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  • Prosthetic Divinity:Babbage's Engine, Spiritual Intelligence, and the Senses
  • Tamara Ketabgian (bio)

Throughout his life, Charles Babbage sought to extend human faculties with a blend of scientific analysis, calculation, and perception. A prominent early Victorian mathematician, Babbage is today best known for his invention of the difference engine and its anticipation of postmodern information technology.1 Yet in his 1864 autobiography, he also emerges as a relentless thrill-seeker, devoted to transforming and intensifying his own sensory abilities—whether by descending in diving bells, gazing through telescopes, testing the speed of railway trains,2 exploring the erupting lava of Vesuvius, or seeking (at a very early age) to summon the devil and document his existence experimentally. In his best-selling On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), Babbage celebrates this extension of human identity through specifically industrial means. The Economy is, of course, only one of many early Victorian studies that imagine the factory as a "vast automaton" (Ure 14)—a hybrid network of various bodies, organs, and machines. For, as I have shown elsewhere, Babbage views industrial technology as both a prosthetic replacement and addition, restoring the missing organs of the disabled while supplying the able-bodied with "millions" of "additional hand[s]" (Babbage, On the Economy 388, 14). Both amplified and effaced by machinery, the Economy's workers are alternately superhuman in the factory and, outside it, more incomplete than ever.3

Creating new forms of lack and abundance, Babbage's mechanical prostheses also serve potent spiritual and persuasive functions. As instruments with which to view, simulate, and recreate the world, they support fantasies of divine emulation and technical augmentation that pervade his writings on science and religious faith. For Babbage and other Victorian thinkers influenced by natural theology, such fantasies treat humans as inherently disabled, requiring divine aid and mediation in order to realize knowledge. Addressing the limits of human sense and intelligence, these technical aids follow the theological doctrine of "accommodation," which argues that since God is incomprehensible, he must adjust to human capacities all that he seeks to reveal to us.4 In his treatise on Natural Theology (1802), still read by many Victorians, the theologian William Paley defines these "contrivances" as God's rhetorical exercise for humanity's benefit. For Paley, this felt experience of technology—of design and "contrivance"—remains our closest form of access to the divine. Or, to use Paley's famous turn of phrase, when we find a watch—or some natural object—before us, we inevitably reflect on its origins: on how "the watch must have had a maker" (3) whose wisdom we then emulate by studying the watch's distinctive mechanical features. As a practice of religious knowledge based on the direct observation of facts and nature, natural theology thus locates [End Page 33] the path to superhuman skill and intelligence within technological objects, practices, and forms of vision.

Babbage's writings share this emphasis on technical instrumentation and symbolic representation, treating God as a mechanical programmer and the world as "a macroscopic version of a factory," "only visible as a system from the point of view of its manager" (Hyman 136-37; Schaffer 226). In his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837), Babbage argues for the existence of God with the aid of his calculating engine, a machine that promises to enlarge human moral, sensory, and intellectual faculties by simulating the complexity, magnitude, and eternal memory of the divinity. As popular works of natural theology, the first eight Bridgewater treatises were sponsored by the will of the eighth Earl of Bridgewater and officially commissioned by the Royal Society. Babbage's effort, however, was unsolicited, unofficial, and unremunerated. It attacked the claim, posed in William Whewell's earlier Bridgewater treatise, that mechanical and mathematical pursuits restrict human spiritual sensitivity. Instead, Babbage suggests, these forms of deductive reason "open views of the grandeur of creation perhaps more extensive than any which the sciences of observation or of physics have yet supplied" (98-99). For Babbage, this augmented vision occurs through both technical apparatuses and mechanical processes of human reason and scientific method. As he stresses in his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), observers may realize...


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