Babbage’s Steampunk Praise of God

Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Differential Engine (forerunner of today’s computers) often appears in cyberpunk and steampunk stories as a symbol of godless progress, blah blah blah. (Along with Lady Lovelace, generally portrayed as nothing but a chick who did math in her spare time when not having sex with everything that moves. Which would be funnier if the writers didn’t think this was somehow feminist and enlightened and flattering to her. She was married and had three kids, for goodness’ sake.)

However, in real life, he wrote a defense of science, math, and programming as paths to understanding God better!

His book is called The Ninth Bridgwater Treatise, as a direct challenge to a then-popular religious writer’s Bridgwater Treatises claiming that science and math must be set aside to understand God.

What I think is particularly canny is that he understands there’s a difference between Who God is, and the way we are able to picture Who God is. Our understanding of God changes with our understanding of humans and the world, and it may get better, but it’s still not going to be all the way there. He’s infinite and infinitely simple; we’re not.

“We take the highest and best of human faculties, and, exalting them in our imagination to an unlimited extent, endeavour to attain an imperfect conception of that Infinite Power which created every thing around us. In pursuing this course, it is evident that we are liable to impress upon the notion of Deity thus shadowed out, many traces of those imperfections in our own limited faculties which are best known to those who have most deeply cultivated them. It is also evident that all those discoveries which arm human reason with new power, and all additions to our acquaintance with the material world, must from time to time render a revision of that notion necessary. The present seems to be a fit occasion for such a revision.”

Babbage takes a very Catholic view of God as not needing to change the laws of nature to do miracles or create things, because God had all this stuff planned ahead when the laws were made. Therefore, he has a little problem with the more kludgish versions of intelligent design:

“Many excellent and religious persons not deeply versed in what they mistakenly call “human knowledge” but which is in truth the interpretation of those laws that God himself has impressed on his creation, have endeavoured to discover proofs of design in a multitude of apparent adaptations of means to ends, and have represented the Deity as perpetually interfering, to alter for a time the laws he had previously ordained; thus by implication denying to him the possession of that foresight which is the highest attribute of omnipotence. Minds of this order, insensible of the existence of that combining and generalising faculty which gives to human intellect its greatest development, and tied down by the trammels of their peculiar pursuits, have in their mistaken zeal not perceived their own unfitness for the mighty task, and have ventured to represent the Creator of the universe as fettered by the same infirmities as those by which their own limited faculties are subjugated.”

Of course Victorian theology is apt to get funky, so I’m not sure where Babbage is going with all this; but it’s a good beginning.

(And yes, we immediately have to have the Victorian excursus into “I’m not Catholic and Catholics are all about crafty priestcraft and Jesuits and stuff and I’m not Catholic,” which cracks me up every time. You have to laugh or you’d cry.)

Found via Dr. Thursday/Peter J. Floriani of the excellent fun novels.

Re: Lovelace, it turns out that Babbage didn’t call her “the Enchantress of Numbers.” Anyone with basic reading comprehension can tell that he was telling her to ignore “charlatans” (ie, other fields) and stick with math, the real deal (ie, the Enchantress of Numbers). Apparently reading comprehension is getting to be more of a problem, as these sorts of category errors are becoming more common.

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2 responses to “Babbage’s Steampunk Praise of God

  1. Now I’m wondering what the “Enchantress of Numbers” would look like– Justice has her hair bound up, wears a blindfold and holds scales and a sword, Lady Liberty has a crown and a book and barefeet, etc.

  2. Pingback: Post On The Limits of Knowledge Over At SuburbanBanshee’s Place- « Head Noises

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