The Restless Clock opens in “the dark ages” with a parade of moving statues and mechanical theaters, constructed almost entirely of wood, driven by weights or water, and acting out astronomical, religious and quotidian scenes. They could be found everywhere, from churches to circuses. In this book, a partial history of western scientific thought, Jessica Riskin is not concerned with the pre-Enlightenment technologies and understanding which made these machines possible. She is interested in the thought process of spectators, worshippers and inventors as they pondered what animated such machines.
Popular western thought separates scientific knowledge and its concern for the mechanistic natural world from humanistic or historical knowledge. The latter assumes the existence of conscious agents driving events. What is agency? How does it arise? Where does it reside? Do conscious agents have a place in the way western science explains the world?
Riskin examines the words and ideas of scientists and scholars throughout western history and concludes that agency has not been removed from scientific models of the universe. Instead, tricks of language have circumvented or displaced it. The “breakthrough” declaration by Rene Descartes that science studies the body, not the soul, was less a clarification about science than an effort to frame scientific inquiry so that it wouldn’t run afoul of whichever theological faction of the Reformation should eventually prevail. What is the nature of the boundary between a body and a soul? Or between a machine and a self? No one has ever been able to make this clear.
The Restless Clock is not a quick read. Riskin walks the reader carefully through the reasoning of four centuries of thinkers who have attempted to reconcile a mechanical view of nature with the existence of conscious agents. Despite descriptions as intricate as medieval mechanical scenes, no one quite manages to fully explain machines and agency in relation to each other.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for a person to remark that evolution didn’t design a human pelvis for sitting in a chair, surmise that certain memories can be overwritten, or attribute all of our motivations to a “selfish gene.” When pressed, many people would acknowledge that evolution-as-designer, a brain full of computer chips, and a relentlessly determined strings of DNA are “just metaphors,” images that stand in for sophisticated ideas whose fully accurate articulation would make the conversation to cumbersome. Riskin looks hard for an articulation of such ideas which doesn’t fall apart. She doesn’t find it.
If evolutionary biology could tell us what life is, wouldn’t it have done so by now? If humans are evolving so as to merge with machines via electronic technology, what, exactly, is being blended? Can science shed light on the qualities of a river or a corporation that could make it deserving of “human rights?”
Imagine a machine, an artificially intelligent robot, so slick and well-designed that it always behaved the way a human would behave. Some average human, nobody special. When you slipped it in among the humans, it would pass for one of them. Like any human, this machine would have both desirable and undesirable behaviors. Engineers can improve the machine, tweak its innards and eliminate or circumvent its undesirable behaviors. Will their insights help humans learn about themselves? Can their strategies be useful to teachers and marriage counselors?
When we imagine a medieval peasant kneeling before a moving statue and perceiving an apparition of the Virgin, it’s easy to call this muddling of mechanism and agency charmingly ignorant and naïve. Do people who name their cars or pat them on the dashboard at the end of a long trip engage in a similar muddling? How should we characterize all those relationships we are developing inside of the “internet of things?”
Reading The Restless Clock has inspired me to return to two other books in this same vein which I read some years ago. Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter by Terrence W. Deacon and Science and Poetry by Mary Midgley.