I’m sure a lot of people have by now read that Aeon article about how your brain doesn’t actually process information or store memories and so the computer metaphor only makes a certain degree of sense. But you know what? Neither does the machine metaphor either, and that one’s way older. Hmmm, seems like a good idea for an article. Oh hey, that’s probably the reason I was writing a lead in isn’t it? (from Quartz):
“Once upon a time, people believed in the soul, a god-given vital force that animated human beings and left the body upon death. Around the 1500s, this theory of vitalism fell from fashion and we started to see beings as more like machines.
Dissections and anatomical drawings showed scientists body parts, and it appeared that sorting out each one would solve our problems. “The metaphor of body as a machine provided a ladder that allowed biology to bring phenomena up from a dark pit of mysterious forces into the light where organic mechanisms can be analyzed,” writes Randolph Nesse of Arizona State University’s Center for Evolution and Medicine.
Since the 20th century, scientists have been busily mapping out ever-smaller and harder-to-reach parts. But the body-as-machine metaphor has gone too far, Nesse argues, because it fails to recognize evolution and organic complexity. He writes:
Machines are products of design, bodies are products of natural selection, and that makes them different in fundamental ways…. Machines have discrete parts with specific functions connected to each other in straightforward ways. Bodies have parts that may have blurry boundaries and many functions and the parts are often connected to each other in ways hard for human minds to fathom. Bodies and machines fail for different reasons.
In other words, we’re more than the sum of our parts. Nesse believes that when we compartmentalize based on an idealized conception, a mere metaphor, we fail to approach the truth of what live beings do: parts interact and are dynamic. This plays out in the way we practice medicine, Nesse says.
For example, “in psychiatry, thinking about the mind as a machine has led to a debacle about diagnosis,” writes the physician. Some mental health experts are dismissive of traditional approaches to diagnosing disorders that aren’t rooted in physical proof, leading to aggravation of people’s symptoms and suffering and, at worst, a total failure to acknowledge and diagnose disease. The reason for this, he says, is that many neuroscientists believe there should be a specific and manifest brain abnormality associated with every disorder; when they can’t find one for a stated malaise, they simply reject the disorder’s existence. Nesse says mental illness isn’t that simple and that, like heart failure or physical system breakdowns, psychological problems have multiple causes and diverse and diffuse symptoms.
“We must embrace organic reality, with its blurry boundaries,” he urges.
Beyond the body
He’s not alone in calling for a holistic view. The implications of mechanical thinking go far beyond human health. An understanding of life that recognizes the interconnection of parts and whole would transform science, society, policy, and the environment, according to Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning.
Lent is among a growing group of thinkers that believes it’s dangerous to persist in a mechanical worldview. “Every part of a living system may be mapped out but the whole affects the parts in nonlinear ways,” he says. “There is reciprocal causality, with causes and effects going in either direction continually.”
Machines don’t continually tell themselves stories do they? No sir they don’t, and that’s sort of the fundamental characteristic of being human. The crafting of narrative is everything with us.