Biochemical Machines or God’s Image Bearers?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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“I think he was a silly little man. Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all. No practical or economic use. I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort.”

So speaks Councilor Tompkins, a relatively minor character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle,” but the chief antagonist and an unsympathetic character nonetheless. He is referring to Niggle, the title character, who is a painter of some modest ability. It is a beautiful story, and one that reflects upon and incarnates some of the most important questions of what it means to be humans created in the image of God.

One of the prevailing philosophies that has taken root in western culture over the past century is that humans are merely complex biochemical computers: machines made of organic matter. This philosophy is known as physicalism. Christians, of course, reject this philosophy. We believe that humans were created in the image of God, and as such we were endowed with both free will and the moral responsibility that comes with it. God holds us responsible for our actions and choices because, in fact, we are responsible for them.

In The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters, I critique this false modern view that humans are mere computers and then provide a Christian alternative. The book looks at the writings of four prominent modern physicalists representing four disciplines: biologist Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), philosopher Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained), 20th century behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner (Beyond Freedom and Dignity), and engineer Raymond Kurzweil (The Age of Spiritual Machines). I believe their arguments are at times both circular and self-contradictory, and that not even they can live with the implications of what they claim to believe. I also believe their ideas are damaging.

And yet—even as Christians affirm that we are free will beings made in the image of God—the lie that we are all just complex machines is so prevalent that it is difficult not to be subtly affected by it. Indeed, it is often very convenient to accept that thinking. When I fail morally, for example, I would much rather blame all the circumstances and conditioning that “shaped” me than have to take responsibility. After all, the reasoning goes, if I am just a part in a machine, it can’t be my fault if the machine malfunctions and causes me to do something wrong.

It is important, therefore, that we understand not only how to refute such wrong thinking—how to defend the Christian faith, as Peter commands in 1 Peter 3:15—but that we also explore the ways in which the wrong thinking is subtly or not-so-subtly manifested in our culture so that we can resist the influence of that thinking in ourselves. (That is a big reason why I wrote my book.)

One of the places where this wrong thinking can really be influential (in negative and destructive ways) is in the workplace. In church we may affirm other humans as having value as God’s image-bearers, but at work it is easy to treat each other as machines—or, rather, as cogs in some bigger machine. It is especially easy if we are in a leadership or management position responsible for making sure that work gets done and the machine of business functions properly. Then the humans who work with us or for us are reduced to their value as parts in the machine.

Tolkien was a devout Christian who believed firmly that humans were created by God and that we bear his image. His stories repeatedly affirm the reality of human free will and the moral responsibility we have for our own decisions. This is precisely what makes his writing heroic literature. But already by the middle of last century he could see the growing influence of the philosophy of physicalism. His story, “Leaf by Niggle,” does a wonderful job exposing that philosophy and its influence through the character of Tompkins, and showing how damaging such a view is of human relationships and human dignity.

When we treat our employees or fellow workers as cogs and measure their worth by whether or not the cogs are “serviceable”—whether they have “practical or economic use”—we are insulting God’s handiwork, and thus insulting God himself.

Image by Adrian Boliston. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post written by Matthew Dickerson, author of The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters (Brazos Press, 2011).