Human Exceptionalism

Human Exceptionalism Proved by the Human Mind

The September Scientific American has an interesting article about one of the things that marks human beings as exceptional–our mental abilities  to think and conceive uniquely from all other animals, which the writer calls the “mind.”

Since this is Scientific American, the differences between us and all other life  are explained in wholly reductionist terms; synapses connecting, genes expressing, etc.  But at least the article openly acknowledges our uniqueness and doesn’t fall back into that ubiquitous meme seen so often today in science writing, ” We are just animals, too”–although I’ll bet many of the letters to the editor will fervently make that point since so many materialists today shun human exceptionalism as “speciesist” and somehow arrogant.

In “The Origin of the Mind,” (no link available), Harvard professor Mark Hauser identifies four unique attributes of the human mind not found in animals:

  • “Generative computation,” that allows us to “create a virtual limitless variety of words, concepts and things.”
  • “Promiscuous combination of ideas,” meaning the ability to mingle “different domains of knowledge,” e.g., art, sex, causality, etc.
  • “Mental symbols” allow us to enjoy a “rich and complex system of communication.”
  • “Abstract thought,” which, “permits contemplation of things beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell.”

I don’t think many contest this, but some would say, “So what? How is it any different than an elephant’s exceptional prehensile trunk?” The pachyderm nose carries with it no moral implications, any more than a hawk’s amazing visual capacities or a shark’s ability to detect blood in the water. In contrast, the human mind brings to life the moral universe, issues of right and wrong, good and bad, evil and good, philosophy, not to mention, science, music, art, etc.. These are differences in kind as well as quality, distinctions that make a huge difference in terms of our moral worth.

Hauser doesn’t take it that far, of course, but the implications for human exceptionalism are inescapable. He writes:

Still, for now we have little choice but to admit that our mind is different [Me: Why the reluctance?] from that of even our closest primate relatives and that we do not know much about how that difference came to be. Could a chimpanzee think up an experiment to test humans? Could a chimpanzee imagine what it would be like for us to solve one of their problems? No and no. Although chimpanzees can see what we do, they cannot imagine what we think or feel because they lack the requisite machinery. Although chimpanzees and other animals appear to develop plans and consider both past experiences and future options, there is no evidence that they think in terms of counterfactuals–imagining worlds that have been against those that could be. We humans do this all the time and have done so since our distinctive genome gave birth to our distinctive minds. Our moral systems are base on this mental capacity.

And there you have it: Human exceptionalism based on capacities within our nature and unique to our species that make a moral difference–and without inquiring into the metaphysical, which is also a legitimate approach to evaluating our distinctiveness. We are not just animals. We are more, and from that arieses our singular rights and our unique duties to each other, our posterity, to treat animals humanely, and to properly husband resources and protect the environment.

Viva la difference!

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