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Are Human Beings Merely Computers Made of Meat?

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari proposes that human beings ultimately function in the same way as beverage vending machines. Harari explains that vending machines follow a pre-programmed computer algorithm that turns the input of buttons being pressing into the output of a cup of tea being made (Harari, 2015, pp. 98–99). Harari goes on:

“biologists have reached the firm conclusion that the man pressing the buttons and drinking the tea is also an algorithm… The algorithms controlling vending machines work through mechanical gears and electrical circuits. The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts.” (Harari, 2015, pp. 98–99)

From the Enlightenment onwards, the idea that human beings are machines comparable to computers made of meat has become increasingly popular. From primary school science classes, to popular books like Homo Deus, to academic research forums, parallels between humans and computers are often drawn and assumed to be the best explanation for human behaviour.

This essay aims to critically assess the belief that humans are merely computers made of meat- a belief that, for the remainder of this essay, shall be referred to as “technological reductionism”. Part 1 of this essay explores the philosophical and scientific roots of the belief that humans are merely computers made of meat. Part 2 then aims to critically evaluate this belief.

Part 1: The Roots of Technological Reductionism

1. Technological Reductionism and Enlightenment Philosophy

Technological reductionism is an elaboration on the philosophy of materialism, which is the belief that all of reality, including mind and consciousness, is nothing but the results of physical processes (Stoljar, 2001). Materialism gained much of its popularity during the Enlightenment era through philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza and Julien Offray de La Mettrie.

Partly in response to the philosophy of Cartesian Dualism (Decartes, 1641, p. 9), Baruch Spinoza argues that all of reality is contained within the substance of “nature”, which Spinoza suggests is synonymous with “God” (Spinoza, 1670, pp. 291–294). This leads Spinoza to conclude that all observable phenomena, including all human actions, decisions and desires, can be reduced to and explained by natural processes, and thus human decisions are not free, but determined by past natural events (Spinoza, 1677, p. 68). As Spinoza puts it:

“an infant believes that of its own free will it desires milk, an angry child believes that it freely desires vengeance… men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.” (Spinoza, 1677, pp. 127–129).

Julien Offray de La Mettrie also argues that humans are essentially mechanistic machines; in Machine Man, La Mettrie describes the human body as “a machine that winds itself up, a living likeness of perpetual motion” (La Mettrie, 1747, p. 8). La Mettrie grounds this reductionistic view of humanity in what he ascertains to be the intrinsic link between physical process such as the circulation of bodily fluids, and mental states such as fear and anger (La Mettrie, 1747, pp. 3–4). Although many of La Mettrie’s medical assertions have been since proven false, his reductionist philosophy, grounded in the link between mental states and physical processes, is still highly influential today, especially in light of modern advances in neuroscience.

2. Technological Reductionism and Neuroscience

With the many significant advances in neuroscience, neuroimaging and neurology in modern times, the ideas proposed by La Mettrie and Spinoza have gained renewed credibility. There is now a plethora of human behaviours, thoughts, emotions and personalities that can be mapped onto the electrical activities of precise areas of the brain. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the story of Phineas Gage, who, through a construction accident, fired a large metal rod through the front of his skull behind his left eye. Gage survived, but was left with a dramatic and long-term change in his personality (Fleischman, 2002, pp. 3–9). The case of Gage shows that certain personality traits arise from the functioning of the frontal lobe of the brain, and thus damage to the frontal lobe can cause dramatic personality change (Macmillan, 2000).

Numerous subsequent observations, especially owing to the invention of neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), have confirmed the theory that brain activity is responsible for many aspects of a person’s thought-life (Kennis, Rademaker and Geuze, 2013). Studies have linked particular brain areas to mental processes including pain-sensation (Preis et al., 2013), love (Ortigue et al., 2010), ethical decision-making (Heekeren et al., 2003) and even religious and spiritual experiences (Beauregard and Paquette, 2006; Newberg et al., 2006). These discoveries give scientific credibility to the idea that all human thoughts and experiences can be reduced to mechanistic processes- namely electrical activities in the brain.

Furthermore, studies also appear to show that there is a causal link between brain activity and decisions that people believe they are making “freely”. The most famous example of this is Benjamin Libet et al.’s so-call “Libet Experiment” (Libet et al., 1983).

In 1983, Libet et al. published the findings of their study in which EEG recordings were taken whilst volunteers carried out tasks involving making seemingly free decisions. The researchers found evidence that electrical brain activity associated with decision-making is detectable by EEG before the participant is consciously aware that they are making a decision (Libet et al., 1983). The study concludes that these findings call into question the reality of “free” choices, which actually appear to be determined by prior electrical activity. A full critique of the Libet Experiment will be done in Part 2 of this essay. However, for now it is sufficient to conclude that the Libet Experiment gives credibility to the belief that all human experiences, including seemingly free decisions, are determined by the mechanistic electrical activities of the brain, perhaps in a similar way to a vending machine’s tea production being determine by the buttons that are pressed. Francis Crick summarises this view:

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerves cells and their associated molecules” (Crick, 1994, p. 3).

2. Technological Reductionism and Molecular Biology

Since the Enlightenment, there have also been several landmark findings in the field of molecular biology that have given further credibility to the notion that humans are merely machines made of meat. These key findings are namely Darwinian evolution and the structure of DNA.

In his famous book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin proposes that all life on Earth has evolved from a single common ancestor, through the principle of “survival of the fittest” and the propagation of competitively advantageous physical characteristics (Darwin, 1859, pp. 60–61). Nearly one hundred years on from Darwin, James Watson and Francis Crick proposed their double-helical model for the structure of DNA, with its nucleotide bases which carry the information for producing proteins, organs and ultimately organisms (Pray, 2008). Although they were not the first to investigate genetic material, Watson and Crick’s discovery transformed biologists’ understanding of the ways organisms, including humans, develop, express and pass-on attributes and behaviours.

These two landmark discoveries, of Darwinian evolution and the structure of DNA, have combined to produce the now popular view that humans are not just mere machines, but mere machines programmed for the sole purpose of propagating genetic material. Richard Dawkins summarises this view when he describes the evolution of humans in his book The Selfish Gene:

“Replicators began… to construct for themselves containers… [Through evolution, these] survival machines got bigger and more elaborate, and the process was cumulative and progressive… They [replicators] are in you and in me; they create us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence… Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.” (Dawkins, 1976, pp. 19–20)

Building on the discoveries of Darwinian evolution and the structure of DNA, Dawkins proposes that humans are merely machines built to propagate genetic material, and thus all human behaviours and decisions are genetically programmed to fulfil this evolutionary purpose. To continue the quotation from Yuval Noah Harari mentioned in the introduction of this essay, in the eyes of the technological reductionist, a human is “like a vending machine which, if you press the right combination of buttons, produces another vending machine” (Harari, 2015, p. 98).

4. Technological Reductionism and Artificial Intelligence

One final foundation of technological reductionism worth exploring is the development of increasingly human-like artificial intelligence (AI). As Harari describes, jobs such as taxi drivers, teachers and surgeons, which were previously thought to be impervious to automation, are now under threat from self-driving cars, digital teachers such as the programme developed by the company Mindojo, and robotic medical procedures (Harari, 2015, pp. 365–366). One study even found that the AI diagnostics system developed by health company Babylon scored comparably to doctors in the diagnostic component of the Royal College of General Practitioners’ membership exam (Razzaki et al., 2018).

Furthermore, AI systems now appear able to replicate and sometimes outperform humans on some of the most complex cognitive tasks. In 1997, millions followed on TV and online as the then reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov was defeated in a six-game chess match by the IBM computer programme ‘Deep Blue’ (Newborn, 2011, pp. 1–2). Deep Blue’s play was so comparable to human chess champions that during the match, Kasparov questioned if his opponent was somehow receiving help from a human inputter (Newborn, 2011, p. 3).

Intelligent machines are also now able to replicate some of the relational attributes of humans. In 2010, the US medicines regulator classified the robot ‘Paro’ as a medical device. Paro is a Japanese intelligent robot that looks like a baby seal, and is now used in hospitals and nursing homes to give companionship to elderly or cognitively impaired patients (Tergesen and Inada, 2010). And in 2017, the Chinese AI engineer Zheng Jiajia announced that, after failing to find a human spouse, he was choosing to marry an intelligent robot that he had built himself, called ‘Yingying’ (Haas, 2017).

These advances in AI, that have been able to replicate a whole range of human attributes, have strengthened the case for the belief that humans are merely computers made of meat. If technological reductionism is true, one would expect developments in computer technology to eventually be able to create a machine that is totally indistinguishable from a human. This is similar to the conclusion reached by Alan Turing in 1950 who proposed that a computer can be classed as “intelligent” if it can convince a human that they are interacting not with a computer, but with another human (Turing, 1950). This became known as the “Turing Test”. Nicholas Agar goes further and argues that a computer that develops intelligence comparable to that of humans ought to be ordained with the same moral worth and rights as humans, and if, one day, computers gain intelligence significantly superior to that of humans, these super-intelligent machines would have even higher moral status than mere biological humans (Agar, 2013).

Therefore, through the creation of human-like machines, advances in AI technology appear to support the belief that humans are merely computers made of meat, and thus computers made of silicon may one day become indistinguishable from humans.

Summary of Part 1: The Roots of Technological Reductionism

The first part of this essay has aimed to explore the roots of the belief that humans are merely computers made of meat- what this essay is terming “technological reductionism”. Technological reductionism finds much of its ideological roots in Enlightenment philosophy, and particularly in the materialistic belief that all of reality can be reduced to mechanical and deterministic physical processes. Advances in neuroscience and molecular biology have shown that many aspects of human life and behaviour, including seemingly free decisions, can be explained by electrical activity of the brain and genetic programming produced by evolution. Furthermore, the creation of human-like AI systems have shown that various complex aspects of human experience can be replicated by computers made of steel and silicon.

However, there are some significant and arguably insurmountable problems with the belief that humans are merely computers made of meat. These problems shall be the focus of Part 2 of this essay.

Part 2: The Problems with Technological Reductionism

1. The Problem of “Nothing Buttery”

In his book The Clockwork Image, Donald MacKay argues that reductionist philosophy that aims to explain all of reality in terms of physical processes is guilty of the logical fallacy of “nothing buttery”. MacKay proposes that “nothing buttery” is when someone posits a physical explanation for a phenomenon, but then makes the illogical leap to say that the phenomenon can be entirely explained by nothing but this physical explanation (MacKay, 1974, pp. 42–43). One of the examples MacKay gives is of the LED advertising sign-boards in Piccadilly Circus. As MacKay explains, if one were to ask an electrician “what is on the board?”, the electrician may give a detailed description of the individual lights and the mechanisms which make them flash in a pre-determined order. Although this is true, it is of course an incomplete explanation of what is on the board. If the electrician adamantly asserts that the board is “nothing but” the mechanistic processes of the lights, and does not reference the advertising slogan that the lights spell out, he has failed to fully explain the phenomenon of the advertising board, and has committed the fallacy of “nothing buttery” (MacKay, 1974, pp. 36–37).

MacKay’s concept of “nothing buttery” calls into question the technological reductionist views of the likes of Harari, Crick and Dawkins. Even though neuroscience and evolutionary biology have produced compelling evidence that mechanistic neurological and evolutionary explanations can be given for many aspects of human thought and behaviour, it would be logically fallacious to conclude that human experience is nothing but the results of these mechanistic processes. If a part of the brain exhibits electrical activity when a person experiences love, or pain, or makes an ethical decision, one can only conclude that the brain is involved in some way in these experiences. However, one cannot say that these experiences are entirely reducible to brain activity, in the same way that one cannot reduce the meaning of the advertising board in Piccadilly Circus to nothing but the mechanisms of the flashing lights (MacKay, 1974, pp. 36–37).

In addition, it is worth elaborating a little further on the conclusions often drawn from the Libet Experiment (Libet et al., 1983). As discussed in Part 1 of this essay, the Libet Experiment shows that during seemingly free decision-making, parts of the brain associated with decision-making exhibit electrical activity before participants are aware that they are making the decision. Some, including Libet himself, conclude from this study that free will is simply an illusion, and what people deem to be free decisions are actually pre-determined by neurological activity (Libet, 2004, p. 141).

However, there are several criticisms that can be levelled, both at Libet et al.’s methodology and at the conclusion that free will is illusory. As pointed out by Alfred Mele who attempted to replicate the Libet experiment, the results rely on participants’ recall of the precise time at which thoughts pertaining to the decision first appear in their mind, to a precision of milliseconds (Mele, 2009, pp. 50–67). As Mele concludes, this is very difficult to record with accuracy (Mele, 2009, pp. 50–67). Furthermore, Peter Clarke points out that the Libet experiment only looks at a very specific and narrow type of decision- namely the decision to spontaneously move a limb (Clarke, 2015, pp. 109–110). However, even if the Libet experiment reliably and convincingly showed that brain activity precedes the conscious awareness of making a decision, it would not show that decision-making is caused by nothing but brain activity. Libet’s findings cannot rule out the existence of an immaterial mind or soul that freely makes decisions and then triggers electrical brain activity, followed by subjective conscious awareness.

Thus in summary, much of the evidential basis for technological reductionism is founded on the fallacious belief that neurological and/or evolutionary explanations of human experiences lead to the conclusion that humans are nothing but mechanistic machines made of meat. In the words of John Lennox: “It is one thing to say that the brain functions in certain ways like a computer. It is an entirely different thing to say that it is nothing but a computer.” (Lennox, 2020, p. 98)

2. The Problem of Consciousness

Another significant problem with technological reductionism is that it fails to account for the existence of human consciousness. Sharon Dirckx defines consciousness as: “a property of the mind through which our subjective thoughts, feelings, experiences and desires have their existence”(Dirckx, 2019, p. 11). Thomas Nagel explains “the fact that an organism has conscious experience… means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism” (Nagel, 1974). This first-person, subjective, mental experience of being oneself is an undeniable quality of human existence, and is an arguably indispensable attribute of personhood.

However, it is very difficult to find a reductionistic explanation for consciousness that relies only on mechanistic brain processes. It seems comprehensible that electrical brain activity may be responsible for particular human actions, emotions, and potentially even decisions. However, it is hard to imagine how electrical brain impulses can produce the subjective first-person awareness of self that humans experience. To put it another way, getting consciousness from brain tissue is the equivalent of suggesting that by adding increasing complexity to the circuits of a beverage vending machine, one will eventually produce a vending machine that is aware that it is making tea. David Chalmers concurs when he says that “there can be no wholly reductive explanation of consciousness” (Chalmers, 2010, p. xiv) whilst Susan Greenfield compares getting consciousness from neurological activity as like turning water into wine (Greenfield, 2012). Even Yuval Noah Harari, despite his technological reductionistic beliefs, nonetheless concedes:

“Scientists don’t know how a collection of electric brain signals creates subjective experiences. Even more crucially, they don’t know what could be the evolutionary benefit of such a phenomenon. It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life.” (Harari, 2015, p. 128)

Some argue that AI systems are beginning to exhibit evidence of consciousness, in the ways that they respond to cues from humans. The seal-shaped therapy robot ‘Paro’ can respond to speech and learn names including its own (Tergesen and Inada, 2010), whilst personal assistant programmes such as ‘Siri’ and ‘Alexa’ can have full conversations with their human users (Dirckx, 2019, pp. 40–41). However, even if an AI system passed the Turing Test (Turing, 1950) and became indistinguishable from a human in conversation, this would not make the system conscious. This was illustrated by a thought experiment proposed by John Searle (1980), in which a participant is enclosed in a box and paper with Chinese writing on it is fed into the box. The participant cannot read Chinese, but has in his possession a written code which matches the symbols coming into the box with appropriate symbols to respond with. The participant duly transcribes these response symbols and feeds them out of the box, convincing the person outside the box that they can understand Chinese. However, there is clearly a big difference between following the code and understanding Chinese. Computer algorithms can only process inputs like the person in the box following the code. However, even if they can convincingly mimic human responses, that is not the same as consciously understanding the inputs (Searle, 1980). To quote John Lennox: “Simulation is not duplication.” (Lennox, 2020, p. 98)

This problem of consciousness has led some technological reductionists to suggest that consciousness is simply illusory. For example, Daniel Dennett describes consciousness as “like stage magic, a set of phenomena that exploit our gullibility, and even our desire to be fooled, bamboozled, awe-struck” (Dennett, 2003). However, there are several problems with appealing to illusion to explain consciousness. Firstly, this position is self-defeating, because if all consciousness is illusory, it would logically follow that all beliefs produced by human consciousness are illusory and untrustworthy, including the entirety of science, philosophy and the belief that consciousness is illusory. As J. B. S. Haldane puts it:

“…if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” (Haldane, 1927, p. 209).

Secondly, appealing to illusion still presupposes the first-person conscious perspective that can be “fooled, bamboozled, awe-struck” (Dennett, 2003). In her book Am I Just My Brain?, Sharon Dirckx transcribes some of the many times Dennett appeals to his own first-person perspective, showing that his belief, that consciousness is illusory, is practically unsustainable (Dirckx, 2019, pp. 52–53). Even the Libet experiment, which supposedly shows that brain activity can explain free decision-making, nonetheless still required the participants to consciously recall the point at which the thought to move their arm came to mind (Libet et al., 1983; Clarke, 2015, p. 110). Thus even those who argue that consciousness is illusory still have to presuppose the reality of at least their own consciousnesses in order to make their argument.

3. The Problem of Free Will

Thirdly and finally, technological reductionism raises a plethora of problems around the topic of free will. If humans are merely computers made of meat, then no decision or action that a human makes can be classed as “free”, for all actions are predetermined by mechanistic brain processes that are ultimately programmed by evolution. No matter how complex a vending machine is, it can only do what it is programmed to do, and thus it is not free to make decisions about what drink it is going to produce. Similarly, a worldview that reduces humans to merely computers made of meat has to jettison all notions of human free will. In his book Free Will, Sam Harris makes the case that reductionism leads to the belief that: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have” (Harris, 2012, p. 5). Richard Dawkins makes a similar argument when he states: “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (Dawkins, 1995, p. 133).

However, the belief that free will is an illusion is not consistent with the experienced reality that most would deem undeniable. Most people have a powerful a priori awareness that they are free agents who can make decisions at will, and are not predetermined automatons who simply enact what their genes and neurology have programmed them to do. One can arguably see this presumption in nearly every man-made institution in history. Science and philosophy are built on the assumption that humans can choose to change their beliefs based on new evidence or insights. Politics is built on the assumptions that humans can choose both who to elect and how to govern. Commerce and economics are built on the assumption that humans can decide how they spend their money. The arts are built on the assumption that people can choose how they express themselves. The modern social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter are built not only on the assumption that personal autonomy is real, but also that it is of paramount importance in civilised society.

But perhaps the most important area that is underpinned by the assumption of the reality of human free will is: morality. If humans are merely computers made of meat, who simply enact what they are programmed to do, the concept of holding someone morally accountable for their decisions, or enforcing punitive justice on moral wrong-doing, is logical absurd. Enforcing moral justice on a computer made of meat would be the equivalent of chastising a fruit tree for producing the wrong type of fruit, or punishing a vending machine for dispensing the wrong drink.

However, as pointed out by John Lennox, very few (if any) proponents of technological reductionism appear willing to jettison their beliefs in moral accountability and justice (Lennox, 2017, pp. 36–41). In fact, many such proponents seem to persistently appeal to the reality of moral accountability, whilst ignoring that this contradicts their technological reductionism. In his book The God Delusion, when discussing parents raising their children to have a certain faith, Richard Dawkins pleads with his readers to hold such parents to account, saying: “Please, please raise your consciousness about this, and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening. A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents” (Dawkins, 2006, p. 382). Daniel Dennett goes even further by arguing that religion impairs rational thought so much that society should hold “the preachers and other apologists for religious zeal as culpable as the bartenders and negligent hosts who usher dangerous drivers on to the highways.” (Dennett and Winston, 2008)

To hold a logically consistent technological reductionist worldview, one much jettison one’s a priori beliefs in the reality of free will, moral accountability and punitive justice. However, even the most vocal advocates of technological reductionism do not appear able to forego these beliefs, for they seem to be undeniable elements of human existence.

Summary of Part 2: The Problems with Technological Reductionism

Technological reductionism has several significant problems which, Part 2 of this essay has argued, makes the position untenable. Technological reductionism commits McKay’s so-called fallacy of “nothing buttery” (MacKay, 1974, pp. 42–43) by assuming that finding mechanistic explanations to some aspects of human behaviour leads to the conclusion that humans are nothing but mechanistic machines. Furthermore, it fails to account for human consciousness, free will or moral accountability- aspects of human existence that even the most ardent proponents of technological reductionism appear unwilling to jettison.

Conclusion: Are Humans Merely Computers Made of Meat?

Yuval Noah Harari compares humans to beverage vending machines (Harari, 2015, pp. 98–99). He argues that both are computer algorithms encased in mechanical exteriors- one made of silicon and steel, and one made of meat and bones.

This view, that reduces humans to merely computers made of meat, can be traced in large part to Enlightenment materialist philosophy, but has since gained further credibility from modern science. Neuroscience demonstrates that human behaviours can be mapped directly on to electrical activity in the brain, Darwinian evolution shows that humans are programmed to act in ways that give them a competitive advantage, and advances in AI are producing machines that are increasingly indistinguishable from humans.

However, technological reductionism is flawed. The view that humans are merely computers made of meat fails to account for human consciousness, free will and moral accountability. However, more fundamentally it makes the fallacious assumption that if one can explain some aspects of human functioning and behaviour in terms of mechanistic, algorithmic processes, it follows that humans are nothing but mechanistic, algorithmic machines. This essay has argued that humans are more than just computers made of meat; or in the words of the robot ‘Optimus Prime’ in the film Transformers:

Humansthere is more to them than meets the eye” (Bay, 2007).

This article was original submitted as an essay for my Masters in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary's University Twickenham.


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