Rocks are computationally equivalent to humans.–Stephen Wolfram
The basis of the universe-as-machine metaphor stretches back into antiquity. Natural regularities observed from the beginning of human history form the background for this belief:
-The round of day into night.
-The solstices and equinoxes relative to the sun’s rising/setting over local “markers:” trees, mountains, building edges, etc.
-The wandering planets’ regular courses.
The “clockwork universe” idea became a dominant analogy for scientists after Laplace’s determinism gained widespread currency early in the 18th century, but you might say it originally began with the ancient astronomers who timed the days, months, seasons, years, ages, and precessions. They modeled these relationships with orreries and planetaria. The gnomon/sundial gave rise to the daily hours and their division. From the Babylonians to the Romans, each hour had its own deity, overseen by greater deities that managed them: a celestial bureaucracy.
To the ancient mind, the stars and planets were connected to events on earth; Sirius’s heliacal rising caused the Nile’s inundation of its plains for the Egyptians, either by direct spiritual force or by a resonance. The universe was not “dead matter” blindly obeying laws—it was a living being full of lesser daimons communicating etheric signals about and through the eternal laws that regulated this superorganism’s body. Some persons were gifted enough to see these beings and the relationships.
We were parts of this continuum, and reflected its regularities. As above, so below; as below, so above.
Water clocks like the Greek clepsydra existed in ancient India, China, Babylon, and Egypt; these were probably tied to measuring the precise durations for human activities like cooking, smelting, and religious services. The Antikythera mechanism of 100-105 BCE is probably an orrery. The clepsammia (hourglass) was invented in Hellenistic Alexandria; it most likely took only a few months or even weeks for its inventor to match with a sundial the size of the two glass bells and the amount and quality of sand to get an accurate measure of the 60-minute hour, and notate the completed object’s sand quantities/dimensions.
In 1090 CE, Chinese inventor Su Song built an elaborate water clock for the purpose of determining the heavenly bodies’ positions during the royal concubines’ births if cloudy weather occurred during those times.[i] In the 14th century, John Dondi built a very complex clockwork orrery; a spring mechanism was wound and clicked at regular intervals to show the movements of the planets and sun about the earth. The need to time monastic worship activities led to water clocks and eventually bell-tolls connected to complex gear mechanisms, such as the clock in the Prague town square, built in 1410.
All of these involve representing natural phenomena into a single mechanism that link the two levels/worlds, local and celestial, mesocosmic and macrocosmic, as a time “keeper.”
Two centuries ago, a metaphor linking living organisms and machines—especially clocks—began to be used loosely in the scientists’ discourse. To what degree this mistaken equivalence has impacted the “Western noosphere” of lived experience is still unknown. But the signs point.
In ancient myths, there were near-countless “frames” or metaphors with which to characterize living beings (and the cosmos as a whole).
Magicians in antiquity had to observe and tune themselves with the rhythms of nature in order to manipulate it. Some of the pre-Socratic philosophers cast aside elemental “animism” (as well as the Greek city-states’ deities and cosmogonies) in favor of abstract principles or forces as the “first causes” that could then be viewed disinterestedly.[ii]
Personification and projection into natural phenomena had to be eliminated from the subject/object relationships for the supposed clarity of the “primary principle” to come into view.
And this is what these philosophers did; it was the beginning of the long march towards materialistic scientism.[iii]
Before the pre-Socratics, countless analogies in world cultures were imagined for the universe’s origin and its regularities: the cosmic egg, the triune cosmic egg (underworld/middleworld/upperworld), the cosmic tree, the wheel of the Zodiac, the Heavenly Millstone which described both the constellations spinning about the Pole star and the equinoctial precession. Yet they were more than analogies; they were the actual primordial forms of the familiar earthbound objects that reflected them. The canopy of the Milky Way was the milk-vortex of Vishnu, the Milk of Hera, the Silver River, Tiamat’s Tail, Heavenly Ganges…
Each of these “tropes” fit their source: The Millstone and Wheel of Heaven mirrored the iris/pupil of the human eye, the sun disc, the moon disc. The mythemes originated through isomorphism.
But isomorphism is only one aspect of these images. They functioned to explain the cosmos. The Millstone’s grains—that is, the Polar stars and planets—created human fates instead of flour. In solar myths, the sun was the heart of the deity, the symbol of eternity. In Polar myths, the North Star was the destination of the soul in the afterlife, set in the cave-like darkness that mirrored the underworld, around which the Great Bear and all the other constellations revolved.
Community priest-leaders insisted on preserving their explanatory mythemes, especially when the tribe migrated. Contacting other peoples inevitably altered their beliefs. Upon the discovery of parallel functions and visual motifs in another culture—their speaking each others’ symbolic language, as it were—the mythemes could be syncretized. And for a tribe for whom some aspects of their mythology was “impoverished” in explanatory power or soteriological depth, the new belief systems could fill in the gaps or deepen the understanding of their own deities. They absorbed aspects the “alien” culture’s symbols and rituals that their own lacked.[iv]
The equivalency between motifs and stories was due to the natural phenomenon that underlay the mytheme and gave rise to specific names and tales.
At the Council of Nicaea, the son and father were legislated to be of the same substance, for once and all. The ideas of cyclical return, daimonic intermediaries, and reincarnation were forbidden. Thus was a kinetic element to universe denied, and the idea of a world-soul was stripped from the Catholic Christianity. Universe and consciousness set once and for all as an unchangeable entity; any evolutionary principle to the universe was forbidden.[v]
During Middle Ages Europe, the Great Chain of Being and the ancient idea of celestial spheres were the dominant Western metaphors for the heavens and earth, humanity and animal and landscape–the direct result of the Council’s decisions. This was by all measures a universe that operated like a machine, but was suffused with the will of God.
The triad heaven-earth-underworld, which is as old as shamanism, was preserved in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante’s Hades mirrored, in a descending, spiraling action, the three-dimensional nested-domes that surrounded the earth in Aristotle’s philosophy. But by the 15th century, the Neoplatonist interpretations of Plato and Aristotle’s cosmos solidified into dogmatic teachings in the monastic schools. For Aristotle, psyche/psuche—soul—simply meant an entity’s innate ability for self-movement. This was just a bare-bones definition that the Scholastics expanded to include the innate, ghost-like personality via Neoplatonic ideas of astral influence. Contradictions in theology set in, leading to the famous Scholastic quibbling over minute deviations in doctrine. They perceived the contradiction of a universe of eternal laws, the existence of sin and evil, and our possession of free will. Humans were still the fallen images of Adam Kadmon, the prototypical human, but far above the “animal” world in the chain. We were bound in sin by the second Adam, in Eden, but redeemed by the “third Adam,” Jesus. In a sense, Jesus’s sacrifice to show humanity the way destroyed the absolute determinism (mechanism) of original sin: the merciless wheel of causal sin was “broken upon the cross.”
As astronomy progressed with Galileo, Brahe, and Kepler, the signatures of a “universal clock” came more clearly into view. John Harrison’s 1761 timepiece allowed the near-exact determination of longitude as well as precise timing of celestial events. By the late 18th century local time-keeping was nearly perfected, just as an ensoulled cosmos was being officially “invalidated” by our increasing comprehension of physical laws. Gravitational “fields” and electricity came to replace the anima mundi, the universal soul.
So is the universe a form of machine, tied to clockwork regularities, as many scientists like David Deutsch and Stephen Wolfram insist? Does any hard evidence exist equating the mechanism with biological activity?
Mechanism can be abstracted into the concept of the algorithm: a predictable stepwise transformation/change in a system from one time interval to the next. Although quantum theory can challenge our ideas of time and chaos theory demonstrates the non-linearity of certain systems, (that is, challenging singular, isolated cause-and-effect relations), many science boosters nevertheless retail narratives from the premise that biology=machine. Merely because a resemblance exists.
This equality rests upon the deeply ingrained world of Newtonian causality which holds only at one level of consciousness: our observations of the objects that exist above a certain scale of size and complexity.
We’ve measured the age of this universe: 13.8 billion years. Our best telescopes can peer backwards in time to the purported beginning. Yet space is seemingly endless.
As I said, a vestige of the “world soul” mytheme lingers in the ideas of electromagnetic and gravitational fields—but these latter are responsive to measurement and manipulation. At one time, this manipulation required human ritual that put the shaman or magician in touch with independently existing forces/forms that responded to command. Now we’ve mediated them via physical electronic devices. Today, atoms function with no purpose but to exchange electrons. Humans exist only to propagate offspring and thus their genetic heritage; any higher purpose is an illusion created by our finely tuned brains, the “most complex object in the universe.”[vi] Through a bait-and-switch promoted by scientists like Lawrence Krauss, these gurus have replaced the “whys” of nature with “hows” in order to sidestep questions of teleology. The best they can do for the cosmic birth is that an accident occurred due to a statistical hiccup in the “quantum flux” of nothingness.
In other words, a free miracle.
The same with humanity’s origin: despite today’s mytheme of incremental natural selection, it is only honest to say that the origin of the process is ultimately unknowable. Natural selection is just one part of the evolutionary story; the origins of metabolism and reproduction (both of which are suitable to algorithmic modeling) are still mysterious. No one knows how the hell it happened. But a Krauss will tell you the two processes were simply another set of accidents in the causal chain that birthed the universe/nature. We’re supposed to take this on faith, because Krauss for certain cannot explain it; all he can say is “it must have happened that way!” We are purposeless, but exist (as a radical transhumanist might add with a flourish) to “take control of our evolutionary course from blind chance and achieve a form of immortality.” That’s quite a telos for beings that inherently possess no telos, and prompts the question: is a purpose wrestled over billions of years from the existential void of a meaningless universe actually a purpose, or just more deluded error? Why is the wrestling away of our mortal fate from “blind nature” purposeful, when our own thrown existence is not?
Which leads us back to the origin of the question: the machine as measuring device.
A clock or robot’s origin: human. They are purposive in relation to us, created for a function, whether that function is to crunch numbers or create another machine.
The contradiction that nihilistic science creates is that machines have a purpose for us, yet the “wonderful machines” of nature have no purpose for some Other, whether God or angels or an alien race. Atheist scientists like Krauss think it is illogical or invalid to extrapolate from the human-machine relation to the Creator-nature-humanity relation. He gives no compelling reasons why this should be so. Philosophers like Nick Bostrom argue that we probably live in a simulation by posthumans or extraterrestrials and that if that’s so, all bets are off against God or the supernatural not being “real” in some sense, because even our observable rules of physics could be programmings that only simulated beings such as ourselves would be able to perceive. The creator(s)’ universe may operate on entire different sets of rules.
What this all comes down to, for me, is the concept of ownership. We appear phenomenologically to ourselves and others as embodied beings subject to misadventure and random occurrences and the entropy of aging. The important words here are “appear” and “embodied.” Thinking about one’s sense of disembodiment such as in a dream state, reverie, or hypnagogia takes place in a time interval; in other words, in order for the loop of self-consciousness (introspection, recognition that one is not in a state of direct embodiment) to occur requires time. Thus a split or doubling occurs. We then can attempt to make of consciousness an object that can be studied—and the body as well. We find ourselves possessors of these experiences, whether we consciously loop into doubling-back and introspection or not.
This process is mirrored in the relationship between the macroscopic world of planets and stars and the clock that sits on the mantle. The clock is our reified doubled-consciousness—the symbol of self-consciousness. But it is only that, and has no relation to the markerless unfolding, outward and upward, expanding and contracting, of an organic being.
[i] Richards, E.G. Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History, Oxford University Press, 1998, pgs. 56-57.
[ii] Plato desperately tried to hew to an ultimate goal for philosophy—transcendence of the imperfect, material world—in his dialectics but was many times sidetracked by Athenian cultural affairs (politics and morality, mostly). With Aristotle, forget it: all talk of ascension by means of rationality found in Plato, which had been modeled on Egyptian funerary/resurrection systems, was banished.
[iii] Strictly, Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, and Lucretius were materialist-atheists during the beginning of the Hellenistic Period with their dictum “all is just atoms and the void.” Democritus of Abdera was first to postulate that tiny, indivisible (a-tom in Greek) particles made up everything known in the universe. Democritus used the example/analogy/metaphor of an object being composed of tiny particles that each contained the “proper” nature of the whole object that creates its form (a bit like a fractal hologram, when you think about it!) A wooden table is made at an atomic level of indivisible bits of the element “wood,” which is in turn comprised of water and earth and fire in a defined mixture. One could prove this idea by smashing the table to bits, then pulverizing the bits, then crushing further the pulverized dust, never reaching anything that is not a tiny bit of wood. It can become fire, or earth (think of decayed wood, if it were left alone to rot) and is water-soluble in this form. Democritus extrapolated that if you could continue this splitting you would reach the atom “wood.”
For its time this was quite an astounding conceptual leap—invisible constituents that construct physical objects. Today we can say that sets of organic molecules arranged in certain ways give wood the properties it has, but ultimately we would arrive at a “characterless, property-less” atom whose number of electrons and aggregated determines the properties/qualities the macroscopic object will have.
[iv] In just one example, see Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess on the assimilation of Akkadian-Ugaritic goddess Athirat/Ashtart as the “wife of Yahweh,” Asherah, in the earliest Jewish faiths. Asherah was a “foreign” deity whose banishment and reinstitution occurred dozens of times over centuries in the many Hebrew tribal communities. Just as a cult of Mary was practiced alongside the Nicaean Christianity of Catholicism for 1,500 years until she was ratified as near-equal to Jesus in the 19th and 20th centuries, the rabbis exploring the Kabbalah retained the feminine divine presence in the Shekinah via the Sephirot from Hellenistic times to the present.
[v] Scott, Ernest. The People of the Secret, Octagon Press, 1985, pgs. 42-43.