The End of Mechanism, #4–Organicism Unbound: In Defense of Natural Piety.

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


This installment contains section IV.

But can you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete essay HERE.


IV. Organicism Unbound: In Defense of Natural Piety

12. Anti-mechanism or organicism in its classical early 20th century guise, as “British emergentism,” has its original intellectual roots in Aristotle’s De Anima and Physics, and in the 17th and 18th century epigenesist-organicist tradition so well described by Mensch, when these accounts are combined with late 18th and early 19th century Romantic conceptions of nature, expressed for example in the seventh of Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Wordsworth’s and Percy Shelley’s poetry, and their notion of “natural piety,” by Mary Shelley’s stunning critique of mechanistic-reductive scientific sins against natural piety, in Frankenstein, and by Caspar David Friedrich’s and J. M. Turner’s nature paintings.

All or most of these, in turn, have their proximal intellectual sources in Kant’s assertions of the cognitive-semantic limits of science and scientific knowledge in the Critique of Pure Reason, of anti-mechanism/organicism in his moral and political philosophy, and also of a direct epistemic, metaphysical, and moral link, via immediate reverential consciousness, between the “starry heavens above me” and the “moral law within me” at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason, taken together with the closely-related a priori intuitional starting points of his “transcendental aesthetics”: the experiences of the beautiful in nature and the sublime; with the non-discursive creative capacity for genius; and with the anti-mechanistic/organicist and teleological concepts of life and purposiveness-without-a-purpose in the Critique of the Power of Judgment.

13. Correspondingly, here are some of the most important texts in this “natural piety” tradition, running from Rousseau and Kant through Wordsworth, and the Shelleys to the British emergentist, Samuel Alexander:

A deep and sweet revery seizes your senses, and you lose yourself with a delicious drunkenness in the immensity of this beatiful system with which you identify yourself. Then all particular objects fall away; you see nothing and feel nothing except in the whole… I never meditate or dream more delightfully than when I forget my self. I feel indescribable ecstasy, delirium in melting, as it were, into the system of beings, in identifying myself with the whole of nature.

Brilliant flowers, enamelled meadows, fresh shades, streams, woods, verdure, come, purify my imagination … My soul, dead to all strong emotions, can be affected now only by sensory objects, and it is only through them that pleasure and pain can reach me.[i]

[I] had to deny scientific knowing (Wissen) in order to make room for faith (Glaube). (CPR Bxxx, boldfacing in the original)

When nature has unwrapped, from under this hard shell, the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby gradually becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with his dignity. (WiE 8: 41–42)

All necessity of events in time in accordance with the laws of natural law of causality can be called the mechanism of nature…. Here one looks only to the necessity of the connection of events in a time series as it develops in accordance with natural law, whether the subject in which this development takes place is called automaton materiale, when the machinery is driven by matter, or with Leibniz spirituale, when it is driven by representations; and if the freedom of our will were none other than the latter…, then it would at bottom be nothing other than the freedom of a turnspit, which, when once it is wound up, also accomplishes its movements of itself. (CPrR 5: 97)

[T]wo things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or on the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. (CPrR 5: 161–162)

An organized being is … not a mere machine, for that has only a motive power, while the organized being possesses in itself a formative power, and indeed one that it communicates to matter, which does not have it (it organizes the latter): thus it has self-propagating formative power, which cannot be explained through the capacity for movement alone (that is, mechanism). (CPJ 5: 374, boldfacing in the original)

It is quite certain that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans to make an attempt or to hope that there could ever arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings. (CPJ 5: 400)

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.[ii]

Earth, ocean, air, belov’d brotherhood!

If our great Mother has imbued my soul

With aught of natural piety to feel

Your love, and recompense the boon with mine.[iii]

One of the phaenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? ….To examine the causes of life we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body…. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses….I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness, a sudden light broke in upon me…. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter…. I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am so reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.[iv]

I do not mean by natural piety exactly what Wordsworth meant by it–the reverent joy in nature, by which he wished that his days might be bound to each other–though there is enough connection with his interpretation to justify me in using his phrase. The natural piety I am going to speak of is that of the scientific investigator, by which he accepts with loyalty the mysteries which he cannot explain in nature and has no right to try to explain. I may describe it as the habit of knowing when to stop in asking questions of nature.

[T]hat organization which is alive is not merely physico-chemical, though completely resoluble into such terms, but has the new quality of life. No appeal is needed, so far as I can see, to a vital force or even an élan vital. It is enough to note the emergence of the quality, and try to describe what is involved in its conditions…. The living body is also physical and chemical. It surrenders no claim to be considered a part of the physical world. But the new quality of life is neither chemical nor mechanical, but something new.

We may and must observe with care our of what previous conditions these new creations arise. We cannot tell why they should assume these qualities. We can but accept them as we find them, and this acceptance is natural piety.[v]

14. Because I am taking Kant’s transcendental idealism to be a real, and in particular, an empirically realistic or manifest-realist metaphysics of nature, and not merely epistemology, it follows with synthetic a priori necessity that space, time, quantity, movement, organismic life and natural teleology, consciousness, feeling and emotion, aesthetic form including beauty and sublimity, and morality, are all manifestly real, ontologically basic structures in the natural world of human experience.

The Kantian-Romantic-British-emergentist philosophical doctrine of natural piety, as I understand it, then, counsels a radically agnostic, empirically realistic or manifest-realist, and metaphysically sane (where the criteria of metaphysical sanity are determined by Kant’s critique of modal metaphysics in the Transcendental Dialectic), aesthetically-sensitive, ethically-sensitive, natural-religious, and above all anti-mechanistic/organicist, non-reductive, non-dualist, primitivist approach to investigating nature, that is pro-science but not scientistic, by virtue of knowing the inherent scope and limits of natural-scientific investigation.

Natural piety, in turn, as a thesis in real metaphysics and also as an aesthetic, emotional, and natural-religious, action-guiding, and above all life-guiding, respectful, and reverential attitude towards manifest nature, is intended as an essential corrective to the epistemic and metaphysical arrogance, and also to the aesthetic insensitivity and military-industrial coercive authoritarianism, of the noumenally realistic, reductive, naturally mechanistic epistemology and metaphysics of the “scientific conception of the world” and its corresponding deeply exploitative “lordship and mastery of nature” ideology, fully aligned with global corporate capitalist technocracy,[vi] as it has been explicitly or implicitly developed, defended, and disseminated by Bacon,[vii] by Descartes,[viii] by The Vienna Circle,[ix] and by recent and contemporary scientific naturalists.

15. Thus the real-metaphysical-thesis-and-life-guiding-respectful-and-reverential attitude of natural piety gives a rich sense to the radical poet Muriel Rukeyser’s deep insight that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”[x]

The real universe, the one that really matters for rational but also “human, all too human” creatures like us, is made of minded animals, especially human persons, and their manifestly real normative “stories,” not of fundamentally physical, life-excluding, mind-excluding, freedom-excluding matter and its noumenal-microphysical “atoms.”

That is: not only, in Nagelian terminology, is “rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order,” such that there is a “cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them,” but also our philosophical recognition of these facts puts inherent epistemic, metaphysical, aesthetic, ethical, natural-religious, and sociocultural-political critical limits on the scope of natural science.

16. In short, Kantian natural piety is a branch of real metaphysics — “metaphysics with a human face” — but above all it is committed to the primacy of the normative, that is, to the thesis that metaphysics has axiological foundations, and also direct aesthetic, ethical, natural-religious, and sociocultural-political implications, that are all in direct opposition to the deeply wrong-headed 20th and 21st conception of metaphysics as supposedly value-free (but actually aesthetically, ethically, anti-religiously, socioculturally, and politically deeply-committed, via scientism,[xi] global corporate capitalism, and classical liberal/neoliberal politics), “scientific philosophy” and “rigorous science,” strenge Wissenschaft.

As Kant so brilliantly anticipated in the 1780s and 1790s, and as Wittgenstein so rightly explicitly pointed out in the 1930s, in accepting the reductive, mechanistic, ideological-technocratic, and ultimately Frankensteinian “scientific conception of the world,” we are falling into a trap that is the beginning of the end for humanity; and what I am saying is that humanity can avoid this death-trap only by theoretically adopting, taking to heart, and then freely acting according to, the real-metaphysical, epistemological, aesthetic, ethical, natural-religious, and sociocultural-political doctrine of natural piety.[xii]


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] See, e.g., J-J Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. R. Goulbourne (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011). The cited translations are by P. Harrison, available online at URL = <>, seventh revery. Thanks to Ericson Falabretti for reminding me about Rousseau’s important influence on Kant’s philosophy of nature, both human and non-human.

[ii] W. Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up,” available online at URL = <>.

[iii] P. Shelley, Alastor, available online at URL = <>.

[iv] M. Shelley, Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, 1818 edn., available online at URL = <>, vol. 1, ch. 3.

[v] S. Alexander, “Natural Piety,” in S. Alexander, Philosophical and Literary Pieces (London: Macmillan, 1939), pp. 299–315, at pp. 299, 310–311, and 306.

[vi] See, e.g., B. Olivier, “Nature, Capitalism, and the Future of Humankind,” South African Journal of Philosophy 24 (2005): 121–135, available online at URL= <>.

[vii] See, e.g., F. Bacon, Novum Organum, available online at URL = <>.

[viii] See R. Descartes, “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences,” in R. Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. J. Cottingham et al. (3 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), vol. 1, part 6, p. 142/AT VI, 62.

[ix] See, e.g., The Vienna Circle, “The Scientific Conception of the World.”

[x] M. Rukeyser, “The Speed of Darkness,” verse IX; available online at URL = <>.

[xi] See, e.g., J.C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1999).

[xii] See also Olivier, “Nature, Capitalism, and the Future of Mankind,” pp, 120–121.


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