The God of the Machine

Brian Wilson
2 min readMay 25, 2021

A brief intro and three opening questions to spur some discussion on Isabel Paterson’s (1886–1961) “The God of the Machine.

I don’t remember ever even hearing of Ms. Paterson until Paul Meany’s podcast episode, Saving Classical Liberalism: Isabel Paterson. He mentions that both Rothbard and Rand praised her, and some of her ideas certainly show up in both (especially the society of status v. the society of contract).

“The God of the Machine” attempts to try to explain the course of human history through the idea of power using a psuedo-electrical engineering model. The basic premise is, similar to the premise of Human Action, that “man acts” and in Paterson’s model, this action creates power in the system of human interactions.

The second piece to her thesis is that laws created through government act to channel that energy into productive use, but that government in and of itself is a “dead end in respect to the energy it uses.”

The last piece elaborates on the idea of government as a “dead end” in terms of human energy through the examination of slavery, education and the wartime economy.

Where her examination excels is this idea of power in and through a system of human interaction and its relation to laws and government. Further, she makes the case that much of human history is dependent on “imponderables,” or said another way by ideas and actions that aren’t clearly recorded, that are impossible to explain through exact cause and effect.

Where it falls short is her reliance on trying to use scientific descriptions of power, energy and resistance to describe human affairs and her jumps to and from electrical and mechanical systems. These are fairly clear cut ideas in science with mathematical formulations. Paterson’s descriptions using the same words are helpful as mental models, but don’t meet the same mathematical standards that underlie them in the scientific realm.

Moreover, her book trails off at the end into what I consider esoterica rather than a summation and distillation of her points that reinforce her thesis.

Three questions I’d suggest to seminar on this topic:

  1. What is the relation to human action and power within Paterson’s system of human affairs.
  2. What is the relation between power, laws and government?
  3. In her chapter “The Fallacy of Anarchism” is she overly reliant on a formal structure of government, rather than an atomistic and probabilistic (or quantum) understanding of human interaction, to channel force to ensure human beings “keep their promises.”

While there are a few statements in her book that may seem anachronistic and culturally biased, I’d still recommend to anyone interested in a more fundamental understanding of politics.