The Body Machine

The chief characteristics of The Mechanical Philosophy (sometimes called the Newtonian-Cartesian philosophy) that has pretty much held sway over the Modern Mind are a) perspectivism, b) analysis, and c) excessive quantification. These characteristics are summarised in the term “materialism”; that is to say, a belief in the ontological primacy of “matter” or the physical. By “excessive quantification” we mean the tendency to believe that if something can’t be expressed by number, then it doesn’t really exist. Only what has weight, number, and measure is certain and can be truly said to have validity.

This bias of the Modern sensibility towards the material and physical has made interpreting the “qualia” problematic. The “qualia” are non-physical entities and represent the main contradiction to the Mechanical Philosophy. That was the problem Robert Pirsig set out to explore in his famous and popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (The book is available online for those interested). One could say without too much exaggeration that the entire philosophical problem of the Modern Era — the self-contradictions of the modern consciousness structure — is represented in Pirsig’s book and his personal existential struggle with them. Even the title draws into decisive confrontation the qualitative and the quantitative, or the Holistic and the Mechanical Philosophies. Pirsig himself speaks rather of the clash of the “romantic” and the “classical” sensibilities, but I’ve never found those terms particularly useful. I think the terms “holistic” and “mechanical” are far more appropriate. It’s well-worth the reading in that respect, even in conjunction with the aforementioned book by Alfred Crosby entitled The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250 – 1600. These two books might give you a pretty good grasp of what seems to be the fundamental contradiction in Modern civilisation. Pirsig’s book is the attempt to reach a higher “synthesis” of the contradiction between the qualia and the quanta.

So, Pirsig lived out the fundamental problem and historical self-contradictions of the mental-rational consciousness structure. In that sense, he is quintessentially “modern”. The book is largely about his descent into madness (disintegration of the consciousness structure) followed by catharsis. In that sense, Pirsig’s curriculum vitae seems very representative of the general situation of Late Modernity — the canary in the coalmine, as it were.

Now, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is also a reference to the relationship between consciousness and the body-machine. The “motorcycle” is really a kind of metaphor for the physical body. But in that sense, all technologies are symbolic extensions of the physical body, as Marshall McLuhan held in his equally famous book Media: The Extensions of Man. This is sometimes called “biomimicry”, as the computer is an extension of the body’s central nervous system. So, the Mechanical Philosophy has been amazingly productive and effective in its terms. It has given us our technological society. When the philosopher Crane Brinton stated that the chief feature of the Modern Era was “the invention of a system for creating systems”, this is largely due to the Mechanical Philosophy. And it has been so effective and productive that most people now consider it be the absolute truth, universally valid. Truth has become utilitarian truth — what works is true. What is true is what works.

There is a smidgeon of truth in that, of course. The body IS a kind of machine or automaton. It’s a special kind of machine, though. It’s very responsive, as you know, to consciousness. It changes with, and responds to changes of, mood and attitude. It’s very plastic and mutable, in that respect, as we know from the placebo and nocebo effects. You may even know people whose physical appearance has changed dramatically because of some major change in attitude or belief systems. Consciousness generates form, not vice versa. This shaping power or formative faculty of consciousness is what we call “intent” or “intentionality”, and it is the essentially creative function of consciousness.

As you may recall, by “intent” or “intentionality” I mean something different from what we normally call “will” or “volition” or “motive”. Intent is more “background” and will more “foreground” function. Intent is what sustains your body machine without your needing to consciously will it. We might say that “intent” belongs to the core Self while “will” belongs to the ego-nature. In fact, “will” may interfere with intent or distort its expression. That’s the gist of the old saying “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it”. Because will and intent can sometimes stand in contradiction, there’s also the old prayer “Not my will be done, but Thine O Lord!”

So the body-machine is very fluid, very plastic, very mutable, and we know it is very responsive to changes in mood and attitude, so much so that even the brain will rewire itself in response to changes in consciousness. Consciousness is primary. Consciousness generates form. And this is what we call “intent”. And because intent and will are oftentimes at odds, you have the “two souls” problem of which Goethe complained,

Two souls reside, alas, within my breast,
And each one from the other would be parted.
The one holds fast, in sturdy lust for love,
With clutching organs clinging to the world;
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage.

(Later on we’ll discuss this again in relation to what Freud called the “eros” and “thanatos” — instincts, or will-to-life and will-to-death coinciding in the same organism).

Like all machines, the body-machine is a system of organised energies, and we might say that this constitutes the body’s “mythos” or ethos. It’s an expression of energy that has been patterned. As both William Blake and Seth put it, the body-machine is an image of the soul as the soul imagines itself under physical conditions. And what Blake means by “imagination” is largely what we understand as “intent”. Also, I’ve little doubt that what Nietzsche means by his “will to power” principle is also “intent”. We might also refer to this “intent” as the “effectuating power”.

The Mechanical Philosophy has taught us to see the body as a machine, and to that extent it has been quite fortuitous. It has been less convincing in trying to account for the origins of the body machine or the function of awareness. Because the Mechanical Philosophy was desirous of eliminating all “subjective factors” in the description and explanation for reality, it has become vulnerable, particularly as regards the “problem” of consciousness, and all attempts I’ve read to reconcile the anomalies of consciousness and the qualia with the Mechanical Philosophy have been unsatisfying, if not outright ludicrous.

Consequently, the influence of the Mechanical Philosophy over hearts and minds is on the wane, although it still has its champions who, nonetheless, sound increasingly defensive and reactionary, even nihilistic. But if you know Thomas Kuhn’s excellent The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that’s to be expected.



One response to “The Body Machine”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “As both William Blake and Seth put it, the body-machine is an image of the soul as the soul imagines itself under physical conditions.”

    A precious nugget, of countless others, that I have read on The Chrysalis. Especially meaningful for me is the latter part of that which says: “….as the soul imagines itself under physical conditions.” Indeed!

    When I read Pirsig’s book, I often thought about what you would make of his work. I’m happy to see that you cover that here. I took copious amounts of notes when I read the book. Here are a few of them that I think are meaningful:

    “[The ghost of rationality] underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of western thought………a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else.” (p. 82)

    “The objects create the subject’s awareness of himself.” (p. 242)

    “The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.” (p. 289)

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