Individualism in the Machine

We live in a world that tells a story about itself: we learn the story as children in school and we imbibe it in our cups as we go about the day. It’s whispered to us by automobiles and tarmac and concrete pillars and we receive it intravenously by the tap our smartphones have placed in our souls.

The story is simple, though its implications and endless poorly written sequels spin themselves out like the very worst of web serials. It goes like this:

This is it.

The world tells us a story that the stuff that we can see is all there is, and that the stuff we can touch is just stuff. If there were a temptation to believe that perhaps that tree was not just a tree, and maybe, possibly its branches might be raised towards… just stop there. There is nothing to be raised towards. How can there be? What you can see and touch is what there is.

If we were tempted to believe that beauty has a source, that somewhere outside of the stuffy cave we find ourselves in there might be a source of the shadows we watch on the wall, the story will swiftly correct us. Because the world has a ruler, a story-teller, who would really prefer we didn’t consider his existence, or that for most of Christian history we have referred to this Prince of the ‘Air’ who twists stories like smoke around our heads as our Adversary. In Hebrew, the Satan.

But this story—which when we’re feeling philosophical we might call materialism, or naturalism—has got its grip on our world. It’s still pretty new, historically speaking, but it has solidified and deepened. We no longer believe in a Cosmos of ordered light, but instead in a Universe that we describe in mechanistic terms. It sounds like a machine.

We are catechised by our machines, so we start to think in their stories. Even for those who know that there is more, those who know that the story of the world is not that there is stuff that decays to dust but that God became dust and all things will be reconciled to him. Even if we know that the beating heart of the Universe is after death, life we still struggle to believe that what we see and touch is more than it appears. We’re steeped in stories that tell us otherwise.

If I, for example, suggested that what we refer to as the ‘laws of physics,’ our observations about the regular nature of the Cosmos’ operations, are most likely overseen by angels, I sound like I need to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Yet, most Christians for most of history would have assumed that the regular operation of the Cosmos was carried out by agents of one sort or another.

If I were to suggest that we cannot assume anything about the regular operation of the world as we see it is normal because we live in a world tainted by sin and being roamed around by the Devil himself, we are most likely to chuckle and think of it not at all.

Putting aside our loss of what philosophically is called realism (I suspect some will be amused that that’s the name of the thinking behind what I’m espousing, but I find it apt), we’ve lost something tangible as our view of the world has slipped from Cosmos to Universe to Machine.

We’ve lost purpose.

Charles Taylor writes of how in the older ways of viewing the world, everything had a purpose that was clear and could be accessed. Even as views of the world shifted in a mechanistic direction, because God created this mechanistic universe, he did so with purposes that while more inscrutable to us could still be reached for. We could have a sense of purpose, an end or telos to live for. A story to embody.

Thoroughgoing materialism has won the day, and even those purposes have been wiped away. It ought to be that the absence of purpose in the universe should be experienced as a soul-numbing loss, but Taylor points out that it can be—and often is—seen positively. Absence of purpose makes us invulnerable.

Nothing is demanded of us, we have no destiny to achieve that has consequences attached, there is no fear of the beyond because there is no beyond. Therefore, and this is the curiously modern twist that Taylor draws out, we can decide what goals and purposes to pursue. Typically, we find them in the deepest thing we have access to in a flat universe: ourselves.

To put it another way, since materialism wipes out the possibility of ingrained purpose, and we require purpose to live, what we call expressive individualism naturally arises. We kill God and we will become him. When purpose and therefore meaning are self-determined, we fall into crisis.

In other words, one thread of our predicament in this strange malaise we call modernity, is the natural result of our changing understanding of what the world around us is.

‘How did we get here’ narratives don’t necessarily tell us what to do, though a recaptured vision of the world as one with enchanted depth, what we might if we were feeling pretentious and had read a little too much Hans Boersma call ‘sacramental ontology,’ would not go amiss.

The natural solution to too much individualism is community, because the more we rub up against other people the more our purposes will align, the more we will live for others, the more we will see our self-aligned purposes as fundamentally selfish.

Of course, that doesn’t happen for two reasons. Firstly, we’re sin-addled people who can’t live for the sake of others until our hearts have been enlivened by the Spirit of God, which means the only community that can do this is the Church.

Secondly, we enjoy being alone. Taylor draws out the way expressive individualism has taught us to reject community is this poignant paragraph:

We are alone in the universe, and this is frightening; but it can also be exhilarating. There is a certain joy in solitude, particularly for the buffered identity. The thrill at being alone is part sense of freedom, part the intense poignancy of this fragile moment, the … day that you must … seize. All meaning is here, in this small speck.

The Bible has a word for this, it calls it pride.

We’ve built a system to nourish it. We’ve developed a symbiotic relationship with the system where social media break down our pride enough that we need their validation, but offer the validation fast enough that we don’t go to seek it elsewhere, face-to-face with flesh-and-blood. When everything is mediated, we remain alone.

Photo by Isis França on Unsplash

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