La Mettrie’s Machine Man

La Mettrie’s Machine Man

La Mettrie’s Machine Man

Just to clarify, We begin with Descartes’ dualistic Cartesian animal-machine idea (which was popular at the time) which viewed all animals, except humanity, as automatons, as complex machines without an immortal soul. The mind/soul of man was separate from his material body it was argued, man was thought to be a special snowflake whose essence transcended the mere sum of his parts. This idea bode well with the theological narrative and wasn’t repressed by censorship. La Mettrie admired this idea of Descartes, but disagreed with its formula being that only animals were without souls, he thought Descartes mistaken as he says:

‘It is true that this famous philosopher made many mistakes, as nobody denies; but he understood animal nature and was the first to demonstrate perfectly that animals were mere machines. After such an important discovery, which implies so much wisdom, how can we, without ingratitude, pardon all his errors.’

Then finally, Machine Man was published at the end 1747, but dated at 1748 with two further edition in the same year. This was a work of philosophy that unleashed widespread controversy at the time. The controversy came from the main premise of the work being the reformulating of the Cartesian animal-machine idea to man himself. Man is based on mechanistic principles just like the animals, it argued he had no immortal soul, that man a machine was no more than the sum of his parts.
La Mettrie posited, throughout the work, that knowledge can only be acquired by sensory experience hinting throughout influences by John Locke’s empiricism. However, unlike Locke there is no leniency in this work, it being saturated with broadsides against religion scattered throughout the work. One example being his questioning the authority of the church saying:

‘if there is revelation it is insufficiently proven by the church’s authority alone’

The Key themes of the machine man are highlighted, quoted and commented on in this article with giving brevity on the nature of being.


Who has the greater authority on what is a man? the theologian or the physician?


Who really knows the nature of man more? The theologian’s view, with his scripture on the origins of his creation and a body inhabited by an immaterial soul that merely uses the body as a temporary vehicle, as a guesthouse? Like the analogy, the soul is to the body as the driver is to the car. Or the physician’s view, who using his surgical knife has explored man’s being, his inner workings under the skin, noting the various organs and tissues inundated with blood vessels, the nerves being the ‘springs’ that function to keep a man working as a being of ‘perpetual motion’ as La Mettrie once stated, and all the other elements which makes up the corporeality of man?
Of this La Mettrie speaks:

‘Physicians have explored and thrown light on the labyrinth of man; they alone have revealed the springs hidden under coverings which keep so many marvels from our gaze. They alone, calmly contemplating our soul, have caught it a thousand times unawares, in its misery and its grandeur , without either despising it in one state or admiring it in the other.’

He then states physicians as being the only natural philosophers who have the right to speak on the subject and theologians as ignorant of the mechanisms that drive the body.
Attempting to understand man those philosophers that, no matter how much work, who have used a priori  methods like using the mind’s reason and logic but without sensory evidence have failed since they have not used a posteriori (knowledge justified by sensory experience) methods which gives evidence and greater material to work with in the quest towards an understanding of man. La Mettrie insists that without the ‘staff/torch of experience’ to guide us we are blind, as Frederick the Great adds further:

‘He boldly bore the torch of experience into the night of metaphysics; he tried to explain by aid of anatomy the thin texture of understanding, and he found only mechanism where others had supposed an essence superior to matter.’

The comparative anatomies of animal and man


La Mettrie was one of the earliest thinkers, who predated Darwin, to notice the similarity of anatomical structures between man and beast, nowadays this is called homology which refers to similar anatomical structures found in different species.

We see that the proportions may be different but the structures are similar

He observed and compared the brains of animals, quadrupeds in this case, to human beings and said that the shapes and arrangements were similar the difference being that humans have a more convoluted and larger brain overall in relation to the volume of the body. He goes on to say that some animals are more similar to human brains than others for example, man and higher mammals do have a corpus callosum (the thick nerve fiber that connects the two cerebral hemispheres together) while fish do not have this. Naturalists at that time looked upon the great ape as the ‘wild man’ or ‘man of the woods’ because it bears a strong resemblance to us human beings.
In this work, time after time, La Mettrie rejects notions that human beings are superior than animals, he says:

‘Man is not molded from a more precious clay; nature has only used one and the same dough, merely changing the yeast.’

La Mettrie compares the sensory faculties of different animals to one another.

‘We see everywhere ears of strikingly different shapes but this diverse construction of man, animals, birds or fish does not produce a different usage. All ears are so mathematically constructed that they all equally serve one single purpose, which is hearing.’

Animals and humans have different quantitative powers of hearing but what La Mattrie stresses here is that they are all qualitatively the same, we all have the same functions but in differing levels of sensitivity.
In terms of sensory faculties all animals have competitive advantages of one over another for example: our brains may have more capabilities than those of dogs not to mention the greater surface area to volume ratio, more neurons and all the rest of it but dogs, on the other hand, have a sense of smell far surpassing ours as Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, writes:
‘that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.’
Looking at modern examples, according to this article, humans have a hearing range of 64-23,000Hz and cats have a range of 45-64,000Hz this data shows that cats have a superior hearing range than humans.


Significance of communication


La Mettrie thought of the significance of language, sounds and signs. See what he says on education! He reduced it to the mere mechanics of words and signs as the quote suggests:

‘As we can see, there is nothing simpler than the mechanism of our education! It all comes down to sounds, or words, which are transmitted from one person’s mouth, through another’s ear and into his brain, which receives at the same time through his eyes the shape of the bodies for which the words are the arbitrary signs.’

If we think of the mother and her child, she teaches it language by pointing at objects and repeating the labels associated with the object. She points and says repeatedly ‘cup’ then to another object ‘chair’ and another ‘car’ e.g. until the child finally makes that association of the sound paired up with that particular object.

Existential questions


On the question on ‘why are we here’ La Mettrie believes that all life was created to be happy as this quote here illustrates:

‘Nature has created us all solely to be happy – yes, all of us from the crawling worm to the eagle lost in the clouds.’

Again we see the hints at the negation of anthropocentricism, a common theme in this work, as he yet further speculates on the reasons for man’s existence as a passive feature of existence:

‘Who can be sure that the reason for man’s existence is not simply the fact that he exists? Perhaps he was thrown by chance on some spot on the earth’s surface, nobody knows how nor why, but simply that he must live and die, like the mushrooms which appear from day-to-day, or like those flowers which border the ditches and cover the walls.’


Negation of the soul and the ascendency of machine man



The question of ‘can matter think?’ was a controversial inquiry put forward by philosophers at the time. La Mettrie was a walking bomb that went off with each major work published always unapologetically advocating the view that matter can think as a function of the brain he argued that since thought clearly develops with the organs, why should matter which composes them not also be capable of remorse once it has acquired, with time, the faculty of feeling?’

‘Since all the soul’s faculties depend so much on the specific organisation of the brain and of the whole body that they are clearly nothing but the very organisation, the machine is perfectly explained!…

And this quote clarifies what is meant by soul in the context of machine man as but a synonym for mind.

‘Thus the soul is merely a vain term of which we have no idea and which a good mind should use only to refer to that part of us which thinks.’

What this work ultimately attempts to do is state that man is a being of nature, wholly nature not all supernatural or partly supernatural! To support this La Mettrie uses medical examples and showing that the soul is dependent on bodily states, the idea of the soul is negated by the reductionism of the spiritual characteristics of man to corporeal bodily functions. Soul or mind is just the epiphenomenon of a special material organ the brain.
In his arguments many examples are cast as reasons to support the machine like nature of human beings. La Mettrie points to automatic flinching of the eyelids when under the threat of a blow to the face, the pupils contracting in bright light and dilating in the dark, skin pores closing up in winter as to keep the cold from penetrating inside the vessels, the lungs having the mode of operation as that of perpetually active bellows. With all these ‘springs’ of the human machine surely man is all mechanical? No more than the sum of his parts?
He even thought than one’s state of mind can be reducible to the condition of bodily states here’s one example, he talks about the temperature of air as having effects on the temperament of Kings, namely Henry 3rd who, during cold weather, it was said ‘a trifle makes him impatient and furious’. A modern example of seasonal effects on mood and behaviour is a type of depression called SAD (seasonal affective disorder) which is thought to be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight during the autumn/winter seasons.
By using anatomy and physiology to examine the various parts of the body and then to discover under the surface of the skin that what is really going on are the workings of every organ carrying out mechanical functions in their own particular way we will know what animates life. For example, the heart pumps blood around the circulatory system, digested food is moved through the intestines by the rhythmic relaxation and contractions of the intestinal walls (peristalsis), skeletal muscles are antagonistic, for example, look at the muscles of the arm, when the bicep contracts the triceps relax flexing the arm to a rough 90 angle and if the liver secretes bile then why not, as La Mettrie argued, that the brain secretes thought. That is why La Mettrie is saying that man can be compared to the gears and cogs of a machine by these analogies he observed. He did not cast down man and relegate him to the level of the animal and the machine for man was already just that!


Reflections on Machine Man

We have come a long way from the days of Descartes’ consideration that nerves are tubes that swelled and pulsated with living spirits, which pushed and pulled at muscle tissues, now we know that it is the influx and concentration gradients of ions through protein channels coupled with the release of neurotransmitter chemicals across a synapse that are responsible for electrochemical nerve impulses and not spirits flowing through the telegraph line like axons.
To build more upon this, My main reflection upon reading this work is by taking the view that to know man by his being is to truly know him, for it seems there is too much focus on the mind or psychological aspects which results in causing shrouding and dismissals of the corporeal aspect of man; his being. For the body as an aggregate of different systems, of different parts, are interrelated and dependant on one another for continued survival. Look at the nervous system which ensnare its ‘tentacles’ or, more accurately, its nerves into other systems of the body it has got a role in regulating the digestive system, the cardiovascular system and the endocrine system.
Knowing his being in its totality can also reveal the clues to his development in evolutionary history which has already been done by natural historians, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, comparative anatomy and other associated fields.
To know a person what we are dealing with is to attempt to understand his/her mind, the work of a psychologist. However to understand that which gives rise to the mind, the body or being then that is the work of a physician and through natural science it’s been discovered that man is not one single indivisible being but a being composed of grand numbers of ‘beings’, the cells. Which has given rise to the idea that if we are an aggregate of cells and feel free to answer in the comment section below, then what is the self? Is it just an illusion? Is it the brain that creates the sense of self? For if someone suffers head trauma in an accident and develops retrograde amnesia and says “who am I?” then what else than we are our brains?

From my perspective, I view as the ultimate foundation of a human being is its genome, the sum total of genes that give rise to the schematic of an entire organism, that right there is the true basis of being for it cannot be reduced to something simpler for nothing else can give rise to be expressed as an organism without DNA. For living organisms; without the genes expressing proteins there can be no being!


About Epicurus Of Albion

Skeptic, naturalist and existential-nihilist philospher, Epicurus is interested in the Greco-Roman philosophies of antiquity as well as admiring from the stoa its cultural and aesthetical milleu. Epicurus takes to connoisseuring from the philosophical punch the many schools of philosophy and testing their wisdom.

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