Cartesian-Newtonian Paradigm

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David Hookes:

"As is well known Descartes assumed that there was a fundamental divide between mind and matter, that is, between mental and physical processes. The material world was thus conceived of as a machine with mechanical laws governing its behaviour, namely, Newton’s Laws of motion of matter. The mind and its processes were capable of understanding these laws through its own internal laws of reason. Nature was itself also subject to mechanical laws so that all creatures in the living world were complex machines. This paradigm remains central to the bourgeois understanding of the relationship between individuals and society, and between humankind and nature in general.

As Zohar and Marshall point out, using the word ‘Mechanism’ as short-hand, in effect, for the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm:

“Mechanism stresses an unbridgeable gulf between human beings and the physical world. Human consciousness has no role or place in Newton’s vast world machine. As the French biologist Jacques Monod describes it, we live ‘like gypsies...on the boundary of an alien world’. This sense of an alien physical realm was extended, in association with Christian influence, to the wider world of nature. Nature is perceived as wholly ‘other’ than ourselves, a force to be conquered and used”

They go on to list the other characteristic features of the Cartesian-Newtonian world of Mechanism:

“Mechanism stresses the absolute, the unchanging and the certain. Ambiguity is an enemy. Newton’s absolute space-time coordinates are the framework for a fixed, predictable and rigidly law-abiding universe. Mechanistic society stresses the absolute centre with power radiating outwards. It stresses fixed role-playing and rigid bureaucratic organisation.

Mechanism stresses hierarchy. It structures existence according to ever descending units of analysis. Molecules are more basic than neurones, atoms more basic than molecules (..and so on). We structure power and authority in the same ladder of ascending and descending authority.

Mechanism stresses isolated, separate and interchangeable parts. Everything in Newton’s universe is ultimately reducible to so many individual atoms and the forces acting between them. Atomism encourages a model of relationship based on conflict and confrontation, on part against part. In our times Hobbes’s mechanistic ‘war of each man against each man’ takes the form of the ultimate conflict. ‘Most obviously’ says Princeton’s Richard Falk, ‘nuclear weapons as instruments for struggle of part against part doom the whole....’

Atomism underlies the modern cult of the expert, the detached individual who is very knowledgeable about isolated bits of information or experience but ignorant of the whole of which these bits are a part. The parts are alienated from each other and from the whole; and the whole is subject to fragmentation. The expert is alienated from the situation or community in which s/he practises her/his expertise.

The industrial revolution, and the mass production that followed in its wake, extended this alienation to our understanding of human beings and the nature of our labour. In the vast industrial machine ( or large corporate organisation) the individual labourer becomes a’ factor of production’[ or ‘unit of resource’ to use modern terminology-DH], an objectified unit in the standardised production process. His/her personal and social relationships and anything we might define as spiritual qualities are isolated from the wholly separate and rigidly bureaucratised world of work. Mechanism’s employees are, as Marx pointed out, alienated both from themselves as wider beings and from the products of their own labour.

Of course the central contradiction in the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview is that it cannot account for the origin and characteristics of human consciousness. Both founders of this paradigm would have appealed to the metaphysical notion of a ‘God’ who was responsible for human feelings and consciousness, which would be seen as part of God’s creation of the individual ‘soul’. Even today, when the concept of the soul has long since been discarded as scientifically useless, the material basis of consciousness is still a matter of keen debate.” (

Source of the quotes: Zohar, Danah and Marshal, Ian (1994) The Quantum Society pp5-6, London, Flamingo (HarperCollins).

MARKUS PETZ doubts this is so:

Hmnn I read the article and I disagree. Descartes - maybe he dispensed with an active God. but Newton certainly did not - in fact he wrote more on religion than pure science - "Human consciousness has no role or place in Newton’s vast world machine" but Newton's views allow for such a human consciousness. He certainly was not a reductionist to the level in the article.

WIKIPEDIA shows this in the quotes which follow: "Newton claimed that in writing the Principia "I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity".[71] He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: "Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice". But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities.[72] For this, Leibniz lampooned him: "God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion."[73] Newton's position was vigorously defended by his follower Samuel Clarke in a famous correspondence."