Some of the earliest personifications of nature were the projections of God as a king and a lawmaker. In prehistoric, low-tech societies, the most important inventions, after language and the ego themselves, were the hunting tribe and then the Neolithic village. Laws were needed to maintain the social order and ancient theists and animists understood the rest of the world to be similarly regulated by hidden personages. The supernatural world was just an invisible social order in which the absolute ruler and his aristocrats and entourage created and governed the natural world much as we construct our microcosmic societies, that is, our tribes, civilizations, empires, and so on, as oases from the wilderness.
That kind of personalizing cognition became obsolete with modern objectification. We still habitually personify ourselves and each other, because we’re too proud to consider ourselves animals, but the fictional characters of the gods died in importance for most of the modern intelligentsia. Instead of a remote social realm, there were just more and more objects, as scientists discovered; for example, the lights in the sky turned out to be stars, not gods. Coincidentally or not, the pace of Western technical innovations quickened with the Renaissance and then with Industrial Revolution, just as modern scientists from Copernicus to Newton, and Darwin to Einstein used their new methods of discovery and mathematical description to model nature as a machine. The philosophy of deism prevented the masses that still depended on the old gods for their sanity and morality, from revolting against science for having depersonalized the universe and banished the gods to nowhere. For a time, informed people could think of the universe as a self-regulating machine designed by a great architect. But given the modern biologist’s mechanical explanation of the design of organisms and the quantum physicist’s account of the creation of universes from chaos, the cosmicist implications of modern objectification are logically inescapable. People are outgrowths of impersonal systems; we’re not metaphysically fundamental and so we ought to feel alienated from automated nature. Luckily, most people can’t hope to follow the scientist’s logic nor are they interested in following it, in the first place, because even as science undermines our comforting fictions, applied science is a cornucopia of goodies which distracts us from the ghastliness of the hand that feeds us.
As modern scientists came to see nature in its corporeal splendor, through their telescopes and microscopes, they depersonalized themselves, developing the scientific institutions and using experiments to circumvent their prejudices and the prevailing dogmas, to explain what they saw. Thus, the world’s undeadness came to match that of nature’s heralds. Of course, scientists were prone to the same animalistic tendencies as the rest of us: they bickered, harbored resentments, and competed for power in their dominance hierarchies; some even worked feverishly on theological problems, as in the case of Isaac Newton. But the scientific methods themselves coldly detach hypotheses from such messy social contexts, algorithmically sorting adequate from useless models. In short, science became a social machine to mirror the natural systems that were measured with ever greater exactness by the extended senses in the laboratories.
Engineering and the Undeadness of Natural Machines
Two kinds of scientific worldviews emerged from those revolutions, which I’ll call the engineer’s and the mathematician’s. These worldviews aren’t scientific theories, but tendencies in science to interpret theories according to different naturalistic assumptions. Moreover, the point isn’t that all professional engineers and mathematicians line up on one side or the other, but that these two flavors of naturalism arise especially out of those two disciplines. That is, I’m talking about two types of naturalism that derive from certain attitudes among scientists, born from different kinds of scientific work. There’s some overlap between engineering and mathematics, but these groups are also divided by different mindsets and cultures. So, then, the engineering-centered picture takes for granted the technologies that provide scientists with the data needed to formulate their hypotheses. In addition, the engineer appreciates the work that goes into scientific explanation, including the economic and political systems needed to separate Church from State in modern Europe, which allowed early modern scientists to work with less and less fear of persecution. Finally, the engineer’s sort of naturalism is pragmatic, in that the engineer is inspired by the power of natural causes to determine their effects and thus he takes science to be the means by which we control nature, in turn. Incidentally, engineering-centered scientists are overwhelmingly male.