About a month ago, John C. Wright had a debate about the opposition between Christianity and science. One piece of evidence brought up (against John) to show an opposition was the claim that “Pope Gregory’s opposed the railroad”. One response to the claim was that it was a lie. But assume the claim is true. I’ll be blunt: good for Gregory, moreover, this is an opposition between science and Christianity, and we’d be better off if there were more of it.
First, my suspicion is that Gregory knew he was fighting a lost cause, or at least a rearguard action. This is important, since I don’t think the fight was about whether there would be railroads or not, but about what sort of witness or signpost would be left at that moment in time when railroads overran the world. The glory of the railroads is obvious and easy to celebrate, but Gregory’s protest is a powerful and necessary antistrophe which, if ignored, distorts our understanding of the march of science and technology- that is, what we now call “progress”. To make this critique requires being outside of the values of what now gets called science.
Notice that this isn’t exactly a debate between Christianity and science. Railroads are not “science”, nor were they developed by scientists, but by inventors and industrialists. A list of great scientists won’t mention Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, to say nothing of J.P Morgan or Cornelius Vanderbilt. Science and invention are two different kinds of genius, and those skilled at one are rarely skilled at the other (Edison stands out) Nevertheless, we identify the scientist and the machinist since both see the success of their enterprise as increasing our power over nature. Thus, the two share a common goal. For other reasons, the advance of one is a boon for the other. For example, the railroads did a great deal to advance scientific consciousness. It was railroads that put everyone on a single man-made clock, and stole a job that had belonged to the sun for thousands of years and handed it over to a machine. We no longer see time so much as any natural change or motion, but as the position of the hands on a machine – which is exactly how the scientist wants us to see it. Distances were no longer understood in terms of motions over them performed by men or animals, but by machines. Our consciousness of space and time became mediated by a single machine. The concrete details of human life became exactly what scientists had been saying they were in fact for many years – the working of a machine. We therefore started thinking of immense stretches of land as a single unit incorporated into a mechanical circulatory system. A vast mechanical/ electrical nervous system sprung up alongside this – first a telegraph, eventually the television camera
In other words, we were building a Leviathan-machine. The benefits of the system are well-known and need not be mentioned here. For the same reason, the benefits that those in ages before us could not enjoy are also clear. But it is still an open question how someone who lived in the past would react if they saw how we live now. Even after we told them that they could be clean, well fed, and live for thirty years more, they still might recoil in terror from our life or at least be very conflicted about accepting it. They would find it horrifying and hilarious that a man could sit in a room thousands of miles away, looking at nothing but a camera lens, and convince people that he could understand their situation do something about it. What could he possibly know about my situation? It’s hard enough to come up with a plan that can help ten different people in the same room- which would be clear enough to anyone who has tried to organize people he actually knows. Yet the Leviathan promises to help people it’s never known and never met. The discipline and co-ordination that is required to run a railroad gives ideas to others, like salesmen and politicians. If we can be all drilled into shape well enough to co-ordinate an interstate and international train schedule, why not drill the same discipline, except to do different things, say, things to the benefit of the salesmen and politicians?
But wait, this last part isn’t what I meant to say. That was a critique of how the Leviathan- machine could be abused. In fact, there is a downside to the Leviathan-machine itself. Human beings can’t have human political or social relations with more than a few thousand people over a few dozen miles – I’m reminded of Aristotle’s striking claim (to us) in the Ethics that it is obviously impossible for a city to have 100,000 people. But the Leviathan gives powerful incentives for a human being to live within the machine- city: we get our news from national sources, we see politics as primarily national if not international, we entertain ourselves with shows that are watched by million and billions, we admire celebrities that are celebrities to billions, etc. All of this places us in a context where we are no longer having human relations with others. We live within a world consciousness where we cannot do anything but see. There is no smells, physical contact, need to express oneself, etc. There is no interaction. If not for television, we would all be speaking to our neighbors and acting within our communities: not because of any great civic virtue or love of neighbor, but simply because it would be the only way to keep from going insane.
In other words, we have entered into the nervous system that sprung up alongside the railroad. Our consciousness is conditioned and determined by life within a vast machine that we have lived in since birth. We are more well fed, healthy, and prosperous than any group of persons who has ever lived, but to think that we didn’t lose something very precious and worth remembering as a trade-off is just silly. If nothing else, we didn’t evolve to live life this way. Gregory saw this and let himself be crushed and mocked by the march of history. I say good for him. He gave a testimony to something that was worth remembering, and it was quite fitting for a Christian to give such testimony. Christianity is based on the love of neighbor – that is, a love of the ones who happen to be around you, and with whom we evolved to have human interactions.