Adam Kadmon must also generate every number which is “the number of steps in which this program halts”). Therefore any program can be run for C steps, where C is the number of unique times in the universe, and if it does not halt in that number of steps it does not halt. This violates undecidability and allows the creation of an oracle.

    • dsotm says:

      Maybe that’s why Uriel decided to rewrite the thing, running a decidable world is so much easier.

    • Quintopia says:

      The biggest problem I have with it (though I understand it) is that if we’re going to say the primitive self-evident numbers are negative infinity, 0, and infinity, and do so in binary rather than the much more kabbalistic balanced ternary by equating positive and negative infinity (unexpectedly, since I was expecting these three numbers to represent pure good, pure evil, and neither), then God should be …111111… (an infinite string of ones), so that, by choosing which parts of himself to nullify, he introduces complexity (creates a universe).

      In other words, God is infinity, not 1.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I notice you put ellipses on *both* side, making it a doubly-infinite string of ones; which if interpreted as binary “sums” to 0 per Euler. 🙂

  15. sormogap says:

    This, like all discussions of theodicy in this book, reminds me once again of how spectacularly bad is the hypothesis of the universe being created by an an individual, conscious, omnipotent and morally good being.
    Not to mention that it seems like a remarkably long list of specific qualities to be attached by fiat on a being whose existence is only vaguely inferred…
    Not meant to offend, just expressing my complete puzzlement at how people actually take such ideas seriously.

    • AxiomsOfDominion says:

      Its just typical rationalization/cognitive dissonance. The vast majority of people believe in the religion they were raised in, mostly in the vaguest of ways. If you raise a modern person without a religion they’ll be atheist. If you don’t there’s a much smaller chance they’ll end up an atheist though that chance is increasing over time.

      • Nibok says:

        Not necessarily so. I lived in Russia for a number of years and met many people who were raised atheist who were looking for a religion they could believe in. People seem to inherently desire to have something bigger than themselves that they can believe in and trust, be it religion, government, a society or club, or what have you. One reason so many people turn to religion is that it’s hard to trust something created by people as flawed as you are.

        • JZR says:

          One reason so many people turn to religion is that it’s hard to trust something created by people as flawed as you are.

          You are implying religion is not created by people.

          • Joline says:

            Successful religion cultivates enough ambiguity about its origins to give people hope something more than humanity was involved.

            As far as I can see this is why liberal Judaism and Christianity fails is because this aspect of ambiguity is critical to the functioning of the organization…and its almost impossible to fiddle extensively with an old legacy institution and not leave an impression that the human element in the picture is predominantly or exclusively at work.

        • Arrk Mindmaster says:

          I know this is very late, but I cannot help but suggest considering Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, from earlier:

          And if it isn’t to your liking, as it wasn’t to the Russians, you can adopt Marxist-Lurianism.

          Or you can invent something else you find more kabbalistically appropriate.

  16. ShareDVI says:

    “Destroy Trinity. Unite Binary. Transcend unity.”
    Sigil Of Godhead (@AUM333_)

  17. LHC says:

    This chapter was released mere hours after /pol/ hit post 101010101.

  18. LHC says:

    Ana’s conception of God’s nature here is a fairly reasonable approximation of my own. If I didn’t know Scott, I’d believe he was describing his own beliefs. Excellent Intellectual Turing Test performance.

    The central tension she describes isn’t really a tension to me, though. A God who didn’t create universes would be uncreative, and therefore less perfect, and therefore not God. So there are fractals at the border between God and nothingness, which he creates out of himself but are not himself, being less complete than himself. The not-God-ness of those creations doesn’t undermine God – God and nothingness are both infinite and the creations don’t change the amount of God and not-God there is – it just increases the variety of situations that exist, and therefore the variety of situations that God can apply himself to, and therefore the variety of situations that God does apply himself in, and therefore the perfection of God, and therefore is a prerequisite and postrequisite (God isn’t in time, remember) for the existence of God.

    • LHC says:

      To be clear, I’m not endorsing the idea of Atzmus, mentioned in-chapter and elucidated on up-thread. “God + Nothing” isn’t greater than God, because nothing is nothing. There’s nothing in it.

      • Alex says:

        “God + Nothing = God”
        “God = Atzmus”

        And now I stop with the heresies, there’s an unexpected group of Spaniards knocking at my door.

      • Ryan Beren says:

        Instead of addition, you could think of combination into a set. Then { {divinity}, {} } is {divinity} “plus” {} and nevertheless distinct from {divinity}.

  19. rudy says:

    No Claude Shannon reference?

  20. Michael says:

    “So God is kind of an off-shade of brown, is what you’re telling me,” I told Ana. “Because in third grade I tried mixing all the colors of paint together, and that was what I got.”

    Did Aaron actually try this? You get a muddy grey.
    It’s a common misconception perpetuated by grade-school teachers that brown is every colour mixed together. In fact, “brown” is just dark yellow.

    While we’re correcting grade-school colour theory misconceptions which as an artist I resent having been taught, Blue, Yellow and Red being the “primary colours” is essentially arbitrary. Green and Purple /do/ mix into blue, it’s just hard to get it very pure in practice.

    • I did it too. I got brown.

    • dsotm says:

      You get brown if your color set lacks some hues (magenta/purple ?), the equal mix of all hues yields something on the grayscale by definition.

      • JZR says:

        Third grade paints don’t feature a uniform distribution of spectral colors. They feature colors that are convenient for third grader painting, and cheap to produce. Human vision is more sensitive to red and green hues than it is to blue. As such, overrepresenting those hues in paint kits is not unexpected at all — in fact, getting gray out of a random set of children paints should be incredibly unlikely, since the range of colors we perceive as brown is much larger than the range of colors we perceive as perfect gray.

        • JZR says:

          Since Michael up there is an artist, I should clarify that what I wrote may not hold for people who are trained to distinguish and recognize dozens or hundreds different hues of what the plebs like me see as “off-shade of brown”. But that is definitely what I got when I mixed my colors back at grade school. I remember being pissed that it looks like literal crap instead of some pretty shade of rainbow.

        • Michael says:

          Thanks for the insight. Paint sets having a bias towards orange makes perfect sense. Working in Photoshop, it’s always irritating how the colour wheel has a million shades of indigo, yet I spend all my time in the 5% sliver dedicated to red-through-yellow.

        • Michael says:

          “since the range of colors we perceive as brown is much larger than the range of colors we perceive as perfect gray.”

          Well actually, that’s the fascinating part. Consider what you said above:

          Human vision is more sensitive to red and green hues than it is to blue.

          Objectively, the range of colours we perceive as brown is surprisingly tiny. But they’re very common in nature, so we’ve come to be hypersensitive to their nuances and therefore perceive them as being a bigger part of the colour wheel than they are.

          In an unbiased sampling of colours the result would much more likely be something we’d call “bluish grey”

        • Peter D says:

          Very apropos, a great segment of RadioLab about our color perception:

          From the description on the website:

          What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howard introduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last. Jules Davidoff, professor of neuropsychology at the University of London, helps us make sense of the way different people see different colors in the same place. Then Guy Deutscher tells us how he experimented on his daughter Alma when she was just starting to learn the colors of the world around, and above, her.

  21. dsotm says:

    Was quantum mechanics never discovered in Unsongverse ? Atzmut is just begging to be described as a superposition of |0> and |1>

    and speaking of Shma Israel – I predict a Jacob-Ladder episode.

  22. Wren says:

    I have to say, this seems like the most important part of the chapter:

    …nothing is simpler than bread.

    My new headcanon: The ‘new messiah’ of the previous chapters (ben something, the second one) is actually a loaf of Wonderbread. After all, if simplicity is the essence of God, then what could be moreso than that?

    After all, Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountains is considered part of the ‘Breadbasket of America’.

    • Joline says:

      The Jews do have a a very ornate and lyrical prayer meant to be sung after meals with bread in ecstasy at how fundamental bread is and all the things it implies. Its not often people can get emotional singing an essay but some Jews manage it ^.^

      • Rand says:

        The Birkat Hamazon ( It’s just the grace after meals, and it’s a series of blessings/prayers, not an essay. And it’s not really specific to bread – it’s that bread was at some point sufficiently central to meals, that a meal without bread was presumed to be just a snack. (Relatedly, the Hebrew word for bread – לֶחֶם – in its earliest sense means food.)

        “ecstasy at how fundamental bread is and all the things it implies” sounds really weird…

      • Rand says:

        Though if you’re looking for people getting emotional singing an essay…

        Kol Nidrei isn’t an essay so much as it is a legal declaration (one with no legal weight, even in Jewish law but that’s its own issue). It just happens to be a legal text that got terribly lost, was put to a variety of mournful tunes, and somehow became a central prayer of the Highest of Holy Days.

        …which probably puts it in the top ten for incongruous prayers in Judaism.

      • SonOfLilit says:

        I wouldn’t describe the food prayer this way, but I would use exactly this description for the prayer you are supposed to say after going to the bathroom:

  23. Relevant to this chapter: Scott Aaronson’s coffee paper, which goes through a bunch of neat measures of complexity and how they explain real-life intuitions of it.

  24. yomikoma says:

    Ana (accidentally?) provides a very valid interpretation of Tao Te Ching chapter 42.

    The Tao begot one.
    One begot two.
    Two begot three.
    And three begot the ten thousand things.

    The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
    They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

  25. stavro375 says:


    “Aren’t religious people always talking about how the Bible is a source of absolute values?”

    Math puns are the best puns. For it is written in the book of Jezuboad: “The absolute values of the integers are not to be confused with the ten commandments, values whose justification are absolute.”

  26. Craig Gidney says:

    Ana seems to be treating god not just as 1 but more like an infinitely long string of 1s as in …1111111.

    Consider what happens when you increment that string of 1s as if it were a binary number. The rightmost 1 toggles to a 0 and generates a carry, which toggles the next 1 to 0 and generates a carry, which toggles the next 1 to 0 and generates a carry, which… yeah, the carrying process shoots off to infinity and leaves you with nothing but zeroes. (For reference, search “2-adic integers”.)

    So Ana’s description of god is the number that when incremented gives zero. That’s not one, that’s *negative* one.

    • Craig Gidney says:

      Incidentally, this is the underlying reason that the infinite series 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + … keeps leading to a result of -1 when you ignore the fact that it doesn’t converge and manipulate it algebraically anyways. The window is wide open for appropriately terrible puns about god being the sum of all bits yet coming before nothing, etc.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Oh whoa. 2-adic theodicy. That’s something.

  27. JJR says:

    Speaking of kabbalistic theory, I have one that’s been bouncing around my head for a couple days now.

    The Tetragrammaton is in fact the Shem haMephorash, and learning this fact from Metatron is what cause The Comet King to become depressed. The main reason I believe this is because Interlude ד: N-Grammata tells us that ancient Jewish Rabbis said it was. The rest of the story keeps telling us that ancient Jewish Rabbis tend to be right about these things. (electricity ban)

    But then, it doesn’t actually do the thing that the Shem haMephorash is supposed to do. That is, instead of allowing the speaker to destroy or remake world it just kills them. Another part of the story tells us that any direct interaction between God and the Universe will instantly destroy the latter; I believe that invoking the Shem haMephorash would constitute such an interaction. The killing effect, then, is a sort of cosmic censorship in place so that the universe cannot be destroyed by some random shmuck by accident. The messiah, in this theory, has some way of circumventing the death effect in order to use the name.

    This, I think, allows us to tie into the messianic dichotomy. Is the messiah going to come during the holiest generation or the most depraved? I think both are simply possibilities. If humanity hits the low, then Thamiel has won and all are doomed to suffer eternity in Hell. And then we get a Messiah like Dylan. (or maybe exactly him) Better to destroy the entire rotten thing and hope for something better in the future than allow it to continue. The Holiest Messiah is a bit trickier. I think to qualify the humans would have had to unite and somehow manage to invade hell and free it’s inhabitants. Consider that the story of the tower of Babel tells us that ““If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” If hell is harrowed, and a giant tower built connecting the Earth with the crack in the sky, humanity can literally evacuate the universe. And then the Good Messiah can remake it in a way more compatible with human values without killing everyone.

    Also, as I was writing this I had another thought that maybe works a bit better. The Tetragrammation is not the Shem haMephorash, but it IS the first four letters of it. With the death effect serving the same function, but with the more understandable mechanism that dying makes it somewhat difficult to pronounce the rest of the word.

    • What if Sarah or Tharmas say the Tetragrammaton?

    • Daniel says:

      Ooh, or what if the Tetragrammaton=Shem haMephorash remakes the speaker’s subjective universe using quantum suicide?

      • JJR says:

        Maybe. The main idea is that the Comet King caught Metatron and presumably found out the explicit name. But instead of besieging hell with its power he became depressed. Something abut how the name is structured prevented him from using it. In the Quantum Suicide scenario, he could use it to escape to a better world. But he’s not the type to leave the people in hell behind.

        Though, it would still makes sense to let hell bound people in on the secret. To allow them to escape their fate.

        I have more thinking on this, but the next chapter is due any moment now. And wonder if making comment back here was a mistake, exposure wise/should wait for it to continue conversation.

  28. Ansis says:

    Wait, is this website of a case of people having fun pretending to be kabbalists attracting real kabbalists who think they’re in good company?

  29. Jeremy Jaffe says:

    I feel like I should point out that Ana is not the first person to read the Shema as talking about divine simplicity – see

  30. Fender Gender says:

    I was expecting the concept of Information Entropy to get invoked at some point. Or maybe an overt reference to Claude Shannon.

  31. Rand says:

    Hear O America, Rutherford B. Hayes is Our God, Rutherford B. Hayes is 1!

  32. Rand says:

    The last point is much more succinctly express in the Passover song אחד מי יודע / “Who Knows One” which begins as follows:

    Who knows 1?
    I know 1!
    1 is God.
    1 is God.
    1 IS GOD
    In Heaven and Earth.

    • Rand says:

      Relatedly, if Chad Gadya, the bizarre Aramaic riddle that concludes the Hagaddah, doesn’t become a plot point, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

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