In Praise of Pleasure

Geoffrey Harpham, Director, National Humanities Center

When I stumbled upon the future, I was actually looking for the past.

In the 1990s, I was trying to write a book about why the concept of language had so dominated the intellectual history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At some point, it occurred to me

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Final Thoughts of a Disenchanted Naturalist

In Geoffrey Harpham’s first contribution to “On the Human” he wrote,

One of the most striking features of contemporary intellectual life is the fact that questions formerly reserved for the humanities are today being approached by scientists in various disciplines such as cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, robotics, artificial life, behavioral genetics and evolutionary biology.

“Approached”

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A Suicidal Tendency in the Humanities

There is an interesting question as to why those in the humanities – most notably literary studies – have felt so dissatisfied with their performance as not just to re-invent themselves – which is fine and healthy – but to attempt to destroy their very rationale. I want to examine a tendency amongst some of

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The Future of Moral Machines

The prospect of machines capable of following moral principles, let alone understanding them, seems as remote today as the word “robot” is old. Some technologists enthusiastically extrapolate from the observation that computing power doubles every 18 months to predict an imminent “technological singularity” in which a threshold for machines of superhuman intelligence will be suddenly surpassed. Many Singularitarians assume a lot, not the least of which is that intelligence is fundamentally a computational process. The techno-optimists among them also believe that such machines will be essentially friendly to human beings. I am skeptical about the Singularity, and even if “artificial intelligence” is not an oxymoron, “friendly A.I.” will require considerable scientific progress on a number of fronts.

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Whole-Body Apoptosis and the Meanings of Lives

Daniel C. Dennett, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University

When, if ever, should we intentionally shorten our lives? Programming our own deaths is not a subject many people seem to have thought much about. But think about it we must. For biotechnologies continue to advance, our psychological identities continue to depend on our being embodied, and more and more of us spend our last days in debilitated confused states. Were we to find a means of safely and effectively cutting short the suffering and frustration of older and older age, wouldn’t it be unethical not to use it?

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One Man’s Meat: Further Thoughts on the Evolution of Animal Food Taboos

Professor James Serpell

Although meat is said to be the most highly prized category of food in the majority of human cultures, it is also, according to a recent ethnographic survey, “vastly more likely to be the target of food taboos,” than any other type of edible substance.[1] People throughout the world display strong aversions to killing and

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Going Forth and Multiplying: Animal Acclimatization and Invasion

Harriet Rtivo, Professor, MIT

Professor Harriet Ritvo

People were on the move in the nineteenth century. Millions of men and women participated in massive transfers of human population, spurred by war, famine, persecution, the search for a better life, or (most rarely) the spirit of adventure. The largest of these transfers—although by no means the only one—was from

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Knowledge of our own thoughts is just as interpretive as knowledge of the thoughts of others

Philosophers have traditionally assumed that knowledge of our own thoughts is special. Descartes famously believed that knowledge of our current thoughts is infallible. He also believed that those thoughts themselves are self-presenting, so that whenever one entertains a thought, one is capable of infallible knowledge of it. Many figures in the history of philosophy have

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Loaves, Fishes, and the Human Side of Ecosystems

Les Kaufman

Professor Les Kaufman

Slow news days send hungry journalists back to the old springheads of mystery and metamorphosis: dark matter, how the brain really works, human cyborgs, life on other worlds. The nature of humanity’s relationship with Nature — the oldest campfire subject on the books, and kissing cousin to the meaning of life —

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Animal In Mind: People, Cattle and Shared Nature on the African Savannah

Vigdis Broch-Due

Professor Vigdis Broch-Due

It is a commonplace that East African pastoralists like Turkana of Northern Kenya identify themselves with their animals. However it really goes far beyond that. To grasp not just the emotional intensity of Turkana bonds with their cattle but the ways in which their life projects are intertwined, is to feel the

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