The Human-Divine Dichotomy: Journeying through Iteration and Recursion

Essay by Noah Naranjo

Before we begin this (personally) intellectually stimulating journey, I’d like to preface it with a quote we’ve seen before that has been resonating in my mind: “To iterate is human, to recurse is divine.” While this sounds profound, what does it even mean? I mentioned this quote in my presentation last week, but I don’t think I explained it very well. And admittedly, I didn’t fully understand the difference, either. So, let us journey through the labyrinth of Iteration and Recursion together to discover why the latter is at the heart of divinity.

Iteration and Recursion are two distinct approaches to repeating actions at the heart of programming. Iteration is to walk a well-worn path over and over again, whereas Recursion is to walk a spiral staircase, with each step leading to a smaller or larger version of itself.

Now, If you’d humor me for a second, imagine a row of ten apple trees in front of you. If I were to ask you to ‘Iterate’, you would pick an apple from the first tree, then move on to the second, then onto the third, and so on until you had picked one apple from each tree individually. In the world of Recursion, however, you’d instruct an invisible ‘mini-you’ to pick an apple from each tree, beginning with the next one while you pluck from the first. This ‘mini-you’ would then order their ‘mini-mini-you’ to do the same, and so on until the last apple was plucked.

Recursion may now appear a little more complicated, and with good reason. Recursion is a labyrinthine mystery buried within itself, a matryoshka doll of orders if you will. But then, why is it regarded as divine? To answer that, let’s think in terms of philosophy and metaphysics. Recursion is a mathematical concept that reflects the processes of nature, the cosmos, and perhaps even the workings of God, just as a single-cell can replicate itself to form complex organisms. The spiral galaxies in the universe, the nested layers of human consciousness, and the fractal pattern on a fern leaf are all examples of this endlessly repeating pattern.

Iteration, on the other hand, depicts our humanity, our daily routines and habits — the boring linear progression of time as we perceive it. Everyday we wake up, go to class, go to work, go to sleep, rinse, and repeat. We live our lives bound by loops, bound by the constraints of time and physicality.

However, Recursion transcends these limitations. Just as a Zen master uses koans to reach enlightenment, Recursion mirrors the endless cycle of creation and destruction, existence and non-existence. It’s no surprise Recursion is equated to the ouroboros, the divine dance of Shiva.

If it’s so divine, then why don’t we use it as our primary structure in programming? The answer is the inherent limitations of our systems. Like humans, computers have a limited amount of memory and resources available to them at one time. Each Recursive “mini-me” we create needs its own chunk of memory, so too many Recursive “mini-mes” would overwhelm the system (kinda like how too much introspection results in existential dread hahaha jkjk unless). As a result, we’re forced to follow Iteration, the well-worn, well-known boring linear progression, and the methodical apple-picking labor.

Regardless, it’s important to appreciate Recursion’s beauty and potential as the divine algorithmic component. It challenges us to think outside the box and imagine the infinite within the finite. Recursion is the core of creativity, the soul of inspiration, and the manifestation of the divine in the human mind. Recursion, therefore, is a window into the divine, an indication of the infinite, and a whisper of eternity within the fleeting world of binary code.

“To iterate is to human, to recurse is to divine,” perhaps then, symbolizes iteration as the pulse of our humanity and the rhythm to our lives. It is the practical, grounded, and methodical procession of human thought. As for Recursion, it is a window into the supernatural and a doorway to the infinite. It is the reflection of the divine in the building blocks of our mind and the imprint of the cosmos in our mental blueprints.

To end this adventure, we can put it like this: the dichotomy between Iteration and Recursion reflects the contrast between humanity and divinity, the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. It’s a taste of the metaphysical and philosophical dichotomy that has captivated philosophers and artists for as long as time itself. This contrast is a reminder of our humanity, our divinity, and the delicate balance between the two as we delve deeper into the world loops.

We exist in a loop of loops, a Recursion of Recursions in the grand net of existence. We are the algorithm and the programmer, the query and the response, the firing pistol and the finish line. In the never-ending circle of existence, we are both human and divine.

So keep this in mind the next time you find yourself in front of a row of apple trees (or lines of code): Iterating is living in the world; Recursing is seeing beyond. Achieve balance between the two because it is in this place that existence’s essence, the beauty of the loop, and the form of the formless are found.

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