What is Mechanical Materialism?
A previous blog post
described the important dialectical principle that “internal contradictions are
primary.” This means that although external
conditions make a difference, what happens to a thing almost always depends
mainly on its internal relationships, and how it changes and what it becomes
are due primarily to its internal contradictions (see “Internal Contradictions are
Primary”). This principle is fundamental to dialectical materialism, and helps
to define what dialectical materialism means. Denying the principle, and
maintaining that changes in a system or process have mainly external causes is
a key idea of the anti-dialectical view called “mechanical materialism.”
Mechanics is a part of physics that
deals with how things change when physical forces push or pull on them. One of
the basic principles about forces is that if there is no force at all acting on
something, that thing doesn’t change speed or direction. In the simplest cases,
mechanics does not ask what happens inside something and ignores internal
forces. So, in those cases, an object will only change its speed or direction if there is
an external force on it. This is the kind of case that mechanical materialism takes as a
model for its philosophy of change, assuming as a basic principle that all
change is caused from the outside. For certain objects and certain kinds of
change, this principle works. We may be able to explain the path of a bullet
fired from a gun, for example, without knowing what happens inside the bullet.
If we want to understand the shape of the bullet, however, internal forces play
a decisive role, and cannot be ignored. The mechanical materialist strategy for
dealing with things whose internal structure can’t be ignored is to imagine
them as broken down into the tiniest possible particles, so that inner
structure is completely done away with. Physicist Max Planck explained this
strategy this way:
“We can however regard each body as
composed of very many material points, and the
differences in the mechanical properties of bodies can be reduced to the
effects of different forces that individual points exert on each other. Thus
the question of the laws of movement of material bodies is reduced to the
mechanics of systems of material points.“
The price of this reduction of objects and even
people to a collection of “material points” is that mechanical materialism must
ignore the qualitatively different properties and kinds of causal relationships that occur in the different levels of
organization of material reality. This is a hopelessly dead-end approach for
most of science, especially the biological and social sciences.
Beginning in the 1600s, the successful development of
mechanics helped make mechanical materialism an influential point of view.
Although not a materialist himself, French philosopher Rene Descartes expressed
the mechanical materialist position well when he claimed that it is a law of
nature that “each particular thing continues to be in the same state as long as
it can, and that it only changes by encountering something else.” In the 1700s, French materialist philosophers extended this idea to people and
societies. Baron D’Holbach claimed that people’s choices are determined by causes outside them. Montesquieu claimed that climate and soil largely determine the
structure of societies, so that slavery, for example, is more likely to occur
in very hot climates.
In the 1800s, after the development of thermodynamics, the
science of heat, there were many attempts to use it to prove that change must
come from the outside. The argument was that every isolated system tends to
equilibrium, a state of internal balance, and in that state there is no
tendency to change, so any change that happens must come from the outside.
Writers like H. Spencer, who were not materialists at all, also defended this
idea. One big flaw in this argument is that most real systems, including people
and societies, are not isolated, but must exchange matter and energy with their
surroundings in order to survive. Instead of using this bogus argument from physics, others, like economists
Pareto and Walras, simply constructed their theories
to be as similar as possible to mechanical systems. As
they developed the ideas of dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels showed the
bigger problem with the equilibrium view, the fact that people and social
systems are not in internal balance, but are moved by unresolved internal
conflicts that tend to become larger.
In the 1900s, developments in physics and
biology gradually discredited the idea that everything is to be explained by
particles exerting forces on each other, so that change would come from the
outside. Even so, mechanical materialism continued to be defended by many
philosophers and scientists, and by pro-capitalist economists, anthropologists,
geographers, etc., who want to try to prove that class struggle does not determine
social development. Typical of a large portion of capitalist
economic thought, economist Paul Samuelson claimed “Within
the framework of any system the relationships between our variables are
strictly those of mutual interdependence.... The only sense in which the use of the term causation is admissible is
in respect to changes in external data or parameters.” Trying to replace dialectical materialism, anthropologist Marvin Harris’ “cultural materialism” claimed that environmental and biological factors
external to human society determine human culture, for example, that the Aztecs
practiced human sacrifice because there was a shortage of protein in central
Mexico (See the critique of Harris' Cannibals and Kings, by Diener, Moore and Mutagh
In a similar vein, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, Steel: The Fates of Human
Societies, later a PBS TV series, claimed that the most important features
of human societies are determined by their physical and biological environment (See the critique by James Blaut
mechanical materialism remains an important trend in capitalist philosophy and
Max Planck, Einführung in die
Allgemeine Mechanik, Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel, 2nd ed., 1920, p. 105.
Principles of Philosophy, Part II, Article 37, in Victor Cousin, ed., Oeuvres de Descartes, Paris: F. G. Levrauld Librarie, 1824, vol. III, p. 152.
“The will of man is secretly moved or determined by
some exterior cause that produces change in him.” P. H. Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, System of Nature, London: T. Davison, 1820, vol. 1, p. 18.
Economic Analysis, enlarged edition, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1983, p. 9.
June 24, 2012
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