I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.
– Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues“
In the first chapter of a text I recently translated, Lord Śiva’s Song: The Īśvara Gītā, the god Śiva is described as the “impeller of the world-machine” (jagad-yantra-pravartaka). Also in the Bhagavad Gītā, the text that the Īśvara Gītā is modeled after, we find in verse 18.61 the suggestion that all beings are mounted on a machine (yantra) operated by god, who makes them spin through his wondrous power. In his commentary on BhG 18.61, Madhusūdana Sarasvatī likens the situation to a magician who uses a rope to cause wooden puppets seated on a machine to revolve. Rāmānuja says that this yantra is material nature (prakṛti), and that giving up the false sense of our own independence from prakṛti and from God’s will allows us to become free.
Perhaps those who are not very familiar with Indian history will be surprised by these metaphors, but they abound in classical Indian philosophy and literature. Though there is a popular image of Indian philosophers as hermits living in caves and subsisting on nuts and berries, in fact philosophy was more often a village, urban, or courtly enterprise. These philosophers were fully aware of the technology of their times, such as the loom, water-wheel, and potter’s wheel, which are reflected in the examples (udāharaṇas) they use.
It may also be surprising how often Mahātmā Gandhi, in his own comments on the Bhagavad Gītā, describes the world as a machine and the proper human detachment to fruits of actions as “mechanical.” In Gandhi’s commentary on BhG chapter four we find such themes combined, I think, with a hint of the Protestant Work Ethic: “We are caught in the motion of the wheel of this world. Our duty is to work ceaselessly as a part of this machine. We should spend every minute of our waking life in doing work which has fallen to our lot, and do it as if we are impatient over it and yet not be so, be calm in fact. The bullock that keeps the water-wheel in motion goes round and round, but no bucket falls from its place. If it were not a bucket but our heart in that place, it might fall off. The bucket, however, does not fall off, it remains in its place, calm. We should be filled with such calm.”
These themes got me thinking about the philosophical uses for the metaphor of being a machine, and how different these uses can be. For instance, in certain scientific circles it has become common to think of human beings, or at least our brains, as “meat machines.” How is this modern metaphor different than the yantra metaphors in classical Indian texts? One clear difference is that this particular metaphor focuses on the individual, rather than the collective, perhaps a reflection of American computer scientists’ individualist tendencies. Both metaphors can, of course, be used to question free will. But according to the Bhagavad Gītā, Īśvara Gītā, and Gandhi, by surrendering the illusion of our own individual agency we are able to recognize the higher logic of the entire system, and even to recognize the divine agency at work in the world.
The “meat machine” metaphor certainly destabilizes common intuitions about the nature of self and consciousness. Yet I am not sure that there are clear ethical or political ramifications here: we may go on behaving in more or less the same ways we did before, whether selfish or altruistic, when we accept that our brains are nothing more than machines made of meat. The “world-machine” metaphor too disorients our normal egocentric understanding of the special value of our own individual thoughts and desires. But it also re-orients us toward a true understanding of the larger system.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ethics of the Bhagavad Gītā and the Mahābhārata are not anti-consequentialist. The sage Kauśika, for instance, takes a vow of truthfulness, and as a result tells a group of murderous bandits where to find their victims, leading to their death. The Mahābhārata tells us that for this he receives karmic punishment, not reward. Likewise, in the episode where Yudhiṣṭhira deceives Drona about the death of his son Aśvatthāman, Kṛṣṇa assures Yudhiṣṭhira that in this situation, deception is the correct action when understood in larger perspective. The point is not that we should not care about consequences. Rather, it is that a person should not focus on the consequences that his actions will have for himself as an individual, but instead coolly (mechanically?) examine the wider consequences his actions will have for the functioning of the world-machine.
What are your favorite “machine” metaphors in the history of philosophy? I would especially enjoy hearing how other traditions, such as the Chinese and Islamic, employ such metaphors.