Science and the machine, (1)

We all must learn science in school. Why? Because it gives us machines: I-pods, television, internet, bio-med, cars, etc. If we want more of this, we need to educate the kids in it.

(Many have pointed out that the science-machine connection is more tenuous than it might look, and even today those who know both scientists and engineers realize that they’re far from being the same sort of person.)

But then, while all our machines are great in the abstract they’re frequently irritating in the concrete: cars give us smog, traffic congestion, the disfigurement of terrain by freeways; television gives us commercials, mass entertainment, global media empires, etc. But what can one do? This is a machine age – ultimately we would not have it any other way, even with its downsides.

Science education then arises not just as a way of keeping the whole enterprise going but also as an attempt to understand it, and perhaps even to nourish the thought that we can control it. Science is thus exactly what people usually describe as one of the humanities, since the humanities are (so we’re told) attempts to grapple with the reality of the human condition, but our live is largely one lived in an through machines and science is what one needs to think like a machine.

(Machine science, of course, leaves out many things we love about it, the simplest being that it gives us a picture of the world. It also drew out the solar system, the galaxy, the multiple galaxies beyond it. In this sense science is a simple response to our need to figure out how far up all this stuff goes and what the picture of it looks like. But all this only makes the machine dimension of science more significant, since it knits it together with a sense of the structure of the universe.)



  1. Max Fessor said,

    July 18, 2015 at 7:48 pm


    Thank you for this really interesting post. Could you please recommend a good source that critiques of the machine-science connection? This is intriguing to me especially since most of the science vs. religion polemic we’ve heard of late pivots on the notion that the New Science of early modern Europe inaugurated a mechanistic conception of the world, which in turn gave us science. Someone like Dennett can dismiss words like “ontology” as being unscientific, but if I understand the tenor of your post correctly Dennett has failed to see the complexities of genuine science and how ontology would be an important concept for that mode of inquiry. Thanks in advance for your time.


    • July 19, 2015 at 7:49 am

      These posts are a series of notes on the idea that we oppose the sciences to the humanities because, in large part, we see sciences as replacing humanities, and a large part of this involves the role that machines now play in human life. One can trace this back to the mechanization of nature, but I think this makes the process seem more inevitable and ancient than it actually was. We started thinking that sciences could replace humane knowledge only pretty recently. One part of this is the sense we were now conquered by machines, another part is our suspicion of absolutes, which were seen as authoritarian and murderous. We want to stick to science out of a widespread fear that the sort of questions that absolute goods lead to folly and mass murder. These beliefs contradict each other in odd an interesting ways (how will science save us from the murderous when it gives us aerial bombing, cattle cars filled with people, mass surveillance systems, etc?)

  2. July 19, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    The first hunter to feather his blow-dart likely enough thought he’d tap the flying mojo of the bird spirit to help him bag more monkeys and fruit bats.

    But even if this is not how it happened, engineering is calling bird-spirit mojo, and it is science that tries to descry mojo in the feather. We have to come to cause from the outside; harnessing cause (whether that governing aerodynamic stability or anything else) to our purposes thus formally resembles asking favor from the gods.

    The machine finds its cause in us.  We act on it,  and stuff just happens because we wanted it to. No reason. We are its gods. This,  I imagine, is how an ape views its tools.

    The more machine-like the science, the more ape-like the scientist.

%d bloggers like this: