Models and Reality

Clayboy has posted some initial thoughts on the first two programmes of the BBC2 series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (which can be watched on iPlayer in the UK for the next two weeks). The BBC bills this as a “series of films exploring the idea that humans have been colonised by the machines they have built, seeing everything in the world through the eyes of computers.” I agree with Clayboy that the first two episodes have been fascinating, telling a story in a highly visual and personal way and being something more of a televisual essay than a documentary.

The first programme dealt with the influence of the ideas and work of Ayn Rand on American political and economic culture. We were treated to footage of a TV interview with her in the late fifties. I don’t know whether it was just me, but the sight of her piercing, shifting eyes was highly disturbing. Among her followers were a number of highly influential politicians and economists, including Alan Greenspan who became Chairman of the US Federal reserve from 1987 to 2006. One of the theses of the programme was that  it was his policies that laid the foundations for the economic crisis of 2008 from which we are still suffering.

The second programme dealt with the way in which our understanding of the natural world has been shaped by models based on machines and system theory. It has been orthodoxy to regard our planet as a self-sustaining, self-regulting eco system, capable of reasserting its own equilibrium. Recently, however, this is being increasingly shown to be false. Both programmes demonstrate well how these theories have been appropriated by those in power to consilidate their own positions at the expense of poorer and more vulnerable people.

In both programmes it has been shown that the models we create are just that, models. However, we have a tendency to forget this, and to allow these models to dictate the way we perceive reality itself. To do so, however, is a mistake, since there is no guarantee that the model is complete, and the model itself is misleading, a human construction. Hence, allowing a computer model to run your economy or your business is dangerous. It was discovered, for instance, that data fed into the US economic model did not fit the facts on the ground. Production was not as high as claimed, and eventually the mismatch between the model and reality became obvious and with disastrous consequences.

I am looking forward to the final programme of the series. But I am also left pondering where this leaves theology? Most, if not all, of our theology relies on our producing models of a greater reality. Penal substitutionary atonement, to take one example, provides a model of what Christ achieved on the cross. But it is simply that – a model. For many Christians it is a helpful model, for others, less so. But if we mistake the model for the reality, when we take it as the only or the primary way reality must be understood, then I think we may be setting ourselves up for a fall.


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