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.

Spurgeon on Mosquitoes


About a week from the start of summer and our “state bird” has made its entrance in Minnesota and we are now well into the 108 day mosquito season. It reminds me of Charles Spurgeon, while traveling in Italy, writing to his wife one morning (Autobiography):

I awake grateful for another night’s peaceful rest, only to find myself very badly bitten by mosquitoes.

A mosquito is the most terrible of beasts. A lion delights in blood, but he does not suck it from living animals; he does not carefully prolong their tortures. A viper poisons, but he is generally content with one use of his fangs; but these small-winged serpents bite in scores of places in succession. My hands are a series of burning mountains.

The creatures are as nearly omnipresent as Satan, which means that, though a mosquito cannot be everywhere, yet no mortal can be sure that he is not near him, or tell where he is not. Curtains are a delusion, pastilles are a snare; the little enemies are irritated by such attempts to escape their malice, and give you double punishment.

O Italy! I have shed my blood for thy sake, and feel a love of thee (or something else) burning in my veins! The sooner I am away from thee, O fair Venice, the better, for thou dost deluge me by day, and devour me by night!

I wonder how my two companions have fared; I shall go, by-and-by, and look for their remains! I have opened my windows, and the pests are pouring in, eager and hungry; but, as I am up and dressed, there will be no more of me available for them at present.

Writing for Audiobook

Readers have asked why I use so many footnotes to house my biblical references, especially in 12 Ways. Without shame I’m a footnote guy. I also drop 90% of my biblical reference citations into the footnotes, using parenthetical verse references in the main text only for the passages I quote verbatim.

My thinking is less driven by the footnote/endnote debate, or page design preferences, and more driven by my concession to audiobooks. Many of my “readers” will be “listeners,” so dropping as much content into the footnotes allows me to script the text in a way that is just that — a script . . . a readable script.

Authors intentionally write for mediums beyond print. For example, it’s very obvious The Hunger Games series was written by an author (Suzanne Collins) with great expertise in video production. She was essentially writing out a movie plot in the form of a novel, all anticipating a series of movies in the end (which she delivered). This also explains why the books and movies are so identical, requiring very little interpretation. Similarly, I think there’s a way to write for the ear, and it simply by writing and editing verbally for script. Christianity of all groups treasures the long-term viability and beauty of the oral tradition, so writing for audiobook seems rather natural for us.

Now, obviously, a professional audiobook reader can read around non-verbal things in the text. But as an author I’m now resolved: anything silent in an audiobook I relegate out of the main body text and into footnotes. Exceptions of course include charts and graphs and images, things that can be easily skipped over by an audiobook reader anyways. Otherwise I want it in the footnotes. It’s there to be seen by the reader, and by me as I write and edit. Again, this helps me as the author of an audiobook more so than a necessity of the reader of the audiobook.

The psychology of authoring an audiobook is a dynamic I have only begun to understand and appreciate. With all this said, I think Tom Parks made fine work in reading of 12 Ways for Christianaudio. I wish I had time to read the book myself, and perhaps in the future I will do so. At this point my aim as a writer is to make books that are readable, whether it’s with me reading them or another reader.

Over the past couple of days I have been subjecting myself to listening to the 12 Ways audiobook, and I can hear things that I would change and improve (for example, I need to find better ways of audibly introducing new voices before quoting them). So my process is far from getting all figured out, but the process is in motion.

All this to say thank you Christianaudio for your work on 12 Ways. Copies of the CDs at my desk on Friday and they look great (save for the misspelt “forward” on the cover). And for those of you who are disappointed that I did not read this book myself — I’m sorry. I will more diligently pursue this in the future, Lord willing.