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Sound thinking

Against the machine

How a bad metaphor obscures the mystery of life

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Against the machine

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.