How to overcome the mechanical conception of both the human being and society

7 September, 2020

«Detroit», by Diego de Rivera

The range of possibilities open both to Humanity and human ingenuity always appears limited according to the social structure of each era. The justifications and ways of thinking related to the sacralization of Nature and its organic order prevail where the dominant class lives from seizing the surplus of agricultural production and restricts the development of arts and commerce, while the mechanical vision tends to prevail where the dominant class lives from seizing the mercantile and industrial surplus. What would the vision of the world and our species look like in a society without dominant classes? We enter the last part of our work on the foundations of communist morality. Before suggesting one of a number of possible ways to overcome some of the limitations of the way we understand and organize the world inherited from the ruling class of our time, we have to go back to the beginning of our work, to the origins of the mechanical conception of the human being and the world and its particular relationship to the bourgeoisie.

King Mu of the Zhao dynasty, protagonist of the story about automata in the book 5 of the Liezi.

In the Ancient Age and over centuries, philosophers were constrained to hold a paradoxical position in describing and understanding the natural world. Nature may or may not be for them something far superior to the capabilities of technique – art in its original sense – but they could only describe its workings with artisan metaphors and analogies. The positions oscillated. At one end Greeks and Romans, who insisted on the inferiority of art versus nature while comparing embryonic development to the work of a craftsman. At the other end were the Chinese Taoists who compared the human body to the work of a mythical artisan.

A craftsman was presented [to the king], his name was Yen Shih. King Mu received him in audience and asked what kind of works he was capable of. “I will do anything that His Majesty wants me to do. But there is one work, already finished, that I would like to submit for your inspection. “Bring it tomorrow” said the king. […] The king was enthralled by the figure. It could walk at a fast pace moving its head up and down, anybody could have mistaken it for a living human being. The artisan touched its chin and began to sing in perfect tune. He touched its hand and began to strike perfectly coordinated poses. […] The king could not convince himself that it was not [a human being] for real. As the performance was nearing its end, the automaton winked and began to make advances to the women of the royal court. This angered the king, who would have executed Yen Shih had he not dismantled the automaton piece by piece in a panic to show him its true nature. And what nature! It turned out to be nothing more than a set of leather, wood, glue and paint. […] The king tried to remove the heart, and discovered that the mouth could no longer make sounds, he removed the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he removed the kidneys and the feet could no longer move. The king was delighted. Taking a breath, he exclaimed, “Could it be that human art is on par with the Creator’s capacities?

Liezi (列子), c. 370

These comparisons made it possible to write moralizing examples and to respond to baroque scholastic disputes. Without going any further, the philosophers of the Eastern Jin Dynasty harshly criticized the history of the Liezi automaton with the same arguments that modern Europeans would use centuries later. In Rome, the comparisons with art oscillated between purely explanatory ones and celebration of divine craftsmanship. Nobody would have thought of cooperating with the artisans or trying to seriously develop the study of nature or anatomy according to artisan analogies, the art of the time was too little developed and held no prestige in ancient society.

St. Luke’s guild and artisan logic

Boardroom of St. Luke’s Guild in Antwerp, ca. 1650.

This would change in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Craftsmanship had been developing since the end of the Roman era with the invention of mechanical clocks, the improvement of hydraulic mills, as well as improvements in painting and chemical techniques. In spite of this, only rarely was the academic world so separated from the world of the arts as during this period. Professors taught anatomy in Latin while a non-academic surgeon practiced dissection. Neither did the 14th-century professor pay any attention to dissections nor did the surgeon understand the course’s Latin. Professors relied on bad versions of the classics, where successive translations from Greek to Arabic and from Arabic to Latin had wrecked the text and where, for example, in Galen’s texts the translators and copyists had eliminated all reasoning based on divine craftsmanship. However, all this changed from the 15th-16th centuries. For the first time, craftsmen were gaining a social recognition that they had never had before.

In the world of the 15th and 16th centuries, urban society was compartmentalized into relatively watertight guilds. One of the most powerful guilds in Flanders at that time was the St. Luke’s, which brought together goldsmiths, metallurgists, chemists, doctors and painters under the same guild structure. In other places, such as Florence, painters depended directly on the medical guild. The most renowned painters of the Renaissance were not artists in the current sense of the word, in fact the term was reserved for certain university students. The painters were craftsmen who worked under contract and according to the strict orders of the client. Something very different from the later idea that will claim the artist as a creator exalting originality and creative freedom. Artisan workshops like Verrocchio’s were dedicated to painting and casting cannons. Goldsmiths were also dedicated to producing illustrated manuscripts and were the ones who introduced printing. The craftsmen’s guilds built richly decorated guild buildings and academies in the Flemish cities, and in correspondence Saint Joseph changed from a ragged character in medieval paintings to the proud owner of a carpenter’s workshop in renaissance paintings.

Illustration from «De Anatomia», by Berengario da Carpi.

In the midst of all this, a veritable movement of physicians began to collaborate with artisans and revolutionize medicine. Since the beginning of the 16th century, a series of authors such as Berengario da Carpi began to add illustrations of the best quality craftsmanship to their works, recovering the vision of the human body as a great work of craftsmanship. The most famous of all was Vesalius:

Who, oh immortal God, would not be surprised by the crowd of philosophers of our time, and of theologians, who ridiculously denigrate the divine and supremely admirable mechanism of the human brain through their blasphemous dreams against the creator of the human artwork [fabrica in Latin], as if they believed themselves Prometheus? And I don’t even know how many lies they have told about the structure of the brain which the infinite Creator of things forged with incredible foresight and mastery, so that it could carry out the necessary functions of the body.

Vesalius, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”, 1543

To renew anatomical and medical science, Vesalius and the others innovated by rescuing the thought of the classical authors, in particular Galen, while reinterpreting it in the new social context. Working in close collaboration with the artisans of Titian’s workshop, Vesalius extols the artisan analogy of Galen and demonstrates the power of direct manipulation of matter, something which until then carried the embarrassing stigma of manual work. These are no longer simply moralizing examples as in the past. In this work we can see the central characteristic of the logic of artisan design. Every work of art, whether it be a farmer’s tool, a clock or a painting, is created for a purpose. The pieces of a clock are designed in advance by the artisan to fulfill a specific function, on which the whole depends for its correct functioning. Galen and the Renaissance anatomists apply the same analogy – artistic, but not yet openly mechanical – to the human body:

Everyone knows that we must admire the perfect skill demonstrated by those works in which the balance is so fine that if we subtract or add the slightest thing the whole ends up ruined.
Galen, “De Usu Partium”, c.170

Colored engraving of Vesalius’ Fabrica

Although these works are the forerunners of our current anatomy books, their illustrations are striking to today’s reader. This is not a problem of anatomical accuracy, but rather that the prints clearly represent living people instead of corpses. The bodies dissect themselves, pose for the reader, proudly expose their entrails… Some current authors have diagnosed Renaissance physicians and artisans with some dark perversion, but in reality it is that they had a different worldview. For someone of the 16th century -as for the ancients- a living body and a dead one were fundamentally different. The human body was still understood as part of the natural world, and every natural entity is alive and possesses an internal organizing principle guiding and developing it through its cycles of generation and corruption. This is true for living beings or even minerals underground, but not for works of art. It did not make sense to represent the human body as a dead machine made of dismembered pieces when its essence resided in its cycles and vital development.

However, the opposite tendency, which already appears in the works of the early 16th century, will keep developing and the understanding of the body and its functioning will become more and more mechanical. Throughout the 17th century, more aspects and practices of the artisan and commercial world were consciously incorporated into the new vision of the world. As the founders of the new research institutes that were being created at that time said:

This vision is related to that of Heraclitus, who when his students found him in a merchant’s store they were ashamed to enter, told them that the gods knew those places as well as the others; insinuating that a divine power and wisdom could be found even in these common arts so despised.

John Wilkins. “Mathematical Magick, or, the wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry”, 1648

Illustration from «De Homine» by Descartes, 1662.

Physicians and chemists began to try to fuse the atomic theories that had just been rediscovered with Medicine, and the experimental program continued to advance. A good part of the academics of the period between the 16th and 17th kept affirming – not without reason – that works of craftsmanship and machines are not a good analogy for the functioning of living beings, but their insistence on powers and vital forces of doubtful rigor and even more difficult experimental verification made them lose ground. After Descartes and at the end of the 17th century, anatomy books undergo another radical change. They are already similar to the present books, with static corpses and dismembered anatomical pieces. In them, as Descartes would say, the human body is nothing more than a walking corpse linked to a soul, a clockwork:

These functions are the consequence of the mere arrangement of the organs of the machine in a way as natural as the movements of a clock or other automaton”.

René Descartes, “La description du corps humain”, 1633.

The absolute separation between body and soul, something that even medieval scholastics rejected, was the solution to the same problem that the Chinese had encountered centuries before: how to reconcile human beings’ capacity to adapt to new problems and to make decisions with the supposed mechanical nature of their bodies. Machines and works of art only fulfill the function for which they have been designed; they cannot decide on their own or change their operation under new circumstances. Those characteristics had been crude and simply exorcised from the body.

A re-enchanted world

The floating island of Laputa, the bourgeois utopia according to the Royal Society in a parody of Jonathan Swift

The previous philosophical systems featured a whole series of different types of causation, for instance, in medieval scholasticism there were four types of causes, but the new worldview eliminates causal complexity and keeps only one type of cause, the efficient cause. Everything that happened in a given time can be described as linear chains of cause-effect originating in the night of time, the behavior of bodies is the simple result of all the events that occurred previously. In other words, the current behavior of a body or sub-component is rigidly determined by all the previous events as if it were the chain of mechanisms of a machine or a pool game. In the case of a complex system, all behavior would be given by the behavior of its most basic parts in the same way that the macroscopic characteristics of a gas are given and are reducible – in principle – to the sum of the states of its individual microscopic molecules.

The consequences of generalizing such a world view to the entire universe are immediate:

To suppose that in spontaneous animal motion the Soul does not provide a new Movement or Impression to Matter; that all spontaneous animal motion is made through the mechanical impulse of matter is to reduce all things to mere Fate and Necessity. […] Every action is (in the nature of things) the act of giving a new force to the object being acted upon. Otherwise this would not really be an action, but mere passivity; as is the case with all mechanical and inanimate transmissions of motion. If the conferring of a new force is supernatural, every action of God is supernatural and the latter ends up being excluded from the government of the natural world. And every action of man is either supernatural or man is a mere machine, a clock.

Samuel Clarke’s Fourth Answer to Leibniz, 1716

If we accept the causal scheme of mechanical philosophy, that is, of empiricism, every current action is predetermined by the set of past events, and the whole future is reduced to the automatic development of a predetermined destiny. Any capacity for decision making, or more precisely its effectiveness, is denied.

If the universe really works like a clockwork and all human actions are predetermined by the first steps of matter in the dawn of the universe, what use are moral systems and laws? What is the point of making the slightest effort if everything is predestined? The moral implications of such an affirmation were sufficiently obvious to the first empiricists that a good part of them dedicated themselves to playing on indefensible word games justifying the existence of a free will supposedly compatible with a total determinism. Others simply continued the tendency to exorcise human decision-making ability into an immaterial soul or entelechy.

Once these slight obstacles were overcome, mechanical philosophy demonstrated its enormous capacities. Never had so much progress been made in the understanding of matter, technical development and the improvement of living conditions. The idea of applying the mechanical vision to all types of processes, even to the whole of society, began to spread. From the universal gears of Benjamin Franklin to the great social machines of Adam Smith. But this was not just a mere analogy of form, it also inherited the logic of artisan design:

All kinds of machines are generally, when first invented, extremely complex in their motions, and many times there is a particular principle of movement for each particular task that needs to be accomplished. The inventors who successively improve the machine observe that a single principle can be applied to produce several of those tasks; and that therefore the machine gradually becomes more and more simple, and produces its effects with fewer wheels and less driving principles.

Adam Smith, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres”, 1763

The Revolution had represented taxation as the cause of the breakdown of the body of the third state, constituted with it into a nation.

The social machine must be optimized, rationalized. The new morality and the new economy will follow the mechanical analogy to the paroxysm during ascending capitalism. Under the liberal ideology, individuals will be reduced to pleasure-maximizing machines capable of increasing overall utility through their capacity for free choice. The interactions of these individual particles should propel economy like a fluid. For its supposed rivals, the state and the economy must be reconstructed in the image and likeness of an immense machine well planned in order to fulfill its purpose and suffering from all the limitations of artisan thought. The social macrocosm must reflect the mechanical microcosm.

Leaving aside the ideological delusions, ensuring the free exchange of goods -including and especially labor power- ends up concentrating the ownership and control of society in the hands of the ruling class, while building a machine directed from above concentrates both ownership and control in the hands of the ruling class from the very beginning. In reality, the two positions are not as different as claimed. All capitalist societies supposedly functioning through the impersonal market and free agent interactions need strong state intervention to protect strategic branches of production and services that simple profit maximization would have obliterated long ago.

Economic crises, which are inevitable in a system based on mercantile exchange and accumulation, reveal to everyone how fragile and poorly adaptable the system really is: productive forces and capacities are destroyed wantonly, the product of the work of millions of workers is abandoned, left rusting or dismantled while mountains of those same workers are left unemployed struggling to feed their families. Even in its moments of success, the economy leaves piles of human needs unmet, and all kinds of goods and even food thrown away or destroyed to keep the machine running. Such a great utopia, that of the revolutionary bourgeoisie!

The legacy of the mechanistic movement, which pushed science, technology and society to levels never seen before, has a counterpart. Having in several cases simplified the understanding of matter to the point of absurdity and reduced phenomena to simple mechanical analogies, the world now appears re-enchanted. A reduced world with a future set towards a predetermined destiny and with a social organization supposedly optimized to the theoretical limit. Apparently, there is no way out nor any possible future.

When the designer becomes irrational

The mechanical vision of the world had its scientific apogee in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, but from then on the evidence of the contradictions it accumulated began to grow. The logic of functional design allows the construction of large systems -social, technical or intellectual- but it represents only a small subset of all possible systems. The understanding of the world based on mechanisms – mechanicism – is as important and necessary as it is limited. Its main problem is the generalization of the analogy with artisan design and machines.

The vision of the universe as a mechanical clock began to crumble with the discoveries of the Physics of the infinitely small and the immensely large, when quantum physics discovered an insurmountable element of uncertainty in interactions and gravitational mechanics presented in its geometries complex space-time sections without a causal relationship with other previous sections. If one could repeat many times a given event under the same exact conditions, there would be no longer any guarantee of obtaining the same results. It was a theoretical blow against determinism that encouraged many discussions at the academic level, but it did not have great repercussions either in science as a whole or in the general worldview.

Empiricism had entered its most intransigent version by the middle of the 20th century, affecting fields from Biology to Economics. Living beings had become nothing more than bodies following the laws of a pre-existing design, animals behaved like simple input-output machines and any attempt to investigate the mental world or the true capabilities of animals had to be defined as pseudoscience and if possible separated from academic research. It was the era of Pavlov and Skinner, animals supposedly only needed to associate external stimuli with the best of a pre-wired set of motor behaviors. Any animal behavior could theoretically be attributable to the functioning of a series of pre-built behaviors, or even to reflexes alone. It was even proposed that human consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a simple side effect of the functioning of an automaton without real decision power. The brain, as one of the best known neuroscientists still says today, would be nothing more than a clockwork mechanism:

At the same time, and prior to the startling advances in neuroscience, explanations of mechanisms were unknown. Today they are. Today we know we are evolved entities that work like a Swiss clock.

Michael S Gazzaniga, “Cognitive Neuroscience”, 2019

The problem is that evolution does not produce Swiss watches. As creationists occasionally remind the most crude mechanists, a designed mechanism collapses with the slightest punctual change in its parts. The products of design are extremely fragile and inadaptable to a changing environment… practically the antithesis of what is necessary for evolution. The features needed to ensure an adaptable and evolving system are those that would make a designer growl. From his perspective they would be uneconomical and superfluous: the parts share functions with each other, are interchangeable to a certain extent and are deeply integrated with each other. The whole reigns over the parts. And all this appears to be an irrational disposition to the designer, whose rationality is based on creating systems adapted to a specific function. However, these systems resist and adapt much better to unexpected conditions than the designer’s mechanisms. Automata are extremely powerful when applied to certain types of situations, but it is also deeply irrational to use functional design logic for ever-changing systems that must continuously adapt.

This description of the part/set relationship is perhaps too abstract, but it can be understood with some examples. The classic example of the ancients and vitalists who opposed the mechanists long ago is embryonic development. This has fascinated the learned for millennia, among other things because of how it stands in opposition to a simply mechanical vision. There are some -few- animals whose development is predetermined step by step (each cell following a precise and repeatable fate), like some nematode worms, but mammals and others show a much more plastic and surprising development. Without this, true human twins, coming from the same embryo, would not be possible. The cells of the embryo are not predestined, if for example we separate the cells of an early embryo, each of them can alter its fate and originate a whole organism. If, at a later stage, we surgically exchange the cells from the lower part of the embryo – generally destined to become the intestine – with cells from the upper part – generally destined to become the brain – the cells will change their destiny according to their position in the whole. Even more impressive: in a famous experiment by Hilde Mangold, if we surgically remove the region of the amphibian embryo where the body axis begins to form and implant it on the opposite side to where the body axis would form in another embryo, an embryo with two body axes will form. In other words, simple transplantation of a small region can change the destiny of all surrounding cells and reorganize from above the embryo.

These examples of the whole reprogramming its parts are relatively simple and all kinds of systems and natural processes show more or less complex versions of the same principle. It is actually a new version of the old dialectic and is based on the ability of the whole to modify or select variants or states in which the parts of the system are found. For this, the parts must be able to take different states and share functions (show degeneration) among them:

Although the events and objects dealt with by the higher level sciences [Biology, Chemistry, etc.] are [systems composed] of physical components, the causal powers of such objects are not determined only by the physical properties of their constituents and the laws of Physics. They are also determined by the organization of those constituents within those systems. […] These [organizational] patterns have downward causal effectiveness because they can affect which causal powers of their systems can be activated. A given physical component can have many causal powers, but only a subset of them is active in a given situation. The larger context (or pattern) of which they are a part can affect which causal powers are activated. A given physical component can have many causal powers, but only a subset of them is active in a given situation. The larger context (or pattern) of which they are a part can affect which causal powers are activated… Therefore, the whole is not a simple function of its parts, because the whole determines what contributions its parts make. […] These points illustrate that higher order patterns can have a certain degree of independence from their underlying physical realizations and can exercise what might be called downward causal influences without requiring any unacceptable form of emergentism in which higher level properties affect the underlying laws of physics.

Nancey Murphy, “Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will”, 2009

A simple example of such a process is evolution by natural selection, in which spontaneous variants are selected according to their reproductive fitness at each step of the process, another simple one would be capital being distributed among the different applications according to their profitability through the capital market. Total capital as a phenomenon would impose a downward causal force on the distribution of individual capitals, while these would interact upwardly. However, these are relatively simple examples, with the most developed example known being the human mind.

As we saw before, empiricism always tried to separate the objective from the subjective, even rejecting the study of mental states and consciousness as something useless. This situation has changed in recent years, but the brain and the mind still show really shocking aspects. Contrary to any mechanist idea, monkeys can see new colors simply through genetic addition of a visual pigment without modification of a single visual circuit of the brain, or that rodents can learn to use a detector implanted non-specifically in their brain. That would never work in a designed automaton, you cannot connect something extraneous for which the rest of the pieces are not adapted beforehand. Even more surprising is that social learning can modify aspects of the mind such as the internal representation of numbers. One of the main characteristics of the brain is its capacity to modify itself physically according to the new conditions of the environment -natural and social- together with all its accumulated memories of the past. This is an extreme example of the type of mechanism described above, with a greater degree of causal autonomy over the environment and control of the whole by and over the parts. The properties of the conscious mind, its capacity to unite in a changing totality the perceptions coming from different brain areas without favoritism, to create and carry out complex plans to adapt to the new conditions of the environment, etc. provide desired properties that no automaton or human work can yet approximate, no matter how much material basis they have.

Based on these properties, integration and the degree of relationship between the whole and the parts, some researchers have developed a mathematical method to describe consciousness and study its material bases. This measure of organization, known as φ (phi), measures the causal power that the whole has over its parts and how autonomous the system is in relation to the environment. Researchers subjected simulated organisms with nervous systems composed of different parts (sensors – processing – effectors) to an artificial selection experiment. At each step, the connections between the parts and the whole-part relationships are gradually changed for each simulated organism and it is subjected to a complex task (solving a changing puzzle or spatial labyrinth). The organisms that solve the tasks fastest are selected and continue each cycle. In the end, the organisms with the highest φ, those that adhere least to design logic and whose organization is most like nature, are the best fit for variable environments.

The mechanical thought of the artisans and the bourgeoisie has enabled great advances in technique and productivity, from almost totally automating enormous chemical processes with more than 20,000 sensors, to the advances of medicine and modern robotics. It also served as the basis for the great political and social apparatuses of capitalism, today completely obsolete, rigid and incapable of guaranteeing a future for workers and humanity. No vertical machinery led by an exploiting class will guarantee the satisfaction of human needs, however techno-futurist it may present itself.


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