Metaphorically Speaking About The Human Body

I recently finished reading all of the responses to the 2008 Edge Question, which is: What Have You Changed Your Mind About?  In an effort to stay intellectually engaged, and to challenge myself, I’ve also deliberately started a quest to answer all the Edge questions myself (see my previous answers to the 2010 and 2005 questions).  I find it interesting to read these answers years after they were originally published since I have the gift of hindsight on my side.

John Brockman posed the 2008 Edge Question as follows:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”


Once upon a time, I thought eating three square meals a day (and some snacks in between) was optimal for human health.  I must confess that this was not even a scientific belief, rather, it was a belief formed on the basis of a combination of cultural conditioning, a poorly chosen metaphor, and what *seemed* to be common sense.  However, I have since recanted this belief because of strong scientific evidence supporting intermittent fasting, and a few personal anecdotes.

The type of metaphoric language we use to talk about worldly phenomena is of utmost importance.  At times all of us (usually unknowingly), fail to think critically about the metaphors we ourselves use and the ones thrust upon us in everyday affairs.  For example, when a runner talks about fueling up before a run, she is tacitly assuming that the human body needs fuel (like a car) before she can go anywhere.  Does the human body really work like a car though?  I’m afraid not, our beloved metaphor for the body is actually fundamentally flawed.

I think it’s fair to say that Descartes popularized the body as a machine metaphor, although I suspect he wasn’t the first person to have such a thought (such is the nature of history).  The human body as a machine metaphor is one of the most harmful metaphors that exists and though I can’t prove it, I believe it is at least partially responsible for the obesity epidemic.

We don’t understand nearly as much about the human body as we often think we do.  The body is a body, and not a machine — let’s stop thinking about it as if it were the latter.


3 Comments on “Metaphorically Speaking About The Human Body”

  1. Anna says:

    Speaking about the human body as a machine and because I am soooo excited I have to write this post – congratulations to Women’s US rowing another Gold!!!!!! The sport is one of the most grueling . Try it some time–how the mind overcomes the pain and fear is incredible. Anything that takes you to the edge of consciousness (no drugs) and ability gives you insight into possibility.

  2. Matt says:

    Linster, great post and thanks again for leading me to another good source of information in The Edge. I was unfamiliar with it; I went to the site and like a youtube tornado was within an hour somewhere completely different from where I started. I’ll visit it regularly.

    I’ve been reading quite about IF and perhaps I’m drinking the Kool-Aid but it makes sense. I won’t say it’s common sense but it does seem rational and evidence based. There were times of great abundance for our ancestors and times when food was scarce but now that everything is readily available and abundant we’ve gone to three meals a day and we buffer those meals with snacks. We are constantly consuming. Our high calorie, high sugar, macronutrient focused diet has led to a host of diseases, obesity and, I think, general lethargy. Shocking the system from time to time has to be a good thing? And maybe IF isn’t all that much of a shock.

    I’ve decided to run my own little experiment (n=me) and fast for 36 hours once a week. I’ve done it once last week, found it easy enough and didn’t feel the need to overeat at breakfast or the following day. I’ll see how I go in August and take it from there. The tough part will be at social functions. It’s much easier to pass on alcohol at a party then it is food, that’s a bit more difficult to explain.

    This may be a different topic but the body as machine can lead us to treat ourselves and others as just that with troubling consequences. Obesity being one.


    • Greg Linster says:


      I don’t know of any references off hand, but I suspect that the origins of the societal eating schedule we currently follow coincides with the origins of capitalism.  This is something I should really look into in more detail at some point.

      Like you, I think there are some major drawbacks to the steady consumption of food.  In a weird way, IF’ing can be incredibly liberating too.  Social functions definitely present a challenge, but if I know I have a big dinner planned with friends I’ll try to fast the day of and/or the day after.

      I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts, so please keep me posted on how IF’ing works out for you.

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