Ruse: Science and Christianity (3) the triumph of the machine metaphor

A large chunk of Michael Ruse’s book Science and Spirituality: making room for faith in an Age of Science is taken up by the story of a metaphor – the metaphor of the world as a machine.

In contrast to Aristotle’s impersonal ‘unmoved mover’ and Plato’s ‘demiurge’, Christians during the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards developed a scientific view of the cosmos as divine artifact – a machine perfectly designed by its maker.

Ruse traces the story through Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton to a point where a firm causal basis was proposed for understanding the world as one ‘of particles – atoms, corpuscles – endlessly moving in space – mindlessly, as one might say.’ And it was Descartes in particular who, reflecting on this new science, talked of the physical world as pure material substance which functions like a blind, unthinking machine (even if one made by God).

And from then the machine metaphor has continued as the dominant way of seeing both the physical and life sciences.

A chapter on ‘Organisms as Machines’ explores how for Darwin, the fundamental root metaphor was that of the world of organisms as if designed machines. Everything is embedded within this metaphor. Hands, eyes, teeth, noses, leaves, bark, roots are all as if designed, appearing so because of natural selection.

And this metaphor of mechanisms operating according to natural processes continues to be a defining characteristic of Darwinism. Ruse discusses Huxley, the mechanistic language underpinning modern genetic theory and evolutionary biology (Dawkins sees all life forms as ‘survival machines’).

And the metaphor has been extended into mankind as a ‘thinking machine’ – through Darwin and his diverse heirs (people like Freud, Skinner, Pavlov, Edward O. Wilson (evolutionary psychology), Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, ethicist Peter Singer and cognitive scientists who see the brain-mind as a computer and so on.

So you can see where this leads – it’s a short step to autonomous machine – the ”machine’ of the natural world works very well on its own, thank you.  So the ‘jump’ to the confident assertion that since we can increasingly understand how the machine works,  God is superfluous.

And it’s that jump that Ruse questions.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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2 thoughts on “Ruse: Science and Christianity (3) the triumph of the machine metaphor

  1. That’s actually a really helpful thing to know.. It makes a lot of sense of stuff ive read in the last few years around this topic.

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