The ground of the mechanical view

Chomsky often argued that the mechanistic view of nature failed soon after it was inaugurated when Newton abandoned the attempt to account for nature in terms of simple machines and the push-pull principle. This only became more right with every era after Newton, where advances increasingly came from what the pioneers of mechanism would have called occult forces (energy, fields, entropy, molecular stability) and it eventually made for a view of nature that was nothing like a set of exquisite watch complications but more like a subsistent math problem.

So why is mechanism still around?

Nature is not a machine because it reduces to simple machines but because we control what it does. Sure, entropy or magnetic fields would have struck Seventeenth Century natural philosophers as magick woo-woo, but you can refute his skepticism by using the principles to build a fridge or an electric motor.

So we can see how modern natural philosophy could allow so many “occult forces” but still had to insist that final causality is nowhere in nature. In part this was because final causality has always been hard to see in the non-organic realm, but the more important reason was that final causality in nature was a rival to the final causality we imposed on nature by controlling it. Nature has no final causes for the same reason slaves are not persons. Slaves have powers, but all these powers are ordered to the execution of the master’s wishes. To riff off Roger Taney’s famous and pithy account of slavery, the mechanical view of nature means nature has no life of its own – no rightsthat man is bound to respect.

As a result, actions are morally wrong only by impinging on human desire and intention. In the mechanical view, it is impossible for any action upon the natural world, the animal kingdom, or the human body to trigger a moral problem. All these things are “biological”, i.e. objectified entities that are nothing but the raw material for consumption, dissection, and self-expression.

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