The mechanistic world and determinism

In the beginning of the 18th century, the view that we today call the ‘scientific world view’ was firmly established in European society, albeit dressed in clothes of its own time. Tradition and speculation were replaced by rationalism and empiricism with the assumption that natural phenomena can and must be investigated and explained. The inexplicable was only a matter of ‘undiscovered science’. The conception was that reality is determined, exact, formulated, explicit and that it is possible to control the natural forces.

The image of the world changed to that of a machine and the ambition of science was to dominate and conquer Nature. Such an entirely material world could be treated as if it was dead, letting man be the possessor and master of his environment, including all plants and animals, and even permitting the expansion of slavery. This world was also separated from the moral world with which it had been one during the medieval era. The spiritual and physical order which were synthesized within the Natural Law (now seen as a mathematical/physical entity) were still influencing the whole universe. All the mysteries of nature can now ultimately be explained in mechanistic terms.

The physical world formed a machine wherein every subfunction could be calculated and events in one part of the universe have consequences for all other parts. In this classic determinism, to every effect there is a cause and to every action there is a reaction. Cause and event initiate a chain of interrelated events. In this eternal continuum, annihilation of matter/energy is impossible.

‘All things by immortal power

Near or  far


To each other linked are

That thou canst not stir a flower

Without troubling of a star.’ (F. Thompson 1897)

Astronomy became the symbolic area for a materialistic world philosophy: a mechanistic universe of dead bodies passively obeying the order of blind forces. For many, mechanism had come to be the logical opposite to superstition. Even the general outlook on man changed and was mainly mechanistic. Men and animals were in principle nothing more than very elaborate mechanical beings. The human heart became a pump obeying pure thermodynamical principles within a hydraulic/mechanical system. Morality, free will, and thinking were explained as functions of the organization of matter. For example, in the famous book L’Homme machine from 1748 by the French philosopher La Mettrie. This mechanistic era is often called the Machine Age, a term rooted both in the world view presented here and in the central role played by machines in the industrial revolution.

The most important name in mathematics/physics of this era is Isaac Newton (1643-1727). In his Principia of 1687 concerning gravitation, Newton presents a working mechanistic universe, independent of spiritual order. In Newtonian mechanics the term initial condition denotes the material status of the world at the beginning of time. Status changes are then specified in the physical laws. Known positions and velocities for planets in our solar systems at one specific moment are thus enough to determine their position and velocities for all future time. Newton’s laws therefore automatically had determinism built into them.

In Newton’s mechanical world-view there are distinct connections with cause and effect. Events and processes are causal, rectilinear, and predictable and have a determined direction of time. Such an intellectual view had to apprehend the universe like a gigantic machine with evident and pregnant rules. When the connections not are visible, there are either such correlations.

Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827), a follower of Newton, considered the univers to be a complex but understandable machinery. He became famous for his concept, the ‘Laplace’s demon’. This demon knows the position and speed of every particle in the universe at any moment. Using Newton’s laws, it calculates both the past and the future of the whole universe. From that followed that all the problems in the universe could be solved by interpolation or extrapolation. Perfect knowledge of the past would give perfect knowledge of the future.

The idea of the universe as a clockwork mechanism was thus established. On this was founded the doctrine of determinism, implying the orderly flow of cause and effect in a static universe, a universe of being without becoming. Carried to its final extreme, superdeterminism was embraced by many of the scientists of the time. According to this world view, not even the initial condition of the universe could have been other than it was; it is determined exactly so by a determinism which determined itself.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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