Fritz Kahn was a remarkable man – a scientist, gynaecologist, artist, polymath – and eventually a Jewish refugee to the USA from Nazi Germany. He produced a series of extraordinary images in which he portrayed the human body as a machine.

This is his most celebrated picture, Man as an Industrial Palace (from 1927). Its details are stunning in their intricacy and accuracy. This is a work of true genius. I just love it.

But I’m provoked by it too. For it illustrates, whether intentionally or not (and I don’t know enough about Kahn to say which), a prevailing modernist view that we are skinfulls of chemicals, preprogrammed to perform certain biological functions as the consequence of some overarching but closed evolutionary process. This fits with an enlightenment agenda which Os Guinness brilliantly summed up:

The goal of modernity is ‘to know everything in order to predict everything in order to control everything.’

But the reality is that there are so many things about us that don’t make sense or that don’t fit into our categories. Now, please note. This is not an anti-science rant. Science is a noble quest – seeking to understand and explain. At its best, it is able to perform wonders of healing, and restoration. But is it really simply a matter of time before we understand everything about ourselves? Or are there aspects of our humanity that just don’t fall into scientific categories? Is there not a ghost in the machine?

I suspect that this was something of what Churchill was getting at in a House of Commons speech in 1950:

Man in this moment of his history has emerged in greater supremacy over the forces of nature than has ever been dreamed of before. He has it in his power to solve quite easily the problems of natural power to solve quite easily the problems of natural existence. He has conquered the wild beasts, and he has conquered the insects and the microbes. There lies before him, if he wishes, a golden age of peace and progress. All is in his hand. He has only to conquer his last and worst enemy – himself.

Or as controversial but influential philosopher Martin Heidegger put it:

No age knows so much and so many things about man as does ours and yet no age knows less than ours of what man is.

Enter not the ‘God of the gaps’ but the God of the cosmos – the one ultimate cause and sustainer of every aspect of the universe. As Martin Luther King put it when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

I refuse to believe the notion that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life… unable to respond to the eternal oughtness that forever confronts him.

This is what underpinned Luther King’s political philosophy – and in fact, being made in God’s image was the backbone of his conviction that we have equal value as human beings, regardless of race, social standing or any other division (as Tim Keller explores in his recent, excellent Generous Justice pp86ff).

But it’s pretty difficult to draw that. It’s also impossible to categorise that in a laboratory-friendly pigeon-hole.

Well, so much for these ramblings. They’re all an excuse to post this phenomenal, recent animation of Kahn’s image. It manages to bring the picture to life brilliantly and faithfully, with some fab sound effects. Enjoy!

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Dan

    Strange. You start off discussing how we don’t know everything, and then turn to say that we should replace the honest statement “we don’t know X” with “X is God.” Truth is, these two statements are not equivalent – you cannot truthfully replace one with the other.

    Either we don’t know, or we know and it’s God. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. quaesitor

      Hi dan
      thanks for the comment. to be fair, that’s a slightly different point. I was simply saying that there are aspects of our humanity that fail to fit into clear scientific categories – hence the ghost in the machine idea. We can’t understand everything in those terms. Which is where religion fits in and is profoundly (or should be) compatible with science.
      There’s no contradiction between saying I don’t know everything, but God does – and that furthermore, I don’t understand everything that God does…

  2. AndrewFinden

    Good stuff – Tolles bild! Ich kann fast alles verstehen!

    Similar to your Martin Luther King reference – strangely enough, none of my friends who often trot out the ‘religion poisons everything’ axiom have had the courage to take up my challenge to show how this was the case with Desmond Tutu and his struggle against apartheid. 🙂

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