The scientific sense of “mechanism”

In the sciences, the word “mechanism”  does not mean that the thing we are talking about is a series of pivots, glides, and rigid drivers that push or pull or twist each other about. A mechanism is anything that could be reconstructed or commanded by us. No one might have any idea how an atom moves from one orbit to another, but if we can make it do so on command or in circumstances under our control (i.e. experiments), then we can call it a speak of it as a mechanism.

Taken in this sense, the opposite of a mechanism is what determines its own action, i.e. first what is alive, then what is free, and God most of all. To the extent that the sciences are mechanistic, the scope of their universality is limited in a relative way by life and humanity, and in an absolute way God. And so one of the following three must be false:

1.) The sciences are experimental.

2.) The sciences treat of all that can be known in the natural world.

3.) Life, human self-determination, and God can be known to act in the natural world.


  1. thenyssan said,

    November 15, 2012 at 7:20 am

    So mechanism is “movement of necessity” in Aquinas-speak. On the one hand I’m wondering how one could conclude to the universe being entirely of this sort of movement. It seems like that conclusion is excluded by any method you could use to get there.

    On the other hand, I’m curious to understand how you can have free movements in a universe that does appear to be mostly movements of necessity. Pardon the leap, but it seems like we should conclude that the universe is not necessary in its fundamental movements, but is in fact free. But that seems like a really strange position. Or is that just the Fifth Way by other means? Maybe that argument is even weirder than I previously thought.

    • November 15, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      So mechanism is “movement of necessity” in Aquinas-speak

      You’ll have to say more, I don’t see it. True, what I here call mechanism is opposed to the free as self-determining; but the free is opposed not only to the necessary but also to the random.

      • thenyssan said,

        November 15, 2012 at 1:11 pm

        I leaped before looking there–I was definitely thinking in terms of ST I-II ethics and not keeping my eye on the random ball. Let me try to save it though. My thought is that random is excluded by the “reconstruction and commanding” you are getting at. Even granted that one can make use of the random, I’m not sure one can have the power of command over random movement.

        If that’s true then there’s a second limit on the scope of experimental science. I guess it’s just a second way to your 2) above…but it seems wrong given what science at least attempts to do with quantum mechanics.

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