Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

On Mechanism: Response to Some Thomist Critics of Intelligent Design

Several “Thomist” critics of ID have claimed that ID is either committed to, entails, or somehow relates to what they consider an unsavory “mechanistic” philosophy. While a number of ID proponents have explicitly denied this, the details are somewhat complicated. So I’d like to respond to this critique at some length in a series of posts.

Orthodox Catholics have long opposed the overreaching of a “mechanical philosophy” that came to prominence in the seventeenth century with René Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Christoph Cardinal Schönborn calls mechanism “the dominant form of reductionism in science.” 1As critics of the Aristotelian philosophy that had come to dominate the thinking in medieval Europe, Descartes and Bacon banished formal and final causation from science for leading to dead ends and sterile explanations. Bacon continued to affirm that formal and final causes existed, while Descartes seemed to deny them altogether. In fact, Descartes departed so far from Aristotle’s “qualitative” way of describing the natural world that he reduced matter to mere extension. This foreshadowed a tendency in modern science to reduce every material object to mere quantity.

“Mechanical” philosophy is a foil in Catholic surveys of intellectual history. Unfortunately, the word “mechanism” has always meant different things to different people.2 Defined etymologically, a mechanical natural philosophy would be one that treats certain natural objects as machines–as various parts or systems arranged to perform a certain function. So, according to Merriam-Webster, a “machine” can be “a constructed thing whether material or immaterial,” “an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner.” Secondarily, it can refer to “a living organism or one of its functional systems.”3 Right there in the dictionary, one might think, is mechanistic philosophy, which views organisms as or at least like machines.

But mechanism is often summarized more narrowly. Here’s how Cardinal Schönborn describes the problem of “mechanism” in his introduction to Etienne Gilson’s book, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again:

While no one can question the methodological value of treating natural things as if they were nothing but an agglomeration of simpler parts “all the way down” . . . the ontological question remains . . . : Is a stable natural whole–whether atom, or molecule, or bio-chemical, or cell, or plant, or animal–truly nothing but an arbitrary combination of “indifferent” parts? In other words, is it not really a whole at all, but only a label we give to a relatively stable interaction of parts?44

When push comes to shove, the Catholic Encyclopedia defines mechanism in the same way. The author, like Gilson, admits that mechanistic explanations are useful for understanding natural objects, and even allows that emphasizing such explanations was a legitimate reaction to “decadent scholasticism” that used fruitless appeals to formal and final causation. It’s widely agreed that this tendency in Aristotelian philosophy became an obstacle to exploring, and understanding, the material aspects of nature. Molière parodied the tendency unfairly by “explaining” that “the poppy made one sleep because it has the sleep-inducing property.”

Despite these notes of affirmation, however, the Catholic Encyclopedia ultimately defines mechanism as the project of reducing wholes to parts, physical objects to mere quantity, and, in the end, objects to mere mathematical abstractions.5

Mechanism and Reductionism
But why is this procedure called “mechanism” rather than simply reductionism, which is surely the more apt term? Either some natural wholes are greater than the sum of their parts, or they’re not. If you affirm the first proposition, then you’re not a complete reductionist. If you affirm the second, then you are.

Mechanism, on the other hand, involves a cluster of ideas much broader than whole-to-part reductionism. As a result, identifying these two ideas is bound to be misleading for several reasons.

First, machines are more than the sum of their parts. To claim otherwise, ironically, is to be highly reductionist about the reality of a machine. Even the simplest human machines, like a mousetrap or a cotton gin, are greater than the sum of their parts. You can lay out the parts of a mousetrap on a table and they won’t do anything useful. They certainly won’t reliably trap mice. Indeed, in even the simplest human machine, the parts are taken up, as it were, in service of a function imposed on them by an agent. That function is distinct from the parts, even if it doesn’t exist apart from them (except in the mind of the builder). The function defines the purpose of a machine–its end. Since such machines aren’t even reducible to their parts, they certainly aren’t reducible to particles, laws, extension, or matter.

This purposive nature of the machine is especially obvious in high technology–such as computing and communications technology–in which the role of intelligence and information predominates over the material substrate in which it is embedded. So the concept of a machine does not imply, let alone entail, reductionism.

Second, whether organisms simply are machines, or are nothing but machines, is a separate question.

Third, even if parts of organisms are literally machines, it doesn’t follow that organisms are, any more than it follows that a house made of bricks is a brick.

Fourth, while organisms are more than mere human machines, they are surely not less.

Fifth, if mechanism is the belief that wholes are reducible to their parts, then not all thinkers that Catholics frequently identify as mechanists deserve the label. Conversely, if mechanism is defined broadly enough to encompass figures as diverse as Descartes, Bacon, Robert Boyle, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton, and William Paley–all of whom are often called mechanists–then the word can’t plausibly be identified with pure, whole-to-part reductionism.

Sixth, “mechanism” is often contrasted with teleological explanations, such as final causation, and different thinkers are then lumped together under the label. Thomist Edward Feser, for instance, says that “the founders of modern science–Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, et al. . . .” held “that final causes and the like ought to be eschewed in favor of ‘mechanical’ (i.e. non-teleological) explanations….”6 But this is simply not true for Newton and some of the other founders of modern science. Besides, Galileo, Kepler, and others were Renaissance Neo-Platonists, not mere reductionists.7 They sought formal patterns, and especially mathematical patterns in the physical world, but this has little to do with the idea that wholes are nothing more than the sum of their parts.

What is happening, I think, is that one historical figure–Descartes–is being used to represent the different and even contradictory views of some who came after him, such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This has led to a simplistic stereotype of “mechanists” in Catholic literature that is hard to correct because it is so pervasive. This wouldn’t matter, except that the stereotype creates blind spots that become obvious in the ID debate. Thinking clearly on these subjects requires more refined categories.

1In the Foreword to Etienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2009), p. ix.
2The opening line from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “mechanism” says: “There is no constant meaning in the history of philosophy for the word Mechanism.” Mark Mary de Munnynck, “Mechanism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), available online at: This is the original Catholic Encyclopedia published in the early twentieth century, which orthodox Catholics continue to trust. The newer Catholic Encyclopedia published in the 1960s is less theologically reliable from an orthodox perspective.
4In the Foreword to From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, p. ix-x.
6Edward Feser, Aquinas (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), p. 39.
7Thomas Kuhn emphasizes, perhaps overemphasizes, the role of Neo-Platonism in the thought of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler in The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, reprint, 1992).

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.