Toasters With Feelings

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July 7th, 2010

The Brave Little Toaster

The Brave Little Toaster

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Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, or God. It has been a hallmark of faiths and religions worldwide. Humans have a natural tendency to assign intentions and desires to inanimate objects (“my computer isn’t feeling well today – he’s so slow!”), but they also strip “lower” beings (animals) of those same human characteristics.

We have a history of treating animals unnecessarily cruelly. I don’t mean killing for food – that’s necessary for our survival; I’m referring to dog fights, hunting, and other violence. We didn’t even think that animals could sense pain until quite recently!

Why do we think of lifeless forms as agents with intentions but of actual living creatures as emotionally inferior clumps of cells?

Could it be that the need to rationalize phenomena is simply stronger when the phenomena have absolutely no visible explanation?

And do toasters really have feelings??

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5 Comments on Toasters With Feelings

  • Man, I loved The Brave Little Toaster when I was a kid. Heck, I still do. I think that we do all have a tendency to objectify or personify things, especially in the context of the abstract. Unfortunately, people find it easier to accept a “truth” when there is palpable or observable evidence, regardless of the supposed truth’s validity. I found it interesting that you mentioned religion, given that it transcends this paradigm in a way – people believe in divine intervention until their last days, yet it cannot be objectified in any way shape or form. Many creeds also personify their deities, yet god (if he/she/it exists…see I’m personifying even now) is essentially a force we will never understand. Are the effigies enough to satisfy the religious brain?

  • But that’s just the thing – people don’t need evidence to accept “truths” and that’s exactly why I bring up the faithful brain. The real question is, “is there an adaptive advantage in our tendency to anthropomorphize?”

  • Hm. Interesting inquiry indeed. After pondering a while, I haven’t come up with much. However I was thinking about domestication of animals, which is relevant given you mentioned them in your post. I think it was advantagous that we anthropomorphised animals in the past and treated them as companions in a symbiotic relationship, but his may be too much of a stretch. But we also abused the relationship and exploited animals for violence and amusement, so things just end up cancelling out. Such is true in most human endeavors.

    All in all, my answer to you is no (in my opinion). Treating nonhhuman things like humans doesn’t seem advantagous. The smarter thing for us to do is to treat them as seperate entities entirely and and learn about how they operate within their own dimensions through scientific/critical investigaion, rather than projecting ourselves onto them. With regard to the religious brain, if the faithful were to investigate their supposed “truths” in this way, they might be very surprised.

  • I think there IS an adaptive advantage in our tendency to anthropomorphize. After all, I think it’s safe to say that when humans anthropomorphize something, they’re really just attempting to liken that thing to themselves. Imagine what would happen if humans didn’t do this. How could an individual human recognize another, or feel empathy? When another human makes a happy face, the only reason we understand it to be happy is because we assume that person’s facial muscles and conscious ability to experience joy is similar to our own, and we know that when we’re happy, we make a similar facial expression. Indeed, the famed mirror neurons are active both when an individual engages in a particular behavior, and when that individual witnesses another engage in the same behavior. Perhaps this type of neuron plays a role in our anthropomorphizing tendencies.
    The “evidence”, in that case, is simply our experience of ourselves. And though we’re used to hearing that the only real evidence must be objective, we cannot escape the fact that we use subjective evidence far more often.

    As far as the human’s ability to justify cruel acts against other “lower” forms of life, I think it’s likely that all people are aware that every life-form has a “desire” for survival, and an “aversion” to pain or death. It may be that the cruel human seeks out other life-forms to torture *because* he knows they have this aversion. Maybe this is why we don’t often hear of people who go around torturing loaves of bread. It just doesn’t deliver the same satisfaction to those who wish to dominate others.

    Oh, and speaking of anthropomorphication, check this out:

  • I would conclude that thinking of animals as agents with intentions must have helped our ancestors with hunting and surviving (of course that explanation sounds like just a story), but I’m not sure if doing the same to inanimate objects is useful.

    I would like to stress though that regardless of our tendency to anthropomorphize everything in sight (and out of sight), we have objective tools for understanding animals’ nervous systems and comparing them to our own. We can safely say that our close relatives (species-wise) can feel physical and emotional pain much like we do. We therefore have a responsibility to protect those creatures from unnecessary pain (our tendency to anthropomorphize is the reason for that responsibility – treat others as you would like to be treated yourself).

    As for torturing bread, I think it is done (every day there’s some kid who tears a loaf apart piece by piece!) – but no one thinks of that as torture simply because the bread can’t feel anything. (It is interesting to know why the destruction of nonliving things isn’t as ‘entertaining’ as the suffering of living ones. Does anyone know?)

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