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The Vanishing World-Machine

Stephen L. Talbott

This article was originally published in NetFuture #151. Copyright 2003 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter for noncommercial purposes only.

During the Renaissance and scientific revolution — so the conventional story runs — our ancestors began for the first time to see the world. For inquirers such as Alberti, Columbus, Da Vinci, Gilbert, Galileo, and Newton it was as if a veil had fallen away. Instead of seeking wisdom in a spiritual realm or in appeals to authority or in the complex mazes of medieval ratiocination, the great figures at the dawn of the modern era chose to look at the world for themselves and record its testimony. It was an exhilarating time, when the world stood fresh and open before them, ripe for discovery. And they quickly discovered that certain questions could be answered in a satisfyingly precise, demonstrable, and incontestable way. They lost interest in asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and turned their attention to the pin itself as a physical phenomenon available for investigation.

There is some truth in this rather-too-neat view of the past — a truth that makes the central fact of our own era all the more astonishing: as scientific inquirers, we have shown ourselves increasingly content to disregard the world around us. Judging from the dominant, well-funded scientific and technical ventures, we much prefer to navigate our own arcane labyrinths of abstract ratiocination, whether they consist of the infinitely refined logic we impress upon silicon, or the physicist's esoteric classificational systems for subatomic particles, or the universe-spanning equations of the cosmologists. It's true that we no longer ask, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" but we are certainly entranced with the question, "How much data can we store on the head of a pin?" And our trance is only deepened when the answer turns out to be: "a hell of a lot".

What many haven't realized yet is how easily our preoccupation with the invisible constructions on that pinhead blind us to the world we originally set out to perceive and understand in its full material glory. The alluring data, fully as much as any dancing angel, distracts us from more mundane realities. We have, as a result, been learning to ignore as vulgar or profane the "crude" content of our senses. This content may be useful for occasional poetic excursions, but it is only a base temptation for the properly ascetic student of science, who moves within a more rarefied, mathematical atmosphere. "It must be admitted", remarked the British historian of consciousness, Owen Barfield,

that the matter dealt with by the established sciences is coming to be composed less and less of actual observations, more and more of such things as pointer-readings on dials, the same pointer-readings arranged by electronic computers, inferences from inferences, higher mathematical formulae and other recondite abstractions. Yet modern science began with a turning away from abstract cerebration to objective observation! (1963)

It is not that we lack all interest in the material world, but only that our interest is of a peculiar, one-sided sort. Surrounded by the remarkable physical machinery bequeathed to us by science, we are more concerned with manipulating the world than with seeing it profoundly. In fact, the distinction between seeing and manipulating scarcely even registers within science any longer. Philosopher Daniel Dennett tells us that the proper discipline of biology "is not just like engineering; it is engineering. It is the study of functional mechanisms, their design, construction, and operation" (1995, p. 228).

It may seem counterintuitive at first, but I will argue that our preoccupation with workable mechanisms, far from contradicting our preference for abstract cerebration, is itself a primary symptom of our flight into abstraction and our refusal to see the world. And there is every reason to believe that our failure to interest ourselves in seeing and understanding the observable world (as opposed to manipulating it like so much gadgetry) is as fateful for our knowledge enterprises today as their own abstractions were for the inquiries of our medieval forbears. One consequence of our failure is that we have felt justified in substituting sadly inadequate mechanistic models for the world we no longer bother to observe.

On Making a Game of Life

There is a computer program called the Game of Life. The program divides your computer screen into a fine-meshed rectangular grid, wherein each tiny cell can be either bright or dark, on or off, "alive" or "dead". The idea is to start with an initial configuration of bright or live cells and then, with each tick of the clock, see how the configuration changes as these simple rules are applied:

You can, then (as the usual advice goes) think of a cell as dying from loneliness if too few of its neighbors are alive, and dying from over- crowding if too many of them are alive.

What intrigues many researchers is the fact that, given well-selected initial configurations, fascinating patterns are produced as the program unfolds. Some of these patterns remain stable or even reproduce themselves endlessly. Investigations of such "behavior" have led to the new discipline known as "artificial life".

Referring to the Game of Life and the three-part rule governing its performance, Dennett has remarked that "the entire physics of the Life world is captured in that single, unexceptioned law". As a result, in the Life world "our powers of prediction are perfect: there is no [statistical] noise, no uncertainty, no probability less than one". The Life world "perfectly instantiates the determinism made famous by LaPlace: if we are given the state description of this world at an instant, we observers can perfectly predict the future instants by the simple application of our one law of physics" (Dennett 1995, pp. 167-69).

These are startlingly errant statements from one of the most influential philosophers of our day. The three-part rule, after all, is hardly a law of physics. It is an algorithm — roughly, a program or precise recipe — and its deterministic, LaPlacian perfection holds true only so long as we remain within the perfectly abstract realm of the algorithm's crystalline logical structure. Try to embody this structure in any particular stuff of the world, and its perfection suddenly vanishes. For example, if you install it in a running computer, you can be absolutely sure that the algorithm will fail at some point, if not because of spilled coffee or a power failure or an operating system glitch, then because of normal wear and tear on the computer over time. Contrary to Dennett's claim, you will find in every physical implementation of this algorithm that there is noise, no certainty, and no probability equal to one.

Dennett's comments about the Game of Life illustrate how the world can disappear behind a grid of abstractions. He is so transfixed by the logical perfection of the algorithm that he loses sight of the distinction between it and the real stuff that happens to embody it. With scarcely a thought he shifts in imagination from disembodied rules to physics — a move made easy by the fact that his physics is essentially a mere reification of the rules. This carries huge implications. If, as he tells us, biology is engineering, and if the devices we engineer are nothing in essence but their algorithms, then real dogs, rocks, trees, and people dissolve into a fog of well-behaved, abstract mentation.

While it is not the topic of this essay, the enveloping and thickening fog of abstraction is evident on every hand. Look, for example, at almost any branch of the public discourse and you will find that its subjects — the elderly, the sick, victims of war, soldiers, political leaders, terrorists, corporate CEOs, wilderness areas, oil wells, fetuses, doctors, voters — appear only as generalized debating tokens torn loose from complex, full-fleshed reality. Their assigned place in an established logic of discourse is almost all that matters. The public discussion then becomes nearly as lifeless and predictable as the Game of Life.

The Externality of Machine Algorithms

We can, I believe, learn a great deal about certain tendencies of science and society by looking more deeply into this symptomatic disappearance of the material world into abstraction — a disappearance that will seem as strange to our successors as medieval attempts to understand motion by ruminating over Aristotelian texts now seem to us.

It will help, in understanding these tendencies, to grasp as clearly as possible the relation between an algorithm, such as the one embodied in the Game of Life program, and the machine executing it. And the first thing to say is that the algorithm really is there — in the machine (so long as it is working properly) and therefore in the world. Which is to say: we can articulate the parts of a machine so that, when viewed at an appropriate level of abstraction, they "obey" and manifest the rules of the Game of Life.

But it is crucial to see the external and nonessential nature of these rules. Yes, they are embodied in the machine — but only in a rather high-level and abstract sense. The rules are not intrinsic to the machine. That is, they are not necessary laws of the copper, silicon, plastic, and other materials. To see the rules we almost have to blind ourselves to the particular character of these materials — materials that could, in fact, be very different without altering the logic of arrangement we are interested in.

In other words, the determining idea of the machine as a humanly designed artifact is something we impose upon it "from the outside"; there is nothing inherent in copper, silicon, and plastic that dictates or urges or even suggests their assembly into a computer. We had to have the idea, and we had to bring it to bear upon the materials through their proper arrangement. The functional idea of the computer abides in this arrangement, and will be there only as long as the arrangement holds.

This external relation between the material machine and the logic of the idea imposed upon it explains a double disconnection. On the one hand, the logic fails to characterize fully the material entity it is associated with. We can construct computers out of vastly different materials and still see exactly the same rule-following when they execute the Game of Life. The game's algorithm leaves its embodiment radically undefined (or "underdetermined").

But just as differently constructed physical machines can, at a certain level of abstraction, follow the same rules, so, too, the same machine can be made to follow different rules. This is obvious enough in the case of a computer, which can execute entirely different software algorithms. But it remains true more generally: when a new context arises, an existing piece of technology may become a tool for a previously unforeseen function — as when, trivially, the handle of a screwdriver is used to hammer in a tack, or when a typewriter's alphanumeric keyboard serves to construct graphic images rather than text. The underlying artifact remains unchanged even as the rules of its use and its meaning as a tool change.

So we see that machines of completely different materials and configuration can serve the same function, and a machine of given materials and configuration can serve different functions. The functional idea, then — whether it is a computer algorithm or the cleaning procedure of a washing machine — is by no means equivalent to a full understanding of the machine as a part of the material world. The parts of the machine present us with a physical reality we are able to employ in a mechanical construction, but our employment of them does not explain the physical reality, nor does the physical reality explain the employment.

There is some irony in all this. To recognize a governing idea externally imposed upon the parts of a machine through the manner of their arrangement is to grant an irreducibly human and subjective element in every machine as a machine. As Michael Polanyi remarked many years ago, a knowledge of physics and chemistry can never tell us what a machine is (1962, pp. 328-35). For such an understanding we have to know (among other things) something about the human context in which it will operate, the human purposes it was designed to serve, and the particular functional idea that guided the builders in coordinating the machine's physical principles.

So while mechanistic thinkers profess a great fondness for objectivity, which they interpret to mean "freedom from human influence", their predilection for machine-based explanations marries them to human- centered, designer-centered modes of thought. In fact, for all their tough-mindedness, it is they who indulge an unhealthy anthropocentrism. The world, after all, is not a humanly designed machine. Whatever material principles we summon to account for the phenomena we observe, they will fail in the accounting if they go no deeper than the mechanistic principles we impose externally and abstractly upon pre-existing matter.

Does Mathematics Alone Give Us the World's Essence?

As I have already suggested, one indication of our tendency to ignore the observable world lies in the force of our temptation, following Dennett, to separate the machine's algorithm from the machine itself and then allow the former to overshadow the latter. The temptation is no small matter, given the overwhelming commitment to machine-like explanations within mainstream science. For a mechanistic science, the machine's reduction to an abstraction is the world's reduction to an abstraction.

Many are eager for the reduction. Peter Cochrane, former head of research at British Telecom, believes "it may turn out that it is sufficient to regard all of life as no more than patterns of order that can replicate and reproduce" (undated). When Cochrane says "no more than patterns of order", he seems content to let the substance manifesting these patterns fall completely out of the picture.

Likewise, robotics guru Hans Moravec describes the essence of a person as "the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process" (quoted in Rubin 2003, p. 92). And Christopher Langton, founder of the discipline of artificial life, has surmised that "life isn't just like a computation, in the sense of being a property of the organization rather than the molecules. Life literally is a computation" (quoted in Waldrop 1992, p. 280).

Could there be a clearer attempt to dissociate the world's essence from sense-perceptible matter? Pattern, algorithm, computation — these formal, mathematically describable abstractions are made to stand alone as self-sufficient explanations of reality. Economist Brian Arthur captures a sentiment widespread within all the sciences when he remarks that to mathematize something is to "distill its essence". And if you've got the essence, why bother looking for anything more?

The derivation of mathematical relationships can indeed be valuable. But to leave the matter there — and nearly all those who share Arthur's sentiment about the mathematical essence of things do leave the matter there — is to reveal a blind spot at least as gaping as any irrational lacuna in the thought of our ancestors. After all, mathematics in its purely formal exactness tells us nothing at all about the material world until it is brought into relation with the stuff of this world. And we can establish this problematic relation — we can have more than our pure mathematics in mental isolation — only by understanding the non-mathematical terms of the relation. Mathematics alone cannot tell us what the mathematics is being applied to.

This is already evident with simple, quantitative statements. It's one thing to say "5" and quite another to say "5 pounds of force" or "5 pounds of mass". In the latter case, while we may take comfort from the conciseness of "5", we're now also up against the conceptual darkness of "force" and "matter". The number, however exact, can illuminate the material world only to the degree we know what we mean by "force" and "matter" — terms that have vexed every scientist who ever dared to think about them. What physicist Richard Feynman said about energy is true of many other fundamental scientific concepts as well: "we have no knowledge of what energy is" (Feynman, Leighton, and Sands 1963, p. 4-2).

To ignore the darkness in key terms of our science — to claim that mathematics gives us the essence of things when we can't even say what the things are and we have no non-mathematical language adequate to them — is to be no less in the grip of nonsense than were those medieval thinkers who were content to explain the character of gold by appealing to an occult quality of "goldness". Mathematics, as a self-contained, "essence- yielding" discipline, offers a pseudo-explanation no more helpful than the occult quality. It does no more good for us merely to assume we know what the mathematics is being applied to than it did for our predecessors to assume they knew what goldness was.

An elementary point, you might think. But the scientist and engineer have shown a powerful tendency to conceive their desired mechanisms through an ever more disciplined focus upon mathematics, algorithm, and software, blithely inattentive to the character of the world the experimental apparatus is coercing into algorithmic "obedience". It is true (and a remarkable accomplishment) that, unlike our medieval forerunners, we have perfected a method for obtaining workable devices. In fact, many such as Daniel Dennett ("biology is engineering") would more or less collapse our entire project of understanding into a single-minded pursuit of workable devices. But in doing so they increasingly attend, in their anthropocentric way, only to the sort of clean, mathematical structure they temporarily manage to impose upon these devices at a high level of abstraction. That is, they are interested in seeing only machines, and in seeing machines only as manageable abstractions.

Accordingly, the device itself, as physical phenomenon, recedes from view while the immaterial logic we have associated with it consumes our attention. In our quest for understanding we have become obsessed with the equivalent of angelic hosts bearing data in a timeless algorithmic dance, and whether the dance proceeds on the head of a pin or along silicon pathways or within the deeply worn logical grooves of our own minds hardly matters. The dancers are, from our preferred point of view, pure and chaste, insubstantial, uncontaminated by gross matter. They give us a kind of otherworldly "physics", as Dennett claimed, free of noise and uncertainty.

The only way for us to break the hypnotic spell of our own abstract cerebrations is to open our senses again so as to re-experience the world we have been fleeing, much as our ancestors of several centuries ago broke the medieval spell and looked out at a new world. But just as it took those earlier pioneers centuries to understand what breaking free really meant — medieval thought habits persisted even in Newton — so, too, it may require a long time for us to escape the trance of mechanistic thought and begin to recognize the living qualities of the substances we have learned to ignore behind a veil of precisely behaved abstractions.

Looking Ahead

It is time to pause and ask where these prefatory remarks might lead us in examining mechanistic science and its technological foundations. I offer here a bare statement of several theses as a kind of prospectus for future articles in this series.

First, as we have begun to see, the resort to mathematical formalism, whether it is a formalism of equations, rules, logic, or algorithms, is inadequate even to explain a machine. The explanatory logic — conceived by us and imposed upon the machine — relates to our purposes and operations, and, as a genuine lawfulness, remains in a sense external to the actual substance of the machine. If our science is a science of such formalisms governing a world-machine, then it cannot give us any full understanding of this world-machine.

Second, nothing in the natural world — including inanimate nature — is machinelike if by "machine" we refer to the human artifacts we usually call by this name. The governing idea of a machine is imposed upon it by a designer through a proper arrangement of parts; the idea is not intrinsic to the parts, not demanded by them, not the necessary expression of their existence.

Nature, on the other hand, has no designer — at least not one of this external sort. We cannot think of laws on one side and a substance obeying or "instantiating" the laws on the other. Rather, the laws belong to the substance itself as an expression of its essential character. The lawfulness of a machine is in part a cultural artifact; the lawfulness of the physical world is through and through the intrinsic expression of its own being. And we can understand this being only to the degree we penetrate and illuminate the more or less opaque terms of our science — "force", "mass", "energy", and all the rest.

Third, the immanent mathematical lawfulness we do discover in the natural world is never the law or the explanation of whatever transpires in the world. It is merely an implicit aspect of the substantive (but largely ignored) phenomenal reality that must be there in order for there to be something, some worldly process, that exhibits the given mathematical character. The relation between the mathematical character and the reality in which it is found is the relation between syntax and semantics. We see this same relation between the formal grammar and the meaning of our speech. The grammar is an implicit lawfulness. But, given the grammatical structure alone, we cannot know the meaningful content of the speech. The structure is abstracted from this content, leaving behind much of what matters most.

This, I believe, is a crucial point, deserving a great deal of elaboration (which I will in the near future try to provide).

Fourth (and finally), many readers will by now be yelling at me in their minds: "You fool! Pay attention to different levels of description!" What they are getting at is something like this:

Of course rules such as those defining the Game of Life are inadequate to provide a complete explanation of the machine executing them. The rules describe the machine only at a high level of abstraction. But we can also provide descriptions of the same sort at progressively lower levels of abstraction, until finally we have described the fundamental particles constituting the machine. All these descriptions together tell us everything we could possibly know about the machine, and also about the world.

But this appeal to descriptive levels fails utterly to bridge the gap between mechanistic explanations and an adequate explication of the world's lawfulness. The problem is that the shortcomings of the mechanistic style of explanation follow you all the way down. If, when you finally arrive at the particles, you try to describe them as if they were little machines — if, that is, you remain faithful to your mechanistic convictions — then your rules, algorithms, mathematics, and logic explain no more about these particles than the Game of Life does about the concrete machine it is running on. But now you are at the supposedly fundamental level of understanding, so the limitations here apply to the entire edifice you have erected upon this foundation.

If you want a true understanding of the world's order, the crucial gap you have to leap is not the gap between levels of description. Rather, it is the distance between unembodied mathematical, logical, and algorithmic formalisms on the one hand, and the full content of the world these formalisms are abstracted from on the other. Highlighting this gap will be one of my primary aims in forthcoming essays.

Summarizing, then:

Those of you acquainted with the philosophy of science will recognize in these statements implications of the most radical sort, even though so far I have done little more than offer brief justification for the first thesis of the four. In the end we will find ourselves confronting, among other things, an entirely new (or, rather, very old and forgotten) style of explanation based on form.

We will also see the necessity for reversing the far-reaching decision within science to ignore qualities. This decision, if not reversed, must lead ultimately to the disappearance of the world, which is not there apart from its qualities — and therefore it will lead also to the annihilation of the science that began with such promise as a resolve to reject levitated abstraction and observe the world.


Barfield, Owen (1963). "Introduction" in Rudolf Steiner, Tension Between East and West (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophical Press, 1963), pp. 10-11.

Cochrane, Peter (undated). https://www.cochrane.org.uk/inside/quotes.htm.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Feynman, Richard P., Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands (1963). The Feynman Lectures on Physics vol. 1. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

Polanyi, Michael (1962). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rubin, Charles T. (2003). "Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature", The New Atlantis vol. 1, no. 1 (summer), pp. 88-100.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell (1992). Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. NY: Simon & Schuster.

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Steve Talbott :: The Vanishing World-Machine