Mechanism, capital m and mechanisms, little m: ontological considerations, heuristics and analogies

Charles Wolfe

Ghent University

A brief consideration of some of the contemporary ‘mechanisms’ literature reveals that it occasionally engages with early modern forms of mechanism (which ones is never made extremely clear: Galileo? Descartes? Boyle? Hobbes? Spinoza? Etc.), sometimes in order to find historical support for a claim, sometimes on the contrary to distinguish its newer, 21st-century claims from those of early modern philosophy and the Scientific Revolution. But there is a striking parallel between early modern mechanism (EMM) and ‘neo-mechanism’ or the ‘new mechanism’ (NM): they both waver in between being anti-ontological, favoring operational, pragmatic or otherwise heuristic approaches to mechanistic models and explanations, and being overtly ontological, talking either about the basic fabric or structure of the world and its qualities (EMM) or about the world as science discovers and constructs it (NM – which also sometimes returns to being a metaphysics). A second parallel or at least relevant point of comparison is the relation both EMM and NM have to ‘mechanisms in particular’; in the former case, these can often be automata or other empirical cases of machines built for investigative, natural-philosophical purposes, whereas in the latter case they are often mechanisms as specified by scientists within specific processes (e.g. ‘the mechanism of protein synthesis’, Machamer et al. 2000). I want to analyze some of the ways in which the appeal to machines, mechanisms and mechanical explanations both does and does not work with ontological-mechanist considerations (see Des Chene 2001 and Berryman 2003 on this issue, and Gabbey 1993, Riskin 2003, Hawkins 2002 for considerations on the role of actual technology). Some scholars claim that there was no connection between the ontology of mechanism and its science (e.g. Chalmers 1993 for the case of Boyle), or, more broadly that the mechanical model was useless and counter-productive in life science, a mere fiction or ideological construct (Westfall 1971). I argue differently, that there was a positive value, not just to heuristic mechanism, but also to ontological mechanism, whether or not all of its claims could be verified; I suggest, in light of some of the NM elaborations, that it helps ground but also motivate mechanistic explanations as a quasi-paradigm of scientific explanations: countless iatromechanists, and philosophical-experimental mechanists of different stripes such as Boyle and Descartes, could say, like William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) later on, “I am never content until I have constructed a mechanical model of the object that I am studying. If I succeed in making one, I understand; otherwise, I do not” (Thomson 1884, 270, cit. in Cassirer 1950, 115). I try to illustrate some of the fruitfulness of ontological mechanism with some examples from mechanistic models in early modern life science (Des Chene 2005, Wolfe 2012) and reflect on expanded mechanism, teleomechanism and other ‘functional enhancements’ of strict mechanism.