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Beyond the Machine:

Metaphors of the body

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  • The Debate

    Beyond the Machine

    From Descartes’ view of the heart as a pump to Dennett’s conception of the brain as a computer, our understanding of the body is permeated with mechanical metaphors. Is it an error to believe that the body is a machine? Should we find a new adventure in alternative metaphors of the body, or would this be a romantic illusion?

    The Panel

    Biologist and author of The Science Delusion Rupert Sheldrake, Oxford neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna reimagine the human being.

  • Find out more about speakers

Jump to what you want to see in the debate
  • Rupert Sheldrake
    The Pitch
    Mechanistic thinking is the reason science fails to see so much
  • Joanna Kavenna
    The Pitch
    Move beyond mechanical metaphors
  • Colin Blakemore
    The Pitch
    The body is mechanical
  • The Debate
    Theme One
    Metaphors of the body
  • The Debate
    Theme Two
    The body as machine
  • The Debate
    Theme Three
    Beyond the machine
Want to learn more about our speakers?
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David Morey 2 on 14/03/2015 6:31pm

Sheldrake suggests there is more to reality than a simplistic version of materialism suggests, even many a materialist can agree with that, so perhaps we should listen. I find it hard to respect those materialists that sound very simple in their materialism most of the time, but cry foul whenever challenged and say their materialism is more sophisticated despite what they seem to say most of the time. Does Sheldrake suggest we need immaterial forces, is this what offends so much the purist materialists? Well Sheldrake fairly queries exactly how do we conceptualise fields in physical theory? This is not easy, potentials and powers are in some sense immaterial when they are latent, and only take on physical and measurable form when actualised. Is not one of the key differences between living and dead bodies not the powers and potentials that only the former possesses? Surely this debate cries out for a better conception of what matter is and is capable of, capable of being alive and human.

David Morey 2 on 14/03/2015 6:15pm

It would be interesting to look at this debate from the perspective of Hilary Lawson's book Closure, and ask who is or is not falling into the error of single vision closure and shutting down the reality of openness, although keeping in touch with what regularities genuine experiments and experience present is equally important.

Jim Balter on 21/01/2015 8:21am

Sheldrakes' response to Dennett was even more dishonest than his original statements. "small print"? That's a flat out lie. As Dennett said, Dawkins went to great pains to cash out the metaphor and fill in the details. And his claim that the selfish gene has had no effect in biology is plain ignorant. Sheldrake exhibits well what Quine called "nefarious rhetoric". And is he so ignorant and foolish as to think that software running on a computer isn't entirely a matter of changing states of physical matter? That an app is a ghost in the machine?

matthew9 on 20/09/2014 6:12pm

(This comment is not at all to say that Dawkins and Dennett are right.)

Sheldrake really avoids the entire content of Dennett's response and literally just restates his original statement with the misunderstood view of Dawkins' and Dennett's ideas. A proper response would be, "From my understanding I did not present a caricature of your view, and your saying I have means I need to reexamine what your views actually are."

Also, saying that there's at least an implicit dualism to software running on hardware is only a statement that could be made by someone who has no clue at all about computer science.

Charlotte on 21/07/2014 5:42am

Listening to the mechanistic arguements makes me wonder whether our ideas of how living things work are limited to the development of modern technologies. Surely we dont need to make a camera before we can begin to understand an eye, or download an app before we can make sense of the brain. If so the machine metaphor is severely constricting our scientific imagination. After all science is at its core a system of inquiry that tests the usefulness of certain metaphors. A greater diversity of metaphors means more scientific possibilities to explore.

Arten on 23/05/2014 12:35pm

Metaphor is halfway between the unintelligible and the commonplace.


Brian Steere on 03/05/2014 12:55pm

The mind is a self-reinforcing choice, which acquires the momentum of habit when the same choice is repeated.

There are levels at which such reinforcement serves the continuity and richness and density of experience for the purpose the experience affords.

But to become lost in that level of the mechanism of mind is to merely believe and act as if one was a conditioned program.

Waking up from out of a habitual presumption is waking within and as a living creativity.

The Creative extends through its expressions - there is no separation.

The mind as we humanly tend to use the term to mean - has become a tool, device or mechanism for a separation experience within which is a sense of physical existence - all of which occurs within Consciousness for there is no 'outside' to Consciousness, though there seems to be an outside of 'your mind'.

One cannot communicate the new perspective in the old framework - but one can use the old terms in new ways to witness a shifted foundation that speaks to the same in others who are ripe, ready or willing to release the old self-certainties (no matter how reinforced they are in one's experience).

The nature of experience is reflection and extension. What you give out is what you get back. No exceptions.

A split mind can juggle a split experience and seem to be what it is not. While this can become an insanity it can originally be a game of 'what if'.

Beneath multiple and fragmenting effects of an insanity is a single error of misidentification.

Restoring the mind from self reinforcing fixations to creative curiosity has to release the prerequisite demands of a tyrannous empiricism.

There is a call for a shared reality within which to embrace and appreciate our own - but this is to be uncovered, recognized, and accepted as a gift of free will and not the attempt to exclusively define and control all things from a false foundation in 'as if'.

For every outer reflection there is an inner reality - we are really looking at Consciousness - albeit through a glass darkly in many respects.

The physics of Consciousness releases the religion of separation. One is entirely and fully Participant!

Brian Steere on 03/05/2014 1:32am

Mechanism within consciousness is like the idea of emulated hardware running as software. All thinking is in some sense device - whose meaning or function is contingent on the use for which it is serving.

The primary or inherent function of thought is the reflection of the movement of being that we call awareness.There is no actual separation between awareness and its object thoughts excepting the father or source comes first. Not in time, but in relation the thoughts are children that are in all respects like their source.

The device within consciousness whereby an alternate to source is imagined as father or cause, gives rise to children that are likewise expressions of their generator. An alternative to 'what is' doesn't exist, and so to function as a cause must be given existence by the device of forgetting what is, in order to explore the ideas that arise to a self that believes itself separately existing and therefore seeking to establish itself from a segregated self-sense amidst a conflicted and unrecognized perception of All That Is - as if it too is separately existing.

The identity of the self in its seemingly private reality is constructed and defined by the relations of the world it perceives in all its reflected qualities, and then by the tools or extensions of its own emergent consciousness. Until is becomes ready to remember or rewaken to its nature AS the extension of consciousness. As a creative presence rather than as a mentality serving a persona that presumes itself acting within and upon an organism.

But there is no hardware - excepting from the perspective of a program running within the emulated layer. In a sense this program enables feedback that serves the refining and reprogramming of the device layer template.

The nature of our thinking at the level or within the focus of human experience is like that of its basis; it separates to control as the device 'divide and rule'. But the bleed though of the original nature brings in the reintegration of that which seemed split or divided and demanding of control.

The re integrative movement is the realisation and recognition at the level of cause - not in the sense of power over other or world - but as the power that dreams the world. Such power is shared or unified and beyond misuse or corruption, but the fearful belief that it has been used and has effected corruption is the device by which a split off consciousness makes a persona founded in keeping such fear unconscious .

The spontaneous nature of manifestation is that as one asks, so is it given. The idea contains its own unfolding of fulfillment. This does not seem to be the case within a scenario in which we have already asked to persist in the struggle of self-forgetting experience.

We thus know not what we do - because we have made it unconscious to our focus within the 'embodied mind'.

The imagination that we can step out of our consciousness and act upon it is an illusion of self. For the acts are determined at a level of which such surface self is unaware and believes it must remain unaware of in order to exist.

michael vousden on 01/05/2014 4:36pm

How do you actually get to see the conversation in the first place - I was only offered the opportunity to 'add a comment' without seeing the scope of what is ongoing.

My comment is of the nature that Colin Blackmore and Rupert Sheldrake may be much closer in their reasoning than they believe - but they are both using defensive language.

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