They Have Brains, and They Think Not; Hearts Have They, and They Feel Not
Their idols are silver and gold, even the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not.
They have ears, and hear not: noses have they, and smell not.
They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, and walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; and so are all such as put their trust in them. (Psalm 115: 4-8,from the Great Bible Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer)
Man began to measure time, by noting the position of the sun in the sky. He improved his time-telling technique with the invention of tools such as sundials and hourglasses. In the Middle Ages he invented a device that would not just assist him in measuring time, but would actually keep track of time for him through its own internal workings. It would, as long as it was maintained properly, operate on its own. This device is the clock. As man’s technology advanced in the Modern Age, he developed more machines that could be turned on and would then proceed to do what they were designed to do with little-to-no further input from man. Their function is built into them and, apart from a breakdown of some sort, will be fulfilled each time they run.
These machines accomplish their function without thinking about it. Rational thought is still a property of living human beings, and not of machines. Future situations where this is no longer the case is one of the staples of the dystopic side of the science fiction genre. Usually, the scenario involves the machine gaining sentience and turning against its maker. Since science fiction is a pop culture expression of the modern spirit, the spirit of the age in which man turns his back on his Creator and attempts through his conquest of nature to build a new world in accordance with the values he has chosen, it is fitting that it would express such fears that man’s creation would in turn do the same, much as the Titan king Saturn in ancient mythology feared that his son would rise up to depose him, the way he had deposed his father Uranus. Perhaps the first example of the expression of this fear is Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth century science-horror novel Frankenstein, although it is not a machine, but life in a monstrous creature, that Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates. The idea of robots with artificial intelligence, rebelling against mankind was such a popular theme in early robot fiction, that Isaac Asimov deliberately set out to do the opposite, to depict robots incapable of turning against a mankind and the popular fear of the robotic as irrational. Probably the best known example of the sci-fi meme of machines that turn against man is to be found in director James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator and its various sequels and spinoffs. This film depicted an assassin cyborg, sent back in time from a future where a military computer system Skynet had gained consciousness and declared war on humanity.
A scenario in which machines gain consciousness and turn against their creators is not the only way in which a future different from the present status quo of thinking human beings and unthinking machines can be depicted. The other alternative is to present a future in which mankind has lost the capacity for rational thought. To a limited extent, this scenario is used in stories which depict a general populace that is oppressed by being prevented from perceiving the world as it is, whether through the brainwashing of a police state as in George Orwell’s 1984, or living out their lives in a simulated reality generated by now dominant machines, as in the Wachowski Brothers’ popular The Matrix trilogy. This scenario is more fully utilized by Pixar Studio’s 2008 computer animated film WALL-E, in which, the earth having become a giant garbage dump, mankind has gone on an interstellar cruise, leaving robots such as the title character to clean up his mess. The cruise spaceships take care of all their passengers needs and schedule their daily routine so that they live out their lives in a kind of pleasure-induced trance.
Fanciful, as the scenarios depicted in these works of fiction are, the ideas contained in their general themes, the idea of machinery taking over the world and the idea of man himself becoming more like an unthinking, unfeeling machine, are worth reflecting upon. Do these represent valid concerns about the direction in which modern technology is taking us?
The question is a legitimate one. Originally tools were invented by man to assist him in doing his work, to lighten his load. In the Modern Age man began to develop machines that would not so much assist him as do his work for him. Initially, the work machines were invented to take over from men was mostly physical labour. As far back as the Renaissance, however, Blaise Pascal had invented a functioning calculator that could perform simple arithmetic. In the twentieth century, this branch of technology, that of machines that do mathematics, solve problems, and otherwise take over tasks for which man used his brain instead of his hands, really took off. Computers began as large machines, used for military purposes and by scientists for calculation in their research, but within decades of their invention smaller, personal models for use in the home were invented, and by the end of the century portable “laptop” models were available. As the size of computers shrank, the number of functions they could perform increased, and in the last few decades computer technology has been incorporated into all other kinds of technology and into every aspect of our lives. Telephone communication is now mostly done through small, mobile, telephones with built-in computer functions allowing access to the internet and all sorts of other functions. Automobiles now have built-in computers that remind you of things you may have forgotten, that inform you when your car needs maintenance, that help mechanics diagnose problems, and which in some cases help you plan your route and even park your car for you. Everything from agriculture to medicine is computerized these days.
The incorporation of the computer into so many different aspects of our lives has inevitably and radically altered the way we live them and the societies in which we live them. While these changes have enriched our lives in many ways, there are also many ways in which they are cause for concern. The more we build machines to do our work for us, the more we become dependent upon those machines. The more dependent upon machines we are, the more serious is the difficulty we will find ourselves in if those machines break down or if for some other reason they are not available to us and we must again do the work for ourselves. This is a danger that gets progressively worse because the more collectively dependent upon machines we become, the less likely we are to pass on to future generations the skills and know how necessary to do the tasks that machines do for us. When we start to rely upon machines to do tasks that are part of rational thought, like making calculations, solving logical problems, or even making decisions, we run the risk of allowing our very thought processes to atrophy. If you doubt that is the case, then observe what happens at the till of a coffee shop or grocery store when the computer system crashes and the person behind the till is required to calculate your change manually.
If through the development of robotic and computer technology which performs an ever increasing number of man’s mental tasks for him man is creating machinery after his own image, the surrender of these tasks to the machine and allowing of our own mental powers to atrophy would seem to be making man ever more like a machine. This is not the only way in which this is true. As we develop our technology through modern science, we increasingly organize our societies according to the principles of technology, and human existence becomes more and more mechanical.
As Jacques Ellul put it about sixty years ago “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world.” (1) While Ellul meant something more than just the mechanical by “technique” – he meant every application of reason towards the goal of efficiency – the mechanical is certainly included and in explaining why technique is more than machine, he wrote “the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first…Technique certainly began with the machine. It is quite true that all the rest developed out of mechanics; it is quite true also that without the machine the world of technique would not exist.” (2) As a principle of social organization, the technical is radically different from anything that had preceded it. It meant that all of society would now be directed, not towards a vision of the Good, such as that represented in the culture of the countryside and organic community or that represented in the laws and civilization of the city, but towards maximum efficiency to be achieved by knowledge and reason harnessed in the service of the will to dominate.
If technique became the primary principle of social organization in a kind of technical revolution and if technique began with the machine which remains the most impressive example of technique, it follows that a society completely touched by and organized by technique could to some degree or another be described as mechanical. Owen Barfield, in a book we will shortly take a closer look at, said of the machine “The whole point of a machine is, that, for as long as it goes on moving, it ‘goes on by itself’ without mans’ participation.” (3) While obviously a human society in which man does not participate is a contradiction in terms, when Barfield says that a machine moves without man’s participation he is speaking of man as someone external to the machine. The men in a society that has become mechanical are not analogous to the man who owns a clock but to the gears and cogs within it. In saying that a society has become mechanical we are saying that the society has been organized so that to a certain degree the motion within it men within it, including that of the men who live within it, has become automatic, determined by routines and patterns established by planners with technical efficiency as their end. That human activity ought to be in harmony with the natural rhythms of life, which are instead interrupted and trampled upon by technical efficiency is a theme that runs throughout the writings of poet, novelist, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry. Surely the best word to describe activity that is out of sync with life and driven by ends to which such harmony is irrelevant, is mechanical.
That the more man becomes dependent upon the machine the more like the machine he becomes himself and that the more dependent upon technology human society becomes the more mechanical it becomes itself is something that was predictable long before the modern experiment. The basis of the prediction is right there in the eighth verse of the one hundred and fifteenth Psalm quoted in the epigram to this essay. “They that make them [idols] are like unto them; and so are all such as put their trust in them.” Modern man has made idols out of his machines and technology, and having put his trust in these idols, has come to resemble them.
The idols of which the Psalmist wrote, were images made of stone or metal that represented the various deities the pagan nations worshipped. The making and worship of idols was a practice forbidden to the Israelites in the second of the Ten Commandments. The point of the psalmist’s mockery of pagan idolatry is that man-made idols, rather than being the hosts of powerful deities, are just lifeless images. The craftsmen who built them gave them the appearance of having mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands and feet, but these were merely appearances. The idols were dead stone, dead metal, and by making and putting their faith in them, men became like them, killing their spirits by focusing on these idols the attention and worship due to the true and living God, thus cutting themselves off from the Source of life.
The idols men build today are in one sense more impressive than statues of Chemosh, Ba’al, Moloch, Dagon and Astarte. They are designed to actually do things, from moving goods and people to calculating complex equations. It is not just hands and mouths, modern man has given his idols, but brains and hearts as well, in the computers that direct their functions, and the sources from which the power that keeps the machines in motion circulates. Yet despite this greater resemblance to living beings, it is still just an artificial imitation. To paraphrase the psalmist, they have brains and they think not, hearts have they, and they feel not. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, modern man has been unable to give life to his creation and in transferring his faith from God to the machines his science has enabled him to build and the techniques his reason has enabled him to devise, he has again broken his connection with the Source of his life, and come to resemble his moving but lifeless creation.
There is another aspect to the idolatry in modern science and technology that is worth contemplation. Earlier I had quoted Owen Barfield’s remark that the point of a machine is that it moves by itself without man’s participation. This remark was made in the context of a paragraph in which Barfield was arguing that the machine is the model by which the modern mind conceives the universe. In the next paragraph he explained that this is not how science itself conceives of nature, but rather the conception that science has created in the minds of ordinary people. This is part of a larger argument that modern man, by confusing his conception of the world with the world as it is in itself, is committing a form of idolatry.
This argument is part of a book entitled Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, which out of all of Barfield’s books is the one most likely to be remembered today. (4) The book begins with a discussion of the Kantian difference between things as they appear and things as they are in themselves. The difference, of course, is that the way things appear always involves the interpretations of our senses and minds. What is called “post-modern” thought has taken this difference and run with it in a most unhealthy direction, but the argument Barfield made is very different. Noting that the appearances involve a collective interpretation – whether an individual perceives things correctly or wrongly is generally judged by holding his interpretation up to the standard of the collective perception – Barfield argued against the positivist belief that ancient man and modern man live in the same world but that modern man’s perception, understanding, and explanation of that world is better, more in line with the world as it actually is, than the ancients. Instead, he argued, it would be more accurate to say that ancient and modern man do not live in the same world, because the world they live in is the ever changing world of appearances. Man’s role in generating this world of appearances, he called participation, and the way man participates in the world of appearances and even his recognition of his own participation, changes with his thoughts through time. In earlier eras man recognized that the world they saw, was something in which they participated themselves, as did the unseen that lay beyond the appearances. In the modern, scientific era, recognition of man’s participation has been pushed back to a second and even third degree of awareness, whereas recognition of the reality of anything beyond the appearances other than that which appears in scientific hypotheses is mostly absent.
The difference between the ancient and the modern perception of the world is not, Barfield therefore argued, that primitive man sought the same kind of understanding that modern science seeks but through a less developed mythology that “peopled the world” with spirits. Rather the modern perception has come about through a change in thought about the nature and purpose of science.
Plato, Barfield reminded us, recognized three levels of knowledge – the first and lowest being sensory observation, the third and highest being intellectual perception of the divine ideas, with geometry or mathematics as the intermediate level. What we call science today corresponds with the second level. The purpose of scientific hypotheses was to “save the appearances” (5), i.e., to provide a working explanation of what is observed in the first level of knowledge. This working explanation was understood to be man’s own creation and not to be confused with the truth, or the world as it is.
This understanding has largely been lost. The knowledge obtainable by science, Barfield explains by analogy, is “dashboard knowledge” rather than “engine knowledge”, i.e., a knowledge of how to drive a car rather than knowledge of its internal workings. (6) Sir Francis Bacon understood this when he declared knowledge to be power. There may still be an understanding of this among scientists themselves. Plato and Aristotle, however, believed that a knowledge of truth, of the permanent, unchanging, reality beyond the world of appearances was also accessible to man and with the evaporation of this belief, the idea that scientific hypotheses themselves can explain the reality beyond the appearances became the vogue among scientists and among the general public this became the idea that the explanations of scientific hypotheses are the reality beyond appearances. Since scientific hypotheses are themselves part of the world of appearances, the confusion of scientific hypotheses with the world as it is, the idea that nothing other than scientific explanations lie beyond the appearances, is a form of idolatry, Barfield reasoned, because it is an attribution of ultimate reality to what is merely an image.
On a somewhat similar note Simone Weil wrote:
Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop. Lacking idols, it often happens that we have to labour every day, or nearly every day, in the void. We cannot do so without supernatural bread. Idolatry is thus a vital necessity in the cave. Even with the best of us it is inevitable that it should set narrow limits for mind and heart. (7)
The cave she refers to is Plato’s, i.e., Plato’s allegory illustrating the difference between the realm of appearances as opposed to the realm of true Forms. Those who see only things as they appear in the physical realm, Plato said, were like prisoners chained in a cave, who see nothing but shadows cast from a fire behind them upon a wall, and mistake that for reality. Surely nobody in the history of the world could be better described as “in the cave” than modern man who in his positivism has rejected the metaphysical and theological, and sees nothing beyond the appearances than the scientific explanations he devises for them, who mistakes what Barfield’s most famous student and friend, borrowing from the same Platonic allegory, called “the Shadowlands” for the ultimate reality.
If we consider this alongside what we have already discussed about modern man’s having made idols out of his machines it would appear that modern man is engaged in multiple, related, layers of idolatry. First he made idols out his images of the world and his scientific explanations of them, then, with the power over nature his science obtained for him, he created machines, to do his will and to do his work for him, upon which he became dependent and in which he placed his faith, turning his machines into idols too.
The more man’s technology advances, the more of an idol he makes it. The more of a technolator he becomes, the more mechanical his life and society becomes, and the more he begins to resemble his own soulless, lifeless, creations.
(1) Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 3. This is a translation by John Wilkinson of La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle, completed in 1950 and published in Paris by Librairie Armand Colin in 1954.
(3) Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York and London: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957, 1965), p. 51.
(4) Barfield himself is probably more likely to be remembered today for his association with C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams than for his own writings.
(5) This phrase, translating the Greek sozein ta phainomena (σῴζειν τὰ φαινόμενα), was borrowed by Barfield from the commentary by Simplicius of Cilicia on Aristotle. It is more frequently rendered “saving the phenomena”. Barfield preferred the translation appearances because the transliteration phenomena has taken on weaker connotations.
(6) Barfield, p. 55.
(7) Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), p. 109, a translation by Arthur Wills of La Pesanteur et la grâce, first published in Paris by Librairie Plon in 1947. Weil died in 1943. This book is not something she wrote for publication, but was posthumously compiled from her notebooks by her friend Gustave Thibon.