One of my favorite quotations found on the inside cover of a textbook sent to me twenty years ago was attributed by G. E. Moore in Principia Ethica to Bishop Butler:

“Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”

Today I heard excerpts from two TED talks. In one, a neuroscientist commented that primates eat raw food and consequently spend most of their day foraging and chewing. Cooking food enables us to get far more nutrients by reducing the need to chew and also to absorb the nutrients more easily. She concluded apropos of nothing much at all, cheerfully, “we’re just animals.”

Another neuroscientist laughed at philosophers who say things like “the brain is unable to understand itself.” She then cheerfully concluded with no real argument – “we are our brains and our brains are just machines.”

Both women regarded what they said as unanswerable truisms, prompting the query: so which are we – animals or machines? Those terms are not interchangeable nor even compatible. I wonder how each non-arguer would respond to the claim of the other?

How about – humans are neither animals nor machines. We are just what we are – humans. Aristotle was on the right track in suggesting that we share a nutritive and sensitive soul with animals, but include a rational soul as well. There’s a degree of continuity, while important and distinctive differences exist too.

The TED talk excerpts at least concluded with David Chalmers who correctly stated that how the brain is related to consciousness is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the universe.

Here’s a link to an article of mine that distinguishes robots/machines from conscious beings.

Are Friends Electric?: Machines, Emotions, And The Importance of Rule Breaking


26 thoughts on “Reductionism

  1. Isn’t it odd? The people on great quests to “free” us from the “chains” of (Christian) religion, always end up simply freeing us from being human beings.

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  3. Interesting essay. May I suggest that digital information and how it is organized in order to make it useful is a metaphor for reductionist thinking and that analog information is a metaphor for ‘things are what they are’? If you are into software design, which I used to be, you develop the habit of thinking about how things would organized into a database schema and I do believe that this mindset has crept into governance and many other fields in society at large. Digital information is clean or, in geek speak, ‘granular’. Analog information is messy, impossible to process on a computer unless it is first converted to bits which means reducing it to it’s essential parts and then processing each of those parts according to its essential nature so that if humans are the object and two humans have, for example, a hobby in common, then they are exactly the same in that one respect and you can confidently go on and categorize them according to that criterion. Again, it seems to me that the digital paradigm has escaped the confines of information processing and dangerously morphed into a way of thinking about things in general.

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    • Thanks, Bruce. Thanks to you I looked this up and found this from G.E. Moore: “But, if we admit it, then we should remember [Bishop] Butler’s maxim that: Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” A philosopher called Tom Regan has an article available online as to the implications of Moore’s prominent placement of this quotation.

      • Interesting synchronicity is that today I came across this Butler quote referenced in Robert D Richardson’s marvellous biography of RW Emerson.

  5. Believing that emotions don’t exist is pretty bizarre and seems to imply a phenomenology (subjective experience of one’s own conscious states) quite different from a normal person’s.

    I was struck by this bit. Do normal people experience fear as being more like heat or more like deductive reasoning? Heat being an entirely “out there” phenomenon which is presented to consciousness via qualia while deductive reasoning is an entirely “in here” phenomenon going on inside the conscious mind. Personally, I find fear to be closer to heat than to deductive reasoning. I can make myself feel fear by thinking the right thoughts, of course. But I can also at least influence my perception of heat by thinking the right thoughts. In both cases, the felt thing conjured up by mere thought is a kind of shadow of the real thing.

    So, I’d tend to think that a person who is skeptical about the existence of emotions has some defect in the system which translates external stimuli into qualia rather than a defect in the reflexivity of their consciousness.

    Or,. maybe I haven’t got the Philosophy of Mind terminology right?

    • @ DrBill. Thanks for reading. I’ve actually got another article on the same website about emotions. I suppose I tend to see them as internal – although there is a clear physiological component with a bodily aspect. We would want to shy away from conflating heat involving thermoreceptors, as a feeling from emotions as feelings of course.

      Emotional feelings are self-generated though not something we have that much control over, whereas heat truly does come from outside and counts as external stimuli.

      You might be right that heat is more like an emotion than deductive reasoning is. That sounds plausible.

      I tend to stay away from talk of qualia as it tends to give the game away too much for my taste to materialists.

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  7. Reductionism and the habit of referring to “equivalents” go hand in hand.

    Thus a woman is equivalent to a man, e.g. as a soldier; a “gay couple” is equivalent to a man and woman united in conjugal marriage; the “great religions” are equivalent; the brain is a computer, and a computer is a brain; a mind is a brain; multiculturalism; etc.

    The “equivalent” shibboleth is at work in many ways in “higher education,” e.g. an online course is equivalent to a course in which the students and professor sit around a table; this course, taught by this professor, is equivalent to that course taught by that professor (e.g. Prof. Jones’s course on feminist celebrities of the 1970s is equivalent to Prof. Smith’s course on the Pre-Socratics for humanities credit) … and so on.

  8. To change public opinion, one doesn’t argue for a proposition. It is much more effective simply to state the proposition as if the argument had already been made and accepted among right-thinking people. Nowadays scientists are well positioned to do this because they have prestige, and occasionally actually know something. So in the midst of talking about something they know, or are at least supposed to know, they drop one of these bombs and act as if it somehow followed from everything else they just said. Of course it doesn’t, but the passive and uncritical listener won’t notice that.

    When she said “we’re just animals,” someone should ask if that means it is o.k. to eat people, or cure their hides and make shoes out of them. When she says “we are our brains and our brains are just machines,” someone should ask why we don’t send old and malfunctioning brains to the scrapyard to be broken up and sold for parts.

    • When she said “we’re just animals,” someone should ask if that means it is o.k. to eat people, or cure their hides and make shoes out of them.

      At the present time, the response would likely be, “No! What it means is that we can’t eat other animals or cure their hides to make shoes of them.” In a few years, the response will be, “Well, sure!”

      A response such as you suggest may reach a few fence-straddlers (which is not nothing), but nothing one does or says can reach those determined to believe what they know is false.

      Recall, until just a few years, when we anti-abortionists said that there is no moral difference between abortion and infanticide, the pro-abortionists poo-pooed the claim, accused us of hysteris, etc. But now, now that some of them want to push infanticide, without even missing a beat, the infanticide pushers are arguing that since there is no moral difference between abortion and infanticide, it must be the case that society must allow — and facilitate — infanticide.

      • I’ve had some experience with academics who argue against a “speciocentric” view of “human exceptionalism.” Some of them are sentimentalists who aim to bestow “rights” on animals; others are misanthropes who aim to remove rights from humans. I see the former as the useful idiots of the later. But as a general rule, the best defense against this sort of glib “rationalism” is to act as if the mean precisely what they say.

      • I see the former as the useful idiots of the later.

        I refer you to my initial response to the OP.

        But as a general rule, the best defense against this sort of glib “rationalism” is to act as if the mean precisely what they say.

        Just so one understands the unlikelihood of thereby *reaching* the glib — they have any number of defense mechanisms to avoid acknowledging the logical entailments of their premises (*) … until such time as they desire those entailments.

        (*) as the late Lawrence Auster might have put it, they rely upon “unprincipled exceptions”

    • @ JMSmith – Yes. That’s C.S. Lewis’ argument in the Screwtape Letters as you probably know. Taking the trouble to actually argue for something indicates the proposition needs defending. I like your suggestions about follow up questions.

      • I have often had occasion to recall his advise to ask just when and where a discredited notion was discredited. In my historical research I’ve found more or less what he described in The Discarded Image–I think he calls it a sudden “disrelish” for an old idea. The life of the mind may not be ruled by fashion, but fashion is one of its most influential courtiers.

  9. According to liberalism, one thing is like another, which is why, of course, we need diversity. We must crowd all institutions with as many things that are like one another, and yet somehow are positively different from an odious norm, as possible. Because everything is just like anything else, we also need affirmative action.

    • I think you have pointed out the gnostic principle in liberalism, which teaches an exoteric diversity and an esoteric identity. Men appear to come in many radically different varieties, but at heart they are all the same. It is a tactical decision whether the the external differences or internal unity is to be emphasized.

    • If so inclined, try the “three questions approach”:

      1) Is it true that one thing is like another?
      2) Is it true that diversity is a good thing in itself?
      3) Why is diversity superior to sameness if one thing is the same as any other?

      It’s always instructive to observe the animal-machines at work.

  10. In my experience anyone using the qualifiers “only,” “just,” or “really” when speaking can safely be ignored. Ex. “That painting is really only just pigment splattered on a canvas.”


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