A while ago, in two or three responses to comments on my blog, I referred to my blog’s most prolific atheist respondent in the third . . . um, third “person,” as “it.” (For the same reason, I’ve once or twice referred to him as a “meat unit” or a “cell colony.”)
The context, as I recall, was a discussion of the nature of consciousness, which he, in truly reductionist-materialist fashion insists on understanding — if, given his viewpoint, understanding is the appropriate word — as a function, pure and simple, of electrochemical brain states.
A small handful of my critics huffed and puffed for a day or two in righteous indignation at my use of the word it, until they found some new reason (what it was I can’t now recall) to lament my meanspirited viciousness. (One might think, at this point, that the flat fact that I breathe would be enough.) They couldn’t believe how vicious and demeaning I was being toward the poor fellow.
But I was just having some good clean fun while attempting to make a fairly serious (and, to me, fairly obvious) point. (At least one other commenter on my blog picked up the it for a short while.) I bear the fellow no ill will. He is, after all, a pretty likeable guy on the whole and, while I sometimes find him a bit exasperating, he’s always been civil and he’s sometimes even amusing — a trait that I value quite highly.
My point was simply this:
If “thinking” or “consciousness” is simply a physical process, if the brain secretes “thought” in a way not fundamentally unlike the liver’s secretion of bile, if “reasoning” is the product merely of physical processes that follow from prior physical processes, if it’s really nothing more than a train of biochemical events, then I wonder what value or relevance or significance it has. Is a mere chemical process really “about” anything? Can neurochemical events in an astronomer’s brain really be said to be “about” Mars or Proxima Centauri? Is oxidation — rusting — “about” anything? Do we ever utter or write sentences like “The iron rusted about the sea water”? Does anybody imagine that soil erosion is “about” anything else? Is it ever about, say, what caused the decline of the Roman Empire, or about whether Bach is a greater composer than Mozart, or about the interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Is human digestion, another physical/chemical process, “about” the appreciation of paintings by Botticelli or the application of sp = sqrt [ (n1 – 1) * s12 + (n2 – 1) * s22 ] / (n1 + n2 – 2) ]?
And if there is, arguably, no real “thinking” going on in humans, but merely electrochemical processes that are determined and, in principle, thoroughly predictable from previous electrochemical states, what sense does it really make to speak of a “personality” or a “person”?
Hence, the “it.”
There are other possible entailments and implications, but those are for another day.