The Fourth Error: Living Things Are Machines

From the Bring Back Reason series.

What is the meaning of “life”?

Biology is the science that studies life. It is rather odd that no mainstream Biology textbook, either on the secondary or collegiate levels, actually defines “life.” Sure, a Biology textbook will provide “characteristics of life,” noting that a living organism does certain things like reproduce, grow, metabolize, respond to their environment, have a high level of organization, and such. But giving characteristics of a thing is not the same as giving a definition of it. For example, if I asked for a definition of the word “car” a correct answer would be something like “a motorized vehicle for ordinary land transportation.” It would not be adequate for someone to answer that a car has four wheels, a steering wheel, some seats, and the capacity to move.

So why this reluctance to define “life”? The simple answer is that many people no longer believe that what is commonly thought of as life can be defined, or, to put it more sharply, that there is real meaning to the term “life.” To a realist and to many if not most people this is rather shocking and somewhat ironic. Do many biologists today actually believe that their subject matter – life – is so lacking in intelligibility? What would happen if a geologist stopped believing in rocks? Or if a meteorologist stopped believing in weather?

Even so, this is exactly what has happened. The field of biology is plagued by a profound skepticism regarding whether its subject – life – is actually real. The deeper reason for this quandary is the methodological move ushered in by Bacon, Descartes, and others. It is simply not possible to define life without referring to formal causality, as well as being cognizant of its partner, final causality. Classically, a living organism is defined as a “naturally organized body.” We have already seen some of the rich levels of meaning in the word natural. The key distinction here is that a living organism is natural in the sense that it occurs in nature, that its form is natural, that it is not something that is an artifice of man. The words organized and body add the notion that the living organism has a principle of unity and function that is intrinsic to itself, that it contains within itself its own principle of self-perfective action. An organism is organized in such a way that it orders its own actions for particular ends that are in accord with its own perfection. An acorn grows and develops into an oak tree and every step of the way the development is ordered toward the complete majestic tree with branches spread wide to the sun’s rays. A cat stalks its prey seeking the nourishment that will contribute to its growth and flourishing. As a “body,” a living organism is a unified substance with a definite boundary between its own being and the environment around it.

So the definition “naturally organized body” strongly refers to a principle of unity that is intrinsic to the particular organism in question. It requires an understanding of the organism as a whole, a whole that is necessarily more than the sum of its parts. And this is precisely what empirical scientists find difficult. As said before, it is not necessarily the case that focusing strongly on the component parts and their functional and mechanical arrangement requires that someone forgo seeing the whole as well. But the methodological decision to set aside consideration of the whole in favor of the parts does lead to the temptation to think of the whole as simply a conglomeration of parts. To see a living thing as alive is to see that it has a principle of self-perfective motion that accounts for its profound unity. This is nothing less than a keen apprehension of the need for formal causality when considering life. Sure, you can ignore the unity of an organism and simply study the parts and their interactions. You can effectively determine ways to manipulate these mechanisms to promote an organism’s overall health without considering the organism as alive (so long as you do not stop too long to think what “health” actually means). But it is rather odd that you end up with biologists who are skeptical about what it means to be alive, or whether the word “living” actually means anything other than a series of characteristics that are common to things people think of as alive.

On man as machine: to transhumanism and beyond

But there is a more insidious side to this particular type of reductionism. This shows up when the distinction between a living organism and a machine is blurred. I know of no example of this blurring before the time of Bacon and Descartes. It seems that the earlier history of our race was innocent of this particular type of toxic thinking. Descartes infamously began this type of thinking by postulating that a human person could simply be a brain in a vat controlled by an evil genius. The recent movie The Matrix (and its sequels) basically is a more developed reincarnation of this same Cartesian theme. We could look to Mary Shelley’s 1818 work Frankenstein as another work that explores the limits of a mechanical understanding of life. Today there are perhaps too many examples of conflating living organisms and machines in popular movies and science fiction to mention. The most drastic example is not a work of fiction but a movement, well funded and growing in popularity, that looks toward the “singularity” as the next stage in evolution when human life will be superseded by a new computer-enhanced “organism” of far superior intelligence and power.

The specific philosophical error involved in blurring the distinction between a living organism and a machine is failing to see the distinction between a natural form and an artificial one. A natural form is the unifying principle that accounts for an organism being an organism of a particular kind. It accounts for the unity of the living thing, with all diverse parts integrated in a coordinated whole, and inheres in the organism completely. A technological gadget only has form and unity in an accidental way, as something imposed upon the materials used to construct the device by those who have designed it. The form is really only in the mind of the designer and does not actually inhere in the thing itself. This can be seen, for example, in the danger of a living thing rejecting an organ transplant, not subsuming it into the body but rejecting it as something artificial. There is no such danger when a wire or part from one electronic device is replaced with another similar one. Likewise the growth of an organism is not the same as the activity of a machine. There is an ontological difference between the acorn that contains within itself the capacity to grow into an oak tree and even the most advanced robot that is programmed to carry out functions that include sophisticated ways of responding to its environment.

It is difficult to overstate what is at stake on this point. Conflated thinking about living things and machines is only made possible by failing to see the vast array of living creatures as natural. It is a failure to see nature as natural. The net result can only be a transnatural mode of thinking that in its final stages would accelerate quickly beyond former boundaries that were thought to be unquestionable.  If human reason is not restored to its rightful place, contemporary movements currently underway could develop into a transhumanism whose incarnations will be much more frightening than a somewhat romantic “singularity” that some see in terms of the march of progress. Along these lines I find CS Lewis’s vision of this type of future quite insightful. The thesis developed in his essay The Abolition of Man is presented in a literary way in his novel That Hideous Strength, in the world promoted by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE). Lewis might be right that what is really behind this type of thinking is much more than toxic human ideas. Indeed we cannot rule out the presence of the diabolical here.

While I do think that most people today are uncomfortable with the predominance of an overly mechanized and functional worldview, I am particularly concerned with how this general sense of discomfort has not led people back to a fully rational appreciation of the natural world. Along these lines I am concerned that the connection between care for the environment and restoring a healthy human ecology, a central theme of Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si, has not been more widely recognized. This is not only a problem for those who lack faith but for many who do believe in God. For example, many believers who are engaging the so-called “new atheists” give up far too much by acknowledging the validity of a mechanical worldview right from the start. A major fault in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement is that it often concedes this fundamental point. ID theorists seek evidence of God’s handiwork in the mechanical complexity of different organs, such as the eye with its “irreducible complexity.” The new atheists see nature in mechanical terms and seek the mechanism that accounts for the mechanics. Some ID theorists likewise see nature in predominantly mechanical terms and argue that the mechanical complexity is so great that no natural mechanism can possibly account for such structures, which thus must have been “designed” by some greater “intelligence.” We can perhaps applaud the ID movement for seeking the hand of God in nature. But by conceding to Descartes that we can basically do away with formal and final causality, ID theorists end up with a God who is more of a designer than a Creator. They fail to get to the root of the problem and end up arguing for a deist god rather than the True God, the Creator and Lord of the universe.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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