Faith, Creation, and Programming

Faith, Creation, and Programming

6 min read

As a programmer, one of my greatest creative outlets is writing code. While searching deep inside an interconnected web of bits and logic to hunt down that perpetual last bug may seem to someone from the outside to be anything but creative, there is a unique type of creativity that is found in writing software. A new sense of awe and joy is found in the deeply felt human experience of curiosity, exploration, and creation when we see those things not as uniquely human and ephemeral but as things which can make us one with nature, the universe, each other, and God.

This approach to creativity is beautifully described in one of my favorite quotes* from Frederick P. Brooks’ book, The Mythical Man Month, when he asks, “Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?”:

First is the sheer joy of making things … I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things …

Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful …

Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning … Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the non repeating nature of the task …

Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium … [The programmer] builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination.

… The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Programming then is fun because it gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men.

Summarizing, these reasons can be restated as the following:

  1. The joy of creation
  2. The joy of service
  3. The joy of seeing your creation in action
  4. The joy of learning
  5. The joy of having free and limitless creative medium

Brooks goes on to describe the “creative longings built deep within us”. Citing Dorothy Sayer’s book, The Mind of the Maker, he recognizes creativity as having three separate stages:

  1. The idea
  2. The implementation
  3. The interaction

What is particularly interesting about programming is that the creative process occurs in the abstract only. Yes, the program is stored on disk in the form of magnetic variations, but even this is invisible to the human eye and is not the purpose for which the program is created. A program is not the series of characters typed by the programmer. Rather the substance of a program is thought itself, concept described. Working this close to raw thought not just at the beginning of the creative process but all throughout the program’s creation, requires a high level of concentration and mental exertion but likewise delivers a high level of satisfaction and joy.

The idea of this kind of progressive creativity that connects us to others is expanded on when Brooks writes:

A book, then, or a computer, or a program comes into existence first as an ideal construct, built outside time and space, but complete in the mind of the author. It is realized in time and space, by pen, ink, and paper, or by wire, silicon, and ferrite. The creation is complete when someone reads the book, uses the computer, or runs the program, thereby interacting with the mind of the maker.

This description, which Miss Sayers uses to illuminate not only human creative activity but also the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, will help us in our present task.

This perspective is echoed throughout Mormon scriptural notions of divine creation:

This world, then, came into existence first as an ideal construct*, built outside time and space spiritually (Moses 3:5; D&C 29:34), but complete in the mind of the author (Abr. 2:8). It was realized in time and space (Alma 40:8), using the elements that now surround us (Abr. 3:24). Finally, God did not consider His creation complete until someone (man) was placed on this world to interact with it and thus His mind and will (Abr. 3:24; Moses 2:26;Alma 30:44).

  • – “The head God called together the Gods and sat in grand council to bring forth the world. The grand councilors sat at the head in yonder heavens and contemplated the creation of the worlds which were created at the time.” (from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p. 348)

A statement by Dieter F. Uchtdorf on the nature of creation in his talk titled, “Happiness, Your Heritage“, from the General Relief Society Meeting in October 2008, affirms these similar notions of creativity and joy:

Creation brings deep satisfaction and fulfillment. We develop ourselves and others when we take unorganized matter into our hands and mold it into something of beauty. …

The more you trust and rely upon the Spirit, the greater your capacity to create. That is your opportunity in this life and your destiny in the life to come.

It is interesting how closely intertwined joy, interconnectedness, and the creative process are. It seems this kind of delight in seeing others find joy in your creations could be a fan for the flame of universal compassion. If God’s joy is in His creations (D&C 59:18-20) it is of no wonder that our souls feel transcendent joy as we are in awe of those creations and when we participate in the creative process ourselves. The child’s mud pie, the poem, the sonnet, the musical score, the mathematical construct, the new discovery, the painting, the program, and the ultimate creation of another human body; all give us a glimpse into the eternal nature of the creation. The joy of creation carries with it a glimpse of our posthuman and eternal potential.

Gaining knowledge, intelligence, and using those to create things in my life (music, software, relationships, experiences, family, websites, etc) is the chief source of joy and satisfaction in my life; and I want to seek out, become acquainted with, emulate, and even worship or venerate any being that has attained the highest form of intelligence and creative power. I’ve found that the Mormon faith powerfully orients me towards this goal.

While the details of exactly what ‘spiritual creation’ may be are unclear, this process of creating implementable concepts and structures mentally surely must play a pivotal role. Thus, as we practice and participate in the process of creation and exercise our faculties (mental, physical, and spiritual), we draw nearer to God and learn more about the nature of eternity. This is why programming is, and many other creative processes are so joyful. The creative process is itself a symbol of Eternity.

  • I’m clipping Frederick Brooks’ wonderful quote quite a lot here for brevity. The full quote can be read here: