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November 15, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

Are We Just the Sum of Our Neurons? Are we just a bag of chemicals?

The Basis of the Assumptions:

Thats the danger in having only a naturalistic viewpoint which excludes all non-physical answers.
Thats also the danger in using a reductionist approach to reality.

We are made up of chemicals, but we are NOT just chemicals. 
Just assuming that the black box that identity is just chemicals is just that a leap in logic and. 

The Real Implications of a “Just Chemicals” Viewpoint and Why Its Flawed:

If we are just chemicals there isn’t really a reason to prefer one set of chemicals to another.  (ie how are we different from a fly).  How is the scientist who examines the fly different from the fly itself?  If we’re just chemicals and that defines all that we are–then the two aren’t all that different.  But we know that lack of distinction isn’t true.  No scientists wishes to be a fly.  The scientist has a number of complex functions and abilities which are more robust and meaningful than the flies.

The belief that we are “just chemicals” also has dubious results in terms of undermining everything we value–including choice, reason, purpose, meaning, rights, freedom, justice, and ethics.  Essentially, if we are just chemicals, we are just objects.  This opens the door to dehumanization and domination because now we can treat humans like animals or objects.  We’ve seen this scenario play out far too many times in history so that we know how this drama ends.

Science unfortunately is not built to detect agency, only mechanism.  Both are important aspects of reality.  So its a bit of a category mistake to assume that science will ever find meaningful agency–because thats not how its built.

Its a particularly dubious one when we have personal and social evidence that people don’t experience consciousness in a way that is a “just chemical one.”

In fact, science specifically suppresses subjectivity and identity–which means that as a methodology it has very specific flaws in addressing issues like this.

In any other area we would approach the issue from multiple disciplines to approach it from multiple angles, but for some reason on this one we don’t take the full range of tools to address the issue.

To me this question seems all the more problematic because the greater sum of no one livves their lives like they are “just chemicals”–at least not intentionally.

Finally, are we just the sum of our neurons as functionally the same question.  Professor William Newsome at Stanford University explains the flaws in this mode of thinking:


Dr. Newsome spoke to the issue of reductivism (and I mentioned it at the top), so I though I would provide a critique of reductivism, so that its analytical basis could be fully transparent and known: Nathan Ketsdever’s answer to What is the disadvantage of reductivism in science?

Much of the argument against reductivism is here:

Here are a couple disadvantages of reductionist thinking:

  • Risks  neglecting big picture understandings which are more gestalt in  orientation.  Neglects system theory (or the systems perspective).
  • Tends to ignore context
  • Opts for simple vs. complex explanations.
  • The “ignoring of connections” Peter Flom.
  • Seems  that in an organization that it leads to the problems of silo-ification  (i.e. the value of boundary spanners might be neglected).
  • Not  everything should be reduced.  Its a perspective not the ultimate  perspective.  Most all frames of reference have advantages and  disadvantages.
  • Risks suppressing other understandings/perspectives which slide and dice the data a different way.  Its all too easy to go from “its X” to “its just X.”
  • Everything  has an existence thats bigger than the reduced section.  Ignoring that  existence warps our understanding of the whole thing.


  • H2O is water.  Each element is only a small understanding of the whole.
  • Looking at an impressionist painting via 2 dots on the page vs. the big picture.
  • Only  looking at one perspective–for instance the language of avante garde  art critics–versus the love of a mother for her baby daughter in her  arms.  You can miss the point or purpose of the subject at hand.

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