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Sarah Ruden

Scientism Run Amok

The religion of calculation.

When I was a child in rural Ohio, my father used to chuckle at receiving a mail solicitation from an uncongenial political or charitable organization—but he didn't receive one very often. In those days, lists of donors and members—and potential members and donors—were curated by hand and amended whenever someone responded the way my father did when riled.

Relishing the opportunity because he knew that the same people would never offer it to him again, he would answer the survey in depraved terms, and cross out his name and replace it with "Walter P. Gaspergoo." He would check the box for the highest donation but of course send no check. Instead, he would search the house for disparate junk with which to stuff the return envelope, and make the sender pay to receive holey bow targets and discarded pages from coloring books, in a bundle firmly sealed with duct tape and containing bird shot just to increase the weight.

Today, there seems to be no way to make any impression on mass-mailers. My father-in-law has been dead for eight years, but solicitations from religious charities addressed to him still regularly arrive at our home, where he lived. With a pang, I throw them away unopened instead of contacting the senders with my request for removal of the name from their lists. As I know from recent efforts to stop unwanted mailings to myself, the Contact List is now no longer an administrative tool but a figure in the digital cult, and is flanked by his consort Sale of the Contact List. How can frail humans stop these deities from reproducing?

A purported celestial rival of Contact List, Repress Your Junk Mail Through This Web Site, puts you to work refining the marketing data about yourself. But this deity must be swooping adulterously down onto Sale of the Contact List with as much lust as Zeus ever visited on a river god's daughter or a rusticating mortal maiden, because the catalogues pullulate. You even get the most copies of the very ones you reject, as if the rejection was taken as a sign of fascination with the company. If you go so far as to tell customer service in writing, "Your merchandise fell apart and violated the dignity of my middle-aged body; I never want to hear from you again," you will get the catalogue forever.

The belief that anyone can be formulaically "targeted," and the technological rituals of targeting, are part of the present abiding and characteristic superstition of scientism. Time, privacy, goodwill, peace of mind, and prosperity too—because companies must be inexorably reducing people's willingness to buy anything—are among the sacrifices to this superstition.

It's not nuclear physics—or that was what Professor Ian Hutchinson, a nuclear physicist from MIT, could have told us at the Yale Roundtable in October, had he not been too polite.[1] On the one hand, there is science, a powerful but nevertheless limited way of knowing things; scientific inquiry depends on replicability, an experimental result or an observation that is the same time after time; and on special, precise means of description.

I went home brooding about logos, or the Word. For the early Christians, that was supposed to be the great incalculable but definite fact, the love of God manifest in his creation, but most of all in the incarnation and sacrifice of his son. But afterward, certain thinkers plainly dragged the term back, in essence, to Pythagoras' deification of mathematics.

Logos, in that era, had been less about language than calculation; commonly, it described a financial account. Mathematics' magic—and I use that word advisedly—is scientific: calculations are replicable—there is only one solution to every ordinary equation—and can be represented with the plainest and most logical symbolism. A child learns, and never forgets, and never has to argue, that the three (3) objects plus the four (4) more objects equal seven (7) objects. You can record such things and document commerce and law and engineering with them. There are many kinds of order you can't achieve without them.

No wonder the act of calculating—though it's just a description, a mere material thing: an activation of mortal synapses, conveyed further by a few brief sounds or a small piece of perishable screed (and in different words in different languages, at that)—can suggest something outrageous: both that this is the essence of eternal truth, and that we can understand it. With long but not incomprehensible steps, Plato could go from there to prescriptions for totalitarianism, and the high-medieval Christian theologians—by way of math's cousin, logic—could reach their immense and confident elaborations. Aren't we amazing, to be able to calculate? What couldn't we calculate? Or rather, how much responsibility could we foist off into the sort of calculation that doesn't admit of falsification—calculation that is, in other words, a religion?

After a recent major surgery, I risked a crisis of dehydration while hooked up overnight to five devices, in a state-of-the-art hospital room with multiple controls at hand. I could work the lights and the thermostat, raise and lower the bed from both ends, and change the height of the mattress as a whole. I had a complex remote for a TV with a special hospital network, which included a mandatory video on how to run my room. I had a call button, of course, but it wasn't good for much.

There was no nursing available to speak of. No one wanted to look at me or talk to me. My neglected (and oddly grubby) bandage began to breed infection. An aide came in every hour, glanced at my heart monitor, and jotted down a reading, but during the worst thirst of my life, as I felt delirium coming on, and took notes in deteriorating handwriting so that my husband would have some record of what had happened if he needed it, and as I panicked that I would pass out and be ignored as asleep, I kept pressing the call button and pleading for water with whoever finally came.

The attending nurse, the only person authorized to entertain a request for water, kept checking the computer: No, fluids weren't in my orders—a mistake, as it turned out: I was supposed to have all I wanted. But for all she knew, she scolded on that night, I was scheduled for another surgery tomorrow and wasn't allowed fluids. I had no other procedures scheduled, I protested. Couldn't I at least have a damp cloth to chew on?

The attending physician—reachable by phone—would know, she said, but he wasn't answering his beeper. I never found out why not; probably, the mere electronic link allowed him the privacy of exhausted slumber. I told the nurse to go, or send someone else, to find the doctor, unless she wanted a dead or disabled patient on her hands. She wasn't authorized to hunt up the doctor—plainly, the hospital's digital communications system forbade a blasphemous human override, even in an emergency. It cost tens of millions of dollars; it was the result of decades of expert study—more data than you could shake a stick at. It worked. Who was saying it didn't work?

It was many hours into the night when something shifted, and an aide appeared, full of apologies and with a tray laden with drinks and crackers. Weeks later, when I met with the surgeon, she was surprised, concerned, and sympathetic at the story. Yes, I could have died. Yes, an infant or small child or a person not compos mentis in the first place could easily have died; only an alarm sounding for heart failure would have alerted the staff that anything was wrong. The surgeon apologized and promised to input my concerns into the system.

I left her in her office, bowed before the computer, typing. If anything happened as a result, I'm guessing it was that someone wrote a grant to develop a hydration-monitoring device—another layer, in the guise of God, between human minds and hearts.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Harp, the Voice, the Book: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf in 2015.

1. The Roundtables, which bring together academics, the religious, and religious academics, are the brainchild of Dave Thom, an MIT chaplain, and have spread out from Harvard. Disclosure: I myself presented at two sessions.

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