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.