Human Exceptionalism

Gelernter Defends Human Exceptionalism

He doesn’t use the term, but Yale computer science professor, David Gelernter, has an excellent piece in Commentary about the rabid attack on human exceptionalism within the sciences and the culture of science.

“Science used to build its own work,” Gelernter notes, “from a deep belief in human dignity. “No Longer,” he laments. From, ”The Closing of the Scientific Mind:”

Today science and the “philosophy of mind”—its thoughtful assistant, which is sometimes smarter than the boss—are threatening Western culture with the exact opposite of humanism. Call it roboticism. Man is the measure of all things, Protagoras said. Today we add, and computers are the measure of all men.

That’s what I have taken to calling “anti-humanism,” and it is ubiquitous in science journals these days, given particular boosting to the general public among so-called science journalists.

Gelernter accuses these anti-humanists of being bullies:

When scientists use this locker-room braggadocio to belittle the human viewpoint, to belittle human life and values and virtues and civilization and moral, spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will, they have outrun their own empiricism. They are abusing their cultural standing. Science has become an international bully.

We’ve discussed it here many times: ”Science advocates” use of mockery and ad hominem to stifle heterodox views, and attempts to shut up intellectual opposition rather than actually engage it.

The article gets into some deep philosophical water–such as Ray Kurzweil’s immortality project and the attack on the very idea that our subjective states of mind are real–too long to detail here, but worth your time reading. He pays special criticism to the idea that our brains are really just computers:

And there is (at least) one more area of special vulnerability in the computationalist worldview. Computationalists believe that the mind is embodied by the brain, and the brain is simply an organic computer. But in fact, the mind is embodied not by the brain but by the brain and the body, intimately interleaved. Emotions are mental states one feels physically; thus they are states of mind and body simultaneously. (Angry, happy, awestruck, relieved—these are physical as well as mental states.) Sensations are simultaneously mental and physical phenomena.

This computational view denies free will, arguing that we really are all just “zombies” going through motions that we don’t control. To which Gelernter responds:

Man is only a computer if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer.

Youza! Pretending we don’t each have free will makes no sense–unless you are dedicated to demoting humans into just another animal in the forest–since free will is essential for moral agency–one of the exceptional attributes of man.

He makes a special appeal to Christians and observant Jews:

The cults that oppose Kurzweilism are called Judaism and Christianity. But they must and will evolve to meet new dangers in new worlds. The central text of Judeo-Christian religions in the tech-threatened, Googleplectic West of the 21st century might well be Deuteronomy 30:19: “I summon today as your witnesses the heavens and the earth: I have laid life and death before you, the blessing and the curse; choose life and live!—you are your children.” The sanctity of life is what we must affirm against Kurzweilism and the nightmare of roboticism.

Judaism has always preferred the celebration and sanctification of this life in this world to eschatological promises. My guess is that 21st-century Christian thought will move back toward its father and become increasingly Judaized, less focused on death and the afterlife and more on life here today (although my Christian friends will dislike my saying so). Both religions will teach, as they always have, the love of man for man—and that, over his lifetime (as Wordsworth writes at the very end of his masterpiece, The Prelude), “the mind of man becomes/A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/On which he dwells.”

Me: I think anyone who believes in universal human rights must join the human exceptionalist cause–for without it, who (or what) matters morally will depend absolutely on who has the power to decide the “attributes” that give rise to “rights”–whether of humans, animals, “nature,” or robots.

He concludes:

In the roboticist future, we will become what we believe ourselves to be: dogs with iPhones. The world needs a new subjectivist humanism now—not just scattered protests but a growing movement, a cry from the heart.

I’m there! Indeed, I believe defending HE is the most important intellectual issue of the 21st century.


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