Much has been made about the use of “Hal” in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as a metaphor for a conflict in man, between man’s reason and the divine will of god. C21 Troy makes new discoveries on the meaning of Hal as a choice of name by Arthur C. Clarke for the A.I computer of the space ship United States Spacecraft Discovery One” (or XD-1)
Stanly Kubrick’s letters to the head of production for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where he mentions his concerns about the “theme” of the film.
Kubrick writes – “Does I. B. M. know that one of the main themes of the story is a psychotic computer? I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, and I don’t want them to feel they have been swindled. Please give me the exact status of things with I. B. M.”
The film director obviously had a great respect for the computer company and did not want to be seen as a betrayer of good faith. I believe I.B.M. had given computers to be used in the film and were technical consultants. Was Kubrick also making sure they were on board with the program, appreciating the merit of such a great story, while testing the water to see how far he could push his vision without being detected? Was the department he was in communication with at I.B. M. even aware of the film’s more metaphysical aspects?
Even today, people can’t agree on what message is being conveyed in 2001: A Space Odyssey, so the staff at I.B.M. in the late 1960s can be forgiven, for being equally in the dark.
The thing about Hal
Many people have noticed the relationship of the name of HAL, which is an abbreviation for “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer”, to the acronym of IBM “International Business Systems”, which has an increase of one letter difference.
Both Arthur C. Clarke the author and film director Stanley Kubrick denied that any relationship was ever intentional but i am inclined to think that there may have been some unconscious hand at play here.
In Sufiism “Hal” is a well defined concept.
“Hal – Condition or state of being; pl. ahwal. Used by Sufis to refer to the transitory spiritual state of enlightenment or ecstasy resulting from passage along the way to mystical knowledge of God. Considered a gift from God, as opposed to an acquired stage (maqam). Although the recipient may not have deliberately sought this state, reception of it is typically understood to be the result of a definite, disciplined rule of life. Hal is often described as a trancelike state and can be either voluntary or involuntary. Some Sufis engage in ecstatic behavior while in this state, making it suspect to more legalistic interpreters of Islam.”
Ultimately from Arabic حَال (ḥāl).
hal (definite accusative halı, sound plural hallar, broken plural əhval)
state of being or state of mind
What interest could IBM possibly have in Arabic?
Well, at the very least, as the historic origins of calculus of course.
Hindu-Arabic numerals, set of 10 symbols—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0—that represent numbers in the decimal number system. They originated in India in the 6th or 7th century and were introduced to Europe through the writings of Middle Eastern mathematicians, especially al-Khwarizmi and al-Kindi, about the 12th century.
i suspect that it was the founders of IBM, who were knowledgeable, not only of the history of calculus but eastern esoteric theology also, who notched up the letters to make a statement about their belief in the future of Artificial Intelligence. Giving the will of mankind, as a synthetic program of free will, reign over any divine plan from a “supreme being.” I think Arthur C. Clarke was well aware of this though he may have hidden the Sufi meaning from Kubrick, who, whether consciously or unconsciously, put the opposing forces at logger heads in his Space Odyssey.
In the Western World, amidst the pop culture of youth in the mid to late 1960s were not just a time of mass experimentation into psychedelics, there was a new, genuine awareness of spiritualism from the East. Just think of George Harrison and his hymn to Krishna “My Sweet Lord”and all the pop iconography that surround that one event to understand the magnitude of the situation. So too can we see this eastern mystical experience and philosophy influence Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.
The mysterious, supposed abstract metaphor of the final sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, becomes crystal clear to students of Hindu theology, familiar with the concept of reincarnation and the circle of life, of birth, death and rebirth.
As Bowman perceives himself at every stage in the cycle with an enlightened consciousness.
..and what of Hal?
In perfect dual symbolism, the artificial eye is the modern antithesis to the divine, All Seeing Eye of God.
Dave Bowman gets to experience the real Hal
[Troy is author, filmmaker and artist living in Glasgow Scotland]
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