by Denis Larrivee
In 1748 Julian de la Mettrie published his best known philosophical work, L’Homme Machine, Man a Machine. Often thought to conceptualize the antithesis of a human anthropology, de la Mettrie’s mechanistic and materialistic conception of human nature drew inferences from medical observations he had made on bodily influences over mental processes during illnesses. As a foreshadowing, de la Mettrie’s ‘anti-human’ anthropology resonates today in an empirical era that in recent decades has seen an explosion of knowledge about neural processes. Its modern resonance does not reflect today’s acceptance of his empirical inferences, however, but rather the adoption of a similar philosophical and metaphysical framework that de la Mettries was himself heir to in his youthful education, which had sparked the empirical and later positivistic approaches to scientific investigation of the material world in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, that of an Englishman, Roger Bacon and another Frenchman, Rene Descartes.
Their legacy bequeathed to de la Mettrie a profound and intended division of what was formerly an intended synthesis of explananda for material reality. Roger Bacon’s selection of a posteriori, efficient causal influences for the primary domain of natural investigation and his relegation of form to an immutable, metaphysical Magic launched an empiricist revolution that virtually eliminated the role of a priori explananda from interpretive significance. Epistemologically, the scientific method structured its interpretive conclusions by limiting to experimental design the a posteriori presuppositions latent in its investigative approach. Restricted by design, a posteriori efficient causal influences were no longer invoked as complementary explananda for extrinsic interactions between category entities, but were instead used to explain the categories themselves (i.e., categories were no longer sui generis). In a modern setting, the well-known physicist Steven Weinberg epitomizes this reductive approach to ever regressing material reality. This may be contrasted with physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin’s synthetic approach to metaphysical form. Importantly, it removed a whole domain of explananda for interactions not included in contiguous, extrinsic relations, which were defined by a priori, autonomously oriented undertakings and were propertied features of a unique class of material entities, living organisms.
Confined to an a posteriori, explanatory domain de la Mettrie evolved the propertied features of his mechanistic anthropology: 1) compositional/reductive, 2) mechanistic/functional, and, later, 3) deterministic, thereby eliminating as a property, autonomously pursued options. The adoption of this property trio thus advanced the antithesis to the three property states traditionally accorded to human nature: a) the loss of its unity, that is, as a holism, entity, or single substance, b) the loss of self, that is, as a center of action origin, and c) the loss of freedom, that is, as in the undertaking of action, here understood the implementation of agency, subject to rational decision making. Accordingly, it eviscerated the notion of human nature as individuated, self present, and self-determined.
As appropriated in the modern era, and amplified by post Cartesian Idealist luminaries like Locke and Kant, the Bacon/Descartes empiricist legacy is often indiscriminately invoked in neuroscience across a cognitive hierarchy. Their interpretive conclusions yield comparable anthropological inferences to those of de la Mettrie, like Metzinger’s Ego Tunnel and Wegner’s causal closure used to argue for determinist behavior. The indiscriminate and exclusive application of a posteriori explananda, however, is increasingly irreconcilable with global neuroscientific phenomena that appear to be structured a priori as a dynamic outcome of autonomous pursuits.
I will argue this last argument by comparing neuroscientific findings, which have been used to underwrite de la Mettrie’s mechanical man at the levels of unity, action source, and action selection, with those that provide for an opening to a more human anthropology as revealed by neuroscience in a priori explananda entailing the dynamic configuring of the human being as a locus of action. This argument will not be taken up here, however, but will follow with installments contrasting the purposed charges usually devoted to burnishing today's mechanical man versus the epistemological rags often accorded to his countrified human cousin.