About

I sometimes use the handle “Thinking Meat” on a call-in quiz show on the local public radio station; my pseudonym was once read on the air as “Stinking Meat.” I can’t blame the announcer; the concept of thinking does not always seem to go with the concept of meat. We humans are both, though, thinking beings and meat: animals who are capable of thought and who are also bits of matter subject to all the physical forces and limitations that affect other bits of matter (not to mention the fact that we sometimes overrate or misunderstand our own thought processes). This blog is about the ways we understand and deal with ourselves as matter that can look at and think about itself.

This site covers a wide range of subjects, including evolutionary biology, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, astrobiology, history, and literature. The emphasis is generally on the subjective experience or interpretation of what we have learned so far about ourselves and the universe that gave birth to us.

I use the concept of meat somewhat figuratively here, of course.
(One consequence is that I occasionally get requests from advertisers who want to tout their steaks and chops here.) Years after I started using the phrase “thinking meat” to loosely describe the theme uniting the topics I cover on this web site, I discovered Terry Bisson’s wonderful short story They’re made out of meat, which also uses the term “thinking meat” to capture pretty much the same idea, from a unique and amusing angle.

I’m a freelance science editor and writer. The Thinking Meat Project is the outgrowth of my efforts to understand the puzzles and joys and challenges of being conscious matter. What I write is one person’s take, and I’d love to hear other viewpoints. Leave a comment or send email to blogger at thinkingmeat dot com if you have a comment or suggestion.

5 Comments

  1. Apologies if this comes across as a troll-like attack, my intention is genuinely to find out more about the way you and people like you see the world. But don’t you think that describing yourself as ‘Thinking Meat’ is unhealthily self-disparaging, bordering on pathologically misanthropic ? After all, whatever ‘meat’ refers to in the value-free scientific sense, in the human, egotistical emotion driven sense, the reduction of yourself and your fellows to lifeless organic matter (which is what I understand by the word meat) is a heavily value-laden attack on people’s sense of self, masquerading as philosophy. And yes, I know that in the intro above you kind of get around this by saying that you’re speaking figuratively – but to be frank, that’s not particularly convincing. Have you ever wondered why you feel the need to reduce yourself and others to ‘meat’ or ‘bits of matter’ – or why you choose to describe us as ‘subject to’ physical forces and limitations, rather than ‘manifestations of’ those same forces ? Because as far as I understand, there is nothing remotely scientific about describing a human being as a ‘bit of matter’ – so what’s the emotional belief/drive that leads you to think that way about people ?

    1. Greetings and thanks for your comment. My intent was to express my thoughts about humans as animals, not as lifeless organic matter. (Does the phrase “thinking animals” seem any less offensive?) One definition of meat is animal flesh considered as food, which technically we are in the eyes of some predators and decomposers. I wasn’t using the word meat to be morbid or reductionist; I thought it expressed our vulnerability, which we share with everything that lives. The phrase “thinking meat” was my attempt to express the fact that humans have an awareness of that vulnerability that most other creatures lack, and this awareness can be very painful. I wouldn’t trade it away for unawareness, though, because it’s linked to our big brains and all the cool things they can do. So I find it interesting to look at the ways that humans have found to deal with this problem of having the brain power to imagine limitless worlds but at the same time having all the limitations of physical beings. (That’s why I used the phrase “subject to”; I was thinking in terms of all the things we dream of but can’t do, like live forever, or protect our loved ones so they can always be safe, because we’re animals.)

      And you know, we are matter; I was exercising my poetic license when I used the word “bit,” but on some scales we really are very tiny creatures. On the scale of the universe, we’re vanishingly tiny. I never saw it as a reduction or an attack to see humans in a larger context. I think one of the life tasks of humans, if they choose to accept it, is to build a meaningful life in the face of that context and our vulnerability. I think music, visual art, religion, relationships with others, writing, and cumulative enterprises like science or any kind of knowledge-building can all be seen, at least some of the time, as attempts to do just that. So that’s where I was coming from.

  2. Hi Mary, and thanks for responding so promptly. If I could just respond to a couple of your points: firstly, yes, I would say that the phrase ‘thinking animals’ is infinitely preferable to ‘thinking meat’ – animals move, talk, run, swim and yes, think. Meat by definition is the dead flesh of those animals, and more specifically, dead flesh in the process of being consumed by other living beings. So I repeat, the fact that you choose this particular image to describe yourself and your fellow humans is kind of bizarre and slightly disturbing to me. Likewise with the ‘matter’ thing – matter is just a word for the stuff that stuff is made of. So obviously we are matter – and if you accept a materialist view of the universe , so is absolutely everything else, which makes the assertion that we are matter essentially meaningless. To be completely frank, the whole edifice of strict materialism was constructed with the purely negative intention of destroying Christian religious belief in humanity’s uniqueness – which is why it tends to be a block to development of understanding, as it’s not intended to open up enquiry, merely to shut down belief.

    Anyway, apologies if I’m being too critical – I do really like your blog, and am always happy to see that I’m not the only one who finds these questions and ideas interesting. I guess what I’m trying to get across is that there are other ways to look at humans that don’t emphasise vulnerability and lifelessness so much – and that don’t require supernatural beliefs either.

    1. Thanks for your reply. One of the most interesting things about humans is the different ways they come at things.

      I don’t know enough about the history of materialism to say much about why strict materialism arose. However, one of the reasons for the Thinking Meat Project is to consider the consequences of taking a materialist viewpoint, not to simply deny any previous views or shut down discussion. What do music, religion, politics, love, beauty, etc., look like if we recognize them as biological, or as things devised by animals? What does it mean to live well as a material being (rather than as an eternal soul or an intelligence with a body attached)? I don’t think that last question in particular is discussed often enough, even in secular circles.

      I’m sure there are other ways of framing it that don’t emphasize vulnerability as much. For me, vulnerability is one of the more interesting features of our place in the universe, and it was central to my original interest in the questions I consider here. And in terms of the name, “meat” for me stands more for the potential of being meat (being meat on the hoof, so to speak) rather than being dead meat right now. I’m glad you like the blog despite the name, and I hope you continue to find interesting things here.

      1. It would seem past the window to reply to such a comment, but the thinking meat is indeed what we are, a hunk of cognitive flesh with mind emerging in the wave patterns that oscillate through it, making human beings thinking meat, a hunk of ever changing matter with the incumbent wave pattern that is the substance of thought.

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