Criticisms Of The Mechanistic Theory Of Life

The course of the mechanistic theory of life has been surprisingly similar

to that of its complement, the theory of the general evolution of the

organic world. The two great doctrines of the schools, Darwinism on the

one hand, the mechanical interpretation of life on the other, are both

tottering, not because of the criticism of outsiders, but of specialists

within the schools themselves. And the interest which religion has in this
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is the same in both cases: the transcendental nature of things, the

mysterious depth of appearance, which these theories denied or obscured,

become again apparent. The incommensurableness and mystery of the world,

which are, perhaps, even more necessary to the very life of religion than

the right to regard it teleologically, reassert themselves afresh in the

all-too-comprehensible and mathematically-formulated world, and

re-establish themselves, notwithstanding obstinate and persistent attempts

to do away with them. This is perhaps to the advantage of both natural

science and religion: to the advantage of religion because it can with

difficulty co-exist with the universal dominance of the mathematical way

of looking at things; to the advantage of natural science because, in

giving up the one-sidedness of the purely quantitative outlook, it does

not give up its "foundations," its "right to exist," but only a petitio

principii and a prejudice that compelled it to exploit nature rather than

to explain it, and to prescribe its ways rather than to seek them out.

The reaction from the one-sided mechanical theories shows itself in many

different ways and degrees. It may, according to the individual

naturalist, affect the theory as a whole, or only certain parts of it, or

only particular lines. It starts with mere criticism and with objections,

which go no further than saying that "in the meantime" we are still far

from having reached a physico-chemical solution of the riddle of life; it

may ascend through all stages up to an absolute rejection of the theory as

an idiosyncrasy of the time which impedes the progress of investigation,

and as an uncritical prejudice of the schools. It may remain at the level

of mere protest, and content itself with demonstrating the insufficiency

of the mechanical explanation, without attempting to formulate any

independent theory for the domain of the vital; or it may construct a

specifically biological theory, claiming independence amid other

disciplines, and basing this claim on the autonomy of vital processes; or

it may widen out deliberately into metaphysical study and speculation.

Taken at all these levels it presents such a complete section of the trend

of modern ideas and problems that it would be an attractive study even

apart from the special interest which attaches to it from the point of

view of religious and idealistic conceptions of the universe.

Both Liebig and Johannes Mueller remained vitalists, notwithstanding the

discovery of the synthesis of urea and the increasing number of organic

compounds which were built up artificially by purely chemical methods. It

was only about the middle of the last century that the younger generation,

under the leadership, in Germany, of Du Bois-Reymond in particular, went

over decidedly to the mechanistic side, and carried the doctrines of the

school to ever fresh victories. But opposition was not lacking from the

outset, though it was restrained and cautious.