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God in the Computer

One of the most tedious features of the coming of the millennium will be the efforts of journalists and commentators to sum up the twentieth century and to identify its place in history. We know that centuries have no intrinsic identity, but they seem to have an irresistible hold on the way historians conceptualize the past and we can be sure that the twentieth century will no more escape being categorized than have its predecessors. But how will it be labeled? Will posterity look back upon it as the age of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the cold war? As the age of decolonization and the emerging third world? As the age of modernism and postmodernism?

No doubt the twentieth century will be associated with all these things. But a good case can be made for saying that what has most distinguished it from earlier epochs has been the spectacular growth of organized science and the unprecedented speed of technological change. Just as there are said to be more scientists alive today than there were in all the past put together, so the difference in scale between the technological resources available in 1900 and those available now is far greater than for any previous period. To list the changes of the century in travel, communications, medicine, pharmaceuticals, weaponry, robotics, information processing, and genetic engineering, to take only a few obvious examples, is to chronicle a revolution, and one, moreover, which is incomplete and daily accelerating.

How are these epoch-defining changes to be explained? There is not, and probably never will be, any single agreed-upon theory of technological growth, but most of the explanations currently advanced by historians and economists invoke the interaction between economic needs and political imperatives on the one hand and individual curiosity and ingenuity on the other. The desire to cut costs and maximize profits leads business concerns to spend huge sums upon research and development, while the urge to keep up with or surpass the neighbors encourages governments to do the same. The proliferation of institutions of higher learning generates an ever-increasing supply of professional scientists who are trained to value research and innovation and who advance their careers by securing large grants from governments and industrial foundations. International rivalry, corporate profit, and personal ambition thus combine to produce a culture of ever-accelerating technological innovation.

These are the circumstances that most historians of science and technology would emphasize when attempting to explain why it is that the twentieth century has produced such marvels as space travel, antibiotics, and the World Wide Web. David F. Noble’s approach in The Religion of Technology, however, is different. For him, the moving force behind these innovations comes not from material circumstances, but from the beliefs of the scientific innovators themselves; and he sees those beliefs as essentially religious in character. Technologists, he claims, are driven not just by the pursuit of utility, power, and profit, but by “spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption.” Their true inspiration lies in an “other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation”; and their intellectual ambitions are “rooted in religious myths and ancient imaginings.” Particularly in the US, “the technological enterprise” is “an essentially religious endeavor” and “suffused with religious belief.”

These assertions will come as a surprise to anyone who has any acquaintance with the modern scientific community, for, though it has its share of religiously committed members, its predominant tone is atheistic or agnostic. As expounded by the influential Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, a scientific view of the world involves the rejection of religious belief of any kind. Dawkins is a more aggressive polemicist on such matters than his colleagues, but most of them probably agree with him, even if they are too polite to say so. So it seems odd that Noble should be so certain that modern science and technology derive their momentum from unstated religious yearnings.

For earlier periods of history, of course, a link between religious ideas and scientific progress is generally accepted. The conflict between science and religion which was so frequently postulated in the immediate post-Darwinian era cannot be projected backward into the age of Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. On the contrary, the theologically derived belief in the existence of an orderly creation was an essential precondition of the search for scientific laws of nature. The case of Galileo is no longer regarded by historians as proof that the Counter-Reformation Church was hostile to scientific inquiry; and although R.K. Merton’s thesis of the link between science and Puritanism has not gone unchallenged, no one would dispute that science in the early modern period had a strongly religious dimension.

David Noble’s argument, however, is that the interconnection between technology and religion goes back even further, to the Middle Ages. Scholars have described the stages by which the medieval Church came to abandon its initial indifference to technological matters and Noble draws heavily upon their work. He lays particular stress upon the writings of the ninth-century Carolingian philosopher John Scotus Erigena, who developed the notion that the mechanical arts could help fallen man to recover some of the original dominion over the earth which God had given to Adam, and thereby recover for mankind its original “image-likeness” to God. This, says Noble, was “a turning-point in the ideological history of technology.”

In the twelfth century the German monk Theophilus and the Parisian canon Hugh of St. Victor both developed the notion that the divine likeness could be restored in man by the development of the mechanical arts. In the thirteenth century the Franciscan scholar Roger Bacon linked this idea to the millenarian expectations which had been aroused by the writings of the Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore: the development of the useful arts would both restore man’s likeness to God and enable him to withstand the coming of Antichrist. According to Noble, the Joachimite Franciscans formulated “an enormously influential and enduring eschatology of technology,” in which the useful arts became a “practical preparation for the prophesied restoration of perfection.” At the same time the evangelical effort to spread Christianity overseas encouraged exploration and the arts of navigation, shipbuilding, and weaponry. The voyages of Christopher Columbus, Noble writes, were animated by this belief in the imminent restoration of the earthly paradise.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the advancement of science and the useful arts was further encouraged by apocalyptic dreams of the restoration of human perfection. Noble reminds us of the millenarian expectations of the alchemist Paracelsus and the utopian yearnings of the reformers J.V. Andreae and John Comenius. Technological advance and spiritual illumination were indissolubly linked in the manifestoes of the mysterious Rosicrucian Brotherhood. More generally, it was inferred from the book of Daniel (12:4) that the advancement of knowledge was a sign that the millennium was at hand, when the saints would rule for a thousand years.

It was in this millenarian milieu, argues Noble, that the dynamic Western conception of technology was “decisively and indelibly shaped.” The key figure was Francis Bacon, who defined the whole technological project in perfectionist language. The aim of science was the relief of man’s estate and its ultimate purpose the restoration of the dominion over nature which Adam had forfeited at the Fall. Bacon’s seventeenth-century English followers, particularly the circle around the German émigré Samuel Hartlib, regarded every step in the conquest of nature as taking mankind closer to the millennial condition.

For these insights Noble is, of course, indebted to the pioneering work of Dr. Charles Webster.1 He fails, however, to make the essential distinction between the genuine, but relatively uncommon, millenarianism of those who envisaged that the end of the world would be preceded by a thousand-year rule of the saints, and the much more conventional apocalypticism of those who thought that the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment were close at hand. Only in the former case can the pursuit of technology be plausibly linked to the realization of religious expectations.2

Relentlessly insisting, nevertheless, that “the millenarian pursuit of perfection…underlay the scientific enterprise,” Noble continues the story through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He argues for the continuing influence of millennial currents of thought in the age of the Enlightenment and (following the historian Margaret Jacob) he maintains that the early Freemasons carried the religion of technology into a more secular age. The engineering profession, he claims, emerged as much out of Freemasonry as it did out of the military world. Freemasons were the central force behind the foundation of the Ecole Polytechnique, which became the world’s leading engineering school, and they were equally influential upon the development of civil engineering in Britain and the US.

In nineteenth-century France, according to Noble, the followers of the socialist Henri Saint-Simon were “apostles of the religion of industry,” while the founder of Positivism, Auguste Comte, “reproduced almost in its entirety the millenarian mentality of the Middle Ages.” For Comte, it was science which would bring about mankind’s “ultimate regeneration”; and his own personal asceticism was, according to one biographer, “such as might have won the approval of a medieval Franciscan.” Finally, in Marxism Noble discerns yet another “chiliastic hymn to a technological apoc-alypse” (a quotation from W.H.G. Armytage’s The Rise of the Technocrats [1965], another work to which Noble is heavily indebted).

Nowhere, maintains Noble, did the useful arts become more closely associated with Adamic myths and millenarian dreams than in the US. He points to the growth of technological utopianism of the kind exemplified in John Adolphus Etzler’s book The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labour, by Powers of Nature and Machinery (1833); and he cites the religious affiliations of many of the great technologists. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph to spread the Christian message; Edison’s wife joined Moral Re-Armament; Pullman, Ford, and Lindbergh were all Freemasons. Many nineteenth-century American scientists believed that mankind could redeem itself by technology, while others sought to emulate the Creator in their understanding of the natural world and in their capacity to improve upon it. Scientists were on the way to becoming gods themselves.

Yet although science and technology were increasingly secular and progressive in their assumptions, Noble argues that the otherworldly millenarian mentality, always latent, was released by the catastrophic events of the 1940s. The destructive capacities of aerial bombardment, chemical warfare, and nuclear weapons generated a new wave of apocalyptic thinking. The first nuclear explosion, in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, unleashed forces “heretofore reserved to the Almighty.” With the successful test of the Soviet bomb in 1949, predictions of global annihilation stimulated a revival of evangelical expectation. Noble suggests that the nuclear scientists presupposed the diabolical designs of the Soviet Antichrist and saw themselves as engaged in a holy cause. He compares the elite technologists of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California to a monastery, in which the anticipation of annihilation was balanced by the hope of technological transcendence in the form of nuclear-powered space flight.

Noble links twentieth-century projects for space travel to the ancient literary tradition of cosmic voyages and the religious desire for heavenly ascent. The Wright brothers were religious ascetics. Wernher von Braun, who designed long-range missiles for the Nazis and then worked on similar projects for the US, had millenarian convictions and became a born-again Christian. General John B. Medaris, von Braun’s commanding officer on the American space program, became a priest. The space communities at Huntsville, Cape Canaveral, and Houston all had a distinctly religious atmosphere: Bible-study groups proliferated and some prominent figures in NASA were Mormons or Methodists. The first American astronauts were all devout Protestants: the members of the first manned mission to the moon broadcast back to earth their reading of the first ten lines of Genesis, and Edwin Aldrin’s first act on stepping onto the moon’s surface was to take communion.

Artificial intelligence is another field in which Noble detects a religious motivation. The original inspiration was Descartes, who believed that human beings should attempt to emancipate their immortal minds from their fallen bodies. George Boole, whose binary algebra would provide the logical foundation for digital computers and the mechanical simulation of human thought processes, was an intensely religious man; like Descartes, he thought that the exploration of the workings of the mind brought one closer to God.

The twentieth-century effort to design a thinking machine aimed initially at replicating human thought, but it soon developed into the vision of a new artificial species which could supersede Homo sapiens altogether. For many practitioners, says Noble, the world of “virtual reality” and “cyberspace” created “delusions of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence that fueled fantasies of their own God-likeness.” The prospect of being able to “download” one’s mind into a machine has raised hopes of “postbiological” immortality. Among the members of the AI community, Noble tells us, “such longings are common.” Small wonder, he writes, that one apostle of AI, Edward Fredkin, claimed that there had been three great steps in the history of the universe: the creation of the world; the appearance of life; and the advent of Artificial Intelligence. In 1980 NASA established a Self-Reproducing Systems Concept Team to explore the notion that automata might reproduce themselves. Artificial Intelligence thus generated the concept of Artificial Life and the possibility that humankind might engage in its own act of Creation and thereby become the first species to create its successors.

For the final element in the late-twentieth-century pursuit of perfection, Noble turns to the world of genetic engineering. In the Human Ge-nome Project he recognizes the latest version of the age-old search for the secret of life. Just as seventeenth-century dreams of space flight and disembodied minds have been realized in recent times, so it seems that the myths of the golem and the homunculus will shortly be fulfilled. Now, at last, scientists appear to be on the brink of achieving what Francis Bacon foretold in his utopian New Atlantis, namely “curing of diseases counted incurable” and “making of new species.”

The discovery of DNA marked the beginning of the understanding of the processes of reproduction and led on to the manipulation by molecular biologists of genetic material. It has now become possible to “improve” plants, to clone animals, to cure some inherited diseases, and at least to contemplate the emergence of a perfected race of human beings. The development of techniques of in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer has further enhanced the role of scientists as co-creators with God. In 1985, a speaker at a conference on the project to map the human genome declared that “we have discovered the language in which God created life…. After three billion years, in our time we have come to this understanding, and all the future will be different.” Noble claims that many genetic engineers and biotechnologists are evangelical Christians who believe that they have divine sanction for their work. Like their medieval and early modern predecessors, they have the perfectionist aim of restoring mankind to its pristine condition before the Fall.

For Noble, that perfectionist project is the essence of what he calls the religion of technology. He condemns this religion as elitist in character. The modern scientific community, he claims, is rather like a secret society, in the line of succession to monks and friars, magi and virtuosi, Rosicrucians and Freemasons. Its members speak a private language which is unintelligible to the rest of the community; they are obsequious toward the state power on which they depend; and they are overwhelmingly male in composition. In an appendix on technology and gender, Noble refers to his earlier book, A World Without Women (1992), which traced the roots of Western science to the celibate, misogynist, and homosocial culture of the medieval Church. He rightly emphasizes the masculine, even macho, language current in scientific circles; and he mocks the “postpubescent” men of cyberspace and the bioengineers who dream of an exclusively male method of human reproduction.

His conclusion is that technological development has now broken loose from any concern with identifiable human needs. “Lost in their essentially religious reveries,” the technologists are blind to the harmful ends to which their work has been put by governments and international business. Their pursuit of transcendence has become an unstoppable goal; and until technology is decoupled from its religious foundation it will remain a threat to our survival.

For all his polemical intentions, Noble undoubtedly offers an original and suggestive approach to the history of modern technology. He writes in a vivid and vigorous manner; and he cannot fail to arouse strong reactions in his readers. But, judged as a serious contribution to understanding, his book has some obvious limitations.

In the first place, it is only incidentally a work of original research. Noble’s citations of original sources are frequently secondhand and at every stage he is heavily dependent upon the work of others. He has interviewed and corresponded with participants in the US space program and he studied contemporary newspapers. But he seldom cites a scientific journal and his use of other writers is often uncritical. He makes sundry minor errors of fact and occasionally provides an abrupt reminder that he is working at some distance from his material. Thus, he rounds off a passage on Protestant misogyny by remarking sardonically of John Milton, “there were no women in his Paradise Regained.” Since the theme of that poem is exclusively that of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness, the observation is correct, but less interesting than its author evidently believes it to be.

The second weakness of the book lies in its schematic and highly partial presentation of the evidence. Noble locates the driving force of modern technology in the beliefs of the technologists themselves. Yet his earlier books have argued the opposite: in Forces of Production (1984) he suggested that the US Air Force was behind the development of numerically controlled machine tools, and in America by Design (1977) he condemned the malign role of corporate capitalism in fostering technological advance for its own ends. In his present book, he admits in passing that military and political pressures have accounted for the huge expenditures on nuclear power, artificial intelligence, and the space program, while bioengineering has been financed by the pharmaceutical companies. But the implications of this for his general thesis go unexplored.

Thirdly, his argument lacks rigor. His assertions about the religious beliefs of the technological community have no statistical foundation. He claims that the researchers on artificial life and intelligence have “remained mired in an essentially medieval milieu of Christian mythology,” yet admits that “most of them were professed agnostics or atheists.” He also concedes that the attempt in the 1970s to establish a Chapel of the Astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center came to nothing. One could hazard a guess that the born-again Christians at NASA, of whom he makes so much, were an unrepresentative minority.

In his attempt to prove the abiding presence of millenarian ideas among modern technologists, he sometimes mistakes metaphors for reality. Thus when one of its founders sees in the Human Genome Project a “vision of the grail,” Noble hails this remark as “a sure sign of the enduring influence of the mythology of medieval Christianity in the shaping of Western consciousness.” When Robert Oppenheimer gives the code name “Trinity” to the first nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, Noble explains that Oppenheimer had been influenced by a poem by John Donne, “a contemporary of Francis Bacon,” and that “the Adamic emphasis in Donne’s poem indicates…the restoration of Adam’s original perfection and divine-likeness.” Since NASA’s first manned space mission was dubbed Project Mercury, and the booster that sent men to the moon was named Saturn, and successive space missions were called Apollo, Noble might as well have claimed that the space program demonstrates the importance of the ancient gods in modern consciousness.

Revealingly, Noble’s own language betrays his epistemological difficulties: “On the whole,” he tells us, “the development of human genetic engineering was no doubt fueled, consciously or not, by enduring medieval myths of artificially engendering human life.” It is hard to know how to deal with so nebulous a proposition, particularly one that is not accompanied by any specific evidence.

Above all, Noble’s argument is unsatisfactory because it is never clearly stated. By the “religion of technology,” Noble appears to mean at least five different things. First, there is the idea that technological progress will enable mankind to overcome the limitations of the Fall. Second, there is the belief that technological progress will make the world ready for the millennium and the coming of Christ. Third, there is the tendency of some technologists to espouse evangelical brands of Christianity which encourage them to believe that whatever they are doing must be God’s work. Fourth, there is the purely secular notion that technological innovation should be pursued because it will, in one way or another, make life easier. Fifth, there is the attempt to exercise powers which, in an earlier age, would have been regarded as uniquely the property of God; an attempt which orthodox Christians would have condemned as at best presumptuous and at worst diabolical.

A religion which takes so many different forms is bound to have a large number of believers. Any attempt to improve the world or to enlarge the technical resources at our disposal is immediately labeled by Noble as “perfectionist” and hailed as a religiously inspired effort to overcome the limitations of mankind’s fallen condition. Any fear, however rational, that nuclear warfare could lead to the destruction of the world is identified as “apocalyptic.” His argument thus becomes virtually self-confirming.

As an explanation of the technological achievements of this or any other century, The Religion of Technology fails to convince. Christian millenarianism hardly accounts for the inventiveness of the Japanese or the space achievements of Soviet Russia. It would be equally difficult to demonstrate its presence behind the innumerable routine innovations made in industrial techniques over the past thousand years. Even in the seventeenth century, it is doubtful whether Bacon’s Puritan followers achieved much more in the way of practical results than did the un-millenarian scientists of France or the Netherlands.

Yet, even though Noble’s argument lacks both clarity and persuasiveness, he has drawn attention to a disturbing and insufficiently studied aspect of our time: the immense power that sometimes rests in the hands of persons who combine highly sophisticated technological skills with extremely unsophisticated moral and religious assumptions. Many recent scientific develop-ments, whether in artificial intelligence or in reproductive technology or in the accumulation of human genetic information, are truly frightening in their implications and pose ethical issues of the greatest complexity. We do not have to believe that all technologists are religious fanatics to agree that the discussion of such issues cannot be confined to scientific circles. What Noble has shown beyond dispute is that technology is far too important to be left to the technologists.


Donne and the Bomb September 23, 1999

Destroyer of Worlds April 8, 1999

  1. 1

    Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975).

  2. 2

    This often overlooked distinction is emphasized in the important article by John Henry, “Atomism and Eschatology: Catholicism and Natural Philosophy in the Interregnum,” The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 15 (November 1982), pp. 211-239.

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