The Human Machine?

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 307–308.

Every age has its special evils. Human beings are (among many other things, of course) cruel, rapacious, jealous, violent, self-interested, and egomaniacal, and they can contrive to make nearly anything — any set of alleged values, any vision of the good, any collection of abstract principles — an occasion for oppression, murder, plunder, or simple malice.

In the modern age, however, many of the worst political, juridical, and social evils have arisen from our cultural predisposition to regard organic life as a kind of machinery, and to treat human nature as a kind of technology — biological, genetic, psychological, social, political, economic. This is only to be expected.

If one looks at human beings as essentially machines, then one will regard any perceived flaws in their operations as malfunctions in need of correction. There can, at any rate, be no rationally compelling moral objection to undertaking repairs. In fact, the machine may need to be redesigned altogether if it is to function as we think it ought.

The desire to heal a body or a soul can lead to horrendous abuses, obviously, especially when exploited by powerful institutions (religious or secular) to enlarge their control of others; but it is also, ideally, a desire that can be confined to sane ethical limits by a certain salutary dread: a tremulous reluctance to offend against the sanctity and integrity of nature, a fear of trespassing upon some inviolable precinct of the soul that belongs to God or the gods.

This is not true of the desire to fix a machine. In the realm of technology, there is neither sanctity nor mystery but only proper or improper function. Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty: ‘scientific’ racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, ‘curative’ lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on — and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed).

No condition is more exhilaratingly liberating for all the most viciously despotic aspects of human character than an incapacity for astonishment or reverent incertitude before the mysteries of being; and mechanistic thinking is, to a very great extent, a training in just such an incapacity.

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