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 themes in the work.

Free will

The idea of free will is explored as a theme in this work. The main point in Mettrie’s work is that there is no such thing as free will. He is of the belief that everything is predetermined. In his mind, human decisions could be boiled down to rational and logical concepts, and following these concepts would allow us to accurately predict human behavior. In this way, then, he reasons, humans can be thought of as “automatons” or robots. This is an expansion on Descartes’s earlier work, stating the same idea but only for animals.

The concept of the soul

Another theme is the concept of the soul. The major difference between Descartes’s work and Mettrie’s lies in the concept of the soul. Descartes believed that all humans have an immortal soul, and that would separate them from animals, making humans more complex than simple automatons. However, Mettrie boils down the essence of humans to the physical world as well. He states that the soul is just a construct because “diverse states of the soul are always correlated with diverse states of the body.” Essentially, anything that affects the body affects the soul, and therefore, the soul is simply a physical part of the body.

Good versus evil

A final theme in the work is the idea of good and evil. Because of the ideas Mettrie set out above, he comes across the idea of good and evil. The question is, can an automaton do evil? It is simply acting on programming, and therefore, nothing it does can be considered evil but is a consequence of whatever created it. In this way, Mettrie presents the idea that there is no true evil, and all human actions are relative.

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