Science and the machine, (2)

The age of machine science was not a given until the end of WWI. It is only then that “science” is not just separate from the humanities but seen as more or less able to replace it. The old guard lived on for many years as largely tolerated, but they were no longer allowed to critique the sciences or discuss its objects of study with alternate sorts of discourse. The debates between Einstein and Bergson became seen as first won by Einstein, and soon became seen as utterly absurd. What could a philosopher ever contribute to the understanding of time? He could keep his harmless, personal, and inconclusive ruminations to himself while all the real work of figuring out the world would be left to the scientists.

Science could replace “humanities” (and the very word “humanities” in large part arose only afterwards, to explain what was destined to be cast off) because science is the grammar and structure of machines, and the human world of the last Century is lived within machines. This is first meant in the straightforward sense of how much time we spend being transported, entertained, chained to, and earning our bread in symbiosis with machines, but there is a more sinister sense in which we feel conquered or overcome by them, as though they are not our companions but our conquerors. It’s here that WWI becomes significant.

In explaining properly human excellence or arete, Aristotle begins with an account of courage. It’s here that arete is seen most clearly as existing within a mean without being a mediocrity. Aristotle concludes to the thought that courage in its full and definitive state is only found in risking ones own life for the highest of causes and therefore in accepting death in battle.

WWI can be seen as running Aristotle’s logic in reverse. Death in battle ceased to be a matter of courage, and more became a mechanized, purely random affair of shells fired from miles away and machine gun rounds that killed 80% of infantrymen before they even reached the opposing line. The paradigm instance of the paradigm human excellence was seen as rendered meaningless and absurd by machines, regardless of what apologia one might want to make for it. As though to emphasize the point, the machine-war proved capable of crushing and deforming the citadel of human excellence: rational control. A tenth of the British armed forces were diagnosed as shell-shocked i.e. made insane by the horror of mechanized war. We don’t just live alongside and though machines – on some level we know that they’ve conquered us, in the sense of making an individual human life as insignificant as an insect.

Having critiqued courage, the critique of temperance and chastity was easy enough. Having overcome the disease that made six births per woman necessary for a replacement rate, we either had to trust our future to self-control or technology. But what idiot would ever count on the human race to control itself! Technology thus again became a critique of the human. True, this critique is in many ways an ancient one – Christianity doesn’t have a high opinion of our power to control ourselves. But then the relatively new and unprecedented success of the technological campaign became a critique of Christianity. When we needed a new man to deal with new challenges, Christianity fell flat where vulcanized rubber and synthetic hormones got results.

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