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WE have seen throughout this book that for several centuries there has existed a

very strong tendency for

one form or another of the philosophy of mechanism to be generally adopted among
physicists. In Chapters
II and III we have described the essentials of this philosophy in some detail, a
nd have given a general
outline of how this philosophy has developed in response to the new problems wit
h which physics was
faced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the present chapter we s
hall criticize this philosophy,
demonstrating the weaknesses in its basic assumptions, and then we shall go on t
o propose a different and
broader point of view which we believe to correspond more nearly than does mecha
nism to the implications
of scientific research in a wide range of fields. In addition to presenting this
broader point of view in some
detail, we shall also show how it permits a more satisfactory resolution of seve
ral important problems,
scientific as well as philosophical, than is possible within the framework of a
mechanistic philosophy.
The essential characteristics of a mechanistic philosophy in the most general fo
rm that it has developed thus
far in physics are the following:
The enormous diversity of things found in the world, both in common experience a
nd in scientific
research, can all be reduced completely and perfectly and unconditionally (i.e.
without approximation and
in every possible domain) to nothing more than the effects of some definite and
limited general framework
of laws. While it is admitted that the details of these laws may be subjected to
changes in accordance with
new experimental results that may be obtained in the future, its basic general f
eatures are regarded as absolute
and final. This means that the fundamental entities that are supposed to exist,
the kinds of qualities that
define the modes of being of these entities, and the general kinds of relationsh
ips in terms of which the
basic laws are to be expressed, are supposed to fit into some fixed and limited
physical and mathematical
scheme, which could in principle be subjected to a complete and exhaustive formu
lation, if indeed it is not
supposed that this has already been done. At bottom, the only changes that are r
egarded as possible within
this scheme are quantitative changes in the parameters or functions defining the
state of the system (as
precisely as the nature of the system permits this state to be defined),* while
fundamental qualitative
changes in the modes of being of the basic entities and in the forms in which th
e basic laws are to be
expressed are not regarded as possible. Thus, the essence of the mechanistic pos
ition lies in its assumption
of fixed basic qualities, which means that the laws themselves will finally redu
ce to purely quantitative
relationships. As we have seen in previous chapters, the philosophy of mechanism
has undergone an
extensive evolution in its specific form, all the while retaining the essential
characteristics described above,

in forms that tend, however, to become more and more complex and subtle with the
further development of
We shall now review some of the most important criticisms that can be made again
st the philosophy of
First of all, the historical development of physics has not confirmed the basic
assumptions of this
philosophy, but rather, has continually contradicted them. Thus, since the time
of Newton, there have been
introduced, not only the whole series of specific changes in the conceptual stru
cture of physics that was
discussed in Chapter II, but also the revolutionary changes in the whole general
framework, brought about
by the theory of relativity and the quantum theory. Moreover, physics is now face
d with a crisis in which it
is generally admitted that further changes will have to take place, which will p
robably be as revolutionary
compared to relativity and the quantum theory as these theories are compared to
classical physics.
Secondly, the mechanistic assumption of the absolute and final character of any
feature of our theories is
never necessary. For the possibility is always open that such a feature has only
a relative and limited
validity, and that the limits of its validity may be discovered in the future. T
hus, Newton s laws of motion,
regarded as absolute and final for over two hundred years, were eventually found
to have a limited domain
of validity, these limits having finally been expressed with the aid of the quan
tum theory and the theory of
relativity. Indeed, as we saw in more detail in Chapter II, Sections 13 and 15,
the mechanistic thesis that
certain features of our theories are absolute and final is an assumption that is
not subject to any conceivable
kind of experimental proof, so that it is, at best, purely philosophical in char
Thirdly, the assumption of the absolute and final character of any feature of ou
r theories contradicts the
basic spirit of the scientific method itself, which requires that every feature
be subjected to continual
probing and testing, which may show up contradictions at any point where we come
into a new domain or to
a more accurate study of previously known domains than has hitherto been carried
out. Indeed, the normal
pattern that has developed without exception in every field of science studied t
hus far has been just the
appearance of an endless series of such contradictions, each of which has led to
a new theory permitting an
improved and deeper understanding of the material under investigation. Thus, the
full and consistent
application of the scientific method makes sense only in a context in which we r
efrain from assuming the
absolute and final character of any feature of any theory and in which we theref
ore do not accept a
mechanistic philosophy.