Philosophy of Evolution: Anti-Mechanicism

Participants in Dialogue


Philosophers are found on both sides of the question in the debate on Mechanicism.

Adversaries to the proposal in this chapter are the Mechanicists, who admit only material and local motion.6 Among the ancient Mechanicists were Thales of Miletus (640-548 BC), Anaximander (610-547 BC), Anaximenes (588-524 BC), Empedocles (495-435 BC), Anaxagoras (500-428 BC), Democritus (500-460 BC).7

Starting with the seventeenth century, the success of mathematics and physics inclined some philosophers such as Descartes and Gassendi to abandon Vitalism and substitute Mechanicism. Many scientists followed them, and applied classical mechanics and the science of physics to biological models. Promoters were Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, student of Galileo, whom Newton himself recognized as a forerunner of the theory of universal gravitation. Both Descartes and Leibniz proposed the analogy of man being like a machine.8

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) made organic evolution acceptable to the scientific world; and Herbert Spencer, already in 1852, had promoted Mechanicism for the survival of the fittest by the principle of natural selection.9 Extreme Mechanicism of a thoroughgoing materialistic type was propounded by T. H. Huxley (1825-1895), F. Bchner (1824-1899), J. Moleschott (1822-1893), K. Vogt (1817-1895), E. Haeckel (1834-1919). Moderate Mechanicism, which accepts no principle of vital activity that is distinct from material forces, was propounded by C. Lloyd Morgan in his theory of "emergent evolution": species are not mere resultants of pre-existing forces but something new and unpredictable. Thus, "life" is conceived as a novel quality emerging from a special arrangement of non-living matter, when the latter has arrived at a certain level of organization.10 So among these moderns, three conclusions are evident. First, the active forces are still material and ordinary physico-chemical forces. Second, these forces operate in a mechanistic and fortuitous fashion, and so are rightly called Mechanicism. Third, there is no essential difference in Mechanicism between organic and inorganic bodies.

Because Mechanicism admits only the material or material forces, it is rightly designated as anti-Vitalistic Merism. Anti-Vitalistic means it denies spirit, in favor of the material. Merism means Mechanicism explains everything only, "merely," in a materialistic and mechanistic fashion. Mechanicism is opposed to Vitalistic Merism, which is the mere added summation of very small parts.11 William Harvey (1578-1657) postulated "vital spirits" as operating in the medium of the blood. Also A. Haller (1707-1777) added "vital energy."

The Neo-Lamarkians are also Mechanicists.12 In France, these are Giard, Le Dantec, Delage, Caullery, and Rabaud. Elsewhere, these are Eimer, Cope, Kassovitz, von Wettstein, and Lotze.

The modern scientific mentality has been dominated by the Mechanicist conception, more and more joined with that of the Atomistic.13 Mechanicism has directed scientific research toward the determination of prime elements as absolutely immutable and non-distributable entities which form all bodies by way of simple aggregation and disaggregation, actually remaining in the composit.

When Freud, Jung, Adler and others began to explore areas of the preconscious, they found that human nature was not as mechanistic as had been assumed. "The old ideas of oversimplified mechanical behaviorism had to give way to a kind of indeterminism in the biological and anthropological sciences."14

Favoring Mechanicism, at least partially, appear only two Neo-Scholastic philosophers, who also accepted the views of Descartes. These philosophers were Palmieri and Tangiorgi, who denied the reality of philosophical "accidents." Tongiorgi professes Mitigated Mechanicism, in which he admits atoms, motion, and forces of at least extrinsic and intrinsic locomotion; all bodies come from diverse disposition, number, and distance of the atoms.15 Mechanicists generally admit only local motion, and by denying every other true motion consequently deny composition from act and potency, from substance and accident.16

Maritain maintains, "In our day modern biology manifests a very strong anti-mechanistic reaction."17 He is not the only Neo-Scholastic to see Mechanicism defended by only "a few."18 Mondin apparently disagrees, writing in 1999, maintains that "The analogy between living organism and machine, particularly the clock, that was proposed by Descartes and Leibnitz, has enjoyed enormous fortune even up to our own day;"19 but in his consideration of modern physics Mondin admits that "this statistical and Mechanistic vision of corporal reality has been rejected by the most recent physics.20 But the philosopher Nietzsche maintained life was just a jump, a growth, a process, a continual activity. Further, many contemporary biologists, Rush, Asimov, Canquilhem and others tend toward Mechanicism. J. H. Rush says life is essentially change, a process, continual activity. Bergson held that life is a vital jump or a vital slide. Today the more favored Mechanicistic approach to life is by way of molecular biology.21 Obviously, these would oppose St. Thomas’ view of life as spontaneous, internal, immanent, and to the advantage of the operating agent.22 Adversaries who reject the proposal make it clear that the thesis proposed is a serious subject for discussion. The thesis proposed and defended as true presents an objective problem worthy of dialogue.

On the other hand, a number of philosophers defend the thesis that Mechanicism is incompatible with Evolutionism. Even Aristotle in the last two chapters of Book Two of the Physics, argued the fallacy of the Mechanicist’s philosophy of cause. Aristotle argued that the Mechanicist philosophy of causality would lead to a denial of final causality (Aristotle Phys. 2. 8. 198 b 12-14).23 Among the Neo-Scholastics, Mechanichism is opposed by almost all, for example, Dezza,24 Hellin,25 Hugon,26 and Maquart.27

Adversaries who seriously contradict the proposal in this chapter deserve respect. These adversaries have reasons for their position. In every false position there is some truth. In dialogue, every attempt should be made to clarify that truth. In this case, the Mechanicists confuse the predictable laws discovered by science with their belief, by and large, that "every cause-and-effect sequence resolves itself into a chain of necessary, blind determinants."28 Accordingly, even if our proposal and its proofs demonstrate the adversaries wrong, their reasoning can be understood and respected.


Author:  John Edward Mulvihill, S.T.D., D.Min., Ph.D.
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