Saturday, May 4, 2013

Civilization, regarded as a "Cartwright Machine"

A "Cartwright Machine" is a powerful and unique way, created by famed philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright,  of looking again at all of Humanity's machines , mental as well as physical.

Cartwright's central insight is to realize that the real beauty of a machine is literally 'only skin deep'.

This is in very sharp contrast to received opinion on machines up until now.

The surface of machines, like all 'black box' marvels was always dismissed as a mere banal matte black nothingness, while the divine spark and mystery of the machine was felt to be buried deep inside.

Not so, said Cartwright and her followers, among them myself.

For example:

The number and condition of a nation's "machine tools" ( big machines that make other machines) , in peace or in wartime, is universally taken as the best single guide to the economic health and medium term potential of that nation.

Naturally as a result , during WWII , both Axis and Allied regarded the destruction of the other side's machine tools by aerial bombs as perhaps the quickest and most certain way to win the war without a too big a loss in human lives.

The factory buildings that house these machine tools were big but lightly built boxes of thin steel and wood.

Acting like big sails, they easily fell over when hit by the 'wind forces' generated by even a near miss by a high explosive bomb.

But unless the bomb actually fell right beside the rows of squat, very heavy and extremely dense, steel-built machine tools, even a very heavy blast force only caused them to rock briefly on their base and then settle back unharmed.

Round One to Civilization.

But unless a building was very quickly assembled back around the machine tools, they quickly became useless, rendered inert by the most banal forces imaginable : gently falling rain.

Gentle rain on machine tools (and even damp air generally)  quickly makes them rusty and useless, despite the fact that they could brush off the blast of a 500 pound high explosive bomb with casual aplomb.

Because machine tools are actually a bundle of diverse characteristics : mightly big (basically three metres cubed of steel) and yet also needing to operate within extremely small tolerances (measured in microns or millionths of one metre) to work as intended.

An apt metaphor for them might be a huge elephant rendered helpless by a tiny mouse !

The small tractor without an engine cover is a machine that seems to work well without appearing to be very shielded from the elements of Nature but that is because we forget it spends most of its life inside the sheltering roof and walls and floor of the farmer's barn.

A main battle tank is the war equivalent of the tractor, but it spends all of its combat time stuck in mud and dust and rain and snow and wind and mould ---- and as a result it tends to have a short service life, even if it doesn't first get hit by enemy fire.

More of WWII's tanks were 'put out of action' by mechanical
troubles than by their human foes.

(That is unless you choose, as I do, to regard Mother Nature as the general and admirals' real foes.)

But a Cartwright Machine was far more than an insight into just physical machines : it was also a way of looking at all of Mankind's much vaunted accomplishments.

Just as our tractors and machine tools (mechanical triumphs of Mankind's rational willpower) look far more fragile without their necessary shielding, so too do the intangible mental assets of Humanity's rationality.

A Great Power like Hitler's Germany seemed to be so truly mighty powerful in both industry and in science that it seemed obvious it could well make both guns and butter.

But in a real war, it quickly became apparent that peacetime Germany could only afford to survive off German-grown food (butter) because it didn't actually use  all the guns it made.

(And even this just barely : reduced rations for Germans came into effect even before the formal declaration of war in September 1939.)

Actually using guns in war quickly revealed the need to replace all the shells the guns fired, along with the guns themselves when they were worn out from use or destroyed by enemy fire.

Ditto for the need to replace the former farm hands converted to gunners , when they also were worn out or killed.

The same for all the former farm horses diverted to pull these guns.

The former farm tractor factories have been converted to make gun carriages, while the farm fertilizer and pesticide plants are on short shifts, with most of their raw materials diverted to make gun powder and high explosives.

Soon, the women and old men left behind on German farms are doing a very poor job of feeding civilian Germany and all of its idle but high daily calorie consuming military, holidaying abroad in the occupied lands.

Without fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, horses and muscular young farm hands, who can blame these women and old men ?

Now the normal cycle of good and bad weather/good and bad harvests, a cycle that Germany has always experienced,  kicks in on top.

A bad weather harvest now is truly a food disaster for civilization, as Adam Tooze has so brilliantly detailed.

Not a disaster for German civilization, except morally.

But a disaster for European civilization generally, because it means Germans ate well only by stealing food from their neighbours.

In the Western part of European Civilization, it means that the French and Dutch are at least left with just barely enough to get by.

But in the Eastern part of European Civilization , food was obtained by deliberately starving to death millions of Russians and Jews.

Ultimately, when starvation proved too slow a way to free up sufficient food, the Germans turned to mass killing of  Jews and anyone else they considered 'useless eaters'.

Lack of food in Germany drove the Holocaust along, which was speeded up with every bad harvest year back home in Germany.

Lack of food in Germany led Germany to alienate its potential allies in New Order Europe by stealing the food off their plates.

This in term ensured that these hungry and embittered potential allies ended up resisting Germany, not fighting along side of it, dooming it for certain in June 1944.

And all too soon cannibalism - usually considered the very anti-matter to Civilization's matter - was being engaged in by desperate Russian civilians and POWs.

German Civilization's much vaunted ability to produce butter as well as guns was really a Cartwright Machine, its universal and eternal "law-like" appearance actually hedged by all sorts of restrictive "ceteris paribus" clauses.

This is always the way with Modern Science, its 'dirty little secret'.

None - none - of the famous science experiments we all have been taught to admire in High School and as undergrads actually works as described, at least not out in the real world.

They are really mind experiments , so for example in physics we mentally remove from consideration all the various real world forces working on an object , so we can focus on the main force influencing its motion.

The ceteris paribus clauses explain all that we must remove to get our supposedly universal and eternal laws of nature to work.

It is indeed true, just as our High School Science teacher claimed,  that if the USA aims a truly ballastic missile at Tokyo to the west, it is very unlikely to hit Berlin in the east.

The main force at work, our rocket propellant, will  accurately ensure it ends up somewhere west of  Hawaii.

But lab-ignored factors like real world wind and air temperature and air density could very well work to move our ballistic missile slightly off course enough to hit Korea instead of Japan.

Diplomatically , even a High School Science teacher might realize that this could be very bad news indeed.

(The astute might notice that today's H-bombs are to be delivered by a very muddled, but also very real world, mixture of semi-ballistic and semi-guided techniques. But don't hold your breath waiting for any scientist to tell you that.)

The ceteris paribus clauses behind Nazi Germany's amazing ability to offer full employment, full food larders and full gun lockers was that it only worked if Germany didn't have too many guns and promised never to fire them .

In other words, it only really worked if Germany had a Cold War era military budget and not a Hot War era military budget.

WWII was a real disaster for Humanity and Civilization.

This is because, for the first time ever, the Civilization given us by Modern Science had all of its Cartwright Machines, minus their protective ceteris paribus shielding , left lying around in the wind and rain and mud and snow and heat and dust and mould of six long years of  Total War .....

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