Deborah Perron: Plato's Failure to Overcome Mechanism


Plato's Failure to Overcome Mechanism

Deborah Perron

Mechanism is a way of viewing and explaining the world in terms of a concept or a principle that is abstracted from the world. Consider the following scenario as an example. You are the spectator of a pool game and instead of simply viewing the game as one between two, goodnatured people, each trying to win the game by getting all her pool balls in first, you instead, view the game from a very different perspective. You no longer see two human beings engaging in playful competition, but have reduced them to two heaps which are composed of molecules, atoms, and genes arranged in a mathematical order. You no longer view the pool table and the balls as particular objects, but also as different arrangements of atoms and when the pool stick hits a ball it is simply a transfer of energy. The player's ambitions, logic and skill all disappear from the game. You have taken one aspect of the game, the fact that there is a mathematical and biological structure within it and separated it from all the other factors in the game. Taking that abstraction to be a true picture of reality is mechanism. Mechanism makes an abstraction, that is, it separates certain features from the world and makes them somehow extrinsic from any particular object. That extrinsic principle is then used to explain the world.

Seventeenth century science gave us a mechanistic perspective. It ushered in a significantly new way of looking at the world. It clarified certain problems and dissolved certain myths. The invention of the microscope and the telescope gave us a way to look deeper into ourselves and far beyond our world. The earth was no longer the center of the universe, instead the sun took center stage and man stepped back into the wings. The answers to our questions were no longer found by looking at the world around us--experience had been the mother of our myths. They were found instead, in mathematics. But underneath the discoveries of modern science lay the assumptions that reality can be reduced to mathematics and that this process exhausted the heart of reality. Mathematical equations such as mass, velocity, and gravity were used to explain the movement of matter in the universe. Man became another part in a vast mathematical machine and mechanism flourished.

Mechanism is not a strictly modern notion, however. There were ancient mechanists who gave a similar account of reality. Platonism for instance, also saw the cosmos as a mathematical, ordered, harmony--a notion which was born out of the second section of Plato's Timaeus. It is in this section that Plato gives an account of the generation of the cosmos according to Necessity, an account which reduces everything to abstract principles. Plato attempts to explain the generation of the world through things like the matrix, the Forms and Necessity but these are concepts which are separate from any concrete realities, particular objects or instances. Universal, uncnanglng principles are used to explain the changing, finite, world we live in. For Plato what is really real is the world of the Forms which are distinct and extrinsic from the world of Becoming. The world we experience therefore is explained in terms of something outside it.

The similarities between seventeenth century mechanism and the mechanism in the second section of the Timaeus can be seen in Plato's and Galileo's atomism and their account of primary and secondary qualities. According to Galileo the ultimate constituents of the world are “tiny indivisible” particles which he called atoms. Matter is simply a conglomeration of atoms. The only qualities that matter has then, are the qualities which reside in the atoms themselves--that is mathematical qualities-number, figure, magnitude, position and motion. These primary qualities are the only qualities which exist. The secondary qualities of taste, smell, sound etc. are only effects of the senses. They are not real in themselves.[1] Plato's geometrical atomism provides a similar account of secondary and primary qualities. Qualities such as “hot”, “heavy”, and “light” are simply the effects of these triangles (the ultimate constituents of the cosmos) on our bodies. Fire is made of the sharpest triangles and this explains why we feel a burning sensation. Fire itself does not contain the sensation of burning. Similarly, pleasure and pain are the restoration or disruption of the order of triangles in our bodies. Pleasure and pain are not in the objects themselves. Both Plato and Galileo have reduced the world to mathematical qualities. They have taken a part of the world--its mathematical nature, reduced all things so they could be dealt with mathematically, and produced an account of the universe. Notice that the principle they use to explain the world is a separate and distinct notion. Atoms, although they make up distinct things and are “in” things, do so because of mathematical laws. The similarities seem to end here however, and Plato and the modern mechanists give contrasting accounts of the role mechanism plays.

The mechanists wanted to find a way to arrive at certain and universal knowledge about the world around them, mathcmatics had proven to be accurate and certain, so they extracted those elements from the world that could be dealt with mathematically. They derived principles, formulas, and equations that were separated and somehow above the world--apart from any particular object. Galileo for example, produced an equation for motion. But it only solved for motion at an instant and since there is no motion at an instant, Galileo failed to explain the motion we experience. These abstract principles were applied to every aspect of our world. The aspects they could not explain were somehow less real, as in the case of secondary qualities. The mechanists believed they were able to provide an exhaustive account of reality.

In contrast, Plato denied that the mechanistic account was sufficient to explain the cosmos. In the end of section one of the Timeaus Plato describes how many view the auxiliary causes of creation to be the only cause.

Now all these things are among the accessory causes which the god uses as subservient in achieving the best result that is possible. But the great mass of mankind regard them, not as accessories, but as the sole cause of all things, producing effects by cooling and heating, compacting or rarefying, and all such processes. But such things are incapable of any plan or intelligence of any purpose.[2]

What Plato asserts here is that the mechanistic account is not a cornplete account. Mechanism fails to answer the question “why is there cosmos rather than chaos?”. Galileo's account and modern science in general, lacks teleology. That is, the mathematical principles they use to explain the world cannot explain why there is a world. Gravity and mass can explain how a large object falls to the ground but it cannot explain why it does. Because these principles are extrinsic to particular objects they cannot explain their purpose. The world is not directed toward an end as it was in the medieval world. In the medieval world there was a God which we would someday return to. And this God as a loving creator was an intrinsic principle of teleology. He had a connection with the world he created. In the act of creating, God somehow became connected to the world and was no longer extrinsic to it. If there is a God at all in mechanism, he is not a loving creator connected to his world, but a clockmaker--a being very dinstinct and separate from the object he made. Real teleology then, must be something internal because external principles cannot explain the purpose of the world or the particular things in it. There has to be a connection between the purpose and the object acting with a purpose.

The “how'' of matter and motion is explained by mechanism but the “why” remains unanswered and the mechanist is happy with answering the “whys” with a shrug of the shoulders and a “because that's the way it happened”. Man and the universe are simply the chance happenings of the laws which govern the movements of atoms and molecules. The cosmos is a we11-rnade clock ticking with the necessity of mathematical laws. That we came to be at all is due to the movements of the mathematical, ordered, world and we could have just as likely have been born a tree or a frog or not at all.
Plato's account according to Reason, the first section in the dialogue, takes primacy. It is the section which supposedly saves Plato from the “temptation” of mechanism by adding the teleology and intelligence which is lacking in the mechanistic account. It is here that the demiurge molds chaos into a likeness of Being. The demiurge provides the answer to the question “why is there cosmos rather than chaos?” If there is an eternal and unchanging Good, why create an imperfect likeness? It is because there is a god who is a knower, a lover, and a doer, that the world of Becoming was created. There is a subject, separate from the Ideas, which is capable of perceiving their goodness, loving their perfection, and desires to re-create them in a moving world. The demiurge creates the cosmos as a rational animal with a purpose. Its purpose is to imitate or participate in, as much as possible, the Forms and ultimately the highest form--the Good, which orders all other Forms. Plato in contrast to mechanism believed that an exhaustive account would have to include teleology.

But is Plato's account any more complete? Can his teleology resurrect our world from the seemingly purposeless world of mechanism. It appears not. The very concept that is suppose to save the Timaeus from the “temptation” of mechanism becomes the final push needed to make it a mechanistic work. In the beginning of section two Plato explains that it is necessary to give an alternative account of the generation of the cosmos because the world came about as a result of both Reason and Necessity. Reason is the stronger power which somehow persuades Necessity.

For the generation of this universe was a mixed result of the cornbination of Necessity and Reason. Reason overruled Necessity by persuading her to guide the greatest part of things that become toward what is best; in that way and on that principle this universe was fashioned in the beginning by the victory of reasonable persuasion over Necessity.[3]
It seems odd to speak of Necessity being persuaded. Things that occur due to Necessity are those things that are without purpose. Plato now says that Necessity was persuaded by the demiurge towards the Good. The teleology in Plato's account then, is extrinsic. The purpose resides in the demiurge. It is the demiurge that desires the world to be a likeness of the world of the Forms. It becomes difficult now to explain the connection between what the demiurge wills and what the world does. If the teleology remains extrinsic then the world remains a machine as it was in mechanism, and simply follows the purpose which is somehow imposed on it by the demiurge. Also, the end which the cosmos is supposedly striving to imitate or participate in is also extrinsic. The Good is a principle separate and distinct from the world of Becoming. The world is good in so far as it is a likeness of the world of the Forms and ultimately the Good. But how is it that the world is able to reach its end if its end remains extrinsic?

If both the purpose and the end in Plato's teleology lie outside the world, then it is an abstract teleology. That is, it is a principle which remains apart from any specific object or particular instance and is somehow imposed on the world from above. Consider the artist/creator analogy Plato uses so otten. Suppase there is a sculpture who wishes to fashion a mound of clay into a vase. He has a model or an end--the form of a vase. His purpose is to create as perfect a likeness as possible. The mound of clay has no purpose within itself, but will be molded by the sculpture who will impose his own purpose on the clay. Similarly, the demiurge wishes to fashion the world into a likeness of the Forms. Its model or end is extrinsic. The world has no purpose within itself--no intrinsic principle moving it toward its end. The teleology remains extrinsic and abstract.

If the very principle that is suppose to supply us with the answer to our question “why is there cosmos rather than chaos?”, is an abstract principle--a principle which is separate from us and is imposed on us from above, then it can no more accurately explain the universe than the mechanist. The abstract principles which the mechanist used could not exhaustively explain the world around us and ourselves. No principle which lies outside us can provide a complete account of us. Velocity, gravity, and mass may explain how we were able to get into our cars and drive to the store but they can never explain why we decided to do so. Plato's teleology is also abstract and extrinsic. Both have separated their principles of explanation from the objects they are trying to explain.

Bringing the two together would involve positing an intrinsic principle of teleology--a real teleology and Plato seems to touch upon this notion when he describes the world as being ensouled. The soul somehow acts as a principle of motion but Plato doesn't fully develop this notion. Notice that if he had, his account would have been Aristotelian. Aristotle believed the solution to Plato's problems was to internalize the purpose and the end. The Forrns were in the objects and provided a principle of motion. Their end was simply to realize their form. To ensoul the world would yeild a similar account. In any case Plato's teleology in the Timaeus fails to overcome the “temptation” of mechanism because it remains extrinsic.

Most of us are Mechanists. We see the cosmos as a machine rather than an organic being. If Plato can be resurrected from his mechanistic death it is through his notion of the world as ensouled. The world becomes a living creature. Mathematics and science are simply accessory causes and they cannot fully explain the nature of this living universe. Mechanism has taken a “part” to be the “whole”. It views matter in motion as the heart of reality--a reality which they have left heartless. The “whole” which science continues to try to understand is much greater than we think and cannot be exhaustively explained by abstract principles. The universe is more than just atoms, molecules, numbers, and laws. We are a small part of a much bigger reality. It would do us some good if we adopted the notion of the universe as a living being. A notion which I believe environmental science is trying to salvage. Perhaps then, man would be able to explain and also respect the features of life and the universe which fell out of the mechanistic account: i.e. love, passion, virtue, integrity, the sanctity of life. Perhaps we would be able to save our world from the destruction it now faces and perhaps then, we could be saved from the “temptation” of mechanisn.



St. Anselm College

Manchester, New Hampshire

[1]E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Atlantic Highland, NJ: Humanities Press, 1952).


[2]Plato, Timaeus (translated by F.M. Conford, New York : Bobbs-Merrill).


[3]Plato, Timaeus (translated by F.M. Conford, New York : Bobbs-Merrill).