The other day I started reading a book about the 17th century scientific revolution by Jessica Riskin. The title of the book is “The Restless Clock.” It was published in 2016. This turned out to be one of the most original and interesting book I have read for awhile. I’m not sure if Riskin is right about everything she says in this book, but it is definitely interesting. This post is a summary of the main ideas of her book. It all about the scientific revolution & the clockwork world
“The Restless Clock” is about two possible ways in which the natural world might be organized. Riskin says there are two schools of thought on this and they have both been around since the 17th century when science was just getting started. One of these schools was based on what is called agency and the other is based on the idea of mechanization. The mechanization school ended up becoming the basis of Western science, but Riskin thinks there are some serious contradictions embedded in the ideas of mechanization and thus in modern science also.
Let me go back and start at the beginning. I know this is confusing right now but it will all make sense in a minute. Be patient, Riskin’s ideas get more and more interesting as she develops them. Also, some of this sounds a little crazy at first, but keep on reading, it gets more reasonable as she goes on.
“The Restless Clock” is about how things happen in the natural world. How actions happen. There are two schools of thought about this.
The first school, that has been accepted by modern science since its very beginnings in the 17th century, is that all actions are instituted by outside forces. Billiard balls don’t move until they are hit by another billiard ball or impacted by some other force from the outside. Actions are never initiated from the inside. Billiard balls never decide to begin rolling on their own. This view of the world is encapsulated in the clockwork model of the natural world that was first put in place in the 17th century.
The second school says that actions originate inside agents who act on their own. This idea, that action is intrinsic and that comes from inside natural entities, is called agency.
There are various forms of agency, but they always originate from the inside. Proteins “regulate cell divisions. Genes are selfish. In this school, all kinds of biological actions are described by words like “regulate,” “control,” “harvest,” and “dictate” that imply purposeful action from within.
There are various forms of agency, most of which come from the 17th century: life forces, sensitive capacities, vital fluids, and self-organizing tendencies. A common feature unites these ascriptions and denials of agency: in each case, the ostensible force or tendency or capacity originates within the natural form in question. Something with agency is something whose actions originates inside itself rather than from an outside force.
The idea of agency in science is basically the idea that things have internal freewill and can act independently in the world. It is the opposite of determinism.
Riskin says, “By agency, then, I mean simply an intrinsic capacity to act in the world, to do things in a way that is neither predetermined nor random.”
If you say that a biological entity has agency, you are saying that it has intentions and purposes and will. You are not necessarily saying that it has a conscious understanding of what it is doing though.
Agency is basically the idea that both animate and inanimate things can initiate action from the inside. This sounds like a really crazy idea to those of use who have been immersed in main-stream Western science, but there have been strong supporters of the idea of agency from the beginning. Like Leibniz. More on this later
An aside: when Riskin says modern science, she means that science that began in the West in the 17th century and that revolutionized the world. By modern science she does not mean contemporary science.
The idea of agency is not much accepted today. Ever since the 17th century, the main stream of science has absolutely banned agency and has accepted its opposite, mechanization. Modern science has always said this whole idea of agency is a huge no-no. Probably the biggest no-no in all of science. Only idiots believe this stuff say most serious modern scientists.
The correct view according to both modern and contemporary science, has always been the idea of mechanization. This means that all things, including both animate and inanimate things, and even humans, act the way they do because they are acted upon by external forces. A billiard ball does not move unless an external force, like another billiard ball, acts on it. All of the laws of physics are based on this. This means that everything that happens is determined and there is no such thing as free will in men or any other animate or inanimate being. Everything is always determined by external causes.
In accordance with this, the modern science that began mostly in the 17th century says that the natural world is like a giant clock that needs to be set in motion by a clockmaker who winds it up.
Thus, modern science is deterministic. Prediction of everything is possible if you have enough information. Human beings have no free will, it just feels like we do. Science says that everything humans do is predetermined by the system you live in and by the forces that act on you. This is basically the science that Newton invented and this is what every physicist ever since has always believed and acted in accordance with.
But, in spite of all this, “The Restless Clock” says that the scientific ban on agency has a huge contradiction built into it. Something is not quite right here. At best there are some serious problems that need to be straightened out. At worst, the confusion about agency has caused serious problems all thru the history of science right up to modern times. And very interestingly, more and more serious contemporary scientists are beginning to think there may be problems with the idea that the natural world is dead, mechanistic and that free will does not exist.
Riskin is one of those who says there is a serious problem with the clockwork world. She says that a mechanical world lacking internal agency is in itself a religious idea. This is because a clockwork world needs a designer and it needs an external force, ie God, to get things going. And this does not agree with the idea that science has always been the enemy of religion. Riskin says that something is askew here.
We have always thought the first modern scientists in the 17th century were strictly anti-religions. But it now appears that this was not quite true. The 17th century was definitely a very religious place in spite of the fact that this is where science was invented. The whole theory of the clockwork world, which pretty much everyone accepted, was about the necessity of design by an external designer and about an external God who wound-up the world and then set it in motion. And this sounded just fine to most of these first scientists. They were almost as imbued with religion as the rest of the 17th century world. Being a part of the 17th century, this is what they wanted to believe. This belief was a central belief of almost everyone in this world whether they accepted it consciously or not.
Riskin says, the mechanistic idea of science does not take into account living things. Living things do seem to have agency, an agenda of their own which is internal. When you throw a live chicken in the air its trajectory is very different from that of a dead chicken. The trajectory of dead chickens can be predicted by the science of physics, but that of live chickens cannot be predicted by anything. Live chickens have their own agenda that is internal to them. They squawk and flop around in all kinds of crazy ways that is totally unpredictable. The path of live chickens thrown into the air has very little to do with the external force that set them in motion.
A purely passive world without agency would have never been believable by itself in the 17th century says Riskin. It needed a God to be believable. She says that “This mode of science, call it theological mechanism, relied upon a divine Designer to whom it outsourced perception, will, and purposeful action.”
Riskin goes on to say “In short, a contradiction sits at the origin of modern science. The central principle responsible for defining scientific explanations as distinct from religious and mystical ones was the prohibition on appeals to agency and will. This principle itself relied for its establishment upon a theological notion, the divine Engineer, and a theological program, the argument from design.”
Let me rephrase and clarify this: There is a contradiction at the origin of modern science. Science is supposed to exclude religion and mysticism and superstition. This is what the exclusion of agency and will was all about. But this exclusion necessitated God as the designer and God as an external force that set the universe in motion.
When the inventors of modern science banished mysterious agencies from nature to a transcendent God they were forced to base their supposedly naturalistic theory on religion. This created a dilemma that is still active today. When the first scientists banned agency from humans, they were forced to include God.
Removing agency from humans meant humans had no free will. No unique actions could come from within humans. This created the necessity for God. Some force had to wind the clock and then set it in motion.
Riskin says that even today, “Current scientific accounts of living phenomena are permeated by officially disallowed appeals to agency.” Scientists are supposed to never say cells or molecules have independent purposes or intentions.
Purpose and intention are key words here. Things that have purpose and intention have agency. Biologists are supposed to never say that natural entities have purpose or intention. If you are a scientist you can never say that biological cells have desires or intentions of any kind.
Riskin says she has a friend who is a biologist. This biologist said it is definitely taboo in her field to say that living things have agency. It is taboo to even think any natural entity can be an agent in themselves or can initiate action from within. You can never say that a cell or a molecule or a gene or even humans have purposes, or intentions. Life is actually meaningless says science, it just doesn’t look that way to us. Everything that happens has already been determined by the myriad forces that everything and everyone is embedded in. It feels like we are all making our own choices and initiating action from within, but this is just an illusion says science.
But Riskin’s biologist friend said that never-the-less, all biologist do talk as if cells or organisms have agency. They constantly refer to agency as a kind of shortcut or place holder for complex biology they don’t yet understand. They speak as if cells and molecules had all sorts of purposes and intentions. But said the friend, excusing the way she often thinks, “The more we get to know, the less the phenomena will seem purposeful.”
This friend says that certain anthropomorphizing verbs like “want” can be used only in very casual settings and conversations, never in print. “Biologists can say, and allow their doctoral students to say, for example, that “cells want to move toward the wound” in conversation but never in print.”
Biologists often use other words that seem less anthropomorphic like “regulate,” as in “proteins regulate cell divisions” that are OK to use. The friend said that words like regulate are just “shorthand for a complex process that would be cumbersome to spell out on each occasion.” or a process that us scientists don’t quite understand yet but soon will.”
Still, while works like “regulate,” “control,” “harvest,” and “dictate” do not ascribe human emotions to genes or proteins, they do imply purposeful action. And biologist still use this language constantly.
Then Riskin asked her friend, “Isn’t it really an article of faith, this conviction you have that organisms can never have agency? The friend thought about this for a long time but finally laughed and admitted that yes it was just faith on her part that cells could never have agency.
Here is another example of how biologists use agency casually.
Dawkins introduced the idea that genes are selfish, that genes always acted in their own interests not the interests of the vehicles that carry them. He always said that this was just a metaphor for the fact that adaptive genes tend to survive while unadaptive genes do not. He always said genes did not actually have purpose or intention or selfishness themselves. He always said this was just a metaphor or a shortcut he used to help laymen understand what was going on. But still, he did this in great detail over many many pages. “The Selfish Gene” is even the title of his most well-known book.
And , Daniel Dennett, one of the most prestigious of contemporary biologists, says the cells constantly engage in warfare with other cells. This seems to me that he is attributing agency to cells here. But like other biologists he denies this by saying he is only using a metaphor, a shortcut to make talking about cells easier.
Riskin says she understands that biologist don’t really believe in agency when they talk about cells having intentions, but she does think that when biologists use short cuts and metaphors about how cells and other biological entities work they are revealing that there is a real and unsolved problem in biology.
Do order and action in nature come from inside or outside cells and other biological entities? There are problems with this either way says Riskin. Both inside and outside bring mysticism into science. There is some kind of a very real problem here she says.
Riskin says that “I think that biologists’ figures of speech reflect a deeply hidden yet abiding quandary created by the seventeenth-century banishment of agency from nature: do the order and action in the natural world originate inside or outside? Either answer raises big problems. Saying “inside” violates the ban on ascriptions of agency to natural phenomena such as cells or molecules, and so risks sounding mystical and magical. Saying “outside” assumes a supernatural source of nature’s order, and so violates another scientific principle, the principle of naturalism.”
The classical mechanists won the early arguments about how life worked. They said agency is not real. So anyone who disagrees with them is now often thought to be advocating mysticism or they are called superstitious reactionaries.
When Riskin speaks of the classical mechanists, she means the Cartesians, Newtonians and Robert Boyle and his followers. All of these guys disagree between themselves on various things but they all agree that the physical world needed to be set in motion by an external forces. But, at the time, they also had a lot of critics that belonged to the losing school who argued that the machinery of the world was self-moving, not put in motion by external forces.
Most of the critics of the classical mechanists disagreed with them because they themselves had a commitment to a very rigorous naturalism. [Naturalism of course is the opposite of supernaturalism.] These critics wanted to say that science was fully autonomous, not dependent on religion at all. Leibniz was one of these thinkers.
Leibniz said that, “If one wanted to disallow appeals to a supernatural god, then passive clockwork would not work as a model of living nature. One needed a different model: active, restless clockwork. Such a model would naturalize the very phenomena that the argument from design outsourced to a divine creator: perception, will, purpose, agency. All of these had to be integral to the natural world and its creatures.”
Leibniz said that “perception, will, purpose, and agency” all had to be part of the natural world and its creatures and not outsourced to some kind of external God.
Riskin says that modern science has been shaped by two scientific principles. One is passive mechanism and the other is active mechanism. These are two views of nature’s machinery and how it operates.
Passive mechanism removes agency from nature and (at first anyway) locates it in God. This school perceives the eye as a kind of lens-thing like a microscope or a telescope.
Active mechanism avoids any kind of supernaturalism and sees agency as a part of the natural world. Helmholtz for example refuted the telescope analogy for the eye and saw it as a perceiving thing, not a lens thing.
The critics of classical mechanism, represented by Leibniz, proposed a different kind of mechanist science. They were mechanists but they thought change could originate from within living things. This science saw the machinery of nature as containing its own sources of action inside itself. Now nature was able to transform itself and not depend on an external God for its source of action.
Riskin says that “this alternative science was still mechanist, in that it offered rational, systematic accounts of natural phenomena in terms of component parts and their functions but it invoked no magical or miraculous properties, (like classical mechanism does) only natural ones. Active mechanists such as Leibniz described the machinery of nature as containing its own sources of action inside itself: as self-constituting and self-transforming machinery.”
Riskin got the title of her book, TheRestless Clock” from Leibniz. She says that Leibnitz was one of the original critics of Newton. Riskin says that,
“The German philosopher, mathematician, and inventor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote the clockwork passage that provided this book’s title as he was struggling to find a different model for nature and science from the passive machinery of his contemporaries. He described clockwork and, by analogy, human beings in this way: “In German,” he wrote (he was writing in French), “the word for the balance of a clock is Unruhe—which also means disquiet; and one can take that for a model of how it is in our bodies, which can never be perfectly at their ease.” As Leibniz saw it, the balance of a clock was in a constant state of agitated motion, and so too were human bodies. To be clocklike, to Leibniz, was to be responsive, agitated, and restless. How different this is from what people generally understand by the clockwork metaphor!”
Riskin says that the conflict between agency and mechanism have trickled down through the history of science to this very day, causing all kinds of problems. It seems to me that one of the major problems has to do with the mind / body problem. This problem has never been really resolved since it was invented by Descartes.
I agree with Riskin that even today we are still having problems stemming from the original unresolved conflict between agency and mechanism. I think we are seeing this in many contemporary science conflicts such as those between mind and body, between determinism and free will and between consciousness and brain. No one, even today’ has ever solved these problems adequately or even dented them. Science cannot accept or explain or even come to terms with the ideas of mind or consciousness or free will. These were all the things that the mechanists outsourced to God. The best science can do today is to loudly maintain that such things don’t exist or that they are illusions. Yet all of us, including scientists, live as if they were true. Or, instead of declaring immaterial things illusions, science comes up with outlandish solutions that are even more difficult to understand than the original problem. It looks to me like some of these problems must be semantic. We have never really described them accurately and now we don’t know how to deal with them.
This is especially true in scientific attempts to understand how the purely physical brain can possibly be connected consciousness or to the mind or ideas or even feelings or emotions, all of which are clearly non-physical. In the science of consciousness, this is called the Hard Problem. And it most assuredly is a very hard problem; no one has solved it yet. And many have tried and are still trying.
For instance Richard Manzotti and Tim Parks who are close friends with each other have been puzzling and arguing over the brain / consciousness problem forever. A ten part series of their conversations on consciousness was published in the New York Review of Books in 2019. (I highly recommend this actually.). And they both have written their own books on the subject.
Here is just a little piece of the first dialogue in the series. Manzotti is the real scientist and Parks is the curious layman. This piece of their dialogue points out how little even scientists and very intelligent laymen understand the relationship between the brain and consciousness. And this is just the tiniest peak into the problem.
Manzotti: The truth is that we do not know what consciousness is. That’s why we’re talking about it as a problem. What we do know is that the way we experience reality, I mean [the way] that we feel the things that happen to us, does not really match up with our current scientific picture of the physical world.
There is nothing about the behavior of neurons to suggest that they are any different with respect to consciousness than, say, liver cells or red blood cells. They are cells doing what cells do best, namely, keeping entropy low by generating flows of ions such as sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium and releasing neurotransmitters as a consequence. All of that is wonderful but far removed from the fact that I experience a light blue color when I watch the morning sky. That is, it’s not easy to see how the physical activity of the neurons explains my experience of the sky, let alone a process like thinking.
Parks: So we might say that consciousness is the word we use to refer to the fact that rather than just physiological activity, mute like any other physical event—the sky in the morning, a cloud crossing the sun—we have experience, we have a feeling of that event.
Manzotti: Exactly. Instead of a world where we merely interact with external occurrences—the way a flower opens in the sun, or water freezes in the cold—we also have experience of the occurrence, the sun, the icy weather, and so on. This addition of experience (or in future we may want to suggest that experience and occurrence are one!) would be puzzling enough in itself. But it is even more puzzling that experience is usually described as experience of something else, of something that is not me. I experience a red apple.
Our traditional view of nature tells us that an object is what it is and nothing more. William James put this very clearly when he asked, How can the room I am sitting in be simultaneously out there and, as it were, inside my head, my experience? We still have no answer to that question.
Parks: So another way we could look at this would be to say that the fact of consciousness points to a flaw in our explanation of reality. Or at least amounts to a big challenge as to how we understand reality.
Manzotti: Right. Once we have defined and placed all the pieces of the physical jigsaw—chemistry, physics, evolution, general relativity, quantum mechanics, DNA, evolution, Higgs Boson, the lot—there is still something that does not add up —namely the fact that we don’t simply do things, we also experience the world around us. Consciousness. What David Chalmers famously called the hard problem.
Parks: In other words, consciousness is not something that current science would predict.
Manzotti: No. Why doesn’t our behavior simply happen, taking its course the way the planets follow their orbits? We don’t know. Just as cosmologists don’t know what dark matter is. All we know is that there is something that doesn’t add up and very likely points to some profound error in our assumptions about reality.
As you see, we are a long way from understanding consciousness, a situation that we have probably inherited from the clockwork world of the 17th century. All the things that didn’t fit into their worldview, they just outsourced to God.
Another way in which the clockwork world ended up causing problems in our modern world has to do with capitalism and global warming. The clockwork work, as invented by Neuton, says that the nature is mechanistic. Basically this means it is rational, totally predictable and thus deterministic. It also means that nature is static, passive and dead. As we now know however, nature really is not this way. Complexity and chaos theory and much else have demonstrated that that the world is not totally predictable, rational or controllable by humans. And consciousness as we see it now have no place at in in a clockwork world.
But nature did seemed this way back in the the 17th century, at least to Newton. And his equations worked exactly as he said they would. This led humans to think they could manipulate, exploit, and use the dead, passive natural world for human gain. And even in the 17th century this connected to many of the early ideas of capitalism. And, in the next century, the 18th century Enlightenment, Adam Smith came along and soon the ideas of capitalism were accepted by most thinking people. And this growing system of capitalism lead to the industrial revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries and soon became the dominant economic idea of the 20th century.
In short, the mechanistic, clockwork world of Newton lead to capitalism and to the full blown exploitation of nature which very shortly led to global warming and the the trashing of the natural world. I, and a lot of other people think that the almost unfixable mess we are in now began with the 17th century clockwork world. All of this is much more complicated than how I have described it here, but I’m sure this is not my last post on this topic.
Anyway, there is tons more in Riskin’s book, but I need to wrap this up for now. I’ll come back to “The Restless Clock” later on.
In conclusion, Riskin says that her book, “The Restless Clock,” is a history of the idea of agency in science. She says she “examines the origins and history of the principle banning agency from science and this principle’s accompanying clockwork model of nature, in particular as these apply to the science of living things.”
Riskin’s does not say that contemporary science is wrong because it inherited a serious contradiction from its early days. She simply looks at the agency vs mechanism argument from both sides and from many different points of view and explains the problems that it has created. Her book is about the on-going history of this conflict as it trickles down through the history of science and about how it has caused problems all the way, right up to the present time.
The Scientific Revolution & the clockwork world has had large and possibly disastrous effects on our 21 century world.
Here are a few more pictures of the beautiful world we find ourselves living in and about which we really still know so little.
More reading on this subject
Post Summary: The Scientific Revolution & the clockwork world of the 17th has had large and possibly disastrous effects on our 21 century world.