How ‘Mechanism’ has Deceived Science
by Don Cruse
The machine image objectivizes at a stroke whatever it touches by emphasizing its inherent otherness from man, its non-communicability. In the magical world-view of the Old Gnosis, all things - animal, plant, mineral - radiate meanings; they are intelligible beings - or the natural faces such beings put on for us in the physical world. But for Newton, the celestial spheres comprise a machine; for Descartes animals become machines; for Hobbes, society is a machine; for La Mettrie, the human body is a machine; eventually for Pavlov and Watson, human behaviour is machine-like. So steadily, the natural world dies as it hardens into mechanistic imagery.
Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends
Science has long been criticized for representing a ‘mechanistic’ worldview, one that is somehow opposed to life itself. This, for example, is the view behind Britain’s Prince Charles’s now well-known opposition to many of the impulses that derive from modern science (see David Lorimer’s Radical Prince, published by Floris books). Machines are, of course, a lifeless technology, but one that tries to emulate life in so many ways, ways which now include self-replication, one of the current goals that nanotechnolgy is reaching for. About the usefulness of technology there is no question, in the past century it has greatly transformed our world and increased the standard of living of very many, although the ecological problems that have arisen in its wake are still a cause for grave concern.
This has not silenced the criticism, but there is a sense in which science’s many critics are their own worst enemy, because ‘lifelessness’ is only a part of the problem where the current use by science of the concept of ‘mechanism’ is concerned. Another very serious fault has lain concealed now for centuries, a fault so deeply ingrained that it has even changed the lexical meaning of the word ‘mechanism,’ and is of such a character that to simply criticize science’s ‘mechanistic’ mind set without dealing with it only helps to ingrain the problem further — by tacitly accepting this serious error as an established truth.
I am referring to the now centuries old use of the ‘idea’ of mechanism as a dictionary-sanctioned metaphor for scientific materialism:
mechanism (philos.) — the theory that the workings of the universe can be explained by the workings of physics and chemistry.
I draw attention to it because this definition embodies an unconsciously hidden profound error in logic, the future correction of which though extremely difficult, will undoubtedly mark a watershed in the development of human understanding.
The Cartesian dichotomy
This mechanistic theory of the universe began with Rene Descartes (1596-1650), at a time when God was still seen to be the author of all things. Natural organisms were then thought to be ‘machines’ designed by God to serve his purposes, just as we design and build machinery to serve our human purposes. Whatever its other limitations, at that time this comparison was at least sensible (logically sound), because ‘intelligence’ was seen to be the author of complex novelty, whether man-made or natural. But then something happened in science and philosophy to change the validity of this comparison. God died, for Nietzsche at least, and then for Laplace (with Darwin’s help), God became ‘an unnecessary hypothesis.’ The universe, along with the earth and all of its living inhabitants became transformed, where science was concerned, into a cosmic accident, which cancelled out the logical validity of Descartes’ comparison.
The New (post-Cartesian) Mechanistic Universe
Simply put, science did away with ‘Intelligence’ as the source of all natural design, but, remarkably, it kept all of its lower case creative language, that of intelligent design, with the aid of which we continued to furnish the scientifically required explanations of the ways in which the living organisms in nature worked and developed. And, in particular, we retained the ‘idea’ of mechanism with its immense explanatory power and continued using it to explain nature’s living complexities. The fact that the Cartesian comparison was no longer logically valid did not seem to worry us very much. At some level we understood (Darwin did at least) that without the use of intentional and volitional idioms scientific materialism was a non-starter, but he dismissed it merely as an acceptable use of metaphor, which his theory does constantly. But as Stanley Edgar Hyman in his book, The Tangled Bank, writes:
Darwin starts by insisting that nature is not a goddess but a metaphor. As soon as he begins to talk about nature, however, she is transformed into a female divinity with consciousness and will.
The problem, of course, was (and is) that all of the real machines of our acquaintance had more-or-less intelligent human designers, and to properly do away with God we had also to do away with all traces of intelligent design. Just changing our word usage to lower case by denying God did not accomplish this, in fact it made matters worse, because the use of creative metaphor then seemed to be hinting at the absurd notion that the universe was a human creation. It is science’s business to critically question every important assumption affecting it — why, one must ask, has it not questioned this one?
Perhaps more to the point, why had science not immediately understood that after dismissing the Designer God it had also to discontinue using creative language, which now constituted an error in causal logic? Having dismissed the Designer we should surely have felt obligated, following the laws of logic, to cease using language implying a designer, because where our understanding of nature was concerned verbal description was the entire ball game. If the language of intention was still there then either God, or His deceptively human-like equivalent, was there also. When dealing with any theory of origins, to just remove the name of God but continue to use the language of creative design as if nothing had really changed, not only made the change itself superficial, it made the theory that used it profoundly irrational. And so began a remarkable chapter in the history of science, one that in the future will surely be looked back upon with astonishment — an historical act of startling self-deception had occurred, one in which even our best minds had unknowingly collaborated.
One of the most influential proponents of scientific materialism today, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, does not touch on the problems raised here, which is hardly surprising because where the flagrant misuse of metaphor implying intelligence is concerned he is among the worst of modern offenders, e.g. the ‘Blind Watchmaker’ and the ‘Selfish Gene’. But Dawkins is at least aware of the problem, because he and others have tried to get around it by claiming that ‘natural’ machines are the product of “Designer-less design.” However, because like all man-made mechanisms ‘natural’ machines must be purposefully constructed so as to be functional (which requirement must include an organism’s many separate parts, hearts, lungs, brains, etc., and the cell tissue from which they are made), then Dawkins’ oxymoronic verbal claim when pushed a little further unavoidably translates into ‘purpose-less purpose,’ a concept that surely marks a new low in scientific knowledge claims.
One area in which the original Cartesian comparison must appear to remain unchanged is to enable materialistic science to explain failure (death and illness) in nature, as being something different from ‘cessation.’ Every real machine has been designed for a purpose, and the only way in which one can tell whether or not a machine is functioning properly is in relation to that purpose, e.g. to the purpose given it by its designer. There is no such thing as a purposeless man-made machine, even the simplest of them, a lever say, must have its effectiveness judged in relation to the task that we expect it to perform, and if it does not perform it well then it is either poorly designed or defective, and in a complex machine its purposefulness has both an inner and outer dimension, in that most of its parts must also be purposefully designed, all of which raises the vital issue of mechanical failure and its causes.
There are two types of failure that can occur ‘naturally’, the first being functional failure, which can occur within a living organism, while the second is the kind of failure that occurs in the inorganic realm and that might better be termed ‘cessation,’ as when a stream dries up or a chemical reaction is completed. Only failures of the ‘functional’ type require a mechanistic analogy in order to convincingly explain them. However, there have been many attempts in science to confuse these two types of failure, because scientific materialism does not want to recognize ‘life’ as being anything other than a purely chemical process that is subject only to ‘cessation.’ This is yet another dimension of the problem that materialism has caused for science, requiring that it find ways to obscure obvious differences—like that between life and death.
What science has really been saying for nearly two centuries now, with the help of a little ‘mechanistic’ sleight of hand, is that there exists no difference whatever between deliberately and accidentally caused events, and also no real difference between the living and the dead. Everything that nature has created is claimed to be accidental in origin, but it can only be effectively described as such by using the same language that we have always used to describe human creativity — primarily that describing the workings of dead mechanical contrivances. Where the present science of origins is concerned, therefore, the crucial distinctions between accidental and intentional, and life and death, are effectively ignored.
The above lexical definition of the word ‘mechanism’ opens up the way for a science of origins to use numerous other intentional and volitional idioms to describe how Mindless nature works, words like ‘selecting’ ‘improving’ ‘scrutinizing’ ‘exploring’ ‘constructing’ ‘designing,’ to name only a very few, all of them describing mental activities that it is now claimed can legitimately be attributed to the workings of a Mindless universe. Sometimes the word ‘natural’ is added, but even this is now largely neglected, perhaps because we have come to realize that by doing so we cannot change the explanatory effects in our minds that these words have. Similarly the idea of mechanism, because of its inherent deadness, serves well evolutionary science’s deep-seated unwillingness to distinguish adequately between the living and the dead — that most obvious of distinctions where everyday human understanding is concerned. What could we all have been thinking to so blindly abdicate verbal logic in this outrageous manner, and yet still call it science?
Well, perhaps it was simple enough really; first we were the victims of force of habit, combined with naivety where the specious use of metaphor in a science of origins was concerned, and we were perhaps overwhelmed by the need to emancipate science from religion no matter what the cost, which was where Darwin somewhat reluctantly triumphed. But already one lone voice had spoken out in protest, for Thomas Sprat, in his 18th century work The History of the Royal Society, had succinctly stated the dangers of metaphor:
Who can behold without indignation, how many
mists and uncertainties, these specious Tropes
and Figures have brought into our knowledg?
Hard Wired Deception
Consider the following. Noam Chomsky, who is surely among our best minds, has argued that the human brain is a ‘mechanism’ that is “hard wired” for speech. This observation has now begun a trend of sorts, allowing others to argue that the brain is “hard wired” to do many other things, including oddly enough ‘to believe in God’. The question is of course — who or what did all that hard wiring? To claim that it was all an evolutionary accident, and yet continue to use intentional and volitional language in explaining how it all works, is to resort to logical folly on a grand scale. No wonder Darwin once wrote in a letter to a friend: Often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted myself to a fantasy.
When even our best minds continue to use the notion of a ‘mechanistic universe’ in this way, is it because no one has really stopped to think the matter through? Or because, now that so many reputations are at stake, to rectify it, as we surely must as our minds evolve, will prove to be traumatic in the extreme?
Looking at this scenario from the viewpoint of historic necessity it is clear that at the time this mistake was first made science desperately wanted (needed) to emancipate itself from dogmatic theology, and that this opportunity seemed too good to miss out on, and for many it still seems that way — what after all is logic that we should be so concerned about it? Well, for one thing rationality is supposed to be the very soul of science, which sees its task as confronting religious dogma with ‘reason,’ but reason is now in very short supply on both sides of this equation, tragically more so in science perhaps than in religion.
The main emphasis in science has always been on the merits of empiricism, not those of logic, and following the ideas of Bacon, Kant et al, there has developed a profound distrust in the efficacy of thinking as an activity in its own right. Few had stopped to consider the impact of the obvious fact that this widespread distrust of thinking was itself the product of thought. If sound logical thinking could not be trusted, then nothing else could be. Empiricism won’t fill the gap because it is utterly dependent upon thought for the correctness of interpretation.
A Machine is a Machine…
The question I am raising here is not whether there is a ‘ghost in the machine,’ a misleading issue that has for too long been debated, but whether there can be such a thing as a ‘machine’ without a ghost? In every genuine machine there is a ghost in the form of the idea of its human designer, and it is this pervasive relationship between a man-made machine and its designer that permeates every normal use that we make of the words ‘machine’ or ‘mechanism’. This relationship is an essential part of the fabric that gives these words their true meaning and we cannot escape it just by adding the word ‘natural.’ So that when as scientists or philosophers we speak glibly about ‘natural’ machines being the product of “designer-less design,” it is the machine as a product of human intelligence that is mentally present. The concept of ‘natural machines’ as somehow being an exception, and as existing without the help of any designer is one that our minds just can’t handle without that we unconsciously substitute our own experience of machinery. At some level we seem to understand that the implication of mindlessness involves an error in logic, a profound error with consequences of such magnitude that we simply choose to go on ignoring it, helped along by such as Dawkins.
Whenever and wherever “designer-less-design” is used as an intellectual excuse for claiming that purposeless ‘natural machines’ exist, it is not ‘designerlessness’ that works in our minds and that makes the concept ‘mechanism’ so useful to science; rather it is the ever-present relationship of any genuine machine to its human designer that is mentally present. It is this ghostly human presence, retained in the word’s normal meaning, that makes the concept of ‘mechanism’ so very useful when we are seeking to promote scientific materialism as a supposedly viable and rational worldview, i.e. it leads us to perform a subtle but unquestionably real act of self-deception. Because of the pervasive human -machine relationship, we are unconsciously able to deceive ourselves whenever we use the word ‘mechanism’ as a synonym for scientific materialism — helped by the fact that the dictionary allows us to do this with a clear conscience.
Materialism, in its very essence, is a worldview in which thinking has been used to radically undermine the value of thought, chiefly by calling it an epiphenomenona—a mere accidental by-product of matter. This practise of using thinking to diminish the reality of thought began historically in the works of Roger Bacon, but the idea that thought itself possesses a spiritual reality was further undermined by Immanuel Kant’s unknowable “thing in itself,” from whence it has permeated much of modern philosophy.
The truth is, however, as Bo Dahlin has soundly observed, that: “thinking cannot be explained by anything other than itself, because it is always thinking that does the explaining.” This observation, once its full meaning is understood, leaves the door wide open for Ideas to once again be seen as the creative forces at work on the ‘inside’ of nature herself, and not merely as electrical impulses going on in the human brain. The Platonic premise that thought is primary, and that Ideas (universals) are the spiritual source of natural creativity (including the creation of the human brain itself) is that which once dominated medieval thought. Then known as scholastic Realism, it was later eclipsed (but not refuted) by the more Aristotelian school of Nominalist thought in which ideas were only ‘names’, leaving the way open for the eventual enactment of the monumental but perhaps historically necessary fundamental error in causal logic that I have drawn attention to here, and in the light of which, in order to save the ‘soul’ of science, the still unfinished Nominalist vs. Realist debate now needs to be reopened in a modern and more critical setting, so that we may conscientiously remedy our past mistakes, thereby returning rationality to the vexed science of origins.
The Burden of Proof
There is a tendency for us to think that the same metaphorically-loaded intentional and volitional language that we commonly use to describe the more inward aspect of everyday events can also be used to describe the supposed ‘inner workings’ of a theory of origins, even if that theory specifically denies that nature is the product of Conscious creativity, and so can possess NO inner creative aspect (because for materialism everything is external, the smallest molecule when made subject to analysis becomes just another ‘outside’). In this way the claimed Mindlessness of nature becomes permeated with a mindfulness that operates at the purely human level, and a theory that would otherwise be impossible suddenly becomes possible — as long as we pay no attention to the logical folly entailed in what we have done.
Is it not more than a little ironic that while quantum physics now insist that nature’s primary reality is consciousness, biology continues to cling to the dogma that consciousness plays no inwardly creative role whatever in nature, while at the same time making use of language that inserts the workings of human consciousness in its place? That this profoundly irrational anomaly exists is undeniable, as is the damage that it must inevitably do to any and all forms of materialistic argument, unless, that is, we continue to totally ignore it. The reason that this anomaly exists has to do with the spiritual origins of language — a subject insightfully dealt with in the many works of Owen Barfield.
Science, by its own claims, is obligated to be rational, and when faced with an argument charging it with irrationality the approved procedure is to demonstrate that argument’s falsity in one of two ways. Either to show that the premise(s) on which the argument is based are false, or that it’s internal logic is inconsistent. Either one will destroy an argument’s credibility and both will disprove it completely. In the above argument, my principal premise is that by using intentional and volitional idioms to describe the ‘inner’ workings of what one claims to be accidental happenings one is indulging in a very serious form of self-deception, because only language that is fully appropriate to accidental occurrences can rationally be used to describe such events. To prove me wrong, therefore, it will be necessary to show that there is no difference whatever between events that are caused intentionally and those that the product of mere chance, a distinction without which criminal law, for example, could not exist.
When the atheist Sam Harris, in response to the charge that evolution is the result of “mere chance,” states in an article in the L,A, Times (Christmas Eve 2006), that:
“Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase “natural selection” by analogy to the “artificial selection” performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.”
He is simply bringing to our attention a major Darwinian error in logic, one which, for reasons of historical necessity perhaps, has now lain hidden for one-hundred-and-fifty years, and that he himself, along with his well-known mentor Richard Dawkins, have completely failed to detect.
© 2007 Don Cruse
Box 19, Site 1, RR2, Ponoka, Alberta, T4J 1R2 Canada