The Mechanical Philosophy and the System of Nature

on March 18, 2012

I finished the previous entry feeling confident that I was about to beat my way out of the 19th century — but then Alexei remarked that he’d found it hard to follow. I took that as a sign that I’d gotten too abstract and needed to provide more detail on the core assumptions of both scientific materialism and holism before I could move ahead.

As I’ve stated repeatedly, every new vision is rooted in insights that derive from a particular area of human experience but also offer intimations of higher knowledge. This combination provides the vision with its psychic center of gravity, and though it gets tugged off base at times by its associations with other visions, it always tends to revert to that original moment of inspiration

In the case of scientific materialism, its founding insights were sparked by the proliferation of mechanical devices during the early Middle Ages. In an era of extreme other-worldliness, the only people who did not regard the material world as fallen and corrupt were the unknown tech geeks of the time — the builders of cathedrals, designers of siege engines, and tinkerers with the inner workings of windmills and mechanical clocks.

The first intimations of the mysteries inherent in machines must go back to the medieval counterculture of the late 1100’s — the period of Arthurian romance, the troubadours, and Gothic architecture. The new vision took on shape, however, only as it accepted the mentorship of the reason vision over the following century.

The resulting system of thought, which was known by the 1300’s as “natural philosophy,” was weighted more heavily towards reason than towards science, and this philosophical bias would restrict the expression of scientific materialism well into the Renaissance. But at the peak of the Renaissance counterculture in the late 1400’s, there was at least one person — Leonardo da Vinci — who appears to have been alive to the potential for pure wonder that lay in mechanical devices.

The most influential of those devices was the gun, which had evolved from the simple shooting-tube that had reached Europe from China in the previous century to become a powerful weapon of war. The warlords of the day saw obvious advantages in being able to aim their cannons with greater precision, and Leonardo was happy to oblige by turning himself into a pioneer of the study of ballistics.

Ballistics would gradually develop into a comprehensive science of matter in motion and become an intellectual cornerstone of scientific materialism — but only after the new vision had freed itself from the embrace of reason. That opportunity came in the early 1600’s, when the reason vision for a time became aligned with the dominant partnership of the day, allowing scientific materialism to find its own path.

By the 1630’s, ballistics was not only a central preoccupation of leading scientists like Galileo, but the basis for an entirely new understanding of the material universe. Galileo and Descartes were both early proponents of that understanding, which would soon come to be known as the “mechanical philosophy.”

The mechanical philosophy became widely influential over the next several decades as the attitudes and mathematical tools of ballistics were applied to one scientific problem after another, from the orbits of planets to the movements of the invisible molecules of gases. All the basic units of Newton’s laws — force, acceleration, mass, and gravitation — came directly out of the study of ballistics.

This crystallization of scientific materialism around ballistics in the 1600’s is precisely equivalent to the crystallization of the holism vision around ecology in the 1930’s. In both cases, the vision returned to its scientific roots after a largely philosophical phase, while also attaining a distinctive formulation of its concept of the nature of existence.

And there was another significant factor involved in both these transitions. Just as holism found its focus partly by engaging with the newly-formed horizontalism vision, so did scientific materialism take shape by forming an association with the democracy vision, whose initial stirrings can be glimpsed in the radical notions that swirled around England’s Puritan Revolution in the 1640’s and 50’s,

Even that early, it was a key democratic premise that a state ought to be self-governing, regulated by its laws alone and with no need for the heavy hand of an all-powerful monarch. That same premise, translated into the terms of scientific materialism, implied that the physical universe must similarly be self-governing, without any need for Divine intervention.

These two 17th century assumptions — that the natural world consists solely of matter in motion and that this motion must be indefinitely self-sustaining — would thereafter remain at the heart of scientific materialism, reaching their culmination in the 19th century. Along the way, however, there would be an extended digression, during which scientific materialism once again hooked up with the reason vision and pursued a philosophical agenda that was not altogether of its own making.

In the 1600’s, the mechanical philosophy was often accused of being indistinguishable from atheism, since it portrayed a world that had little or no need for a God to sustain it. But in the early 1700’s, scientific materialism made its peace with religion as well as reason, and its clockwork universe came to be revered as the supreme handiwork of a Divine Creator.

Following this reframing, people of the early 18th century displayed an oddly ambivalent attitude towards scientific materialism. They were enthusiastic about materialism as a concept, but they don’t appear to have had much use for the nitty-gritty of physical science. The pace of experimentation and technological innovation fell off sharply between the invention of the steam engine in 1712 and the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1760’s, and instead of machinery or laboratories, science geeks everywhere devoted themselves to the study of Nature.

The most influential scientific figure of this era was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who devised the hierarchical system of biological classification that is still used today as the result of a sudden flash of inspiration. While on a collecting expedition in Lapland in 1732, he spotted the jawbone of a horse at the side of the road and remarked, ‘If I only knew how many teeth and of what kind every animal had, how many teats and where they were placed, I should perhaps be able to work out a perfectly natural system for the arrangement of all quadrupeds.'”

Linnaeus’s abrupt recognition of the possibility of a “perfectly natural system” of classification, which hit him just as the early 18th century counterculture was getting under way, appears oddly comparable to the LSD-fueled holistic insight that overtook Stewart Brand in 1965. (So comparable, indeed, that one wonders whether the twenty-five-year-old Linneaus might have been sampling the fly agaric mushroom to which he himself gave its first scientific name.) And just as Brand would spend the next dozen years expanding on his insight in successive editions of the Whole Earth Catalog, Linnaeus would publish increasingly comprehensive editions of his Systema Naturae between 1735 and 1758.

The determination of Linnaeus and his successors to decipher the system of nature had a couple of highly significant results, one being that it enabled scientific materialism to assume the status of a universal philosophy with the power to reveal the entire plan of Creation. The vision managed this, however, only by departing from its core assumption that the universe could be explained as nothing but a self-regulating system of matter in motion.

In the 19th century scientific materialism would systematically exclude all its non-mechanistic accretions. It would reject any association with religion or even philosophy and re-dedicate itself to a view of reality as consisting solely of the physical interactions of material objects. As it did so, however, a number of valuable insights were inevitably lost — several of which ended up forming the kernel of the holism vision.

One of those key ideas was that the entire universe displayed the appearance of having been designed like a well-crafted machine. A second was that this element of design was most apparent in living things. And a third was that the very complexity of Nature — all those thousands of species that Linnaeus had named and classified — was essential to the elegance of the overall design.

These ideas had all arisen in the 1700’s as something novel and unprecedented. They weren’t part of the reason vision, which had begun as a search for enlightenment through philosophical introspection, and they certainly didn’t come out of the crude mechanical philosophy of the 1600’s. They were by-products of the mysterious alchemy of the 18th century counterculture and its aftermath, when the attempted harmonizing of rationalized religion with scientific materialism had provided glimpses of a larger reality that was foreign to both.

Even at the end of the 18th century, those glimpses did not yet constitute a separate vision. They remained able to fit comfortably within scientific materialism as long as it was flexible and open to new possibilities. But in the early 1800’s, when science rejected all the old assumptions about God and Creation, notions like these were left without a natural home.

In addition, for anyone who wished to hold onto these insights without falling back on traditional religion, the questions they raised had become imponderable mysteries. How could there be a universe of design without a Designer? How could the sophisticated complexity of Nature have resulted from brute force collisions among atoms or the savage logic of Darwinian survival of the fittest?

The holism vision was founded upon precisely these questions. It defined itself through them and has been devoted to answering them in terms that respect materialism and the importance of self-regulation but also go further to conceive of existence as a multifaceted realm of innate structure and self-organization.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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