The human machine

The mechanistic philosophy attempts to explore questions about what makes people the way they are (Goldhaber, 2000). Those who see through the mechanistic lens see humans as machines (Pepper, 1970) that passively react to internal and external forces over which they have no control (Goldhaber, 2000). Literally, mechanism is "the physics of motion or the study of mechanics", that describes how parts of a system work together to produce phenomena (Hunt & Ellis, 2004, p. 23).


Classical and operant conditioning are the principles that explain the theoretical foundations of mechanism. Classical conditioning explains stimulus-produced responses (S > R), while operant conditioning explains response-produced stimulation (R > S). Mechanists hold that the laws of S > R and R > S are fundamental in the natural world and can explain the behavior and development of all organisms, including humans (Skinner, n.d.).

For example, when John drops a coin into the office vending machine and pushes a sequence of buttons for a candy bar, the gears of the machine drop the candy into a receptacle from which John extracts his snack. Applied to human behavior, John habitually visits the office vending machine at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. each day to purchase a candy bar. Having gained 50 pounds since starting the job 12 months prior, John wants to cut back on his snacking ritual, but just cannot help himself. Every time he walks by the machine, he has to buy a candy bar. Learning to live with his habit, John concludes, "It's just the way I am, I was born this way; besides, the candy bars help me deal with the stressful environment at work."

Causes of behavior

From the perspective of mechanistic philosophy, human behavior like "John's" is a result of genetics and environment; individuals have no control over their behavior (Lerner, 2002). Mechanists believe that the best strategy for influencing human behavior is to understand efficient and material causes that influence human behavior.

  • Efficient causes are the "nurture" of human behavior, or the environmental factors that make an individual behave a certain way.
  • Material causes are the "nature" of human development, or the biological factors that make an individual behave a certain way (Goldhaber, 2000).

Mechanists take a scientific approach to studying human development, believing that gaining enough knowledge of the human machine allows them to predict (Lerner, 2002) and control (Skinner, 1955) human behavior.

Universal laws

The mechanist assumes that universal laws of nature govern all natural events, including human development and behavior. This reductionist view asserts that understanding the parts of a system leads to understanding the entire system.

For example, understanding how atoms and molecules function helps the scientist understand chemistry and physics, which explain universal laws that apply to human chemistry, physiology, psychology, and sociology. However, mechanists do not necessarily claim to explain human development, but to "reduce the phenomena of physiological, psychological, and social functioning to the fundamental level of analysis—the laws of chemistry and physics" (Lerner, 2002, p. 51).

Therefore, with enough knowledge of chemistry and physics, there would be no need for the sciences of human development physiology, psychology, or sociology (Lerner, 2002). For example, Hunt and Ellis (2004) state that cognitive psychologists can be "thoroughly mechanistic" (p. 12), choosing the computer model to explain how the brain processes information. When looking through the mechanistic lens, cognitive psychologists attempt to explain mental processes by discovering their origins in the brain. In other words, knowing the parts and understanding how those parts work together will help explain the workings of the machine.

Classical theory through a mechanistic lens

Major classical theories through the mechanistic lens include Watson's behaviorism, Skinner's radical behaviorism, and Bandura's social learning theory and social cognitive theory. A brief summary of each of these theories provides a clearer understanding of the view through a mechanistic lens.


Next: Watson's behaviorism