“We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present in its eyes.”
The above quote is by Pierre-Simon Laplace (yes, the very same Laplace who screwed us with his differential equations) and represents a view known as mechanistic materialism which is to say that the world and everything in it acts as a machine.
Materialism is one of the view used to solve the mind-body problem, which addresses the relationship between the physical world and the intelligible one; or put more simply, the relationship between the brain and the mind. What gives humans the ability to think, imagine and reason? What makes this blob of goo inside our skulls capable of mental activities? Materialism argues that matter is the ultimate reality of all things.
The full impact of mechanism reveals itself as one thinks more about it. It is not only that things act according to immutable laws of physics. Everybody believes that. It is to say that everything is caused in such a way that it could not have been otherwise. That everything is completely predetermined by infinitely long and converging chains of blind irrational antecedent causes. That somehow if you could find a machine that can comprehend all the forces in the universe and account for them, then you would be able to predict every detail in the universe at any point in the past or the future.
In a book written by La Mettrie, titled “Man a Machine”, he argues that man, with his thoughts, sensations and emotions is the sum of his organs, nerves, impulses, reflexes, pumping heart and the like; simply the physical counterparts of springs, cogs, wheels, wire and so on, all reducible to physics and chemistry. He compares the brain secreting thought in the same way that the liver secretes bile and that what we refer to as the soul is nothing but an empty word used to describe the part of us that thinks; an advanced machine.
I have always been inclined to believe in only what can be scientifically tested and proven, so maybe man is but a machine. Yet the idea of reducing everything in the world to a series of infinite reactions highly disturbs me. It simply removes free will. Then everything; my writing this post right now, you reading this very sentence, is predetermined by a blind irrational chain of events. I guess for some it is easier to believe that things are above us, that when something doesn’t work out, it is because something or someone didn’t want it to. But that ultimately makes everything pointless. Then all we are is puppets in the hands of their master.