"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Man and the Machine

There came a day when Man awoke. He was all alone with the machine. From the first day he knew he couldn’t live without it, for outside of the machine there was nothing. This isolation reminded him that, though he was free to explore, his freedom was limited. Whatever he was, he was bound to the machine. As Man pondered this he was assailed by a strange sensation — a deep longing that he couldn’t shake. “From where do I come? Where shall I go? To what shall I live?” And the most puzzling question of all, “What am I?” With these questions in hand Man entered the machine.

It was his hope that within the machine he would find the answers to his questions. With great zeal he began his work. As Man explored, he marveled at the complexity of the machine. At times he was overcome with it’s beauty. He would sit silent for hours just experiencing its wonder. “What does all this mean?” he would ask himself. But no answers were forthcoming.

As Man’s quest progressed he couldn’t help but think that the nature of the machine was such that only something like Man, only much greater, had crafted it. There was much that went on within the machine that seemed impossible if it were not by the work of such a being. For what seemed like an age, Man devoted considerable energy to pondering what such a being would be like and wondering why it created what it did.

With time Man came to see that he could manipulate the machine to achieve his own purposes. This was no small revelation, for now he was able to discover so much more than he had ever dreamed! Bit by bit he brought the machine under his control. With each new advance Man’s knowledge of the machine increased and with each discovery he was stunned by what he found. Phenomena that once seemed almost magical, now appeared to have deeper mechanisms that drove them. Man was so impressed by his discoveries that he no longer felt he needed to postulate a “super-man.” With the abandonment of a creator agency, Man returned to his task, but as he worked the questions he was seeking to answer were starting to feel strangely hollow. Or perhaps it was that the field of answers he had to choose from were now starting to feel a bit more absurd. No matter where he looked, all he found was more machine, more complexity, more noise, but no reason for their existence or workings. As wonderful as the machine seemed to be at times, he could find no point for its existence. It was just there, running on a track between an apparently pointless beginning and an ultimately meaningless end.

The more Man struggled to extract answers from the machine the more it began to lose the beauty he had once seen in it. It was as if the machine mocked him. In all its intractable mystery, it continued on its blind path with no care for the pleadings of the man within it. Frustrated with his attempts to find answers by examining the machine, he traced the long journey back to the place he had first experienced it’s beauty. In desperation he screamed with everything in him, “WHAT AM I?” All his strength gone, he fell to the ground, sobbing. His body shook as waves of anger and despair washed over him. All around him there was nothing but the whirr and click of a machine that took no notice of him.

It was at this time that something caught Man’s attention. A soft glow from deep within the machine flickered through a gap in the floor. Wiping his eyes, he peered between the metal plates. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to discover.

Far below him he could see a small monitor nestled deep in a tangle of wires and in it there was an image of himself. It was a birds eye view, as if a camera was positioned directly above him. He looked up, hoping to see what was watching him, but as he did he realized something that wasn’t quite right. The image of himself in the monitor turned and looked towards the ceiling a split second before he did. He turned back and looked into the monitor, then quickly, he turned away. Sure enough, the visage of himself moved before he moved his body. Every move he made the monitor displayed just prior to his enacting it! He would wave his arms or shake his head but his visage would begin it’s movements before he could get his body to react.

He was beginning to think the machine was reading his mind until the video began to gradually speed up. He watched himself peering through the crack, then lift himself off the floor and proceed to sit with his hands in his lap. Apart form a slight swaying from side to side, the image of himself simply sat motionless. This went on for quite some time until suddenly the screen flickered and went dark. Terrified, he lifted himself off the floor and sat up. With his hands lying limp in his lap, Man sat. He felt like he should run, or lift his arms, anything just to prove the video wrong. He could do that couldn’t he? He was a free creature after all... He was the originator of his actions, not the machine... Right? Long hours passed as he sat motionless; his body lost all feeling as the deepest truth he had yet discovered slowly saturated his being.

All this time, even now, this very second, his actions, his thoughts... He had never been controlling the machine; it had been controlling him. Why had he not seen it before? He had no autonomous existence. He was, and always had been, merely a part of the machine. His freedom, his experience—they were all illusory. He had never really been searching for answers to begin with—it had always been the machine. Never Man. Only the machine. In a single moment Man’s existence collapsed.

The machine devoured him, and all was silent.

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Blogger Alex said...

been working on this one for a while now. I was hoping I could express my feelings in a story in a way I can't seem to do in argumentation. Look forward to your thoughts!

10:01 AM

Anonymous brad said...

Dude, great story. Really captured my attention. Sounds like you have learned something since we last talked

Since this is your parable, I can only assume that you have the "man" and the "machine" clearly defined.

I am intrigued once again


BTW, it's fairly slow at work today :)

9:53 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Thanks Brad,
Glad our conversation was able to clear up any confusion I may have caused. In light of that, I'd be interested to know any points where you might see my story to have gone wrong, thereby making it naught but a straw man. Only if you have the desire though. And if you don't, I understand.

Also keep in mind that I'm holding your book hostage until you come over and sit around combusting material in my back yard.

11:49 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

That's a good piece, and a refreshing manner of communicating your thoughts.

The accusation that you are addressing a straw man could be made here, because the man in the story clearly represents you; i.e. you as you would perceive yourself to be as a materialist. He does not really represent what I would consider to be the emotional state of a typical materialist.

You have given the character the central aim of defining his purpose, which he imagines he will elucidate by default if only he could understand the machine. The question is, do materialists really think this way? Some perhaps, but not many. Part of being a materialist is feeling comfortable with not knowing all the answers, and not having a grasp on a clear, tangible explanation for existence. We search because we like the journey that searching entails (we're a migratory species both geographically and metaphysically), rather than because we feel we absolutely have to.

Mystery is simply too enticing for us to become demoralised by the limits of our knowledge.

3:37 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Thanks man!

I think the straw man accusation will be the one I will need to deal with the most with regard to this allegory. You say that the man's emotional state does not represent that of the typical materialist and I grant this. However, what I'm trying to witch out by using this story is, why not?

"You have given the character the central aim of defining his purpose, which he imagines he will elucidate by default if only he could understand the machine."

If all that exists is machine, why would this not be a proper route to take?

"The question is, do materialists really think this way? Some perhaps, but not many."

Sure, but why not?

"Part of being a materialist is feeling comfortable with not knowing all the answers, and not having a grasp on a clear, tangible explanation for existence."

On one level I grant this, but it applies just as much to any thinking human regardless of philosophical outlook, so on that level it's not very interesting. On another level it is simply not true. The materialist is not agnostic. The materialist is committed to the idea that "at the bottom" all we'll ever find is material. It is this commitment my allegory questions.

"Mystery is simply too enticing for us to become demoralised by the limits of our knowledge."

It is not the limits of our knowledge that I envision bringing about demoralization, rather it's the logical implications of our commitments. This allegory was created to be rejected. What interests me is why it is rejected.

7:55 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Sure, but why not?"

Because the central aim of a materialist is rarely to find an all-encompassing purpose. We're happy with the little, highly-subjective purposes of our lives (and I would say the same is true for theists generally). Those purposes usually being to procure and maintain an enjoyable quality of life, with all the work and the play that that entails.

What lies beyond the boundaries of our universe arouses our curiosity because we have a natural tendency to explore and question, but the answer, whatever it may be, is so far removed from the little purposes in our lives that its absence has no measurable effect. Thus, it hardly vexes us.

"The materialist is committed to the idea that "at the bottom" all we'll ever find is material."

Absolutely, but now let me ask you the following questions: what's is your problem with material? and what is the basis for this thinking?

Or more simply, Why shouldn't materialists believe that everything is material?

Bear in mind that the material is not restricted to things of mass. It encompasses everything we can measure in the universe, and a good few things besides that we haven't figured out how to measure. That's something to dwell on; we can't very well relegate materialism when we still don't know where its boundaries are.

As to whether a materialist is agnostic, that depends on what your criteria are. Materialism does not refute God, and so with respect to divinity the materialist must remain philosophically agnostic, even if he errs pragmatically towards the strong inductive instinct that tells him such possibilities of divinity are not worth accommodating in his personal reality (unless it enhances that reality, in which case each to his own; hence the existence of Christian materialists). In his conviction that all that is is material, he is certainly no agnostic, but a materialist's definition of what is material is self-adjusting. If God is real, his presence confirmed empiracally, the materialists perspective of the material realm will merely extend to encompass Him.

10:26 AM


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