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Q: Mechanistic Philosophy ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Mechanistic Philosophy
Category: Reference, Education and News > Homework Help
Asked by: chiba-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 18 Nov 2002 11:26 PST
Expires: 18 Dec 2002 11:26 PST
Question ID: 110034
How does mechanistic philosophy express itself in our modern society?
Subject: Re: Mechanistic Philosophy
Answered By: shananigans-ga on 18 Nov 2002 23:08 PST
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hi  Chiba,

Thank you for asking such an interesting and challenging question! I
discovered that there are many, many ways in which mechanistic
philosophy features in modern life, and unsurprisingly most of the
fields in which it features are scientific. I have set my answer out
for you as follows:

1. A brief discussion of mechanistic philosophy and its origins.
(Assuming you’re writing an essay or similar, this section could point
you to lots of useful general quotes for the introduction and

2. Fields of research / development and ‘areas of life’ in which
mechanistic philosophy features.

If you need clarification or further research I’d me more than happy
to answer any clarification request you make; please request any
necessary clarification before rating my answer.

Best wishes,



What I think is a wonderful timeline of Mechanistic Philosophy has
been written by Charlene Phipps (it’s called “Facilitating with a New
Worldview”) and is available here:
I have reproduced some of the more important and pertinent passages
“The worldviews of human beings—the ways we see and understand the
universe--have from the beginning, driven our behavior and shaped the
social, cultural and scientific foundations of our lives. Newton and
Descartes are often credited for laying the scientific foundations for
a collection of beliefs now called the Mechanistic Philosophy. From
the 17th century on, the predominant worldview was that nature could
be explained in the same way we understand the workings of a machine. 
The universe was envisioned as one great logical system made of
separate interlocking parts. The parts of the machine worked together
by obeying a few simple laws and could be predicted and measured
according to those laws (Brown, 1986, p. 136)”
“The mechanistic view of Descartes and Newton held that, the workings
of the universe were no longer governed by the hand of God or by human
purposes, but rather, were determined by the mechanical interaction of
inanimate objects obeying universal mathematical laws of cause and
“By the end of the 20th century, mechanistic and scientific views were
well established in what we now call classical physics.  The
mechanistic approach created the predominant worldview in Western
civilization, permeating the life sciences and spreading into the
mainstream of contemporary thought and culture.”
Assumptions underlying mechanistic philosophy:
“The material world is a multitude of separate objects assembled like
a huge machine.  Complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them
into their basic components and looking for the principles by which
they interact.”
“If all the variables of a system are known (i.e. a weather system,
solar system, human system), their movements and patterns can be
measured and predicted.  Because systems progress in a linear and
incremental fashion, they are amenable to scientific methods of
observation, calculation, prediction, and control of outcomes.”
“Motion and change use up energy, wearing down a system and eventually
causing its demise.  Stability is, therefore, crucial for survival.”
“Humans are separate and apart from that which we observe and study. 
Separateness allows us to be neutral bystanders in our scientific
inquiry, as well as in life in general.”
The Australian Theosophical Society website features an article on
Isaac Newton (“Isaac Newton – Truthseeker”) that explicates in some
detail Newton’s role as a ‘founding father’ of Mechanistic Philosophy.
It can be found at:
From “Isaac Newton: Truthseeker”:
“What we learn about him at school and university are his laws of
mechanics, especially his laws of motion and of universal gravitation.
These were elaborated in his major work known for short as Principia
or Principia Mathematica. The English translation of the Latin
original is 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy'. […] The
famous laws of motion which I am sure anyone who has studied any
science at all, must have come across, are dealt with …”
“Newton's work paved the way for the machine age and the mechanistic
philosophy of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with no
room for God or for religious belief among the leading scientists.
There are trends today away from that mechanistic philosophy not only
in the New Age movements but also among quite a few leading
scientists. However, widespread use of the term 'Newtonian paradigm'
to describe this mechanistic science and philosophy is grossly unfair
to Newton as we shall see. The term is even used by some enlightened
thinkers such as Fritjof Capra.”
As was noted by Ms Phipps (see above), world views such as Mechanistic
Philosophy are influenced by, and often change because of, differing
social and economic circumstances. Janus Sysak’s PhD thesis “The
Natural Philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” explains how
Coleridge’s philosophy (just as one example) changed from Mechanistic
to Dynamic due to the changes that were occurring in society at the
time. You can read the entire thesis here:
and parts of it are reproduced below:
“This thesis aims to show that Coleridge's thinking about science was
inseparable from and influenced by his social and political concerns.
During his lifetime, science was undergoing a major transition from
mechanistic to dynamical modes of explanation.
Coleridge's views on natural philosophy reflect this change. As a
young man, in the mid-1790s, he embraced the mechanistic philosophy of
Necessitarianism, especially in his psychology. In the early 1800s,
however, he began to condemn the ideas to which he had previously been
attracted. While there were technical, philosophical and religious
reasons for this turnabout, there were also major political ones. For
he repeatedly complained
that the prevailing 'mechanical philosophy' of the period bolstered
emerging liberal and Utilitarian philosophies based ultimately on
self-interest. To combat the 'commercial' ideology of early nineteenth
century Britain, he accordingly advocated an alternative, 'dynamic'
view of nature, derived from German Idealism. I argue that Coleridge
championed this 'dynamic philosophy' because it sustained his own
conservative politics,
grounded ultimately on the view that states possess an intrinsic
unity, so are not the product of individualistic self-interest.”


As mentioned initially, mechanistic philosophy is widely applied in
scientific fields, hence a theory is proved when others can
successfully replicate and experiment and its results: physics and
chemistry are mechanical in that identical conditions produce
predictable, identical results. This part of the answer to your
question is such a ‘given’ that I have not provided a reference;
simply open any high school physics or chemistry text book and the
mechanistic philosophy is right in front of you!

Mechanistic philosophy is also widely applied to biological sciences,
although not without some controversy. The idea behind evolution is
that animals change because they are in a given situation – make any
species live in water long enough and it will develop fins! A better
explanation than mine is given below:
Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy by John B. and
David R. Griffin Cobb, Jr. “Chapter 2: Can Evolution be Accounted for
Solely in Terms of Mechanical Causation? by L. Charles Birch
“The happenings we know a lot about, thanks to evolutionary biology,
particularly of the last four decades, are the roles of mutation,
recombination of genes in sexual reproduction resulting in a great
diversity of gene arrangements, and natural selection. These are the
main mechanisms of the so-called Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.
There are of course many mechanisms that are involved in these
concepts, such for example as genetic assimilation established by
Waddington (1957), but they may all be regarded as aspects, albeit
subtle ones, of the three main mechanisms mentioned. The sum total of
them presents a mechanistic world picture of the evolutionary process.
It has been eminently successful in explaining transformation
phenomena, although less successful in prediction. A brief but cogent
account of the modern view is given by Waddington (1969).”
“What these mechanisms help us to understand is the way in which
organisms are transformed in time, genetically, anatomically,
physiologically and behaviorally in adaptation to environment. At that
level the theory seems to be remarkably successful. One of the great
achievements of modern evolutionary theory has been the quantification
of many of these processes. The theoretical model of Neo-Darwinism is
a quantitative model. It rests on well-attested concepts and has great
explanatory value.”
“The terms ‘mechanism’ and ‘Mechanistic world picture’ may be regarded
as the conception according to which the universe is seen as a machine
or contrivance and all that is in it as smaller machines or
contrivances which, once set in motion, perform as they do, by virtue
of their construction (Dijksterhuis 1961, p. 495). Having originated
in the physical sciences, the mechanical analogy was taken over by the
biological sciences as they became established as sciences in their
own right. As a result it is true to say now, as Whitehead (1926, p.
128) said decades ago, that "It is orthodox to hold that there is
nothing in biology but what is physical mechanism under somewhat
complex circumstances . . . the appeal to mechanism on behalf of
biology was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested
self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all
natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of
concepts." To this latter claim I shall return later. The main point
of Whitehead’s remark is that biology has an orthodoxy; it is
mechanism based on physics.”

It should be noted that Birch goes on to argue *against* the
Mechanistic view of evolution, but he gives a great summary of the
idea, don’t you think?


An area that features Mechanistic Philosophy quite heavily is
Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. The idea is that thoughts and
logic are just the result of mechanical brain processes, and as such
they ought to be able to be reproduced by a computer. Once again, the
ideas are controversial.

Eric Dietrich wrote an article called “Cognitive Science and the
Mechanistic Forces of Darkness, or Why the Computational Science of
Mind Suffers the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune”, in Volume
5,  issue Number 2 (Winter 2000) of “Techné: Journal of the Society
for Philosophy and Technology” In it, he discusses the problems
(namely, dismissal by people who are afraid of AI) associated with
pushing AI as a valid source of thought. The article is located at:
and I have reproduced parts of it below:
 “Computationalism is attacked from without and from within cognitive
science. … we have a hypothesis which is, I think, regarded as deeply
anti-human, and hence repugnant. I suspect that the real reason
everyone is out gunning for computationalism is because it violates,
not our common sense nor some well-developed scientific intuition, but
rather our conception of what it means to be human. I believe, in
short, that the real problem with the general acceptance of
computationalism is its perceived association with what I call The
Mechanistic Forces of Darkness. Here's a quote that expresses well
this felt repugnance:
[AI]'s real significance or worth [lies] solely in what it may
contribute to the advancement of technology, to our ability to
manipulate reality (including human reality), [ but ] it is not for
all that an innocuous intellectual endeavor and is not without posing
a serious danger to a properly human mode of existence. Because the
human being is a self-interpreting or self-defining being and because,
in addition, human understanding has a natural tendency to
misunderstand itself (by interpreting itself to itself in terms of the
objectified by-products of its own idealizing imagination; e.g., in
terms of computers or logic machines) - because of this there is a
strong possibility that, fascinated with their own technological
prowess, moderns may very well attempt to understand themselves on the
model of a computational machine and, in so doing, actually make
themselves over into a kind of machine and fabricate for themselves a
machinelike society structured solely in accordance with the dictates
of calculative, instrumental rationality (Madison 1991).”
“In sum, I think that computationalism's troubles are due to its
perceived anti-humanism. We fear the mechanistic forces of darkness
which AI and cognitive science represent. Our fear of such forces goes
hand in hand with our refusal to see ourselves as part of the natural
order. I do not mean to belittle this fear; I mean to take it
seriously - but I do think it is uncalled for… and dangerous. I think
that what is going on with computationalism is like what happened to
Darwin's evolutionary hypothesis. Darwin came along and said we were
fancy chimpanzees. Now along come the cognitive scientists saying that
we are fancy calculators. The attitude toward such mechanistic
hypotheses is not that they seem false given the data, but rather they
must be false, regardless of the data. People have a deep dislike of
such hypotheses because they violate our sense that humans are
special, and more than mere animals, more than mere mechanisms.”
In her article already quoted above, Charlene Phipps finds that
Mechanistic Philosophy also has bearing on organisational management,
economic trends and the like (the law of ‘supply and demand’ comes to
mind). Part of her article is again reproduced below:
“William Isaacs, who has developed the method of dialogue to a high
art, shares how the mechanistic worldview has dominated the field of
organizational management:  “Much social thinking has flowed directly
from Newton’s insights…In organizations, this thinking culminated in
the ideas of Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management…He
divided jobs into pieces, microscopically assessing each movement and
motion, leading to a modern revolution in the organization of work”
(Isaacs, 1999, p. 118)”
“Margaret Wheatley’s seminal work, Leadership and the New Science,
brought popular attention to the need for a more holistic and humane
approach to organization management and leadership.  She laments that,
“It has not been easy living in this universe; a mechanical world
feels distinctly anti-human” (Wheatley, 1994, p. 39).  She points to
the predominant structures of most modern organizations with their
organizational charts, highly specified job design, and emphasis on
control, as evidence of the mechanistic Newtonian influence on modern
“The mechanistic worldview also predominates the literature on
organization and group management.  For example, a diagram in the book
of a popular college-level text characterizes the management of public
organizations as a linear process in which outcomes are
pre-determined, commands are programmed into various parts of the
system, and packaged results emerge on the other side (Holzer, 1998,
p. 26).  Likewise, the basic input-process-output model of group
development formulated in the 1920’s and brought to fruition in the
1960’s divides group functioning into distinct parts and assumes there
is a linear progression from the beginning of a group task to it’s
logical conclusion (McGrath, 1964, p 114).  The effects of mechanistic
philosophy of group work, characterized by assumptions of
predictability, linear processes, and a sense of control, have
persisted well into the present day. “

I entered ‘mechanistic philosophy’ and ‘mechanistic philosophy modern’
(without quotation marks) into the google search engine.
Once again, if you require further research on my part, or
clarification of an idea I have presented, please do not hesitate to
ask! Please wait until I have responded to any clarification request
before you rate my answer.
chiba-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
This was a very efficient way to find research areas instead of
pouring over thousands of entries received from a search engine.  I
appreciate this service.  Thanks for saving me a few hours - it was
worgth it.

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