Over the Edge

“To account for the orderly behavior of living beings Descartes introduced the concept of the machine which, more than an conceivable organism, is the product of design from start to finish. Even more than Newton’s divine organizer, the machine model introduced teleology or finalism in its classic form: a purposeful organization for a strictly pre-determined end. This corresponds to nothing whatever in organic evolution.

The transposition of the specific characteristics of organisms and machines actually elevated the mechanical creature above his creator. That error has brought catastrophic potentialities in our day, in the willingness, on the part of military and political strategists, to give to agents of extermination they have created – nuclear weapons, rockets, lethal poisons and bacteria – the authority to exterminate the human race.”
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power

Something precious about Western civilization was lost last week. We pulled up anchor on scientific fact and are now adrift on a sea of myth and fantasy, rudderless. To see those protesting in the streets, insisting that facts matter, was to have a front row seat as science, the cultural current of Western civilization for the last five centuries, became just one more special interest. Facts, evidence, reasoned argument, objective measurement, honest use of probability mathematics – all this is now on equal footing with every other minority view trying to get a just hearing in the halls of power.

Caesar will decide if those representing these things deserve any air time with the rich and powerful guiding our military, economic, ecological and cultural future.

It was not a good thing that scientists and their supporters had to take to the streets to ask people to listen to facts. Sure, the courage the protesters displayed showed everything we are rightly proud of about our commitment to truth. Those marching and protesting had all the right intentions, and as we have discussed intention is very important in determining the ethical value of actions. Still it is astonishing, really, that citizens of our oil driven, nuclear weapon threatened, ecologically omnicidal modernity needed to take to the streets to insist that facts matter. Somewhere along the road between the engineers in the factory, who are constrained on every side by the limitations of matter and energy, and the image makers packaging their products for mass consumption, who paint freely with the brush of unconstrained imagination, our culture seems to have been persuaded that reality is optional.

Our astonishing lack of historical knowledge is not serving us well here. The rise of the scientific method was greeted across Europe as a way forward. Religious wars had ravished the continent for decades. Catholics fought Protestants, Protestants fought each other, and no one could agree on what the “real god” wanted of people, so the people spilt blood right and left to show the sincerity of their devotion. It was a time of true believers. Ransacked villages, burnt Cathedrals, buried loved ones – the river of bloody destruction seemed to erupt anytime educated people tried to have a conversation with one another. One party would site this scripture, chapter and verse, and provide lengthy detailed arguments for why what they insisted on being true was the only true that could be true. In response the listener would site a different scripture, a different chapter and verse, and soon the ire between them overcame them and the final missionary tool, the sword, was brought to bear.

Those centuries of religious and political arguments weighed heavily on those who first turned their hope towards the scientific method. That method seemed to provide a real possibility of extending the area of mutual agreement among people, which in fact it has. Reasoned argument based on evidence was seen as a means of rationally guiding the beliefs of human beings towards something more solid than individual opinion. It was the so-called objectivity of the method that provided the hope. Demonstrable facts became the currency of educated thought. We do well to remember that though there were always a few philosophers here and there, for the most part before physical facts took center stage it was the power of the speaker’s wealth or inherited family name or the size of the institution they represented that determined, in practice, what was to be considered real and true.

The people eventually grew tired of sacrificing their sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and lovers, for ideas that no one could provide the slightest bit of solid evidence for. When the first inklings of science started making their way through the educated circles it was seen as a breath of fresh air. A type of humility turned away from the unanswerable why questions of religious philosophy for the limited, but reliable, answers about how things worked right here on earth. This has proven to be an outstandingly fruitful pursuit of knowledge. Open an upper graduate textbook for any of the hard sciences and you will immediately confront the density of our modern comprehension. This detailed knowledge is available for the student and scholar regardless of which part of existence they choose to focus on; from geology to astronomy, biology to quantum mechanics, from neuroscience to atmospheric studies, the list goes on and on.

It is sad that we have turned our back on what our ancestors worked so hard to provide for us through this pursuit of scientific knowledge. It revealed the full extent of deep time and deep space, showed forth the mysterious molecular means of evolutionary life’s long trail, and opened the heavens to a vision unimaginably vast. Reality trumped the theological and mystical imagination of our ancestors at every turn. If religion is actually coming to know the reality of that-which-is, these secular centuries have been quite courageous in their faith.

It takes a courageous, adult faith to face the reality of our situation. Childhood faith is able to exist as a pure comfort: god is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Adult faith has confronted the cold, godless universe revealed by the heart broken in suffering, typically suffering for another. It is an interesting psychological fact that it is the door of compassion that causes one to question the childish image of a good god always watching over us. It is when we need to confront the reality of evil killing and damaging innocent lives that the too easy childish faith is shattered. The problem of evil: how could a good god allow this to happen? It is Dracula’s taunt, ‘I am about to drink the blood of the living, good god if you exist strike me down and save the innocent from the loss of their souls.’ As we have learned, painfully, from Dachau, Dresden, and Nagasaki, the stars remain silent. The atheist’s honesty about these matters cannot be dismissed.

It is wrong to think this step in intellectual integrity destroys. It uncovers delusion, reveals a truth that can be revealed no other way. The dark night of the soul is orthodoxy; it was not play acting when the Christ of our myth cried out from the cross, ‘why have you forsaken me?’ Only by being willing to pass through this threshold might a person come to find a more adult faith, the resurrection of hope on the other side of immaturity.

As a culture we are going through the same process. In the secular space we have been learning to stand strong with the honesty of our intellectual integrity. It is as if we said, ‘Ok, maybe the universe was made by monsters and cares not a whit for us, we are going to be brave enough to discover the truth regardless.’ I applaud our courage. We admitted to ourselves that whatever power humanity’s long cultural evolution might achieve in our efforts to protect and nurture that which we love, it will of necessity be based upon that which is real. The first image to guide science towards just what that real might actually consist of was the machine. And in this, there is a tale.

Science, of course, deserves part of the blame for its having become just one more special interest in our day. Its fascination with the machine and easy subservience to the needs of empire are well known. This and so much more can be laid at the foot of science. It does not change the tragedy of what has happened.

As Lewis Mumford taught us in The Myth of the Machine, mathematics and machines were thought to uncover a realm more real and fundamental than the messy organic complexity of subjective experience. That celestial and terrestrial mechanics were wholly tractable through gravitation’s terms of mass and momentum captured our imagination. Physics became the standard bearer for what a mature science should look like. Though we set out with an image of the machine as the scientific model of the really real, it was too removed from the organic substrate from which it came. The machine inhabits a dead universe, one in which life is a secondary, chance, ultimately meaningless occurrence. Galileo banished the qualia as secondary qualities, silencing subjectivity. This is our dark night.

The myth of the machine’s dead universe is a delusional one.

It is the result of banishing subjectivity from considerations of reality. This is what allowed scientific thinking to avoid the religious and political fights all around it. The non-subjective yet active automaton became the model of life that fascinated the kings and princes seeking to bring their unruly empires under the control of law and order. A mass of people understood to be little more than valves, levers and winds could be played by pharaohs’ fingers, made to sing his song – and build his pyramid.

The problem with the scientific enterprise centered around the view espoused by Descartes that living things were no more than machines (man excepted in his opinion due to we alone having rational souls). This is to put the matter backwards. Organisms are not made of collections of simple machines, our simple machines are made from abstracting a single functional aspect of an organism into a simple form. The machine, unlike the organism, is no longer able to adapt to changes but requires a very exact input if it is to produce its output. Machines only function within a small range of tolerance; change the fuel, the chemical makeup of the input materials, or any number of other details and nothing works. The organisms from which we draw our inspirations do not share these limitations and are characterized first and foremost by subjectivity. Still, in retrospect this fascination with the machine, which lead us to build and serve Homo Colossus, also looks to have been an effective vehicle for the intellectual and cultural development of our scientific knowledge. It was this art of seeing the essential through simplification that made it possible for our brains to get purchase on the complexity of our molecular environment.

Reductionism gives us models we can work with. It’s effectiveness should not be confused with an ontological objectivity it cannot justifiably claim given the epistemology of scientific inference. Creating maps and menus are necessary but no substitutes for the land and the meal to which they refer. Our species relationship with our planetary home is the referent for all the equations, all the scriptures, all the models of our minds and hearts. Science was mistaken when it dismissed subjectivity as unreal, instead of real but too complex to be captured in our models. Culture, however, was mistaken when it dismissed the factual basis of science’s molecular world in favor of fights over maps and menus.

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