Machnical Theories Criticism

In attempting to define our attitude to the mechanical theory of life, we

have first of all to make sure that we have a right to take up a definite

position at all. We should have less right, or perhaps none, if this

theory of life were really of a purely "biological" nature, built up

entirely from the expert knowledge and data which the biologist alone

possesses. But the principles, assumptions, supplementary ideas and modes

of expression along all the six lines we have discussed, the style and

method according to which the hypothesis is constructed, the multitude of

separate presuppositions with which it works, and indeed everything that

helps to build up and knit the biological details into a scientific

hypothesis, are the materials of rational synthesis in general, and as

such are subject to general as well as to biological criticism. What is

there, for instance, in Weismann's ingenious biophor-theory that can be

called specifically biological, and not borrowed from other parts of the

scientific system?

One advantage, indeed, the biologist always has in this matter, apart from

his special knowledge; that is, the technical instinct, the power of

scenting out, so to speak, and immediately feeling the importance of the

facts pertaining to his own discipline. It is this that gives every

specialist the advantage over the layman in dealing with the data of his

own subject. This power of instinctively appraising facts, which develops

in the course of all special work, can, for instance in hypotheses in the

domain of history, transform small details, which to the layman seem

trivial, into weighty arguments. Similarly it may be that the success of

the mechanical interpretation in regard to isolated processes may make its

validity for many other allied processes certain, even though there is no

precise proof of this. But we cannot regard this as a final demonstration

of the applicability of the mechanical theory, since the same technical

instinct in other experts leads them to reject the whole hypothesis.

But here we are met with something surprising. May it not be that while we

are impelled on general grounds to contend against the mechanical

interpretation of vital phenomena, we are not so impelled on religious

grounds? May it not be that the instinct of the religious consciousness is

misleading when it impels us--as probably every one will be able to certify

from his own experience--to rebel against this mechanisation of life, the

mechanical solution of its mysteries? Lotze, the energetic antagonist of

"vital force," the founder of the mechanical theory of vital processes,

was himself a theist, and was so far from recognising any contradiction

between the mechanical point of view and the Christian belief in God, that

he included the former without ceremony in his theistic philosophical

speculations. His view has become that of many theologians, and is often

expressed in a definition of the boundaries between theology and natural

science. According to the idea which was formulated by Lotze, and

developed by others along his lines, the matter is quite simple. The

interest which religion has in the processes of nature is at once and

exclusively to be found in teleology. Are there purposes, plans, and ideas

which govern and give meaning to the whole? The interest of natural

science is purely in recognising inviolable causality; every phenomenon

must have its compelling and sufficient reason in the system of causes

preceding it. All that is and happens is absolutely determined by its

causes, and nothing, no causae finales for instance, can co-operate with

these causes in determining the result. But, as Lotze says, and as we have

repeatedly pointed out, causal explanation does not exclude a

consideration from the point of view of purpose, and the mechanical

interpretation does not do so either. For this is nothing more than the

causal explanation itself, only carried to complete consistency and

definiteness. Purposes and ideas are not efficient causes but results.

Where, for instance, there is a controlled purposive occurrence, the

"purpose" nowhere appears as a factor co-operating with the series of

causes, for these follow according to strict law, and the "purpose"

reveals itself at the close of the series, as the result of a closed

causal nexus, complete in itself, always provided that the initial links

in the chain have been accurately estimated. The same is true of the

processes of life. They are the ultimate result, strictly necessary and

sufficiently accounted for in terms of mechanical sequence, of a long

chain of causes whose initial links imply a definite constitution which

could not be further reduced. Whether this ultimate result is merely a

result or whether it is also a "purpose" is a question which, as we have

seen twice already, it is wholly beyond the power of the causal mode of

interpretation to answer. Given that an infinite intelligence in the world

wished to realise purposes without instituting them as directly

accomplished, but by letting them express themselves through a gradual

"becoming," the method would be exactly what is shown in the mechanical

theory of life, that is, the primitive data and starting-points would have

inherent in them a peculiar constitution and a rigidly inexorable

orderliness of causal sequence. And Lotze emphasises that it would also be

worthier of God to achieve the greatest by means of the simplest, and to

work out the realisation of His eternal purposes according to the strict

inevitableness of mechanism, than to attain His ends through the

complicated means, the adventitious aids, and all the irregularities

implied in the incommensurable activities of a "vital force." ("God needs

no minor gods.")

To Lotze himself these original data and starting points are the primitive

forms of life, which, according to his view, are directly "given," and

cannot be referred back to anything else (except to "creation"). But it is

obvious that his view can be enlarged and extended so as to refer the

derivation of the whole animate world to the original raw materials of the

cosmos (energy, matter, or whatsoever they may be), and to the orderly

process by which these materials were combined in various configurations

to form the chemical elements, the chemical compounds, living proteids,

the first cell, and the whole series of higher forms. If this nexus has

taken place, it is nothing else than the transformation of the "potential"

into the "actual" through strict causality. And if this actuality proves

itself to have claims, because of its own intrinsic worth, to be

considered as intelligent "purpose," the whole system of means, including

the starting-point, can be recognised as the means to an end, and the

original wisdom and the intelligence which ordained the purpose is only

glorified the more through the great simplicity, the rational

comprehensibility, and the inexorable necessity of the system, which

excludes all chance, and therewith all possibility of error.

This extension of Lotze's reconciliation of the mechanical causal with the

teleological point of view is impressive and, as far as it goes, also

quite convincing. It will never be given up, even if the point of view

should change somewhat. And we have already seen that it is quite

sufficient as long as we are dealing only with the question of teleology.

But we must ask whether religion will be satisfied with "teleology" alone,

or whether this is even the first requirement that it makes in regard to

natural phenomena. We have already asked the question and attempted to

clear the ground for an answer. Let us try to make it more definite.

Many people will have a certain uneasiness in regard to the Lotzian ideas;

they will be unable to rid themselves of a feeling that this way of

looking at things is only a pis aller for the religious point of view,

and that the fundamental requirements of religious feeling receive very

inadequate satisfaction on this method. The world of life which has arisen

thus is altogether too rational and transparent. It is calculable and

mathematical. It satisfies well enough the need for teleology, and with

that the need for a supreme, universally powerful and free intelligence;

but it gives neither support nor nourishment to the essential element in

religious feeling, through which alone faith becomes in the strict sense

religious. Religion, even Christian religion, is, so to speak, a

stratified structure, a graduated pyramid, expressing itself, at its

second (and undoubtedly higher) level, in our recognition of purpose, the

rationality of the world, our own spiritual and personal being and worth,

but implying at its basis an inward sense of the mysterious, a joy in that

which is incommensurable and unspeakable, which fills us with awe and

devotion. And religion at the second stage must not sweep away the essence

of the stage below, but must include it, at the same time informing it

with new significance. Whoever does not possess his religion in this way

will agree with, and will be quite satisfied with the Lotzian standpoint.

But to any one who has experience of the most characteristic element in

religion, it will be obvious that there must be a vague but deep-rooted

antipathy between religion and the mathematical-mechanical conception of

things. Evidence of the truth of this is to be found in the instinctive

perceptions and valuations which mark even the naive expressions of the

religious consciousness.(75) For it is in full sympathy with a world which

is riddled with what is inconceivable and incommensurable, in full

sympathy with every evidence of the existence of such an element in the

world of nature and mind, and therefore with every proof that the merely

mechanical theory has its limits, that it does not suffice, and that its

very insufficiency is a proof that the world is and remains in its depths

mysterious. Now we have already said that the true sphere for such feeling

is not the outer court of nature, but within the realm of the emotional

life and of history, and, on the other hand, that even if the attempt to

trace life back to the simpler forces of nature were successful, we should

still be confronted with the riddle of the sphinx. But any one who would

say frankly what he felt would at once be obliged to admit that the

religious sense is very strongly stirred by the mystery of vital

phenomena, and that in losing this he would lose a domain very dear to

him. These sympathies and antipathies are in themselves sufficient to give

an interest to the question of the insufficiency of the mechanical view of


For it is by no means the case that the mechanical theory, with its

premisses and principles, is the interpretation that best fits the facts,

and that most naturally arises out of a calm consideration of the animate

world. It is an artificial scheme, and astonishing energy has been

expended on the attempt to fit it to the actual world, that it may make

this orderly and translucent. It certainly yields this service so far, but

not without often becoming a kind of strait-jacket, and revealing itself

as an artificiality. In so far as the special problems of biology are

concerned, we shall afterwards follow our previous method of taking our

orientation from those specialists in the subject who, in reaction from

the one-sidedness of the mechanical doctrine, have founded the

"neo-vitalism" of to-day. Here we are only concerned with the generalities

and presuppositions of the theory.

We must dispute even the main justification of the theory, which is sought

for in the old maxim of parsimony in the use of principles of explanation

(entia, and also principia, praeter necessitatem non esse

multiplicanda), and in Kant's "regulative principle," that science must

proceed as if everything could ultimately be explained in terms of

mechanism. For surely our task is to try to explain things, not at any

cost with the fewest possible principles, but rather with the aid of those

principles which appear most correct. If nature is not fundamentally

simple, then it is not scientific but unscientific to simplify it

theoretically. And the proposition bracketed above has its obvious

converse side, that while entities and principles must not be multiplied

except when it is necessary, on the other hand their number must not be

arbitrarily lessened. To proceed according to the fundamental maxims of

the mechanistic view can only be wholesome for a time and, so to speak,

for paedagogical reasons. To apply them seriously and permanently would be

highly injurious, for, by prejudging what is discoverable in nature, it

would tend to prevent the calm, objective study of things which asks for

nothing more than to see them as they are. It would thus destroy the

fineness of our appreciation of what there really is in nature. This is

true alike of forcible attempts to reduce the processes of life to

mechanical processes, and of the Darwinian doctrine of the universal

dominance of utility. Both bear unmistakably the stamp of foregone

conclusions, and betray a desire for the simplest, rather than for the

most correct principles of interpretation.

There is one point which presses itself on the notice even of outsiders,

and is probably realised even more keenly by specialists. The confidence

of the supporters of the mechanical theories of earlier days, from

Descartes onward, that animals and the bodies of men were machines,

mechanical automata, down to the mechanical theories of Lamettrie and

Holbach, of l'homme machine, and of the systeme de la nature, was at

least as great as, probably greater than, that of the supporters of the

modern theories. Yet how naive and presumptuous seem the crude and wooden

theories upon which the mechanical system was formerly built up, and how

falsely interpreted seem the physiological and other facts which lent them

support, when seen in the light of our modern physiological knowledge.

Vaucanson's or Drozsch's duck-automaton or clockwork-man, with which the

mechanical theorists of bygone days amused themselves, would not go far to

encourage the physiologist of to-day to pursue his mechanical studies, but

would rather throw a vivid light on the impossibility of comparing the

living "machine" with machines in the usual sense. For things emphatically

do not happen within the living organism in the same way as in the

automatic duck, and the more exact the resemblance to the functions of a

"real" duck became, the more did the system of means by which the end was

attained become unlike vital processes. It is difficult to resist the

impression that in another hundred years,--perhaps again from the

standpoint of new and definitely accepted mechanical explanations,--people

will regard our developmental mechanics, cellular mechanics, and other

vital mechanics much in the same way as we now look on Vaucanson's duck.

Associated or even identical with this is the fact that in proportion as

mechanical interpretation advances, the difficulties it has to surmount

continually crop up anew. Processes which seem of the simplest kind and

the most likely to be capable of purely mechanical explanation, processes

such as those of assimilation, digestion, respiration, for which it was

believed that exact parallels existed in the purely mechanical domain, as,

for instance, in the osmotic processes of porous membranes, are seen when

closely scrutinised as they occur in the living body to be extremely

complex; in fact they have to be transferred "provisionally" from the

mechanical to the vital rubric. To this category belong the whole modern

development of the cell-theory, which replaces the previously single

mechanism in the living body by millions of them, every one of which

raises as many problems as the one had done in the days of cruder

interpretation. Every individual cell, as it appears to our understanding

to-day, is at least as complicated a riddle as the whole organism formerly


But further: the modern development of biology has emphasised a special

problem, which was first formulated by Leibnitz (though it is in

antithesis to his fundamental Monad-theory), and which appears incapable

of solution on mechanical lines. Leibnitz declared living beings to be

"machines," but machines of a peculiar kind. Even the most complicated

machine, in the ordinary sense, consists of a combination of smaller

"machines," that is to say, of wheels, systems of levers, &c., of a

simpler kind. And these sub-machines may in their turn consist of still

simpler ones, and so on. But ultimately a stage is reached when the

component parts are homogeneous, and cannot be analysed into simpler

machines. It is otherwise with the organism. According to Leibnitz it

consists of machines made up of other machines, and so on, into the

infinitely little. However far we can proceed in our analysis of the

parts, we shall still find that they are syntheses, made up of most

ingeniously complex component parts, and this as far as our powers of

seeing and distinguishing will carry us. That is to say: organisation is

continued on into the infinitely little.

Leibnitz's illustration of the fish-pond is well known. He could have no

better corroboration of his theory than the results of modern

investigation afford. His doctrine of the continuation of organisation

downwards into ever smaller expression is confirmed to a certain extent

even by anatomy. By analysing structural organisation down to cells a

definite point seemed to have been reached. But it now appears that at

that point the problem is only beginning. One organisation is made up of

other organisations--cells, protoplasm, nucleus, nucleolus, centrosomes,

and so on, according to the power of the microscope; and these structures,

instead of explaining the vital functions of growth, development,

multiplication by division, and the rest, simply repeat them on a smaller

scale, and are thus in their turn living units, the aggregation of which

is illustrated better by the analogy of a social organism than by that of

a mechanical structure.

In order to follow the mechanical explanation along the six lines we have

previously indicated, we shall, as we have already said, entrust ourselves

to the specialists who are on the opposite side. The difficulties and

objections which the mechanical theory has to face have forced themselves

insistently upon us even in the course of a short sketch such as has just

been given, but they will be clearly realised if we approach them from the

other side. But, first of all, a word as to the fundamental and, it is

alleged, unassailable doctrine on which the theory as a whole is based,

the "law of the conservation of energy." The appeal to this, at any rate

in the way in which it is usually made, is apt to be so distorted that the

case must first be clearly stated before we can get further with the


Lamarckism And Neo-lamarckism Mind And Spirit The Human And The Animal Soul facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail