More Than What We’re Made Of

My boss, Richard Polt, thinks that I’m human. In a philosophy department, this is a big deal, because of the tendency both fellow philosophers and the media have of

telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.

Why a computer or an animal? Because both happen to get a lot right about humans. Humans do sometimes calculate in ways that can achieve computer-like results, and evolutionary theory has lots to say about how modern human beings came about. Polt grants the importance of these ways of looking at humans, but what concerns him is what they leave out:

None of these devices can think, because none of them can care; as far as we know there is no program, no matter how complicated, that can make the world matter to a machine.

He argues that human beings are “different in kind” as we philosophers like to say — neither a less accurate computer nor a more complicated animal, but something else altogether.

Polt’s defense of humanity elicited a tidal wave of comments, many of them both negative and heated. The piece even made it (briefly) into the top ten most-emailed articles in the Times — a rare accomplishment for a piece of philosophy. In a follow up article, Polt argues that the disagreements center primarily on attitudes towards reductionism.

Now, what do I mean by reductionism, and what’s wrong with it? Every thinking person tries to reduce some things to others … the reductionism that’s at stake here is a much broader habit of thinking that tries to flatten reality down and allow only certain kinds of explanations.

Polt illustrates the dangers of this approach with ethics. Lesser philosopher that I am, I’ll try a simpler example: food. Michael Pollan has made a name for himself arguing against “nutritionism” in a series a popular books and articles. Several years ago he wrote:

Salad by SliceOfChic on Flickr.

More than the sum of its parts.

It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by “nutrients,” which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like “fiber” and “cholesterol” and “saturated fat” rose to large-type prominence.

Nutritionism is all around us. We’re sold food on the basis its constitutive parts. In fact, many processed foods are manufactured from the nutrients up — reductionism incarnate. First break down traditionally edible things into little, manipulable pieces. Then reassemble said pieces to whatever your specifications. The result: butter with less fat, sugar with less sugar, nearly anything with more fiber. Whether or not they’re good for us, they’re no longer primarily food.

The difference between nutrients and food is rather like the difference between an animal and a human. Nutrients may be what makes up food, but they’re not what it is. And nutrients or not, we can still all tell the difference between real food and what Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” And we know which one we’d rather eat.

So too the difference between a human being and sophisticated program or a bipedal hairless ape. A salad is more than the sum of its parts and so are we.

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