Chris Tollefsen: Animals and Machines: On Their Beginnings and Endings



Animals and Machines:
On Their Beginnings and Endings

Chris Tollefsen

Human beings are animal organisms; machines are artifacts.  To some, this has increasingly come to seem a distinction without a difference.[1]  The purpose of this paper is to defend both the distinction, and the claim that the distinction makes a difference.   A basic claim of the paper is that some aspects of the distinction between animal organisms and artifacts should be recognized at the extreme edges of existence: their beginnings, and their endings.

                A methodological point: in this paper, I focus on the differences between machines and the higher mammals.  I argue that the differences are differences in kind.  At what point in the development of animate life do these differences in kind emerge?  I make no claims in these regards.  However, if the differences really are differences in kind, then at some point in the development of animate life – whether in the transition from the non-living to the living, from plant to animal, from lower to higher order animals, or some combination of these, new kinds of entities are introduced into nature.  This raises metaphysical questions I do not here address.


In this section, I argue that machines and the higher animal organisms -- most, if not all mammals, for example -- differ in their originating conditions.[2]   I want to suggest four ways in which the originating conditions differ.  The second, third and fourth differences build upon the first. 

The first point to make, then, is that an animal organism comes into existence as a special kind of whole.  This is a consequence of the nature of an animal organism as a living being.  As living, animal organisms are self-directing and self-developing and self-maintaining.  Such activities presuppose, however, a being of a certain sort, possessed of the ability to engage in its own direction and development.  This fact about animal organisms can be expressed by saying that an organism exists in its entirety at any one time.

Such a claim needs to be distinguished from a true claim about organic development, however.  For most differentiation of an organism's parts is consequent upon its initial unity as a living being; thus, the organization of parts of an animal organism is consequent to the organism's existence, as are whatever activities are consequent upon the developed organization of parts.  What emerges as having a kind of absolute priority is the unity of a living thing of a certain nature.[3]  Having a nature, however, means having characteristic forms of activity that are consequences of the nature, for the sake of which activities the parts exist.  So while the organism exists as a whole at all times, its life takes on a necessarily temporal character, as it develops its parts and engages in its characteristic activities.

There are two relevant contrasts in this area with machines.  First, a prior differentiation of parts of a machine is necessary to the machine's coming into existence.  It is, indeed, the process of organization of parts into a unity that is the process of the machine's coming to be.  By implication, the parts of a machine have an intelligibility of their own prior to their organization.  This intelligibility can itself be a consequence of material nature -- this is the wood of which I will make my house.  Or it can be a consequence of a prior structuring of materials with a view to making the materials fit for use in some artifact -- this is the beam with which I will make my house.  But the parts of organisms do not have this prior intelligibility: a heart, in a strict sense, is a part of a living being, and separated from the organism it is not a heart in the strict sense at all.

Second, the structural unity of a machine is never sufficient for a machine's functioning.  An external source of energy is necessary, both for its initial functioning, and its maintenance of function.  This might seem to be true of organisms, which require nutrition; but the nutrition taken in by an organism is internalized.  It is the organism, we could say, that acts on the nutrition.  But energy plays a more active role relative to a machine: it makes the machine to do what it does. 

For these two reasons -- that the parts of a machine exist prior to its gradual organization, and that external energy must play an active role in the function of the machine -- it seems to me true to say that machines come to be gradually, whereas organisms come to be all at once. Further consequences of this will be noted below.

This account of the way in which animals come to be as special kinds of wholes results in three further kinds of differences between machines and animals.  First: if the account above is true, then animals and machines are related to the entities that are causally responsible for their existence in radically different ways.  For, I suggest, our creative powers as makers are limited to our powers of organization of materials into wholes, and the provision of energy for those wholes to function in a way that follows form.  We can make machines, and machines are essentially make-able.  But we do not have the power to create a unity that precedes structure and function.  This inability is radically on display in sexual reproduction.  Unlike the organization of materials characteristic of the making of machines, couples who engage in intercourse, even for the explicit purpose of begetting, do not, clearly, make a baby, for there are no structuring activities they engage in sufficient to bring about the characteristic unity of the human organism.  The seeming counterexamples of in vitro fertilization and cloning, I will leave for consideration until section IV.  But this point may best be summarized by saying that on my view, machines, and all artifacts, are made; animal organisms are not.

A second difference is rather speculative, and perhaps counterintuitive.  It involves, at any rate, science-fiction like speculations.  Consider the possibility that tomorrow a computer identical to mine in all respects might come to exist, taking the place of my current computer or simply existing as a duplicate.  And consider the possibility that a human being, identical to me in all respects, but not me, might come to exist tomorrow, taking my place or existing as a duplicate.  (The latter was once the premise of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.) It might seem that I should say that the former is impossible, since machines come to be in the piece by piece way I've specified, while the latter is possible, since organisms come to be all at once.  But I want to deny both claims, agreeing, rather, with a view expressed by Cora Diamond, in an article titled "The Interchangeability of Machines."[4]

As for the machine possibility, I certainly would agree that it is impossible for us to make a machine in such an instantaneous way, but this is a limitation on our part.  A super-powerful being with a perfect idea of what to make and adequate materials might, through some telepathic power, instantaneously bring it about that the materials came to be organized in the necessary way.  But not so with an animal organism.  For it is a consequence of the priority of the animal's unity and nature to its (developed) structure and function that an animal is essentially a temporal being, developing through time.  A perfect replica of me at t, which has not lived through a life in order to arrive at t is not only not me (few would think it was), but it is not a human being either, nor even an animal organism of any sort.[5]  No animal steps out of a Star-Trek tele-transporter.

I think this is true of all higher mammals, animals, and many other animals as well.  Does the claim extend to all organisms?  A seemingly obvious counterexample comes to mind.   Doesn't a slip from a plant that is planted and takes root start in mid-stream, as it were?  While the case is interesting, I don't think it is a problem: first, the new plant does come to be all at once.  And second, the new plant does have a history that brings it to its developed state.  It is just that the history is shared with a different plant, and the shared stage of the history took place at a time during which the new plant did not yet exist.  Finally, we should note that the possibility of a shared history seems dependent upon the relatively un-complex nature of the plant – the more complex the history and development of an organism is, the more difficult it is to envisage a sharing of that history.  So twinning is possible among higher mammals only at very early and undifferentiated stages of life.

Finally, the third further difference is reflected in the determinate nature, or lack thereof, of the conditions for identity over time of animal organisms and artifacts.  It is well known in the metaphysics of identity that the ship of Theseus raises all sorts of problems once it has been taken apart and rebuilt.  But the crucial fact about artifacts which is brought out by considering their origin is that at no point do they have a determinate nature of their own.  All that they are is, as it were, bestowed on them from without; there is never the sharp move, characteristic of substantial change that marks off a being as being self-maintaining, self-determining and self-developing.  Thus, I want go further than above, in saying that machines come to be gradually, to saying that machines never completely come to be.  For to completely come to be is to be a this something of such and such a nature; and a nature is what a machine never fully has. It is thus often a matter of indifference whether we say of something that it is an incomplete x, or an x that does not yet have a certain part, or an x for which there is no source of energy, or the same x or a different x.  But this, epistemological difficulties aside, is never true of organisms.

Thus the third consequence: the identity conditions of machines are never fully determinate; but of animal organisms they are.  What indeterminacy there is is epistemological, not ontological: an x is always either a living organic substance: or it is not.


In this section, I argue that the endings of machines and organisms are also different.  Not surprisingly, most of the differences mirror differences of origin. 

Thus, animals necessarily do, but machines do not necessarily, end all at once.  This is a straightforward consequence of the account given earlier: an organism exists as long as it is alive, and its life is something that it has entirely, or not at all.  When the life ends, so does the career of the organism.  Failure to recognize that life is essential to the being of a living thing, as Aristotle once put it, has led a number of philosophers to assert, for example, that a dead butterfly is still, for all that, a butterfly, and a dead person still a person.  Such philosophers sometimes argue for this precisely by drawing an analogy to machines: couldn't we say that the dead animal is simply broken, and that it continues to exist as long as its structure is more or less intact, as a machine does?

Such an argument accepts what I think is a truth about machines: their end of existence is, except in cases of annihilation, gradual, and indeed, not fully determinate, in a way that parallels their beginning.  But the argument requires that life be a mere accident of an organism.  The essence of the organism must thus be found in its structure.  But how did it attain its structure save by having a life of a certain sort?  The proposal made by the friends of dead animals seems to put the cart before the horse.[6]

It follows, again paralleling the beginning conditions, that animals are not, but machines are, susceptible of a heap-like problem in determining when the entity in question has ceased to exist.  This is not to deny epistemological difficulties -- these difficulties are manifestly on display in discussions of brain death.  But it again makes the organism out to be no different than a machine to suggest that there is some sort of ontological vagueness in the death of an organism and that marking the precise spot of death is essentially a moral problem. 

Finally, why do we say that organisms have died, but steadfastly resist the urge, save in clearly equivocal ways, to say of machines that they have died?  The asymmetries already mentioned go some way towards explaining this, but so does the difference in the temporal character of organisms.  Organisms have a history and a future as a consequence of their nature.  Machines have a history and a future as a consequence of what others make of them.  Machines are thus replaceable -- one will do as well as the next so long as their users' purposes are being served.  But organisms have their own lives and it is something of the organism that is taken away at its end.  What is taken away is not just the life that is occurrently ended, for the organism's future was the future for that life.  So the organism's future is taken away at death, and this is not so for a machine, for the machine has no future of its own.  For this reason, the bringing about of the end of an organism puts the agent in a direct relation to the organism in question; destroying a machine puts one in a relation to someone, whether oneself or another, different from the machine. 


The results so far are important not only to a discussion of organisms and artifacts as such, but to a discussion of human nature and personal identity.  For, as I shall argue, the answer to the question "What, most fundamentally, am I?" is that I, like all human persons, am best considered to be a human (animal) organism -- this is the view now commonly called "animalism."  So what is true and false of animal organisms in regards to their beginnings and endings is likewise true and false of human persons as regards their beginnings and endings.

                There are now a number of arguments to be found in the philosophical literature for why the answer to the "What am I?" question is "a human animal," and not "a person" where 'person' indicates some being different from the human animal to which I am (merely) related.  Thus, for example, Eric Olson and Paul Snowdon have pointed to problems of coincident objects suffered by those who believe that a person and an animal are different entities occupying the same space.[7]  Less specific to the analytic tradition are concerns with perceptual situatedness and the phenomenology of perspective which find their origin in Merleau-Ponty.[8]  And finally, of some influence is an argument of Thomas Aquinas against the view that I am a soul.  After agreeing that intellectual activity is indeed characteristic of the soul, Aquinas writes, "Since, then, sensation is an operation of man, but not proper to the soul, it is clear that man is not only a soul, but something composed of soul and body."[9]   And, in a passage to which Peter Geach has drawn attention, Aquinas famously remarks, "anima mea non est ego": my soul is not I."[10] 

                What follows, however, is not one of these arguments, but a sketch of a possible argument based on what has been said so far. 

                Suppose that a philosopher holds that what I am, most fundamentally, is not a human animal, but a person.  The question I would want to raise is: what is this 'person' more like, in its beginnings and endings: an organism, or an artifact?  For if the person turns out to be more like one than the other, then it will be reasonable to think that that is the ontological category to which 'person' belongs.

                What I suggest, then, is that those who hold the view in question typically portray the person as very much like an artifact.  Consider the various lists of the properties needed for something to be a person, lists found in, inter alia, Dennett, Warren, Tooley, or Singer.[11]  These are typically understood as occurrent properties: it is occurrent rationality, self-consciousness, language, and so on, which are understood as the necessary conditions of personhood.  But all these properties emerge gradually through time, all are subject to construals in terms of more or less, and all can, although they need not, go into decline gradually as well.  Given these facts about the properties indicative of personhood, it is clear that on such construals persons do not come to be and end at once, nor as a whole, but gradually, and piecemeal.

                Similarly, all these properties clearly require some degree of prior organization of the associated organic materials in order to be actualized.  Once the materials have been sufficiently organized, then maintenance of organization will suffice for identity: so a person, on, e.g., Lynn Rudder Baker's view, could come to be completely constituted by non-organic parts, after total part replacement.[12]  The picture emerges, apparently, of a relationship between organism and person quite like that between material and artifact.

                Let me raise two general problems with this view.  First, there is a great mystery here involved in the organism-person relationship.  For it is typically, indeed I think necessarily, the case, that an artifact come about through external organization of materials.  Being made, artifacts require a maker.  Where are we to find such a maker in the organism-person relationship?  The only hope, I think, is to view the organism as both material and maker, something that brings itself to the point at which it constitutes the artifactual person.  But there is an eminently more reasonable position in this neighborhood.  For we have no other examples of cases in which the materials constitutive of an artifact are self-organizing vis-à-vis the ultimate artifact. 

What we do have are numerous instances of beings which, by their own nature, develop to a point at which they can exercise various capacities belonging to them in virtue of their nature.  Namely, we have a variety of instances of organisms, all of which come to exist prior to their actual ability to manifest their characteristic properties and activities.  So why would we not think that the properties of personhood were in fact properties of a being with a certain sort of nature -- a being that came into existence well before it began to manifest the properties in question?

The second general problem is this.  It is no great leap, from the differences I have discussed between organisms and artifacts, to think that organisms are ontologically of a higher order than artifacts.  Some will naturally be suspicious of any attempt to claim ontological superiority of one sort of entity over another, but the relevant point about artifacts is that they are entities in a dimmer, or lesser way than are organisms: 'what they are' is not a matter of what they are, but of what they are made to be.  Now the fact is that 'person' is in some sense an honorific term, meant to point out beings of a special, normatively important kind.  It might be no argument, but it is not without evidentiary value to suggest that it is ironic that it should have turned into a term marking out a moderately arbitrary and literally artifactual boundary.


Do the results of the investigation into the beginnings and endings of machines and organisms have ethical consequences?  In this section, I argue that they do.  There are three parts to the discussion.  First, I briefly discuss the relationship between being a living being, and being an object of respect.  Second, I discuss what it means, conceptually, to treat a living thing as if it were an artifact.  And finally, I discuss some instances in which human animals are treated as if they were artifacts.

                I claim that being a living thing is a necessary condition for being an object of respect, understood in a moderately Kantian sense, that is, for being worthy of respect as an end in itself.  This follows from what I have said about organisms and machines, respectively: only organisms, on my account, are fully beings in themselves.  Artifacts, in a variety of ways, are beings of and by another.  Since they are not entities in themselves, it is incoherent to think that they should, or even, strictly, could, be treated as ends in themselves.  No computer could ever deserve respect.

                There will surely be a parting of the ways, however, on the matter of whether being a living organism is sufficient for being worthy of respect.  I do not think that it is, but I will set this issue aside for the moment, until I have discussed what it means to treat a living thing as if it were an artifact.

                Finally, and still on the matter of the relation between being living and being an object of respect, does our recognition that human beings are living organisms affect our understanding of the content of the injunction that we respect rational beings as ends in themselves?  Indirectly, it does.  For bodily life is essential to the being of an animal.  Hence any attack on the life of a human being is an attack on the human being, and the human person as such.  Life cannot be a merely external or instrumental aspect of a human being.

                It would be too quick to infer from this that life is a basic or essential good of human beings.  It is a vexed question in general what goods are intrinsic to the life of a human being, and vexed as well how we come to know those goods.  Some moral philosophers with views similar to mine about the animal nature of human beings think that a third-person look at the animal functions of human life reveals, after the style of Aristotle, what are genuine human goods.[13]  Life is very naturally a good that shows up in such accounts.  Others, including myself, think that one aspect of the life of a human animal is the exercise, from a first person perspective, of practical reason, and that it is from this perspective, utilizing practical reason directly, that one comes to recognize goods such as knowledge, friendship, or aesthetic experience as basic goods.[14]  So too from this perspective is the good of life recognized as basic and intrinsic.  This is an insight of practical reason, but it is denied by many with a false theoretical view of the nature of the human being.  It is supported by the theoretical view outlined in this paper.

                What does it mean to treat a living being as if it were an artifact?  It emerges that that the "as if it were" in the phrase must be understood quite strictly: no living being can be made into an artifact by the forms of treatment it is given.  A hammer is genuinely a tool, but a slave, which Aristotle calls a living tool (NE  1161b5), is only something being treated as if it were a tool.  Similarly, although I shall argue below that various forms of reproductive and end of life technologies treat living beings as artifacts, this does not mean that the living beings have become artifacts.  Even the most rigorous control over the circumstances of the coming to be of a living being, as, for example, when a sheep is cloned, should, on my account, be understood as ultimately no more than the arranging of circumstances in such a way as for a substantial change in something to take place.  But the change itself, and hence the being of the living being itself, is not something that it is the object of a maker's activity, as the structural arrangement of the matter of an artifact is.

                Still, for all that, it is possible, if not positively routine, for human beings to treat living beings, human and otherwise, as artifacts, that is, to bring the circumstances of the coming to be as much, and so much under human domination as to be, in the will, an attempt to artifactualize the being in question.  Making a being's existence contingent upon that being's suitability to one's purposes involves such artifactualization from the standpoint of the end.  Exercising choice and control, in increasing degrees, over the matter, or material sources, of a soon to emerge life involves such artifactualization from the standpoint of the means.  It is certainly consistent with my view to recognize that such control can very significantly affect the nature of the eventual living being.

                Thus, although cloning a human being does not make a human being, it clearly involves what I have been calling the artifactualizing of human beings: the cloned being is made to exist at the pleasure of scientists, parents, or what have you, in a way that no offspring of sexual reproduction ever is.  And the material sources of the clone are rigorously controlled and determined with a view to controlling and determining as much as possible the living consequence.  Genetic engineering promises, or threatens, to increase control over material sources even further, as, increasingly, we see the attempt to dominate the nature of particular human beings in their manner of creation.  It does not render such attempts morally innocent to claim, as I am claiming, that they are all bound to fail, ultimately, in what I take to be their underlying point: to make human beings.

                Likewise, the drive towards supremacy over death, whether in preventing or causing, seems to me to indicate a technical control over the living being as such, given that life is the being of a living thing.  Both the temptation towards technological dominance of death by extreme artifactual maintenance of life, and the attempted dominance over life characteristic of euthanasia and suicide seem to me ultimately to treat human beings as if they were artifacts.

                These last remarks on the ethics of beginning and end of life issues are at best brief and schematic.  They are thus subject to a number of objections from those who support such policies.  But equally, as mentioned before, an objection might be made to the division traditionally placed between human and other animals on the matter of right treatment.  Non-human animals are no more artifacts, nor even potentially artifactual, than are human animals.  Selective breeding, domestication, hunting for sport, and of course, genetic engineering all constitute artifactual treatments of animals: treating them as if they were artifacts.  What possible grounds can there be for treating animals in such ways?

                An adequate answer to this question is beyond the scope of this paper.  Suffice it to say that I accept a longstanding, traditionalist view that human and non-human nature are marked off by the great gulf of rationality and freedom.  While the fact that human beings are alive is necessary for according them moral respect as ends in themselves, it is the fact that human life is rational and free that is sufficient for according respect.  My reasoning, in brief, is this: as mentioned above, it is through our exercise of practical reason that we are presented with various opportunities for flourishing as human beings, and through our free action that we pursue such opportunities.  But the goods that form the foundation of our practical reasoning, and hence of our action, are human goods, the goods of a human life.  Practical reason is not unconcerned with other forms of life, but the form of life that is the beneficiary of practical reason is human life.  Our practical concern for other living beings which are incapable of participating in these goods are thus not basic concerns, but rather are always rooted in those goods which are reasons for us, including, for example, aesthetic goods, and goods of personal integrity.  Thus, the wanton destruction of species, and the cruel treatment of non-human animals are ruled out, not because the environment or animals have rights, but because such treatment is degrading of human beings.

                Our interest in not mistreating other animals is thus ultimately an interest in ourselves; so even in ethical thought towards other forms of animal life, those animals are already subordinated to us, thus establishing an instrumentalizing relationship not essentially different from that involved in what I have called artifactualizing.  My view is not that we could treat animals as ends in themselves, but need, or ought, not, but rather that we can not.  Only those beings who participate in fundamental goods are beings with whom we are in natural community.  As far as we know this includes only human beings; and I hold, of course that it includes all human beings.  Should free and rational Martians appear, it would include them as well.  Reflecting on the nature of animal organisms can teach us much about human nature; but it need not eliminate recognition of real and morally important differences between human and non-human animal organisms.



University of South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina

About the Author

[1] Not, however, to the following, among others: Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and Kant.  See, respectively, The Parts of Animals, Book One; Summa Theologica Part One, Q. 76, a.4.; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Ch. XXVII, "Of Identity and Diversity," para. 5; and The Critique of Judgment, Section 65.

[2] For simplicity’s sake, I will refer simply to “animal organisms” from here on.

[3] See, for a helpful articulation of this idea, David S. Oderberg, "Modal Properties, Moral Status, and Identity," Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol. 26, No. 3, 1997, pp. 259-298, esp. pp. 287-291.

[4] Cora Diamond, "The Interchangeability of Machines," in The Business of Reason, eds. J.J. MacIntosh and S. Coval, (New York: Humanities Press, 1969) pp. 50-72.

[5] Michael Thompson argues for a similar view in "The Representation of Life," in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory ed. Rosalind Hursthouse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) pp. 247-296.

[6] See Oderberg, op. cit., 288.

[7] Eric Olson, The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), and "Was I Ever a Fetus?" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (1997); Paul Snowdon, "Persons, Animals, and Ourselves," in The Person and the Human Mind: Issues in Ancient and Modern Philosophy, ed. Christopher Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[8] Maurice Merleu-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception  trans. Colin Smith (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962); David Braine, The Human Person: Animal and Spirit (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press), 1992.

[9] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part One, Q. 75 a.4.  See, for discussion of this argument, Patrick Lee, “Human Beings Are Animals,” International Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1997).

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Commentary on Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians" XV, 1, 11; Peter Geach, "What Do We Think With?" in God and the Soul (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969).

[11] See Daniel Dennett, "Conditions of Personhood," in The Identities of Persons, ed. Amelie Rorty, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976); Mary Ann Warren, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," in The Problem of Abortion, ed. J. Feinberg, (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1984); Michael Tooley, "Abortion and Infanticide," in The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, ed. Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel and Michael Scanlon, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974); Peter Singer, Practical Ethics vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[12] Lynn Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 106.

[13] E.g., Philippa Foot, "Does Moral Subjectivism Rest on a Mistake?" in Logic, Cause and Action: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Anscombe ed. R. Teichmann, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 107-124.

[14] E.g., John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1980).