Dan Brown’s ongoing thriller series brings us AI (artificial intelligence) in his latest installment Origin. Edmund Kirsch, a brilliant computer scientist, is brutally murdered on the evening of announcing a grand revelation to the world that will answer the questions: Where do we come from? Where do we go? This sets the plot of our returning hero, Professor Langdon, and the brilliant and beautiful Ambra Vidal on a chase through Spain to complete Kirsch’s mission. With the help of Kirsch’s AI entity, Winston (after Churchill), they search for a forty-seven-lettered poetry line to unlock the secret to Edmund Kirsch’s ground-breaking discovery. We are in a post-Franco modern day Spain, one where irreligion and religion are in a tumultuous relationship. Brown specifically chose this background to set up the new atheist movement against conservative reformist religion. We are introduced to a variety of characters along the mystery thriller, both good and bad, all varying on the scale of belief and disbelief. Origin is new for Brown, in that the modern world is the point of focus, with a venture away from classical art and towards modern art.
Edmund Kirsch is a prototype Brown portrayed spot on. Kirsch, who for all his brilliance also demonstrates his fair share of ignorance. This is perhaps the product of ever increasing specialization in the modern world: it is difficult to be simultaneously well versed in many subjects. Kirsch is a leading figure in the AI world, but he mistakenly believes himself to be an expert on all matters. In the prelude to revealing his discovery, before he is shot, Kirsch recounts world history as a binary pitting of religion against science. A common enough narrative that Michael Robbins in his Slate article addressed as “an opposition between reason and faith that the church fathers would have found rather puzzling.” The more polar a narrative is, the more like it is to contain historical fallacies. Things are more often gray than black-and-white. When it comes to Islam, Kirsch sums up the end of the grand Baghdad intellectual era (an era that painted the stars with names; introduced the Arabic numeral system which is with us today; gave us most of the words that begin with “al” in English; and which Kirsch thinks gave us zero, which it in fact did not, that discovery is attributable possibly to ancient India) with al-Ghazzali ending it with a mighty boom. This incorrect analysis has come up so much recently that it has become a little tiresome correcting it again and again. Al-Ghazzali created a shift in the Muslim intellectual trajectory, but he did not “end science,” far from it. Many thinkers and scientists (including ibn Khaldun, Ibn al-Shatir, and yes, Rumi, amongst many others) followed al-Ghazzali.
To put it succinctly, al-Ghazzali wrote Incoherence of the Philosophers, which led to a paradigm shift away from the Aristotelian inspired falsafa of the day. Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes to the English-speaking world) wrote Incoherence of the Incoherence in response. The common story is that thought stunted in the Islamic world after ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence was burnt, an inaccurate assessment, one that often leaves al-Ghazzali behind all together (Kirsch, in a rare moment of insight perhaps, remembered). The token historical narrative is that Thomas Aquinas was influenced (or antagonized) by Maimonides and ibn Rushd’s Aristotlean philosophy in formulating the natural law, combining religion and rationality, that would become the seed for science in the western world. This was the contribution of Islam to Thought, with a capital T, of course. Never mind what the seeds of empirical enquiry had been in the Islamic world, how they had been formulated through a thought perhaps much more in line with something al-Ghazzali would have written than ibn Rushd. The course of religion and science had its own relationship in the Islamic world, and to try to superimpose a narrative upon it ends up being a fabrication. Of course, Kirsch would not have known this, it would have required a further delving into history which he would not have had time for, and amongst the many works in his library, none could claim to hold that information. Instead, a few token historical accounts were enough to establish sweeping opinions stated as facts. This has unfortunately so often been the case, that Brown depicted the average character that Kirsch represents quite accurately.
In the entranceway to Kirsch’s apartment is an original by Paul Gaugin, an artist famous for his paintings on Tahitians, paintings depicting his sex slaves that is. The painting serves as a kind of daily inspiration for Kirsch’s research, after all, on the top left corner are the very questions his research addresses: D'où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? But what do we make of the controversy? Is it possible to appreciate art as separate from the artist? Is it possible to appreciate art that has inflammatory features? The horsemen of new atheism are mentioned throughout, with a special emphasis on Sam Harris (there’s some weird equation stating neuroscientists have answers to big questions by nature of their profession) and let’s not forget Harris’s rather misogynistic and racist comments. Similar questions arise, how much of his ideology can be taken seriously? The irony of having a Nietzsche quote framed over his bed while simultaneously making a bold statement like “I also told you that I had found the purpose of my life – to employ the truth of science to eradicate the myth of religion,” falls flat on Kirsch. Nietzsche, who was one of the first to question the value of “truth,” wrote,
But you will have gathered what I am getting at, namely, that it is still a metaphysical faith on which our faith in science rests—that even we knowers of today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire too, from the flame lit by the thousand-year old faith, the Christian faith which was also Plato's faith, that God is Truth; that Truth is 'Divine'...
Ah, the irony of it all.
Robbins quoted David Bentley Hart in the same aforementioned article: “The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists is rereading Nietzsche.” Kirsch could have done with a good re-reading. He could have also perhaps benefitted by reading more work by females and POC.
The list goes on and on, but these were just a few of the points. Our hero, Professor Langdon, lovingly puts away his friend’s arrogance in favor of his brilliance, and the reader is tempted to do the same as we learn more about the background of this controversial leading figure, and that can be the beauty of fiction, getting beyond cotroversy to reveal the complexities of human nature. Kirsch, then, is a figure who is brutally, unjustifiably, murdered, and we follow Langdon and Ambra as they vindicate their friend’s murder and slowly unravel his many secrets.
This is perhaps one of the strongest allures of Brown’s novels then, he sends you on your own hunt of the various names, places, and symbols that fill his fact-fiction blurring works, and questions upon questions arise as you read on. As Alan Yuhus put it in his article for The Guardian: “He's inspiring people to examine previously unnoticed details (good!) but also convincing some that secrets lurk in the pattern of their upholstery (not so good).” Like all things worthwhile then, they can be a force of good or bad. If readers take things at face value and get caught up only in the conspiracy aspect of things, it can be bad. If readers use Brown’s books as a departing point for further reading and research, then his books end up being informational as well as good reads, because despite the writing critics, Brown’s books have a way of captivating readers and keeping them hooked. They open up the arena to multiple topics for discussion. They can unearth controversial figures, both fictional, like Kirsch, or factual, like Dante, who in his Divine Comedy: Inferno put the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Hazrat Ali in one of his circles (Canto 28, a troubling fact that went unmentioned in Inferno).
What gets across in Origin is that human made institutions are just that, human institutions, and as such will be subject to both the good and evil that each human carries in varying proportions. In other words, institutions are manifestations of humanity, whether the institution be science or religion or, yes, even, AI. For example, misogyny will manifest in religion or science or any other form as long as it is not dealt with as a separate human problem. These instutions may be responsible for addressing these problems, but they are not the direct cause of their manifestations. Lumping everything as a religious problem or an irreligious problem (something both sides are prone to do) results in inaccuracy. More often than not, issues are human problems - complex and multifactorial, as is the human psyche. In a world where the pulpit is often given to those preaching extremes past each other while temperate voices are drowned out, Langdon is the metaphorical temperate human voice dealing with the aftershocks. As Langdon tells Kirsch, “Well, science and religion are not competitors, they’re two different languages trying to tell the same story. There’s room in the world for both.”