Archive for May 10th, 2015

May 10, 2015

Biology and mechanism

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I wrote “Living things don’t fit with what I consider to be mechanism.”  In today’s post, I’ll discuss what I see as the distinction between biology and mechanism.

The meaning of “mechanism”

The term “mechanism” is hard to define.  The Wikipedia page is a disambiguation page linking to several alternative meanings.  The page on the engineering meaning comes closest to what I think of when I use the word “mechanism.”

A mechanical system, as I use that term, is a passive receiver of energy.  What we call “mechanical” is the way in which that energy percolates through the system via motions of parts and the forces that they apply to cause motions of other parts.

When people mention “determinism”, they often have in mind the apparent determinism of such mechanical systems.  I’ll use the expression “mechanical determinism” to refer to that, even if it might not be completely deterministic.  Those who deny that there is any possibility of free will, are probably thinking of something like that mechanical determinism.


So where does biology differ from this idea of mechanism?

Quite simply, biological organisms are not passive receivers of energy.  Rather, biological organisms are active seekers of energy.  They have found ways of finding energy to meet their needs, and have thereby achieved some degree of energy independence.

With this energy independence, biological systems have been able to give themselves some independence from mechanical determinism.  Biology does use mechanism.  It uses that for control, particularly self-control.  But,  because of its autonomous ability to acquire energy, it is not limited by mechanical determinism in the ways that passive receivers of energy are limited.

Free will

It is still unclear what people mean by “free will.”  But what they do mean seems to include some ability to make autonomous decisions.  Our ability to make autonomous decisions is linked to our ability to be autonomous energy seekers.  Those two autonomous behaviors are mutually dependent on one another.