Man a Machine

by Julien Offroy de La Mettrie

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Julien Offroy de la Mettrie’s Man a Machine is a philosophical discussion of the nature of man, free will, and life itself. Mettrie expands on the ideas of several other philosophers before him, but his main premise is the idea that humans are, as the title suggests, essentially machines. He argues against the idea of a soul and states that, since human behavior can be accurately predicted, since we must nourish ourselves, and for several other reasons, we are essentially robots. This idea gained traction at the turn of the twentieth century with the introduction of quantum mechanics. Here are a few quotes from the text.

Man is so complicated a machine that it is impossible to get a clear idea of the machine beforehand, and hence impossible to define it.

Here is Mettrie’s argument—that man is a machine, an automaton, that takes the inputs of life, society, environment, and experiences and churns our predictable responses. His belief is the essential belief of scientific predetermination, that everything is programmed to such a degree that all decisions, which we believe come from free will, in reality come from a logical programming that determines our actions based on those various inputs.

The soul follows the progress of the body, as it does the progress of education.

One of the arguments Mettrie makes in favor of his hypothesis is based on the nature of the soul. Through his argument, he reasons that the soul is inextricably linked with the physical body, and, therefore, it is not a separate construct that is preserved eternally. Upon examination, however, Mettrie’s use of the term “soul” seems to be more in line with the modern conceptions of mind or personality. These things are linked intrinsically with the physical body, but the soul is perhaps still a separate piece.

The transition from animals to man was not violent, as true philosophers will admit. What was man before the invention of words and the knowledge of language?

Near the end of his essay, Mettrie argues that we are just one small step removed from animals, which is true in a sense. However, his idea is that we have smoothly transitioned and simply gained knowledge to make us better than animals; there is no soul separating us from them. Because of this, he believes, like animals, there is no exact right and wrong, but that morality is relative since the soul is nonexistent.

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