Anthropomorphizing as Human Reasoning

Many times during my school years I heard the following pattern in science class. A student is asked to explain a physical phenomena such as why electrons repell each other. The student claims that the electrons “want to be far away from each other”. The teacher then takes the time to remind everyone that particles don’t have feelings. I will on many occations have said that a system wants to be in a low energy state. Or that a system wants to increase it’s entropy. Why do we so often accidentally refer to dead matter as if it was a person?

Asking why something happened is probably as old as humanity itself. But it was probably only related to human affairs for most of our evolutionary history. All human interaction has motive behind it, or at least a post hoc rationalization for why an action was done. This is the environment our human reasoning evolved in. If I hit you, you will be upset at me and that changes your future actions towards me.

Here is a more elaborate example. A man ate a loaf of bread. Why did he eat the bread? Because he was hungry. He then drank some water. Why did the man drink water? Because he was thirsty. The man then baked some more bread. When he baked the bread, why did it rise? A modern person would attempt to answer this question. A truly ancient person might instead frown and ask what you mean. Because as far as he is concerned this is just what happens when you bake bread. He’s ability to bake bread is not bound by his reasoning abilities.

Reasoning is easily confused with what I would call remembering. A cave man applies no reason when trying to bang together rocks in order to light a fire. He is simply remembering the time when he saw similar rocks used to make fire. In fact, you could argue that the activity seems intrinsically unreasonable. The technique works with some rocks and not others, with no clear reason why. Your only route to success is to remember what the correct rocks look like and how they should be smashed together.

In the ancient environment you don’t understand why some rocks make fire but you do understand why your freezing friend wants a fire started. It is therefore not strange that our human reason is evolved to think in terms of people. And why we so easily ascribe a telos to inanimate objects.

Let’s break down a modern example of this in action. An engineer tells you that the cpu he has designed wants data to be in the cache. Why does he say this? The engineer built the cpu with a telos in mind, the fast execution of code. This telos has informed the entire design and is the reason it “has desires of it’s own”. The cpu wants data to be in the cache because that helps it achieve it’s goal. It wants the things that help it achieve it’s goals. If we know what this phrasing our brains like to use really means. Then we can more effectively understand what is going on inside someone else’s head.

In summary, next time you hear someone “ascribing feelings” to an inanimate object. Remember that this is actually their brain’s way of representing reality in an understandable fashion. Perhaps your brain would function better if you also adopted this method of expression.