24 September 2008

Mechanistic Man

Advances in neurobiological, psychological, computational and cognitive sciences are providing a growing body of evidence in support of the ‘mechanistic man’ idea. Our humanity is increasingly being explained in purely physical and biological terms. Is this a cause for fear or despair? Or is acceptance of the facts the key to our emancipation from centuries of suffering inflicted upon ourselves and others due to ignorance and misinformation? There is a transformative power in the affirmation that we are simply valuation machines of immense biological sophistication. When we surrender our misplaced dependence on transcendent meaning and embrace the implications of mechanistic meaning – influenced by our evolutionary biology and its imperatives – then Necessity, that implacable goddess, loses her power to terrify. Necessity, of the biological, physical and chemical kind, is accepted as the meaning we need.

We desire laws to give order to the chaos we fear and seek to avoid. Yet we insist on cherry-picking the sort of laws we fancy, or failing to find ones to our taste, we simply invent them arbitrarily. Existence doesn’t work that way. Existential laws are neither the product of whims nor of democratic deliberation. They are prescribed by a cosmic dictator, one that a great number of people conceitedly presume takes a personal interest in their lives. Such laws, such meta-programs running all existence, are indeed awesomely complex, but complexity, no matter how great, is no excuse for indulging in mysticism and supernatural shortcuts to knowledge.

The brave individual is the one who shouts ‘Yes!’ in answer to existence. He rejects false comforts and half-baked assurances. He is the author, architect and director of his own meaning and values, which will inform his choices and actions. Necessity, causality and chance are the only unbreakable rules of the game. All else is up to him. The brave individual embraces his mechanistic biology and so earns his freedom.

Peddlers of ‘essence’ ideas involving vitalism, souls, anima and ghosts in machines resent science’s illuminating power, which they believe kills mystery and depletes life of its wonder. What pessimism! Do they really believe that there is a finite amount of mystery and wonder in all of existence? That as scientific knowledge increases, there would be a corresponding decrease in ‘units’ of the unknown? That the process of discovery will one day cease?

Mystery and wonder can never die. No, what the mystics of all persuasions fear isn’t the death of mystery, but the demise of their own status. Their petulance at the efficacy of science stems from the implications of its discoveries. The stronger humanity’s understanding of existence is, the weaker the grip of influential liars on the minds of people. Sophisticated, biologically computing entities running complex valuation systems don’t have souls to be saved, or damned. A sentient species that recognises this cannot be intimidated or cajoled into bending the knee before an Almighty Somesuch-or-other. And those members of the species who presume to be the voice of the Almighty Artificial Construct dread their loss of power should this enlightenment become widespread.

One is flabbergasted at the greed of those who aren’t satisfied with how materially special Homo sapiens already is and still want to posit extra immaterial value on our species (and only our species, for only humans have souls, so certain mystics claim). Perhaps in this desire they confess feelings of inadequacy. Mechanistic Man often cannot, as T.S. Eliot observed, ‘bear very much reality’. And so he harnesses his prodigious powers of imagination to create hyper-realities for him to escape to, whether virtual or mystical.

Hopefully future generations will inhabit a civilization where the idea of mechanistic humanity has lost all negative connotations and – like once-condemned ideas such as the heliocentric model of the solar system – has become an established part of our common human heritage. It will be a future free of false concepts of what it means to be a human being, concepts that throughout human history right until the present have been the source of much unnecessary pain, suffering and death. It will be a future where the fact that we human beings are simply an arrangement of dynamic, interacting cells would discomfort us no more than the fact that the world is not flat.

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
- John 8:32.


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