Re: What Is a Machine?

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Sat Mar 02 1996 - 17:32:35 GMT

> From: "Haseldine, Philip" <>
> Date: Sat, 2 Mar 1996 16:59:33 +0000 (GMT)
> Machines. Humans. Why can't they be the same thing?
> Okay, I realise I've gotta start by defining what a machine is. I'll
> assume that we all know what a human is.
> Okay. I believe that a machine is a thing, which can be animal,
> mineral, and I suppose vegetable also, that was brought into the world,
> be it by an inventor's thoughts, copulation, or asexual reproduction in
> plants, not necessarily to do a particular job, but simply to be alive
> ( I know you can't really say that an internal combustion engine is
> "alive")

I assume you don't mean "alive" but simply "existing", in which case you
need not even have mentioned it, since we are not talking about things
that don't or can't exist. But having said it can be living or
nonliving, manmade or natural, for-a-job or not-for-a-job, you have
pretty much included everything that exists. If everything is X and
nothing is not X, then X is not a very useful category. Besides, that
still leaves us with no idea of what X is , except that everything is

> and in doing so perform tasks that may range from the very
> specific,eg. the mechanism of strings, etc. which produce a reminiscent
> sound from the action of a pianist's fingers, to the variant and
> diverse, eg. the life of a cat. I do not see where the problem lies in
> classifying humans as machines, or rubbers as such, or cacti, but of
> course there comes a point where you have to draw the line.

Why? You have not given any feature or rule that will distinguish X from
non-X, so you can't very well draw a line...

> Is a piece
> of paper a machine? In a sense, it is.It enables us to deposit layers
> of, say, graphite, or ink into/onto its fibres such that a permanent
> record can be made of our scribblings. But, we are the ones scribbling-
> work is done not BY the paper but ON the paper. So, maybe, to be a
> machine, you have to be ACTIVE- passiveness disqualifies you from the
> status of being recognised as a "machine" and so perhaps a piece of
> paper is not a machine after all- all it does is act as a storage
> system, the storage itself not requiring any work at all.

Neither is a car, then, when it's not running. Besides, paper may look
"inactive," but at the atomic level it's pretty active. I'm afraid you
haven't given any way to distinguish X's from non-X's...

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