186. Is Nature a Machine?

Many philosophers of the enlightenment, inspired by the scientific revolution, thought of nature as a vast machine rather than a living organism. For example, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) opens his masterpiece Leviathan (1651) with some startling claims that reduce life to a series of mechanical automata:

“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?”

And nature in general is nothing but matter in motion determined to move mechanically in accordance with the laws of nature. Robert Boyle, in his A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1686), argued along the same lines when he praised God for making “so great and admirable an automaton as the world, and the subordinate engines comprised in it.” These views offered the hope that physics could explain everything that goes on in the vast clockwork universe: we would no longer need to appeal to mysterious immaterial forces like angels, souls, and God.

This mechanistic model still exerts a powerful influence over our thinking about nature and the things in it. Naturally these days we may hear more about computers, programs, software, hardware, artificial intelligence, and so on rather than uncanny chess players and sublime steam engines. But the model is still very much with us. For example, MIT professor Seth Lloyd claims the cosmos is a computer and biologist Richard Dawkins asserts we are machines built by DNA whose only purpose is to replicate copies of this DNA.

However, R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943), in his book The Idea of Nature (Galaxy Publishing, 1960), raises a few closely related problems with this mechanistic approach worth considering.

(1) If we accept the thesis that nature evolves then, as Collingwood points out, nature cannot be a machine:

“It is impossible to describe one and the same thing in the same breath as a machine and as developing or evolving. Something which is developing may build itself machines, but it cannot be a machine. On the evolutionary theory, therefore, there may be machines in nature, but nature cannot itself be a machine, and cannot be either described as a whole or completely described as to any of its parts in mechanical terms. A machine is essentially a finished product or closed system. Until it is finished it is not a machine. While it is being built it is not functioning as a machine; it cannot do that until it is complete; therefore it can never develop, for developing means working at becoming what as yet one is not (as, for example, a kitten works at growing into a cat), and a machine in an unfinished state cannot work at anything. The only kind of change which a machine can produce in itself by its functioning is breaking down or wearing out. This is not a case of development, because it is not an acquisition of any new functions, it is only the loss of old ones.” (14-15)

If we want to preserve true development and evolution then Collingwood claims we must embrace something the mechanistic model of nature excludes, namely, teleology or the notion that nature includes the purposeful unfolding of certain potentials into actualities. This is not a welcome result for many philosophers and scientists who wish to remove, on the one hand, teleological powers from nature and, on the other hand, teleological explanations of these powers.

(2) Moreover, it is common, as we saw above with Hobbes, to find the mechanical model of nature aligned with materialism or the view that reality is matter in motion. But if we embrace teleology then it appears we may require immaterial principles of explanation. Collingwood explains: “The conception of development is fatal to materialism. According to a materialistic metaphysics, that is to say, a metaphysics according to which bodily existence is the only kind of existence, whatever works or produces results must be a body: in other words, there can be no immaterial causes. But development implies an immaterial cause. If a seed is really developing into a plant, and not merely changing into it by pure chance owing to the random impact of suitable particles of matter from outside, this development is controlled by something not material, namely, the form of a plant, and of that specific plant, which is the Platonic idea of the plant as the formal cause of the full-grown plant and the final cause of the process by which the seed grows into it.” (84)

(3) Perhaps some would be willing to exclude genuine development from their understanding of nature as a machine. But if we want to argue that nature is, as a whole, a machine then we may have to introduce some explanatory principle outside of nature. After all, as Collingwood points out, “A machine implies something outside itself” (100). But this would thwart any effort to characterize all of nature as one closed mechanical system: “The idea of nature as machine is fatal to monism” (100). Here we can think of how many philosophers, in an effort to preserve the mechanical model, had to place things apparently incompatible with that model (qualities, mind, and God for example) outside of nature. For example, Descartes argued that God and the human mind must be immaterial, unextended, and indivisible unlike the extended and divisible matter of the physical world. Obviously such dualisms will not be welcome to those seeking a monistic understanding of nature.

Collingwood’s interesting analysis rests on his initially plausible description of a machine as “a finished product or closed system.” Obviously his description applies to plenty of machines. But Collingwood, who died in 1943, couldn’t have foreseen the endless software updates and interactive functions of modern computers. And recently Cornell professor of biological and environmental engineering Dan Luo and his research associate Shogo Hamada claim to have created simple machines constructed of biomaterials with properties of living things such as metabolism and self-assembly (for an overview of their research, go here). These examples suggest we may have developing machines that are not closed systems. If this is correct then there may indeed be a way to embrace the thesis that nature is a machine in ways that avoid the problems Collingwood raises.

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