The Star Wars character C3PO is so convincingly depicted that we may have to remind ourselves that there was no real robot behind the elegant mannequin. The passage of time has not remedied this deficiency; nor, alas, have I a blueprint to offer. I do believe, however, that it will repay us to identify some attributes a robot would need in order to count as humanoid. By clearly distinguishing among such features, and considering what our attitudes toward such a device might be, we can enrich our understanding of what it is to be human.
The trajectory of the development of emerging enhancement technologies suggests that it is not premature to begin considering ethical issues associated with robust human enhancement—i.e. creation of people with highly augmented or highly novel capacities through technological modification of (or integration with) their biological systems. Robust human enhancement raises justice, equity and access issues; parental rights and child welfare issues; naturalness and species boundary issues; individual and social benefit and risk issues; personal choice and liberty issues; and public policy issues related to regulation and research funding.
Some nonhuman animals resemble normal humans in morally relevant ways. In particular, they bring the mystery of a unified psychological presence to the world. Like us, they possess a variety of sensory, cognitive, conative, and volitional capacities. They see and hear, believe and desire, remember and anticipate, plan and intend. Moreover, what happens to them matters to them. Physical pleasure and pain—these they share with us. But also fear and contentment, anger and loneliness, frustration and satisfaction, cunning and imprudence.
The word “culture” is sometimes recruited as a proxy for “race” in common parlance, and the familiar story of race predisposes us to understand the differences between European and Asian populations in biological, rather than cultural, terms. Culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, motivation, and emotion. The story of race as a biological thing that humans either have or are is not only inaccurate, but also it serves to distort our understanding of human nature. Another way of saying this is that human difference really matters — but not in the way most people think it does.
It is “easy” to explain doing, “hard” to explain feeling. Turing has set the agenda for the easy explanation (though it will be a long time coming). I will try to explain why and how explaining feeling will not only be hard, but impossible. Explaining meaning will prove almost as hard because meaning is a hybrid of know-how and what it feels like to know how.
To speak in the same breath of personhood and political economy sounds odd because of the seemingly obvious radical difference between the two worlds of their application. On the one hand, a straightforward moral term from everyday life referring to the status of our fellow humans; on the other hand, a technical theory with roots in 18th-century French and British philosophical thought about the interrelation between economic production, society, and the state. What could these two possibly have to do with each other?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that could provide specifically for the formation of trade unions and “periodic holiday with pay”, might have mustered the specificity to mention women sometime, other than through “motherhood,” which is more bowed to than provided for. If women were human in this document, would domestic violence, sexual violation from birth to death, including in prostitution and pornography, and systematic sexual objectification and denigration of women and girls simply be left out of the explicit language?
The apparent differences between humans and apes are not biologically fixed, but they are biologically and culturally instantiated. Differences in maternal care patterns, which human and bonobo infants experience from the moment of birth forward, are responsible for the many of the behavioral distinctions that later emerge between the species. They are culturally instantiated and are open to change at any time. From these caregiver patterns emerge the different styles of human/ape consciousness.
Our Forum is for scholars in the humanities and sciences to share their ideas and research. The Forum offers specialists as well as members of the public the opportunity to engage experts on questions concerning the meaning and significance, if any, of human life, especially at its edges. Read more...
alex rosenberg: I'm glad to be taken to task by Geoffrey Harpham in so indulgent and learned a manner. Pleasure, enjoyment, enrichment, the rewards of reading, listening, watching and looking, are...
Bill Benzon: Well, it's one thing to argue that, for example, the newer psychologies and other developments are relevant to humanistic inquiry and ought to be taken into account. It's something rather...
Charels T. Wolverton: The essence of Frank Williams' Popper quote seems to be that determinism implies that decision making is an illusion. To which I can only reply "doh!". For a somewhat more...
National Public Radio has a story on ways researchers are using functional MRI to map religious beliefs.
All Things Considered
March 9, 2009
The human brain, it appears, responds to God as if he were just another person, according to a team at the National Institutes of Health.
A study of 40 people — some religious, some nonreligious — found ...