Re: Are We Machines?

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Sat Jun 08 1996 - 18:39:22 BST

> Date: Sat, 8 Jun 1996 18:02:40 +0100 (BST)
> From: "Fletcher, Emma" <>
> I hope that you are not too busy. I'm just writing to say that a
> several people have expressed concern over the question "are humans
> machines". I think the general problem is that we don't know how to
> define 'machine' and as such we are unable to know how to approach the
> question.

There's a lot already on this thread: See all the discussion on
"What Is a Machine?" (8 items) and "Are We Machines?" (2 items),
and Turing Machine (2 items).

Everything on reverse engineering is relevant; so is all the discussion
of causality, because, in the end, since no one came up with a better
definition, a "machine" is merely any CAUSAL PHYSICAL SYSTEM, any
physical system that operates according to the causal laws of physics,

That includes natural "machines," big and small, inanimate and animate,
such as galaxies, planets, volcanoes, molecules, electrons, amoebas,
plants, jellyfish, mammals, and humans, including all their parts:
hearts, lungs, brains, molecules, electrons...

And it includes artificial machines, such as clocks, typewriters, cars,
planes, computers, "neural" nets, robots.

Now you may not agree that all these things are machines, but then
remember, from the problem of Universal Grammar and of the poverty of the
stimulus, that to say what IS in a category, you must also be able to
say what ISN'T: You need both positive and negative instances. And you
need some justification (other than merely taste, preference, or
opinion) for what you put in it and what you don't.

So if you think some of the things above are machines and others are
not, you have to say what the basis is for your sorting them that way.
It would be empty, for example, to say that only artificial things are
machines ("artifacts" would be a better word for that category), for that
would mean that if there were two identical systems, but one happened
to be crafted by the Blind Watchmaker and the other by a person, yet they
were EXACTLY the same in every respect except how they came to be,
you'd have to say that one of these IDENTICAL things was a machine and
the other wasn't -- which would leave the machine/nonmachine
distinction sounding pretty empty -- roughly equivalent to "man-made"
vs. "non-man-made." Moreover, it wouldn't help us much, since then the
question of whether or not we are machines would simply be the question
of whether or not we are man-made (i.e., "artifacts"), which we clearly
aren't (so far), but so what? Apart from that,
there seem to be no further PRINCIPLES involved, simply the arbitrary
limits, if any, on what we happen to have made, or been able to make,
limits that it is notoriously risky to set in advance, since we have
proved capable of making so many things so far (including space ships,
nuclear power and genetic ENGINEERING) that no one expected we could
make not so long ago.

So I'd say that the course should have armed everyone pretty well to
provide a rich, informative, thoughtful and thought-provoking earful to
kid-sib on THIS question...

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