Are Living Systems Machines?

With that definition, it seems a stretch to say that a living organism is a machine. I see an organism as a process or system of processes, rather than as an assemblage.

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Of course it is. We research what we can. We tend to mine in areas considered more tractable. Barbara McClintock had a ‘feel for the organism’ (corn), but she investigated transposons with a reductionist approach. I’ve had a feel for E. coli, growing and working with it under a variety of conditions. I could tell by smell what media it was growing in and its stage of growth. And I studied how it altered and regulated its metabolism in response to different growth conditions, at the molecular level and above. A holistic appreciation is important in understanding what your models and investigation of the “little bits” need to lead toward and contribute to an explanation. It’s a picture of the larger terrain that your local models need to conform to. But holism doesn’t mean that the model will never accurately describe the larger phenomena. It may be hard to accomplish or technically impossible, but in science we don’t throw up our hands, declare “Here there be dragons” and stop trying.


It seems to me that scientific investigation of life does not include.more than physical/chemical processes and their consequences.

Treating life as machines might be a step up… as you will also acknowledge and investigate the design involved. I don’t expect to find a “ghost” in the cell… However there is thought put into it.

Hi Neil, thank you for your response. I offer a rebuttal:

A system of processes would be an assemblage- ** 2 : the act of [assembling] the state of being [assembled], which leads to ** 1 to bring together (as in a particular place or for a particular purpose)

And it remains that a process or system of processes needs a means of being carried out/ being implemented. It so happens that in living organisms that includes an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a [predetermined] manner

We are clearly physical beings- the parts would be the organs, tissues, bones, systems etc., all assembled and working in a predetermined manner. All of the systems require an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion and energy one to another in a predetermined manner. The nervous system provides the voltage and the proper muscles with their supply of calcium (cat)ions respond to do the work. We are powered by electricity. Take away our (wet) electricity and all functions stop.

Even at the molecular level we see that, for example, ATP synthase is an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion and energy one to another in a predetermined manner. It isn’t a metaphor to call it a protein machine. You would have to invent new words that have the same meaning as the words we now use in order to describe what we observe in biology.

So no stretch required, Neil. Just an understanding of what is at play. Take a kinesiology course or two. Read an anatomy and physiology book- it isn’t any stretch at all to see that living organisms are an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a [predetermined] manner. There really isn’t any other logical way of looking at them.

@swamidass- I have 11 hours before I can reply normally- No, I do not think that I am a robot. There isn’t anything in the definition of machine that says anything about that. Just because our systems fit the definition doesn’t mean we aren’t conscious or don’t have free will. We do still reproduce.

@JoeG you think you are just a robot?

A dead person, immediately after death, is the same assemblage of parts as before death. What has changed, are the processes.

In any case, this argument is pointless. “Machine” is not defined precisely enough to settle the question on the basis of the definition.

If you want to see a living system as a machine, that’s your choice. For me, it just doesn’t match what I expect of a machine.


The question is not what we see living organisms as… the question is what science can see about life.
Can science explain death in any way other than a machine and systems failing?
I sometimes look at scientific explanations of reality as slightly out of phase with it… living organisms are not machines… all of us including scientists know that… however can the scientific method see anything more than machines…
I think answering this question is important before we take scientific “facts” into consideration when doing theology.

I’m not sure that “machine” is even a technical term in science. It’s more of a casual term. Scientific explanations are often oversimplifications, but an oversimplification is often more useful than a fully detailed account.

Anyway, for perspective, I’ll stick my neck out and say that an automobile is not a machine. It is mainly a machine, but not completely a machine. It’s operation depends on a combustion process, and that combustion process is not something that I would consider a machine.

If we compare to a living organism, then there are mechanical systems throughout, but there is also a distributed system of thermodynamic processes (roughly analogous to the combustion process of the automobile).

As for what we can say about life – I’m not sure we will ever have a complete answer to that. Finding life elsewhere in the cosmos would help. Yes, biochemistry tells us a lot about living systems. But we don’t know enough that we could design a wholly original living system.

I should note that I’m a mathematician, not a biologist.


When all people (including those who make it) call something a machine and you find yourself disagreeing, it’s a sign that something is wrong with how you view machines.
Machines convert energy from one form to another… so combustion in the ICE is in the domain of machines… just a generators which produce electricity from diesel are also machines…

True. Sometimes, though, it comes up with a new concept of dragons that explains why the model was proving technically impossible.

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This is true and it is how science has moved forward in history… whether it was Newton’s new mathematical approach or Einstein’s theory of relativity… or even Darwin’s idea of natural selection…
“New Dragons” lead to paradigm shifts… And perhaps a new approach could open up investigations into design and teleology.

Yes, they do. But the combustion process is less controlled than what we expect of a machine.

The steam engine is also a machine… control has nothing to do with in…
What do you think about the atom bomb… or any bomb/missiles… are they machines?


And yet we’ve been thru this before: Science has no claim for such a view. Science cannot resolve the matter.

Well… as long as scientists know that… And theologians remember that…

Things are ok…

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This seems like a new position for you @Ashwin_s. It looks good on you.

It’s not really a new position… I don’t think the scientists will play by their own rules in questions that matter…I expect only the rule with respect to strict materialism to be upheld at all times.Frankly, the rules are self imposed by the scientific establishment and I don’t see any ontological reality attached to them. Hence at some time, they will be broken with good and proper justification… And they will be broken while maintaining philosophical biases.
That’s where ID is important.

If @swamidass is correct and scientists are serious about the rules of the scientific methodology… Good for them!. Things will really be peaceful in such a scenario.
I am a skeptic though.

I never really thought about that. It does not seem to be a useful question.

If everything is a machine, then to say “X is a machine” is just to say “X is”. We might as well drop the word “machine” from the language.

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I am hardly saying everything is a machine… I am just trying to understand what control or lack thereof of its energy source has to do with being a machine… (Refer your example of the ICE in automobiles)

Machines are not just assemblies of component parts… they also involve systems, processes, energy conversion etc.

I’m pretty sure elementary nechanics (in physics) gave a broad definition of a machine as a contrivance that does work, ie converts energy to work (whether that be human, animal, or internal. We started with levers and pulleys, and ended up via heat engines with the internal combustion engine.

I never thought it was controversial.