mechanical logic - an introduction

This site exists to define organic logic, a different tale about how things happen. Organicism says things start with a vagueness, some kind of state of unformed potential or greater symmetry. This vagueness breaks asymmetrically in two exactly complementary directions and grows in scale towards opposed limits.

Then all the time this is happening there is also a mixing of the separated across the middle ground. So we end up with a triadic world, a hierarchy, that is a stable outcome to the degree it has reached an equilibrium balance. Further change does not result in meaningful change and so we can say an event has definitely “happened”.

It is an unfamiliar way of thinking about causation. So to put it in context, this section talks about what we normally consider to be a logical tale. One based on mechanical logic. Or what I like to call RAMML to draw attention to its important ontological components - reductionism, atomism, mechanicalism, monadism and locality.

As I have stressed elsewhere, RAMML is not wrong. It offers a useful model of reality. Indeed for most everyday purposes it is likely always to be the more useful causal model.

RAMML Furthermore organicism demands RAMML as its complementary partner. It is only logical for a logic based on asymmetric dichotomisation that it must itself be dichotomised. At one epistemological extreme (the most global view) organicism may be king. But at the other (the local view) then mechanicalism must rule.

So mechanicalism is anti-organicism in the most precise and formal sense. Its axioms and even paradoxes must exactly contradict those of organic logic for both to be seen as “right” – for both to have completely dichotomised the vague space of epistemological possibility!

Anyway, below I try to define more clearly the particular collection of assumptions that underpin RAMML.

who did what to whom?

Ordinary logic seems to be a story about how small things add up to make bigger things. One event triggers another and eventually whole sequences of cause and effect build up to make the world complex and messy.

The classic example is a pool table. A vigorous blow may send the balls scattering in all directions. Yet each collision can be treated as a discrete causal event. And the sum of all these events exactly describes the whole with nothing left over.

This way of analysing the world is even built into human grammar. All known languages break down an event into subject, verb and object – a tale of who did what to whom. Which ball struck which other ball with a certain angle and speed.

As I describe in other pages, the brain is in fact an organic device with an organic logic. It works by dichotomising – dichotomising the world into general ideas and particular impressions (or general habits and particular intentions, or general orientations and particular focuses).

But language is a more mechanical thing that imposes a more mechanical way of thought. It encourages us to break the world down into a string of words - a sentence structure - that describes a linear sequence of events with actors and actions, substrates and outcomes.

So the basis of a mechanical view of the world was already latent in human grammar when Greek philosophers began trying to be logical about the world. The ancient Greeks then brought it out into the open and formalised it, making explicit some of its key principles such as the law of the excluded

But let’s skip the history which is also traced elsewhere. Now let’s just ask what is RAMML?


The first necessary assumption of mechanicalism is that all complexity can be reduced to simplicity. If you have something big and intricate, a mess of causality, it can always be broken down into a collection of smaller causal components.

Well actually reductionism is more complicated than this as there are two possible understandings of reductionism – epistemological and ontological. One says reduction is just an efficient way to model the world. The other claims a complex world actually does reduce to crisp simplicities.

this is not a painting - magritte This distinction is quite important. It is like the difference between believing a painting represents some scene and believing the painting really is the scene.

Reductionism as an epistemological tactic is about finding ways to minimise the information we use to describe the world. A great painter can suggest a lot with just a few clever brushstrokes. Likewise – whether we are an organicist or a mechanist – we will be intending to model reality using the least number of distinct ideas.

The principles of modelling are explored elsewhere. But briefly modelling is based on a dichotomisation! It splits the world into a model and its measurements, or a general causal rule and its physical particulars.

Take again the classic Newtonian example of a pool table. We can say that it is a world full of localised particulars. There may be a ball travelling in one direction at one speed, and then many more going in different directions at different speeds. There is a mess of activity and it would take a lot of information, a lot of memory capacity, to create a full representation of everything happening. Or indeed, everything that has ever happened and will ever happen to the balls on that table.

However Newton reduced the motions of masses to three general rules. He went beyond individual balls and individual trajectories to talk about the global, or universal, regularities of the physical world. The rules were so compact that they could be summed up with t-shirt equations like F = ma (force equals mass times acceleration).

But Newton’s modelling was dichotomous – it reduced the description of reality in two complementary directions. As well as creating the idea of global laws, it created the idea of particular measurements. You no longer needed measurements to record every moment and action in a pool ball’s existence. Just a single measurement of its position and momentum at some single instant in time was enough to predict its future (or retrodict its past).

So a messy (vaguer!) impression of reality was divided into the least number of general global rules and least number of crisply particular local measurements. A great reduction in the information load, in the number of brushstrokes employed.

And we can see this is not about reducing the large to the small in the sense of breaking something big into its fundamental parts. It is about taking something complex (and real!) and breaking it down towards its largest scale forms (the models) and its smallest scale events (the measurements). What gets reduced is not the world (which stays out there in all its complex glory) but the amount of information we need to hold in our heads or record in other ways when making descriptive models of the world.

This is an important point as a holist or an organicist must also be a reductionist in the modelling sense. Some holists treat reductionism as a dirty word as it seems they must throw away details and tell only partial stories of the world. How can a holist tell the story of everything unless everything is in the story?

And this misunderstanding of modelling has probably held organicism back. It certainly was an intellectual problem for me until I understood the principles of modelling and so saw that even simple holistic approaches like hierarchy theory and semiotics had to be boiled down to still simpler generalities – like asymmetric dichotomous logic.

Right. So much for reductionism as an epistemological tactic. The reductionism we are talking about with RAMML is ontological and is about the belief that reality actually can be reduced to a set of fundamental physical parts. Or indeed, as modern physics now often has it, the universe is actually composed of nothing but information – it from bit as Wheeler has joked, completing the unhappy muddling up of epistemology and ontology.

Anyway. to remind again, RAMML is the belief that reality reduces to atoms which are a monadic stuff that act mechanically and locally. Let’s consider what each of those mean in turn.


Atomism is the belief that reality is constructed from tiny lumps of substance. And that these bits of matter move about freely in a void.

Already we have a complex package of assumptions here. So let’s break it down – as the ancient Greek philosophers originally had to.

The great metaphysical question for the Greeks was what is reality make of? Everyday experience suggests that things are made from many different kinds of material. But looked at more closely, it seemed this complexity could be reduced. For instance, ice and steam could be reduced to water. The earth could be heated to yield pure metals.

The early Ionian philosophers thought that eventually everything ought to reduce to one fundamental substance. Thales said this substance must be water. Anaximenes said it could be air. Then there was that strange chap Anaximander who argued the one substance was what he called the apeiron, variously translated as the boundless, the infinite. Or as we would put it dichotomistically – vagueness.

Anaximander’s scheme was more influential in Greek thought than many modern accounts acknowledge. He described how the initially unified apeiron separated, then separated again, to create four developed phases of matter – the hot, the cold, the moist and the dry.

Later Greek philosophy paid less attention  to the developmental path, more to the crisp end product, and talked about the elements – the four fundamental elements of fire, earth, water and air. Aristotle added a fifth element, the aether, because something extra with a circular swirling motion was needed to move the sun and stars in their regular orbits.

It is worth noting that – in the spirit of ontological reductionism - Chinese philosophy of around the same date had its own story of five elemental phases of nature. These were the wu-hsing, or powers, of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Rather than being the product of dichotomous separation, the wu-hsing had a circular logic. They formed an eternal cycle of creation or transformation. Wood burnt to create fire. The ash it left made earth. Earth yielded up metal. Metal could melt to give water. Water then caused trees, and thus wood, to grow.

four phases and four elements Anyway, getting back to ancient Greece, we can see that they started with a fairly organic view of the creation of the universe – four separated properties that later “hardened” to become four fundamental elements. The Greeks then added another dichotomy in a pair of (symmetrically) opposed forces – love and strife, gravity and levity, or what we would now call attraction and repulsion.

A major problem with this emerging scheme was raised by Parmenides and his pupil Zeno. Principally they asked how could anything that was truly fundamental also change? For change to be possible, there had to be in fact two things – the original stuff and the new stuff – which meant the original stuff could not be really called fundamental.

They came up with further logical puzzles. If the fundamental substance was divisible, what would happen as you kept chopping it up finer and finer? Could you dice it up infinitely many times until nothing was left?

The atomist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus (and later Epicurus) came up with a story that seemed to get round such paradoxes rather elegantly. Their inspiration may have come from watching dust motes dancing in a shaft of sunlight say some. But anyway, they argued that substance was atomistic. And these atoms existed in a void.

An atom can be made of just a single kind of substance. All atoms would be made of the same solid and uncuttable stuff. So reality was not infinitely divisible. Unbreakable atoms would stop it crumbling away into nothingness.

An atom could also have a shape and a motion that made it distinctive. An atom could be ball-like and slippery like water. Or rough and sticky like clay. It could move fast like fire or slow like lead. So you could have one ur-stuff, a single universal substance, and yet you could also have many different kinds of elements with their own particular properties constructed from this ur-stuff.

the void is an empty stage The void was then the empty spacetime stage that allowed the atoms to act freely. The void was an a-causal backdrop, an empty place. It allowed the atoms to move and react according to their natures.

If the void were a global solid – imagine a gigantic jelly – the story would have been quite different. The void would have a causal role – it would make action difficult. But being simultaneously a place and an emptiness, the void permitted everything and caused nothing.

The void seemed itself rather paradoxical in having existence yet being a-causal. Aristotle’s response was that nature abhors a vacuum. And modern physics has returned reluctantly to that view. But as a concept, as a modelling assumption, the void allowed a great simplification of logic. The global could both exist and yet have no actions that need be measured.

We can see in fact that the atomists dichotomised. They separated the world into located lumps of substance and a global empty stage – precisely the everywhere and everywhen that lacked substance. And this atomistic world had a new kind of causality – mechanical. The parts added up to make the effect. The global existed but did not count in the causal equation. Reality could be reduced to its smallest substantial components.


How do we define mechanicalism? It is in fact broader than atomism which depends on little localised lumps of substance.

The classic notion of a machine is a clock. You have parts that lock together and drive each other in precise, additive, fashion to make a mechanism. There is an exact and endlessly repeating mapping of certain inputs to certain output.

The inputs can be a little wild and undirected – vague. The coiled spring that supplies the input to a clock wants to release its energy with a sudden angry hiss. Yet the ratchet and pawl of the clockwork tames this energy, directing it, so that the uncoiling must become an even and regular train of discrete pulses of action.

pistons in an engine The same reduction of dimensionality is even more obvious with a car engine. The input that drives an engine is nothing less than an explosion. Fuel is ignited and hot gas expands in all directions. However the arrangement of piston and cylinder then constrains this vaguely orientated explosion to create a repeating cycle of activity. The piston moves up and down in its sleeve with forced precision.

So the essence of mechanicalism is the rigid constraint of degrees of freedom. Activity is channelled in ways that only certain actions can be expressed. Causality is made mechanical – a sequence of distinct and isolated or localised acts that add up to construct some whole.

This localisation of cause and effect is why machines are so vulnerable to catastrophic breakdowns. The smallest misalignment of the gears, the most minor code glitch in the software, and the system falls apart.

Break your leg and you would still work out a way to hobble about. But a machine has no global idea of what it is supposed to be doing. It is made as just the sum of all its local activities. The whole is a fixed design not a flexible and adaptive or autopoietic system.

So we can see that mechanicalism is like atomism in stressing that causality is crisp, discrete, and localised. Global wholes might be constructed as a consequence of an accumulation of events, but the wholes are blind – a-causal in that they have no causal role to play. They do not act downwards to shape the parts. They harbour no memories or purposes - long-lived ideas about what should exist. The global whole simply exists as the sum of a host of causes at some particular moment. A car and a clock do what they are designed to do, but have no desires or autonomy.

Where mechanicalism differs from atomism is that it is really a form ontology. It is the shape of the parts that counts – that explains the causality of the system - not the material from which the parts are made.

Of course, while atomism is a substance ontology (dichotomising the world into the substantial and insubstantial, ie: the void), atomism does also depend on the causality inherent in the notion of form. It is the outward shape, not the inward material, that allows atoms to have many of their differing properties. Water atoms would be large, round and slippery. Fire atoms might be tiny and jagged. But as said, atomism’s principle claim is to dichotomise the world into substance/insubstantial, or rather atom~void.

Mechanicalism answered atomism’s stress on substance with a (dichotomously!) matching stress on form. It was a general vision of how shapes of certain kinds - like cogged wheels, sleeved pistons, rotating cams, snaplock switches, hinged levers and so forth - might lock together with such exactness that the causality became machine-like.

it does not matter what material The substance from which a machine is made is irrelevant. Of course in the real world, jelly is not as good a material as metal for making some machines like a car engine. But even from just the blueprint drawing of a car engine we can see that it ought to work. The causality lies in the shapes, the way parts must fit together and act on each other in sequence. The form rather than the substance is the cause of why an engine is a mechanism.

Mechanicalism does not appear to focus on size in quite the same way as atomism. An atom is defined as a smallest possible fragment of substance (atom being Greek for that which cannot be cut up any finer). But a mechanical form, such as a propeller or a piston, can be any size in principle. The tiny blades of a toy boat are the same in working principle as the mighty screws of an ocean liner.

However, eventually mechanicalism developed to the point where the “atoms of form” were sought. The question became what was the smallest mark or distinction, the very least or simplest form, that could make a difference in the world? In short, mechanical causality morphed into information theory (so perhaps RAMML ought to be RAMMIL).

An information bit is an atom of form. And the absence of a bit is an “atom” of void. The binary choice between 1 and 0 marks a presence and its absence – the smallest possible jot of existence (a bare, naked, property-less, existence) and also the smallest possible definable empty location.

So with the late 20th century advent of information theory – it from bit – RAMML found a way to talk about atomistic smallness regardless of whether this smallness was substance or form.

(oh, and determinism)

Before leaving the idea of mechanicalism, we ought to mention that it also leads to the idea of determinism. This is the modelling axiom that every event has a cause, and that each particular cause produces some unique effect. For anything that happens there are conditions so that - given them - nothing else could have happened.

A machine is deterministic because it will always produce the same output for the same input. Causality is stable and crisply specific, so history can repeat. By contrast, organicism is comfortable with the idea of spontaneity or material creativity. Because all causal sequences begin with some state of vagueness, the precise or particular outcome of a developmental process can be undetermined (even though globally it may be constrained).

This is of course what we see in quantum theory. A wavefunction talks about probabilities of events, but there is an inherent spontaneity about what actually happens. Quantum “mechanics” is not deterministic.

So we should add Determinism as well as Information to the developing package of ideas that is RAMML. That would give us RAMMDIL perhaps. Or RAMIDML if we stick to the sequence in which the components of mechanicalism are being presented here.


Monadism comes from mono, the Greek for one. It is the presumption that all reality is made of just the one fundamental stuff.

This seems a very plausible idea. If there is simplicity behind the complexity of existence, then nothing could be simpler than an existence spun from just the one fundamental kind of stuff, or state, or force, or god principle, or material, or whatever.

Two or three kinds of fundamental things would be oxymoronic - too complicated to be ultimately simple. The natural goal of modelling must be to find a way of reducing the many to the one.

organic logic as 1 2 3 Of course this site exists to argue that reality can be reduced, but not quite to the extreme that is monadism. Organicism is based on the one, two, three of vagueness, dichotomies and hierarchies. And while vagueness might be thought of as monadic, it is only vaguely monadic – as much a nothing as a something. Indeed, as much as an everything as a something.

We have also found that even RAMML is based on dichotomies. It depends on contrasts such as change~stasis, local~global, substance~form and particularly, atom~void. Every monad demands it complementary partner. Even the idea of information, which succeeds in making atoms of form, hinges on the idea of discrete localities – which then must have a continuous globality to house its presence (or localised absence).

RAMML says the world can be boiled down to something and nothing, a binary 1 and 0. Yet as physics keeps finding (and metaphysics already knew) the crisp existence of nothingness is just as problematic as that of crisp somethingness.

It can be assumed for the sake of causal modelling. But it is an assumption. And therefore complementary models are not excluded.


Our last element of RAMML is locality. This is a property dear to the heart of physicists - indeed so important that the discovery of nonlocality in quantum mechanics was about as weird a violation of causality as physicists could imagine.

Put simply, locality says it takes time and space for events to happen. Therefore causes and effects are crisply separated.

events take time to propagage If for example an atom emits a photon, the rest of the world does not learn about it immediately. Instead the photon has to propagate. It has to cover some measurable expanse of spacetime and reach these other locales. The same is true if two pool balls collide on a table. The crashing of two balls leaves all the other balls unmoved. Though later of course they may be affected by the consequences of the event.

Locality is based on the atoms in a void picture. Events happen in isolation and the void does not know or care about what is happening at its many positions. This means that effects always follow their causes in an additive, sequential, fashion. In RAMML, it is never a case that the ends can justify the means. The future can have no causal connection to the past. The far away can have no direct way of affecting the near-to.

Of course, as said, the non-locality of quantum theory throws a spanner in this particular story. And even relativity creates issues about causal sequences (it is all relative to the observer).

However locality is a natural consequence of RAMML. It results from the dichotomisation into active atoms and passive void. Causality is rendered local and therefore global causation is excluded on principle.

the normal view

This should have convinced you that behind mechanical logic – our “normal” view of the world – lies quite a complicated set of assumptions. Once more, there is nothing wrong in this intricate complexity. Models of the world should be as simple as possible – but not too simple. Yet we can also see how mechanical logic itself has developed out of dichotomies.

Elsewhere I have examined why the mechanical approach – RAMML – is usually the more efficient logic, the more compact description, the causal model more suited to control of the world.

home> logic> mechanical logic