What We're Reading

3 Jun

Against the machine

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 06/03/14

How a bad metaphor obscures the mystery of life

Stephen Talbott and his colleagues confront the reductionism of organisms to useful mechanisms

One of the great insights of Michael Hanby’s remarkable book, No God, No Science? (discussed on Volume 121 of the Journal) is the recognition that the materialistic assumptions that characterize much modern thought are sustained because of the mechanistic model that informs the modern imagination. Christians realize how important it is to confront the materialistic mistake, but they often share an unwitting sympathy for the mechanistic model. Many thinkers (e.g., C. S. Lewis, Jacques Ellul, Oliver O’Donovan) have warned about the influence of ubiquitous technology on our imaginations; the persistence of mechanistic thinking is one such effect. 

Virtually all aspects of social life, personal relationships, and even religious experiences are commonly imagined in mechanistic terms (e.g., “Washington is broken,” “We need to jumpstart the economy,” “That event was a great networking opportunity,” etc.). Hanby refers to the “mechanistic ontology” that informs much thinking about Creation (not to mention the relationship between Creation and God), suggesting that the machine serves as more than a suggestive model that illumines an aspect of reality, but the way things really are most essentially.

At the beginning of his book, Life Is a Miracle, Wendell Berry observes:

The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines — that is, that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Our language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the mechanisms of medicine, industry, and commerce; and that minds are computers fully compatible with electronic technology.

This may have begun as a metaphor, but in the language as it is used (and as it affects industrial practice) it has evolved from metaphor through equation to identification. And this usage institutionalizes the human wish, or the sin of wishing, that life might be, or might be made to be, predictable.

We can’t avoid the use of metaphors in our thinking, but we can try to avoid the use of inadequate or misleading metaphors. The metaphor of the machine is a deeply attractive one within many spheres of modern culture, and probably for the reason Berry suggests. Sociologist Craig Gay has observed that “the desire to maintain autonomous control over reality by rational-technical means is particularly central to the modern world. Put somewhat differently, we might say that a modern society is one in which the prevailing conception of the human task in the world is that of mastery by way of systematic manipulation.”

If modernity is about control through systematic manipulation, it is very attractive to imagine that all organisms are simply mechanisms that happen to be alive. Seeing and treating the world as a collection of mechanisms — rather than a community of mysterious organisms — promises the possibility of control, even if the promise often goes unfulfilled.

All of the above is prelude to a commendation of the work of Stephen Talbott, who has been writing for some time about various myths that shape our use of technology and our pursuit of scientific knowledge. His early work (e.g., The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, published in 1995) confronted the extravagant claims that computer technology would solve all of the problems faced by educators. More recently his writing for The Nature Institute has been challenging the reductionistic thinking that drives a lot of enthusiasm about biotechnology and genetic research. Through his Biology Worthy of Life project, Talbott has been examining the framework of understanding that guides both ends of means of biological research.

As part of that project, Talbott recently posted an essay entitled “Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism.” In this essay, Talbott examines what is obscured in our perception of living things when they are imagined to be very much like non-living things. Early in the piece, Talbott asserts that “an inexcusable mistake has gripped the scientific community for decades, severely perverting biological understanding.” By treating all causality within organisms as mechanistic causality, biologists misrepresent or misunderstand living things. “If biologists would only recognize that they are not dealing with machines, the causal ambiguity they continually run up against would cease to frustrate them. They would realize that they are — if they would only raise their eyes to take in the larger, qualitative picture — gaining an ever fuller understanding of the way organisms actually live their lives. There are numberless potential causal relations among the molecules, cells, and organs of any given creature; from among these, and acting as a whole in ever-changing, context-dependent ways, this creature weaves the causal threads of its own life.”

The temptation to regard all things as working after the model of machines is one of the fundamentally disorienting dispositions of modernity. Its effects on biology as documented by Stephen Talbott’s essays and books are simply one expression of a faulty preoccupation with how things work that detaches us from deeper and more fruitful habits of reflection on what and why things are.

17 May

Learning to look and listen

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/17/14

Introducing students to art and music

A helpful primer on aesthetic meaning

There are many reasons why Christians should take an interest in art and music education. Among them is the fact that when Christian institutions demonstrate that they are serious about training the imagination, they testify to the fact that a Christian understanding of reality takes beauty as seriously as it does goodness and truth (even if many Christians fail to recognize this). Robert Houston Smith has noted that “Though immensely subtler, the human imagination is, in its own distinctive way, just as absolute as are universal moral laws or syllogisms. All are part and parcel of the same underlying reality that is itself inaccessible to the mind through any direct means.”

So it is always encouraging to see a new primer on art and music written with students in mind. Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Crossway), by Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake, is part of a series of slim volumes called Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. The series editor is David Dockery, former president of Union University and president-elect of Trinity International University in Illinois. Other volumes in the series include one on philosophy by David Naugle and one on literature by Louis Markos. Munson and Drake both teach at Grove City College, and they make it clear from the outset that neither indifference to beauty nor aesthetic relativism are compatible with a Christian understanding of God or Creation.

I was asked to write a blurb for this volume. In its unedited (and admitedly long-winded) form, it read as follows:

“Many in our society are afflicted with the assumption that all value judgments are simply expressions of personal preference. In our churches, this subjectivism is manifest in a chronic and often stubborn refusal to recognize hierarchies of value in forms of artistic expression. As a result, art and music are typically enjoyed mindlessly, which has the unfortunate result that the most mindless works get the most attention. Drake and Munson know better. They know that our minds and imaginations require training to work as they are intended to work. They know that failure to cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear prevents us from perceiving the glory of God’s Creation as ramified in great works of art and music. Their book offers courageous instruction for those open to attending to beauty.”

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1 May

Saving the Appearances: Creation's Gift to the Sciences

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ben Garner
Published: 05/01/14

Michael Hanby on theology and science

Dr. Michael Hanby, Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy of Science, Pontifical John Paul II Institute

Is it possible to have science without theology? Can the scientific enterprise, as its apologists frequently claim, easily bracket and set aside theological and metaphysical assumptions and pursue disinterested observation of natural phenomena?

That it is possible for science to be fully neutral and disinterested is largely taken as a given, even by those who think that science shouldn’t be so neutral (those who argue scientists should allow Scripture to inform the direction and interpretation of their research, for example, as well as Kurzweil-ian futurists who propose science be guided by a trans-human, singularity narrative).

But Michael Hanby, recently featured on Volume 121 of the Journal, isn’t convinced that science ever can fully separate itself from metaphysical assumptions. In a 2009 article entitled “Saving the Appearances: Creation’s Gift to the Sciences,” Hanby argued the following:

There is no pure method, and no science can do and indeed ever does without a metaphysics and therefore ultimately a theology whose “axioms” with respect to being, time, space, matter, motion, truth, knowledge, and God are not simply “presupposed” at the boundaries of the science where they can be bracketed in the name of methodological purity.

It’s a claim that will sound shocking to some, but it really isn’t all that new. Hanby follows in a long line of philosophers and theologians skeptical about the supposedly self-evident neutrality of things such as science, technology, and economics. The legacy of such concern over technological and scientific trends in society stretches back at least as far as C. S. Lewis, and includes such figures as Jacques Ellul, George Parkin Grant, and Gabriel Marcel. In fact, Hanby and these other thinkers all argue in various ways that the idea of “neutrality” within any particular discipline is a belief peculiar to modern society. Just as with the advent of modernity came a belief in a purely “secular” state and economy — capable of bracketing all assumptions about truth and goodness — so also came the idea of a “secular” science.

No God, No Science? is a dense but fascinating work, and I would encourage anyone interested in the topics mentioned above to read it. If you’re looking for a shorter introduction to Hanby’s thought, however, the essay quoted above provides the perfect opportunity, as do the following essays:

  • “Culture of Death,” on how boredom is the ontology of modern society, against which the only effective resistance is an ontology of joy.

The ideas Hanby discusses in his interview on Volume 121 are particularly resistant to brief summary, so be sure to take a look at his writing, either in the essays above or his book No God, No Science?, to see the full scope of his arguments.

28 Feb

Allen Verhey and the art of dying well

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ben Garner
Published: 02/28/14

Dr. Allen Verhey, Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School, passed away on February 27th, 2014, at the age of 68. Listeners who recall his interview on Volume 116 of the Journal will not be surprised to hear that the brief announcement made by Duke Divinity School said that “he died peacefully at home.”

That interview was occasioned by the publication of what would be Dr. Verhey’s last book, The Christian Art of Dying: Lessons from Jesus. In that work, Verhey discusses the 15th-century Ars Morienda, an illustrated text on the “art of dying.” This text, Verhey points out, is helpful in some ways but at points too Stoic, not allowing room for what Verhey takes to be the very proper and Christian response of lamentation. From the interview:

One of the great contributions of the ars moriendi tradition was that it told the dying that they should think on the passion of Christ. But to think on the passion of Christ is to remember that Christ made lament. The word from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is from Psalm 22, which is of course a psalm of lament in the Old Testament. “Into your hands I commend my spirit” is taken from a psalm of lament [Psalm 31]; it’s not the lament itself but it’s a prayer for deliverance, involving the certainty of a hearing, from a prayer of lament.

Lament has a place because physical life is a good. The Christian tradition, the story of Jesus does not make either death or suffering goods; they don’t make masochists of us. They permit us to endure dying and to endure suffering with the confidence that God has been and will be victorious over death and suffering; but there has to be a place for lament. The psalmist in Psalm 31 is threatened by death, and suffering, threatened by enemies and in that context, calls upon God for life, for deliverance, and is confident about God’s care.

The ars moriendi tradition can still be seen today in those who would (quite understandably wanting to lessen the psychological blows dealt by death and suffering) have us view a person’s death not as a tragedy, but as their release from physical suffering into the blissful existence of heaven in perfect unity with God. But to make a most profoundly unnatural event like death into a cause for rejoicing is not necessarily the most Christian approach. As Nicholas Wolterstorff put it in an interview with Ken Myers (included in the MARS HILL AUDIO Report: Best-Selling Spirituality):

The earth and our bodily relationships to each other, our personal relationships to each other, are important. We’re made as bodily creatures and that’s something good about us, and so, when a person you love dies, that person is gone. And one can hear some words from other people which are meant as consolation to say that the person in question is better off, and in fundamental ways things aren’t really different and so forth, but still there’s this biting reality: the person is gone, I can’t talk to him anymore, I can’t embrace him anymore, I can’t be with him anymore. For me a person isn’t just a spirit; a person is a bodily thing. To be human is to be a sort of personal animal, and when the person dies, as I say, I can’t express my love anymore, so death is the breaking of the bonds of love.

. . . .

Deep in the Christian vision, I think, has to be the vision of God’s wounded love, and our wounded love; that if love is appropriate, then when the object of that love is destroyed or altered, grief is appropriate. And the Christian hope is that that’s not the end of things, but that hope is not to be achieved by overlooking the propriety of grief.

Verhey’s death rightly prompts mourning for the “breaking of the bonds of love,” but also kindles our desire to see the goodness of the created order restored in the new heavens and new earth. And it is this desire for restoration, this hope we have by means of the resurrection, that is the final word. Verhey reminds us in his book:

Christians hope because they know the faithfulness of the One who made all things, because they know the story of one who was raised from the dead, and because they know a life-giving Spirit. The Christian church owns a story in canon and in creed that begins with the power and love of the Creator, centers in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and ends with talk of God’s good future—and our own. They cannot but hope.

If these are the grounds for Christian hope, then the virtue of hope must somehow be fitting to this story. And if it is to be fitting to this story, hope may not shrink to the egocentric hope that a solitary individual may experience the bliss of heaven. The scope of Christian hope is nothing less than cosmic. The story begins with the creation of all things, and it reaches finally to “all things” made new.

Verhey’s life and work are appreciated and will be remembered by many. It is with great lament that we mark his passing, and great hope that we look to the day when all things are made new.

7 Feb

Taking a world's-eye view of America

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ben Garner
Published: 02/07/14

How pop culture is our most prominent (and destructive) export

What picture comes into your head when you hear the word “America” or “American society”? Whatever picture it is (and we all have one, differ though it may from person to person), it is most likely not the picture that would pop into the mind of someone raised in, say, Saudi Arabia, or Ethiopia, or China.

We should be concerned, however, about the nature of this picture that has developed of America in most parts of the world. Such is the argument of Martha Bayles (former guest of the Journal on Volume 10) in her new book Through a Glass Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. In the 1990’s, Bayles writes, America, having defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, decided to get out of the public diplomacy business, dissolving the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1999. But public diplomacy didn’t stop just because the government stopped taking responsibility for it; rather, the reins were handed over to the producers and pushers of pop culture. Now, America’s image is almost entirely shaped by whatever the pop culture industry happens to be pumping out at the time—and in recent years what it has been pumping out has been increasingly toxic, especially as it finds its way into more traditionally oriented communities in the Middle East and Africa.

In the introduction, Bayles recounts an interview she conducted with the leader of an Islamist terrorist organization in Jakarta:

Like many people I have met overseas, Rizieq showed little awareness of America’s larger cultural heritage, or even of its ‘classic’ popular culture. To him, American culture consists mainly of the latest commercial entertainment, from rap and rock that “reduces you to the level of animals, making you dance like a monkey,” to films and TV shows that “use slogans like ‘freedom’ to cover immoral behavior like gambling, alcohol, prostitution, and homosexual marriage.” He also believed that the US government was deliberately exporting these harmful influences as part of a Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.

What most Americans take to be the relatively harmless, if perhaps not the most desirable, aspects of popular culture is taken around the world to be an accurate representation of America and her values. And while the rosy optimism of the early 90’s led us to declare that democracy and freedom were our greatest exports, the reality is that our most visible offerings to the global marketplace in the past few decades have been things like pornography, fast food, and Britney Spears.

If America’s image is to be restored, Bayles writes, we must “stop treating American entertainment as cultural expression at home and a commodity overseas,” and instead get serious about attending to and polishing our reputation. And that polishing will, one hopes, include asking some difficult questions about whether or not we have become as obsessed with cheap, trashy entertainment as the world believes.


Through a Glass Darkly is available from Yale University Press; a full review of the book can be found on the website of the Weekly Standard.

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