Mechanism- A Dogma of Determinism
Democritus is credited with the first ideas of mechanisms. His atoms had hooked shapes which could fit into one another do build more complex structures. But these were not mechanisms in the sense of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mechanisms were the product of Galileo and Newton's classical mechanics of matter in motion according to definite mathematical laws.
Descartes accepted popular materialist views. He described animals as machines, in contrast to human beings, who were in part merely material bodies, but in part minds, made of a non-material substance. He saw no freedom in material things like clockworks. Although many bodily functions could be thought of as clockwork, the soul and free will required mind/body dualism.
If classical mechanics could explain the motions of the heavens as the result of natural laws, the same laws might explain human beings, including the individual mind and society. Enlightenment philosophers wrote of "Man as Machine." Planetary motions and mental processes were compared to mechanical clockworks.
As the machines of the industrial revolution became ever more complex, industrial robots approached human performance in many manufacturing tasks.
Machines began to do calculations in the nineteenth century, then sophisticated computing with algorithmic programs in the twentieth. Vast sums were invested by government research to create intelligent machines, in the hopes they could conduct war operations better than humans. Such artificial intelligence has shown that a machine can beat a human at chess, and solve well-defined groups of problems. But they do not think and reason.
In biology, mechanism is opposed to the idea of vitalism, which looks to new principles and laws governing living matter that cannot be explained as matter in motion. Biological processes are often mistakenly described as "mechanisms."
Thomas Hobbes describes human beings as mechanical artifacts in the opening lines of his Leviathan:
"NATURE, the art whereby God hath made and governs the world, is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring, and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the artificer?"
Descartes clearly describes human beings as machines in his Treatise on Man:
"I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us...We see clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other such machines which, although only man-made, have the power to move of their own accord in many different ways. But I am supposing this machine to be made by the hands of God, and so I think you may reasonably think it capable of a greater variety of movements than I could possibly imagine in it, and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly ascribe to it... Indeed, one may compare the nerves of the machine I am describing with the pipes in the works of fountains, its muscles and tendons with the various devices and springs which serve to set them in motion, its animal spirits with the water which drives them, the heart with the source of the water, and the cavities of the brain with the storage tanks...I should like you to consider that functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels." 1
Joseph Needham, the biologist, wrote, just as quantum mechanical uncertainty was being announced, in his Man A Machine (1928):
"The mechanistic theory of life needs a Lucretius, a poet inspired to a red-hot enthusiasm by the inflexible laws of the atoms, by the unshakeable determinism of physico-chemical explanations, and by the exquisite harmonies and adjustments of which pure physico-chemical systems are capable."
1. Cottingham, John (1985), The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, p.99