You Are Not Just a Machine


“A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”

– Albert Camus

All words are simplifications of the thing they describe. This is why it’s always possible to say “ah, but it’s more complicated than that” at the end of almost any observation. Such a statement almost goes without saying and is always irritating. Feel free to pop it into the comments section of any online article in the sure knowledge that you are correct.

On the flip side of this is the phrase “it’s just”. Pop this at the bottom of an article only if you wish to be in the sure knowledge that you are wrong. Almost without exception the phrase “it’s just” feeds a lie to both the speaker and the spoken to. Words are symbols which by necessity are less than that which they describe so it stands logically that whatever “it” is that you are speaking about, “it” is not limited to being “just…” anything at all. Whatever “it” is you’re talking about is highly likely to be far more complex than you’ll pretend with this deceptive phrase.

Simplifications often sell human experiences tragically short:

Love – “it’s just chemicals in your brain”.

God – “it’s just another mode of control”.

Art – “it’s just pretty pictures”.

If you find the above answers entirely satisfactory this is not the article for you. You’re unlikely to be the sort of person who often wants to use the phrase “more than words can say”, or knows the definition of the word “ineffable”. You’ve allowed words to narrow and control your experience of life itself, the only thing this short piece is going to do is annoy you. If I were writing it to reach you I’d use different tactics.

However, if you’re following me so far, lets go into an area where most of are happy with a deep level of complexity: you. What exactly is it that you are?

A rationalist attempting to answer this question will first ask where “you” begin and end. They will likely then measure “you” according to those limits. This process reveals an answer that goes something like this:  you are an object which has been grown in a particular time and place, acting as a machine by responding to and interacting with stimuli. They will then describe that object and its consequences on the environment. However, for many, this process reveals a picture which once complete implies the phrase, “it’s just”. In other words it’s not uncommon to feel there is something missing between this picture of you and the person you know yourself to be.

The word rational is derived from “ratio” and means to measure or quantify. It allows us to set limits on an object and predict more accurately how it will interact with its environment. There are some who feel that a strictly “rational” analysis of the world leaves something out, they just can’t measure or describe with words exactly what that is.

Perhaps the most hotly debated aspect of rational analysis regarding humans generally is the eternal debate between nature and nurture. This divides advocates into two territories, most of us living close to the middle, seeing merit in both points of view, but favouring one over the other overall.


On the “nurture” side you have those who believe your destiny will be written upon you as a result of the environment you’re born into. Here we are as blank sheets of paper or “tabula rasa” with our characters and lives dictated to us by events beyond our control.


Over on the “nature” side there are those who believe you’re born with natural instincts already written within you that will determine who you’ll become. In the past this was seen as your intended “destiny” or destination. Nowadays those who side with this belief system tend to focus upon genetics.

The above points are important because they provide a lens through which a number of recent debates can be understood. For example, if you think we’re all blank sheets of paper, censoring the internet can be made to sound like good sense as it means you can stop “bad” ideas and thoughts being spread around and written recklessly upon helpless hearts of your citizens.

In my opinion the UK establishment’s lip service to the “nurture” argument speaks only to the fact they’re trying to lead. In fact, they appear to support the “nature” argument, with our hereditary Monarchy making perfect sense in that context.

Personally speaking I find both points of view, even when combined, to be unsatisfactory and incomplete. Unfortunately, as I’ve tried to show, I cannot use a ‘rational argument’ to articulate why this is. It’s just a niggling feeling my human brain gets when seeing its kind reduced to the role of a machine either purpose built or programmed by others.

There is something about people which I feel cannot be rationed. Perhaps I only think this because I am one but if that is the case to deny this ineffable quality is to betray my current human identity.

“Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine. He is a machine which, in right circumstances, and with right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and having fully realized this, he may find the ways to cease to be a machine.”

– P.D. Ouspensky

We are more than machines, it’s just that we cannot say exactly what it is we are.

Nick Margerrison (my twitter here)

Nick Margerrison

I write on Disinfo for fun, I've been a fan of the company for years.

In the real world I'm a freelance TV/radio presenter. I've worked for LBC, Kerrang Radio, The Bay, Edge Media TV, Hallam FM and The BBC.

My podcast is here:

20 Comments on "You Are Not Just a Machine"

  1. I can’t help but feel the work of Stuart Kauffman and Giuseppe Longo has relevance here. Kauffman’s posts on the NPR cosmology blog 13.7 probably provide the best general introduction, but this talk at MIT has all the meat:

    “…evolution really is non determinate and not causal and also causal and
    not random, so not described sufficiently by QM (quantum mechanics) alone or classical
    physics alone. We have to think about Life anew.”

  2. I really like this, succinct writing. the argument for instinct doesn’t just fall to the right though. It’s innate & easy to observe it in all animals – it’s a question of survival.

    • kowalityjesus | Sep 16, 2013 at 1:17 am |

      huh, hadn’t thought about the idea that ‘someone is nurtured to be a direct reflection of their environment’ is a quality unique to (or most deeply observed in) humans. Although, if animals were introduced into a new environment and were able to survive, they would have to change diet and behavior, and eventually their offspring would evolve into a different species. Therefore is humanity as we know it a product of a series of single-generation ‘evolutions’ and subsequent learned inculcation of accumulated knowledge by tradition and elders?

  3. Hocketeer | Sep 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm |

    Unlike the PC I am using, I didn’t come with a user’s manual, or so I thought.

  4. Anarchy Pony | Sep 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm |

    That’s enough, machines, back to your routine protocol!

    • Charlie Primero | Sep 15, 2013 at 6:48 am |

      But, but, being the best Apex Predator I can be becomes soooo tedious at times. Can’t we just have a day off once in a while?

  5. DeepCough | Sep 14, 2013 at 4:35 pm |

    “We are all a part of the same compost heap.”

  6. BuzzCoastin | Sep 14, 2013 at 4:48 pm |

    when contemplating the mysteries of existence
    I load these parameters into my Thunking Machine:
    everything is vibrating tiny particles vibrating at 10^26 a second
    96% of the “universe” is imperceptible to humans
    & the 4% wee can see is very confusing
    everything “I” experience is a mediated experience
    “I” have no idea what “I” is
    human life is like a Mayfly to the Universe
    now I’m ready to Thunk

  7. Been reading a lot of Walker Percy lately? This could be an introduction for “Lost in the Cosmos”.

    “The greatest difference between the environment (Umwelt) of the sign-using organism and the world (Welt) of the speaking organism is that there are gaps in the former but none in the latter. The non-speaking organism only notices what is relevant biologically; the speaking organism disposes of the entire horizon symbolically. Gaps that cannot be closed by perception and reason are closed by magic and myth.”

    “. . . man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim”

    “Modern anthropology deals with man as a physical organism and with the products of man as a culture member, but NOT with man himself as a culture member . . . Modern anthropology has been everything except an anthropology”


  8. LifelongLIb | Sep 14, 2013 at 5:49 pm |

    Everything we experience is in some way a product of brain chemistry, but if someone experiences something we think is invalid suddenly “it’s just chemicals”. As William James pointed out long ago, the “it’s just” argument is often just a way to dismiss things that we already dislike on other grounds.

  9. Left out music? Where is the tyrants anaesthetized Yankee Doodle Dandy, just dumbed down enough to call out for legal Pot for all?

  10. Not What Should Be, But What Is – Alan Watts

    Great lecture. Kicks off with the query, “I wonder what you mean when you use the word ‘I’…” This shorter clip boils it down to its essence:

    It All Goes Together

    I also recall Watts relaying a great convo that he had with Buckminster Fuller, in which Fuller had to concede a point to Watts. Fuller had made a comment lamenting that space was “just” a “negative event.” Watts contention wasn’t with the idea of “negative event,” which he thought was a beautiful phrase, but in using “just” as a qualifier – as if space “could just be dismissed.” Watts pointed out that any solid involves and includes the space around “it” in the totality of its being – for you can’t have solids without space, or space without solids. Just like you can’t have up without down, front without back, inside without outside, or positive without negative – they “go-together.”

    “If you awaken from this illusion, and you understand that black implies white, self implies other, life implies death – or shall I say, death implies life – you can conceive yourself.”

    — Alan Watts

  11. I like that bit from Ouspensky…

    “Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine. He is a machine which, in right circumstances, and with right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and having fully realized this, he may find the ways to cease to be a machine.”

    – P.D. Ouspensky

    … although, personally, I don’t think it is possible to cease to be a machine. It is, however, possible to recognize that there is intelligence and purpose built into the machine, and all the mechanics have been serving that purpose all along.

    I seems to me that the great challenge of life is to consciously take the purpose of the universe as our own and serve it deliberately and out of our own desire as individuals.

  12. Heh. What do I love about disinfo? That this above article is posted the same day as
    Heck, the two of them should be combined. Point and Counterpoint.

  13. Meh. What does it matter? It changes nothing. If free will is an illusion than we cannot help but to believe or not believe in it. If free will is true, than we are making choices even if we don’t believe we are, “if you chose not to believe you still have made a choice” and all that. Comes out about the same in day-to-day life.

  14. I think’ its just’ our existence doesn’t have the capacity to understand our state of mind fully and there are some dimensions in life that we cannot perceive.The phrase ‘Its just’ is used because we have the need to justify everything and give a reason to everything in a simplistic way. This could suggest that our brain does not have the ability to give solid explanations about certain states of mind we experience such as love( a profound meaning but sometimes oversimplified by third parties) . This is why these words are called abstract nouns because we have the freedom to interpret these words in our own ways through our experiences and actions
    Science is a world wide accepted school of thought where some terms seem to be standardized and devalued by universal terms by human-made experiments. But these does not really validate your thoughts or intrude your experiences . In other words language does devalue the meaning of our experiences and feelings and because every person has different perceptions in interpreting and processing words it creates a gap in communication.
    In the end experiences are simplified due to a gap created through language and due to our idiosyncrasies but it doesn’t deprive us from our imagination and our thoughts. We have the right to turn the words into something more complicated and create further issues and raise further profound questions. Thoughts are infinite as well as approaches from different people to certain experiences is different. Each person can complete each other by questioning and creating dialogues, instead of becoming machines controlled by a system which seems to predominates providing to the mass oversimplified definitions . Do we have accept universal definitions that simplify our experience or should we further question, just question?

  15. I think nature and nurture are actually the same thing, seen from different angles. They are so entangled that it is hopeless to try and separate them.

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