:)Here is some food for thought, man does not act, man reacts.
371 Bloor St. West, Toronto: M5S 2R8
Question Three: On
The System of Nature
Baron Paul-Henri d'Holbach's essay
The System of Nature
(1770) is logically sound
and cannot be refuted with any degree of
satisfaction. Nevertheless, such a refutation is
continually attempted and wished for by many; there is an intuitive rejection of
his view of
mankind as merely complex machines that respond
stimulus in an inevitable manner. In
this essay, I shall demonstrate why these attempts at refutation are doomed to
D'Holbach's argument can be summarised quite succinctly; cause follows effect. If
one accepts this premise, then all else follows. When a certain stimulus is applied to
man reacts in a certain way, as determined by a host of
factors, including other stimuli
applied in the past. There is no
man active here; man reacts, he does not
Let us first dispense with those arguments that challenge the premise. Most of
stem from quantum mechanics. Based on this argument, since there are microscopic events
that do not
occur based on causal relations but instead probable relations: not
all events can
be said to
be bound by causal relations and therefore d'Holbach's argument is flawed. This is
erroneous on many levels; first, the probable relations are only theorised to
occur at a micro
level, whereas we function on a macro level. Any change at the micro level, if it does affect
us, can be viewed as a 'cause', and external at that; we do not
control it. Therefore, it can still
be considered an external stimulus. Origin more
remote than that is immaterial to
Moving on, d'Holbach is sometimes challenged in a rejection of
the 'simplicity' of
vision; we would prefer to
think that there is some choice to
our actions. Many will then cite
anecdotal evidence such as two similar instances where they have made opposite decisions.
When it is suggested to
them that, since the instances were not
identical, since the stimuli in
each case vary, the result will also vary, denial is again the response. I do not
needs to defend himself against such a denial; he has made a logically consistent argument,
and since there is no rational
justification given for the denial that is not already answered by
Now, one must admit that an argument, no matter how internally consistent and
reasonable, should also be externally consistent that is, it should be consistent with the world
that we sense. Granted, our senses can be deceiving, a shown by Descartes in his Meditations
I and II
but that is not the topic at hand. (Descartes, 1641) In the above rebuttal to d'Holbach,
the challenger is citing evidence of his senses. However, if we are to admit sensory evidence
into this debate, there is as much for d'Holbach as against.
Many times we sense that our course is not of our choosing; we know that we have
been forced into a choice by a variety of factors that conspire to produce the result. Ask a
man why he did something, and more often than not, he will be able to point to external
events that led him there. Sometimes the connection is rational, the final 'choice' or
conclusion logically deduced. Other times, the chain is irrational, emotionally driven.
A common perception is that d'Holbach claims all choices are rational and logically
determined at a human level. They are not, nor does he make that claim; instead, he claims
that at the level of causal relations, cause immutably follows effect. What we perceive as an
irrational action is only driven by causes too complex or alien for us to understand. At the
level d'Holbach addresses, it is quite logical, because he admits those causes we do not fully
understand into the equation. This having been said, we can dispense with those intuitive
rejections of d'Holbach's argument, however more counter-arguments remain.
Among them, there is one I might have used to criticise d'Holbach's position, save
that I realised that the essay given holds the answer. In this counter-argument, one attempts
to drive d'Holbach's position to a logical conclusion, but one which we find so alien we must
reject it, and with it, his entire argument. In effect, it is a take on reductio ad absurdum.
According to d'Holbach, everything is bound in a network of causal relations, each
stimulus inevitably producing an effect, which in turn becomes the stimulus that prompts
another effect. It is in this world we live our lives - more, this is our life; the inputs and
outputs of the machine that we call 'man'. This sounds very akin to a theory proposed by
Derek Parfit in his Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons.
In this theory, Parfit explains that life itself is a 'Bundle' of causal relations.
According to Parfit, this makes 'The Self and erroneous concept; what is the purpose of The
Self, of the concept of 'Ego'? They are that which wills, that which acts, that which
determines. Our Ego differentiates us from the physical world, permits us to take action, to
make a positive choice. D'Holbach rejects the idea that we can actively will, that we can
determine, that we can go against the stimuli that drive us - he rejects the Ego. It seems
obvious enough why; the two philosophers begin with the same premise, their logic is sound,
and therefore the conclusion is the same. D'Holbach doesn't take the line of logic as far as
does Parfit, but we can in an analysis of the extended consequences of it. (Parfit, 1987)
This consequence is highly problematic, because it is not externally consistent. If we reject
the Ego, then we reject the concept of personhood. As Parfit expands further in his theory,
when there are only cause and effect relations, death is the same as life. There is no being
that begins or ends; certain electric stimuli cease to function, certain molecules change
position. It was inevitable. Life is merely a series of actions that are linked by cause and
effect. There is nothing which differentiates a person from his surroundings; there is nothing
that defines the beginning and end of life, from a temporal perspective, or the beginning and
end of a person from a physical perspective.
I reject this notion, intuitively. Perhaps it is megalomania, perhaps it is pride, perhaps
it is stubbornness, but I believe that I exist. I sense my own existence. I know the course of
my life may well be inevitable, but I feel that there is something called 'me'. There is
something that differentiates me from the rest of the world, something that defines me as
separate from the rest of the world, something that makes me unique. Many are tempted to
say that we will, that we can determine our own fate, that that is what differentiates us.
D'Holbach has shown them to be wrong. There is another option; that of a dualist conception
of the self, of something that goes beyond the physical and subjects us, and only us, to
stimuli unique to us. When we are subject to stimuli from this 'something', this marks our
beginning, and when the stimuli fade, our end; the stimuli from this' something' bind and
define our life and us as living.
With all d'Holbach's talk of man as a machine, it seems likely he would find such a
notion metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, and indeed I have been made aware that he rejects any
dualist conception in other writing. However, in the given passage, he states that, "...
that which determines the fall in the second case, springs from within his own peculiar
machine, having its more remote cause also exterior." The key here is his view of man as
having 'his own peculiar machine'. This suggests that d'Holbach is not altogether against the
uniqueness of man, of him having some 'peculiar' characteristic that differentiates him from
both the rest of mankind and the rest of the world. This peculiarity defines him, allows him to
be more than merely a machine. (Parfit, 1987)
It is this passage that rescues d'Holbach from Parfit's trap; their premises aren't
actually identical. Parfit denies a dualist conception, denies man as being different from the
rest of the world. D'Holbach grants him uniqueness. This dichotomy rescues d'Holbach from
perhaps the most subtle of the counterarguments, and thus leaves his own argument unsullied
Thus, in conclusion, we must make the statement that
There is, in point of fact, no difference between the man that [sic] is cast out of the
window by another, and the man who throws himself out of it, except that the impulse
in the first instance comes immediately from without whilst that which determines the
fall in the second case, springs from within his own peculiar machine, having its more
remote cause also exterior.
D'Holbach's logic is impeccable, and we have adequately defended it against three possible
rebuttals, one attacking his premise, and the others his conclusions, by revealing them for the
straw-men they are.
Descartes, Rene (1986). Meditations on First Philosophy (translated by Ronald Rubin).
Claremont, CA : Arete Press.
Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d' (1899). The System of Nature (translated by H. D.
Robinson). Boston: I. P. Mendum.
Parfit, Derek. Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons. Originally published in Mindwaves
ed. Colin Blackmore and Susan Greenfield (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 489-496
:)You know if you have read the above that a great many people have taken a run at this theory, only to fail, do you think you can do better?:shocked: