The End of Mechanism, #3–From Kant’s Anti-Mechanism to Kantian Anti-Mechanism.

By Robert Hanna

“The Sea of Ice,” aka “The Death of Hope,” by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)
“Evergreens by the Waterfall,” by Caspar David Friedrich (1828)


I. Introduction

II. Natural Piety and the Limits of Science

III. From Kant’s Anti-Mechanism to Kantian Anti-Mechanism

IV. Organicism Unbound: In Defense of Natural Piety

V. Scientific Pietism and Scientific Naturalism

VI. How to Ground Natural Science on Sensibility

VII. Sensible Science 1: Natural Science Without Natural Mechanism

VIII. Sensible Science 2: Natural Science Without Physicalism

IX. Sensible Science 3: Natural Science Without Scientism

X. Frankenscience, the Future of Humanity, and the Future of Science



III. From Kant’s Anti-Mechanism to Kantian Anti-Mechanism

6. It is well-known that in the Critique of Pure Reason, the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics,and especially the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science,Kant is a self-described Newtonian mechanist about the manifest natural spacetime world, in which, as human animals, we must live, move, and have our being.

But as early as 1763, in his pre-Critical or Leibnizian/Wolffian period, in “The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God,” Kant explicitly rejected the preformationist conception of biological generation and embryogenesis, according to which creatures pre-exist in their basic forms or structures, and require only the mechanical addition of bulk in order to develop.

Instead, he defended the epigenetic view, whereby the basic forms or structures of creatures themselves are emergently generated by the spontaneous but also rule-governed operations of a goal-oriented or teleological vital source of some kind.

He even went so far as to assert that:

it would be absurd to regard the initial generation of a plant or an animal as a mechanical effect incidentally arising from the universal laws of nature. (OPA 2: 114)

In the Prolegomena he asserted the identity (or at least the strong continuity) of mind and life: “life is the subjective condition of all our possible experience” (Prol 4: 335).

In the Introduction to Metaphysical Foundations, he denied that there could ever be a naturally mechanistic science of psychology (MFNS 4:471).

In the second half of the Critique of the Power of Judgment, he not only asserted that “the mind is for itself entirely life (the principle of life itself)” (CPJ 5: 278) and also that

it would be absurd for humans ever to … hope that there might yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws (CPJ 5: 400),

but also worked out a number of fundamental concepts and methodological themes in the philosophy of biology, including the notion of a living organism, or self-organizing system, the various distinct kinds of teleology, and the special role of teleological concepts and teleological thinking in the natural sciences.

Finally, in the unfinished “Transition” project in the Opus postumum, Kant also hypothesized the dual emergence of natural mechanisms and organismic life (including mind) alike from a single ontologically neutral but also non-static material substrate, the dynamic aether (OP 21: 206–233, and 241).

7. So Kant’s commitment to Newtonian mechanism is, at the very least, somewhat conflicted.

Indeed, it is fully arguable that Kant is at bottom an anti-mechanist.

This, in turn, is the upshot of Jennifer Mensch’s fascinating recent philosophical-historical study, Kant’s Organicism,[i] which

starts by tracing the history of the life sciences as Kant would have come to know them, focusing especially on those philosophers and life scientists whose works directly engaged Kant during his intellectually formative years. Once Kant’s connection to the life sciences has been established, the remainder of the book moves to an examination of the exact nature of the influence of these sciences on the emerging critical system. When viewed from the perspective the life sciences in this manner, Kant’s theoretical philosophy becomes reframed as a philosophical project whose development was deeply influenced by the rise of organicism.[ii]

According to Mensch, the thesis of organicism “can be defined by its view of nature as something that cannot be reduced to a set of mechanical operations.”[iii]

This is crisp and cogent as an initial formulation; but I will also spell out the notion of organicism more carefully below.

Among other things, Kant’s Organicism nicely describes the intellectual state-of-play in natural history in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The first players are the mechanist corpuscularian Boyle, and Locke:

Locke was both a nominalist regarding species determination and a realist in believing that there were inner features contributing to species as well. In a similar fashion, Locke was both comfortable with a mechanical portrait of animal functioning and cognizant of the need for “inner principles” and “transformative forces” when it came to understanding the processes of organic life. And all this contributed to Locke’s views of both nature and the proper task of classification. Reviewing Locke’s early considerations of organic processes against the backdrop of corpuscular ontology reveals his sensitivity to the problems facing Boyle in the case of organic life. While Locke remained committed to the essential features of corpuscular science, he was nonetheless hesitant in the face of a straightforward endorsement of mechanical accounts of generation.[iv]

A similar hesitation as between mechanism and anti-mechanism can be found in the work of the second major player, Leibniz, who, heavily influenced by the Dutch microscopist Leeuwenhoek, took the view that “individuals were composed of living monads arranged hierarchically under a dominant entelechy or soul.”[v]

In the Monadology, anticipating both the Turing test for artificial intelligence and also Searle’s Chinese Room argument against machine functionalism and the strong thesis of artificial intelligence, Leibniz famously argued, by means of a thought-experiment whereby the goal-directed conscious processes of mind cannot be reduced to the external behaviors of an enormously complicated mill, that mentality cannot be reduced to physical mechanical operations.

But at the same time, Leibniz also thought of the living monads as spiritual automata pre-programmed by a 3-O (that is, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) God, the supreme monad, and endorsed preformationism.

One philosophical moral of this part of the story, I think, is that the very idea of natural mechanism is a hybrid that combines

(i) physical causal necessitation under natural laws,

(ii) Turing-computability, and

(iii) natural determinism.

But although physical causal necessitation under natural laws is sufficient for Turing-computability and determinism, it is not necessary.

According to the Leibnizian account, there can be non-physical automata.

Therefore we need to distinguish between

(i) causal mechanisms (e.g.,, Coke machines) which are necessarily physical, and

(ii) formal mechanisms (e.g., Turing-computable processes) which, although they are physically realizable, are not necessarily physical: in principle, disembodied Cartesian souls could run Turing-computable sequences.

Kant is at least implicitly aware of this important distinction between causal mechanisms and formal mechanisms, because in the Critique of Practical Reason he explicitly rejects the reduction of all spontaneous activity, including life, but also especially including free will, to the operations of Leibnizian spiritual automata, deriding the latter as “the freedom of a turnspit” (CPrR 5: 97).

Mensch also traces the origins of organicism to Georges Buffon’s highly influential epigenesist treatise, Natural History, the first three volumes of which appeared in 1749:

With Buffon natural history … became an attempt to grasp a living nature, to grasp species across time and, as a consequence, to base the classification of species upon genealogy. This marked a dramatic transformation in the history of a discipline that until then had been first and foremost a science oriented by its search for the means of discovering nature’s divisions and, for that reason, not at all by the patterns of its underlying unity.[vi]

Strictly speaking, Buffon’s version of epigenesis is still compatible with mechanism (whether causal or formal).

Correspondingly, the full theory of epigenesis would have to await the further postulation, in the 1780s, of organic vital forces or emergent vital forces, “like Caspar Wolff’s vis essentialis and Johan Blumenbach’s Bildungstrieb”[vii] — which of course anticipate later more famous 19th and 20th century vitalist notions like Schopenhauer’s Wille zum Leben and Bergson’s élan vital.

Nevertheless, the ground was prepared for Kant’s organicism.

Mensch also provides an account of Kant’s pre-Critical work on cosmological and biological questions of origin, and shows how this work not only smoothly fused with, but also primed, his Critical concern with the origins, scope, and limits of cognition and knowledge.

As Mensch puts it, there was

an intimate connection, in Kant’s view, between attempts to discover a “principle of life” within natural organisms and the search for something beyond the limits of the everyday world.[viii]

In other words, Kant found a paradigm case of the burning need for his Critical distinctions between phenomena and noumena on the one hand, and between the transcendental and the empirical on the other hand, in the debate about the origins of life:

It was the unity of purposes within organic life, the fact that organisms could be both self-sustaining and vigilant regarding the need for repair, that made natural products amazing, not the mechanical operations themselves. For Kant it was thus the principle of life, the capacity for a being’s generation and self-organization that needed explaining, and recourse to neither supernatural nor purely mechanical grounds of explanation could satisfy that need.[ix]

8. Basically, what is humanly cognizable and knowable about life (or what I will call the organicist phenomena) are the non-mechanical, spontaneous activities of the perceivable organism, not some vital substance with an intrinsic non-relational essence hiding behind the appearances (or what I will call the organicist noumenon).

So Kant’s organicism, as Mensch’s book so effectively shows, captures his brilliant insight that mechanical principles and facts cannot explain the organicist phenomena, namely:

(i) natural teleology or organismic life, including plants and animals,

(ii) any organism with proprioceptive enantiomorphic awareness of the difference between its right side and its left side (or top and bottom, or front and back, etc.), or an awareness of the difference between its own past, present, and future: the feeling of egocentrically-centered (here) embodied orientation in a global space-structure with intrinsic directions, and egocentically-centered (now) asymmetric duration in a global time-structure, i.e., the feeling of organismic, conscious life, whose phenomenal characters are all modes of pleasure or pain,

(iii) human mentality, including consciousness, intentionality, imagination, conceptualizing, judging, and inferential reasoning,[x]

(iv) human spontaneity, agency, and source-incompatibilist free will, and

(v) human non-instrumental normativity.

9. But at the same time, Kant himself could never fully advance beyond the thesis that organicist concepts have only a regulative use, not a constitutive use.

Why not?

It seems to me that Kant was needlessly bedazzled by the very ideas of Newtonian mechanics and Newtonian mechanism, as jointly constituting a hyper-successful research program in 17th and 18th century natural science.

Over-impressed by this (admittedly still very impressive) Newtonian program, Kant could not see that the existence of a natural world that fundamentally contains significantly many causal-mechanical and formal-mechanical deterministic processes is perfectly consistent with the manifest organicist fact that the natural world also fundamentally contains significantly many non-mechanical, non-deterministic processes in it, including teleological and mental processes, as well as inherent non-instrumentally normative rules guiding these processes.

Indeed, we already know from Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem that formal-mechanical processes of Turing-computable proof presuppose non-mechanical semantic processes of non-Turing-computable truth-determination.

As a consequence, universal formal mechanism is provably false.

Why then should we accept universal causal mechanism, especially when one of its necessary conditions is the supposed universality of formal mechanism?

10. In other words, what I am proposing is that, with the organicist phenomena as a starting-point, we can metaphysically postulate that the natural world is fundamentally dual aspect, and that it is at once mechanical-deterministic in one of its fundamental dual aspects, and also non-mechanical-non-deterministic (in a word, organicist), in the other of its fundamental dual aspects, including the irreducible existence of both causally non-mechanical processes and also formally non-mechanical processes.

Therefore, quite apart from Kant’s own needless deference to the Newtonian research program, we can, in a fully Kantian spirit, put forward the radical thought that there is a fully constitutive use of organicist concepts, insofar as they are required by a transcendental inference to the best explanation of all the organicist phenomena.

Or, as Thomas Nagel formulates essentially the same point in Mind and Cosmos (for which, predictably, he received a torrent of angry criticism from scientific naturalists[xi]), we can metaphysically postulate a “cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.”[xii]

11. In any case, here is the basic line of reasoning behind that radical Kantian thought.

Kant’s fundamental philosophical problem, the one that he struggled with throughout his long philosophical career, is this:

How can the existence of non-mechanical, non-deterministic facts that are necessary for the purposes of morality, be made consistent and coherent with the thesis that necessarily, all the natural objects studied by physics (namely, the “objects of experience”) are mechanical and deterministic?

Since all organisms, including conscious rational human organisms, or human persons, are non-mechanical and non-deterministic, then Kant’s fundamental problem becomes focused like a laser beam on this specific formulation of his fundamental problem:

How can the existence of living conscious rational human animals, namely, human persons, capable of genuine incompatibilistic free will, necessary for the purposes of morality, be made consistent and coherent with with the thesis that necessarily, all the natural objects studied by physics (namely, the “objects of experience”) are mechanical and deterministic?

Now as every reader of the first Critique knows, for Kant, there are two basic kinds of objects in his ontological framework:

(i) phenomena, namely spatiotemporal objects directly accessible to and knowable by human sensory intuition and sense perception, that are constituted by relational properties, especially including relations to actual or possible human sensible minds, and

(ii) noumena, namely non-spatiotemporal, humanly sensorily inaccessible, unperceivable, and unknowable objects, which may or may not exist, but even if they do exist, are constituted by intrinsic non-relational properties, and are at best barely consistently thinkable by means of concepts.

Of course, as every reader of the first Critique also knows, the question of the actual, real existence or non-existence of noumena is deeply controversial.

But what many readers of the first Critique have not noticed is that equally important for Kant is the distinction, exclusively within the domain of phenomena, between:

(ia) undetermined objects of empirical intuition, aka, appearances, and

(ib) fully determined objects of empirical intuition, empirical concepts, empirical judgments, and pure a priori concepts of the understanding, aka objects of experience.

For Kant, as a Newtonian mechanist and also a LaPlacean determinist about physical nature insofar as it is correctly described by physics, mechanism necessitates natural determinism, and conversely, natural determinism entails mechanism.

So all the actual and possible objects of experience are mechanical and deterministic.

But here’s the rub: all and only the actual and possible objects of experience are mechanical and deterministic, but not all the actual or possible appearances.

Since the total set of pure a priori concepts of the understanding specifies a world of objects inherently governed by Newtonian mechanistic principles and laws, then, although all the fully determined objects, namely, the objects of experience, are inherently governed by Newtonian mechanistic principles and laws, and therefore are deterministic and not free, it does not follow that all the undetermined objects, namely, the appearances, are either mechanical (whether causal-mechanical or formal-mechanical) or deterministic.

In other words, since for Kant the sensible intuitability of an object, independently of concepts, is the criterion of the object’s real possibility, then it is either actual or at least really possible that at least some appearances are non-mechanical and non-deterministic, and that they are cognitively accessible by means of essentially non-conceptual sensible intuitions.[xiii]

Let us call such essentially non-conceptually sensibly intuitable appearances, insofar as they actually exist, or were they to exist, rogue objects, since they fall outside the Categories and the system of transcendental principles, or at least fall outside Kant’s “constitutive” causal-dynamical principles (namely, the Analogies of Experience, and the Postulates of Empirical Thought) and therefore outside the deterministic causal laws of nature,[xiv] even if they do continue to fall under the “regulative” mathematical principles (namely, the Axioms of Intuition, and the Anticipations of Perception).

The actual existence or real possibility of rogue objects would mean that the phenomenal natural world, that is, the manifest world, the world of Wilfrid Sellars’s “manifest image,”[xv] actually or really possibly includes some appearances that are also not objects of experience, namely the rogue objects, and that we can access these rogue-object phenomena only through essentially non-conceptual intuition.

These non-mechanical, non-deterministic rogue-object phenomena, in turn, would include all and only the organicist phenomena, as specified above, and this would in turn directly imply that the phenomenal natural or manifest world includes some objects that are also not objects of mechanistic physics, mechanistic chemistry, and mechanistic biology, and therefore also that mechanistic natural science is not, to borrow Sellars’s famous phrase, “the measure of all things.”[xvi]

Thus scientific or ontological and explanatory materialist/physicalist naturalism (whether reductive or non-reductive) would be false, and mechanistic natural science would apply to all and only the natural objects and facts to which it applies, but not to all actual or possible natural objects and facts.

In short, mechanistic natural science would have philosophical limits within nature itself.

Contrary to scientific or physicalist naturalism, then, the thesis of liberal or organicist-idealist naturalism would be true.

More precisely, the liberal naturalist, or organicist-idealist naturalist, thesis says that the manifest world fundamentally contains the real existence or real possibility of organismic life, the feeling of life, mind, source-incompatibilist free will, persons, and non-instrumental normativity as basic organicist facts of nature, along with the basic formal-mechanical and causal-mechanical physical facts, and that the basic kind of item is dynamic systems, or dynamic processes, both mechanical/deterministic and non-mechanical/non-deterministic, such that the mechanical/deterministic kind presupposes either the actual existence or the real possibility of the non-mechanical, non-deterministic kind.[xvii]

Bluntly put: source-incompatibilist free will is a fact of organismic life, and partially constitutive of physical nature.

Or in Nagel’s words again, “rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order,” and there is a “cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them.”

This, in turn, would solve Kant’s fundamental problem, not by appealing to anything supernatural, but instead by liberalizing our concept of physical nature.

And again in turn, this revolutionary philosophical move — the liberalization of our concept of physical nature — is the essential entry gate to the radical philosophy of science I want to defend.


For convenience, I cite Kant’s works infratextually in parentheses. The citations include both an abbreviation of the English title and the corresponding volume and page numbers in the standard “Akademie” edition of Kant’s works: Kants gesammelte Schriften, edited by the Königlich Preussischen (now Deutschen) Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: G. Reimer [now de Gruyter], 1902-). For references to the first Critique, I follow the common practice of giving page numbers from the A (1781) and B (1787) German editions only. Because the Akademie edition contains only the B edition of the first Critique, I have also consulted the following German composite edition: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, ed. W. Weischedel, Immanuel Kant Werkausgabe III (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968). I generally follow the standard English translations of Kant’s works, but have occasionally modified them where appropriate. Here is a list of the relevant abbreviations and English translations of works directly relevant to this essay:

CPJ Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.

CPR Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. P. Guyer and A. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.

CPrR Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 139–272.

GMM Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, pp. 43–108.

DS “Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space,” in Immanuel Kant: Theoretical Philosophy, 1755–1770. Trans. D. Walford and R. Meerbote. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992. Pp. 361–372.

DSS “Dreams of a Spirit Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics,” in Immanuel Kant: Theoretical Philosophy, 1755–1770. Pp. 301–359.

ID “On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (Inaugural Dissertation).” In Immanuel Kant: Theoretical Philosophy: 1755–1770. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992. Pp. 373–416.

MFNS Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. Trans. M. Friedman. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004.

OP Immanuel Kant: Opus postumum. Trans. E. Förster and M. Rosen. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.

OPA “The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God.”Trans. D. Walford and R. Meerbote. In Immanuel Kant: Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992. Pp. 107–201.

Prol Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Trans. G. Hatfield. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004.

Rel Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Trans. A. Wood and G. di Giovanni. In Immanuel Kant: Religion and Rational Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. Pp. 57–215.

WiE “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, pp. 17–22.

[i] J. Mensch, Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of the Critical Philosophy (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013).

[ii] Ibid, pp. ix-x. See also S.M. Shell, The Embodiment of Reason: Kant on Spirit, Generation, and Community (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), ch. 9.

[iii] Mensch, Kant’s Organicism, p. 1.

[iv] Ibid, pp. 27–28.

[v] Ibid, p. 29.

[vi] Ibid, p. 50.

[vii] Ibid, p. 36.

[viii] Ibid, p. 61.

[ix] Ibid, p. 64.

[x] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant’s B Deduction, Cognitive Organicism, the Limits of Natural Science, and the Autonomy of Consciousness,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 4 (2019): 29–46, available online at URL = <>.

[xi] The standard criticisms of Nagel (when they aren’t simply ad hominem) are (i) that he is ignorant of recent and contemporary work in evolutionary biology, and (ii) that he completely overlooks the distinction between reductive and non-reductive biological (or more generally, scientific) naturalism. I think that these worries are nothing but philosophical red herrings, intentionally or unintentionally employed in order to avoid facing up to the deep anti-mechanist/organicist-idealist/liberal naturalist point that Nagel is trying to make. See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Nagel & Me: Beyond the Scientific Conception of the World,” available online at URL = <>.

[xii] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), p. 123.

[xiii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant and Nonconceptual Content,” European Journal of Philosophy 13 (2005): 247–290; R. Hanna, “Kantian Non-Conceptualism,” Philosophical Studies, 137 (2008): 41–64; R. Hanna, “Beyond the Myth of the Myth: A Kantian Theory of Non-Conceptual Content,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 19 (2011): 323–398; and Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori, ch. 2.

[xiv] R. Hanna, “Kant’s Non-Conceptualism, Rogue Objects, and the Gap in the B Deduction,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 19 (2011): 399–415; R. Hanna, “Kant’s Theory of Judgment,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), available online at URL = <>, supplement 1; R. Hanna, “Kant, Hegel, and the Fate of Non-Conceptual Content,” Hegel Society of Great Britain Bulletin 34 (2013): 1–32; and R. Hanna, “Kantian Madness: Blind Intuitions, Essentially Rogue Objects, Nomological Deviance, and Categorial Anarchy” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 1 (2016): 44–64, available online at URL = <!Kantian-Madness-Blind-Intuitions-Essentially-Rogue-Objects-Nomological-Deviance-and-Categorial-Anarchy/cmbz/576018190cf2c6c572641509>.

[xv] See W. Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 1–40.

[xvi] W. Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, pp. 127–196, at p. 173.

[xvii] See, e.g., R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), also available in preview, HERE; and R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview, HERE.


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