It’s Nothing Personal

God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning BY Meghan O'Gieblyn. New York: Doubleday. 304 pages. $28.
The cover of God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning

The lanes of the cemetery were overgrown, lined with slender conifers whose branches were heavy with rain. I had been pushing the bicycle with my head slightly bowed, and when I looked up I realized I was back at the entrance. I had come full circle. I checked the cemetery map again—I had followed the steps exactly—then continued back in the direction I’d come, hoping to find the gravesite from the opposite direction. In no time at all I was lost. The paths were not marked, and there was no one I could ask—the only other person I’d seen, a woman pushing a baby stroller beneath an umbrella, was now nowhere in sight. I kept walking, feeling more and more certain I would have to abandon the search. But just then I came to a clearing where there was a large stone monument surrounded by a fence. That must be it. As I approached the gravesite, however, I realized I was mistaken. It was not Niels Bohr. It was the grave of Søren Kierkegaard.

The rain had stopped by then, and as I stood before the headstone, a light breeze washed over the grass. I took out my phone and snapped a dutiful photo, as though to justify my standing there alone before the grave of a dead Lutheran philosopher. It was hard to ignore the irony in the situation. It were as though my thoughts—which had wended, as I walked, from physics to religion—had rerouted me here by some mysterious somatic logic. Kierkegaard was one of the few philosophers we were required to read in Bible school, and he was at least partly responsible for inciting my earliest doubts. It had started with his book Fear and Trembling, a treatise on the biblical story in which God commands Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, only to rescind the mandate at the last possible moment. The common Christian interpretation of the story is that God was testing Abraham, to see whether he would obey, but as Kierkegaard pointed out, Abraham did not know it was a test and had to weigh the command at face value. What God was asking him to do went against all known ethical systems, including the unwritten codes of natural law. His dilemma was entirely paradoxical: obeying God required him to commit a morally reprehensible act.

As I stood there, staring at the gravestone, I realized that this was yet another echo, another strange coincidence. Kierkegaard too had been obsessed with the idea of paradox and its connection to truth. But I quickly walked back this enchanted line of thinking. Bohr, like most Danish students, would have read Kierkegaard in school. Surely the memory of these philosophical concepts had found their way into his interpretation of physics, even if he never acknowledged it or was aware of the influence himself. Ideas do not just come out of nowhere; they are genetic, geographical. Like Bohr, Kierkegaard insisted on the value of subjective truth over objective systems of thought. Fear and Trembling was in fact written to combat the Hegelian philosophy that was popular at the time, which attempted to be a kind of theory of everything—a purely objective view of history that was rational and impersonal. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, insisted that one could apprehend truth only through “passionate inwardness,” by acknowledging the limited vantage that defined the human condition. The irrationality of Abraham’s action—his willingness to sacrifice his son—was precisely what made it the perfect act of faith. God had communicated to him a private truth, and he trusted that it was true for him even if it was not universally valid.

Søren Kierkegaard's gravesite, at Assistens Kirkegård cemetery in Copenhagen. Wikimedia Commons
Søren Kierkegaard's gravesite, at Assistens Kirkegård cemetery in Copenhagen. Wikimedia Commons

As a theology student, I found this logic abhorrent. If private mandates from God could trump rational, ethical consensus, then they could sanction all manner of barbaric acts. And how could believers ever be sure that they were heeding the will of God and not other, more dubious voices? I realized now that these objections—which I had not thought of in many years—mirrored a deeper uneasiness I harbored about the role of the subject in science. Subjectivity was unreliable. Our minds were mysterious to us, vulnerable to delusions and petty self-interest. If we did in fact live in an irrational and paradoxical universe, if it was true we could speak of reality only by speaking of ourselves, then how could we ever be sure that our observations were not self-serving, that we were not just telling ourselves stories that flattered our egos?

The question of subjectivity had been very much on my mind that summer. A few months earlier I’d been commissioned by a magazine to review several new books on consciousness. All of the authors were men, and I was surprised by how often they acknowledged the deeply personal motivations that led them to their preferred theories of mind. Two of them, in a bizarre parallel, listed among these motivations the desire to leave their wives. The first was Out of My Head, by Tim Parks, a novelist who had become an advocate for spread mind theory—a minority position that holds that consciousness exists not solely in the brain but also in the object of perception. Parks claimed that he first became interested in this theory around the time he left his wife for a younger woman, a decision that his friends chalked up to a midlife crisis. He believed the problem was his marriage—something in the objective world—while everyone else insisted that the problem was inside his head. “It seems to me that these various life events,” he wrote, “might have predisposed me to be interested in a theory of consciousness and perception that tends to give credit to the senses, or rather to experience.”

Then there was Christof Koch, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, who devoted an entire chapter of his memoir to the question of free will, which he concluded did not exist. Later on, in the final chapter, he acknowledged that he became preoccupied with this question soon after leaving his wife, a woman who, he noted, had sacrificed her own career to raise their children, allowing him to maintain a charmed life of travel and professional success. It was soon after the children left for college that their marriage became strained. He became possessed with strange emotions he was “unable to master” and became captive to “the power of the unconscious.” (The book makes no explicit mention of an affair, though it is not difficult to read between the lines.) His quest to understand free will, he wrote, was an attempt “to come to terms with my actions.” “What I took from my reading is that I am less free than I feel I am. Myriad events and predispositions influence me.”

Reading these books within a single week nearly eradicated my faith in the objectivity of science—though I suppose my disillusionment was naive. The human condition, Kierkegaard writes, is defined by “intense subjectivity.” We are irrational creatures who cannot adequately understand our own actions or explain them in terms of rational principles. This, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Fear and Trembling, a book Kierkegaard wrote to rationalize abandoning his fiancée, Regine Olsen. I left the cemetery in a fatalistic mood: How much of our science and philosophy has been colored by the justifications of shitty men?

From God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning by Meghan O’Gieblyn Copyright 2021 by Meghan O’Gieblyn. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.