On Mechanism

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A reflection on the fragments of the fifth century atomists (Leucippus and Democritus)

I have previously examined the centrality of belief – secular or religious – to the formation of identity, and then how those beliefs “stack” in order to create a coherent ideology, ranging from cosmology to politics. I have been careful to highlight the interplay of these different intellectual streams as they mix in the realm of debate. However, today I want to discuss a particular school of thought that makes cross-paradigmatic discussion difficult, whilst simultaneously acting as the root of modernizing and progressive ideologies – mechanism.

Mechanism is the belief that the universe is unfurling in the predetermined pattern. Religious interpretations of this include Calvanist Theologies, with God’s omnipotence resulting in predetermined salvation and damnation, and flourishing in its secular mode in the writings of philosophers such as Hegel and Marx. The starkest example of mechanism is found in reductionist Scientism – the belief that the world is reducible to a set of intelligible laws. All these theories share a similar faith in the nature of the Cosmos – it’s inevitability.

It is this aspect of certainty and destiny which I find unsettling in mechanistic understandings of the Universe. Partially because, when followed to its logical extreme, it denies the plausibility of improvement or debate. If one becomes convinced of the inevitability of one’s point of view then why bother attempting to convince others – the reality will play out in future. Furthermore, the idea of a ‘destiny’ undercuts any potential self-criticism – allowing the ends to justify the means.

There is no doubt that interpretation of history can lead to a progressive understanding of history. Our pattern craving minds both need and desire useful narratives to comprehend the world. However, if we allow said narrative to shape the new information we receive and close us off to new ideas, we risk falling prey to the false idols of our ideology.

Original text



William Armstrong, Toronto Rolling Mill, 1864

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