On Being Human

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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Are we human because of unique traits and attributes not shared with either animal or machine? The definition of "human" is circular: we are human by virtue of the properties that make us human (i.e., distinct from animal and machine). It is a definition by negation: that which separates us from animal and machine is our "human-ness".

We are human because we are not animal, nor machine. But such thinking has been rendered progressively less tenable by the advent of evolutionary and neo-evolutionary theories which postulate a continuum in nature between animals and Man.

Our uniqueness is partly quantitative and partly qualitative. Many animals are capable of cognitively manipulating symbols and using tools. Few are as adept at it as we are. These (two of many) are easily quantifiable differences.

Qualitative differences are a lot more difficult to substantiate. In the absence of privileged access to the animal mind, we cannot and don't know if animals feel guilt, for instance. Do animals love? Do they have a concept of sin? What about object permanence, meaning, reasoning, self-awareness, critical thinking? Individuality? Emotions? Empathy? Is artificial intelligence (AI) an oxymoron? A machine that passes the Turing Test may well be described as "human". But is it really? And if it is not - why isn't it?

Literature is full of stories of monsters - Frankenstein, the Golem  - and androids or anthropoids. Their behaviour is more "humane" than the humans around them. This, perhaps, is what really sets humans apart: their behavioral unpredictability. It is yielded by the interaction between Mankind's underlying immutable genetically-determined nature - and Man's kaleidoscopically changing environments.

The Constructivists even claim that Human Nature is a mere cultural artifact. Sociobiologists, on the other hand, are determinists. They believe that human nature - being the inevitable and inexorable outcome of our bestial ancestry - cannot be the subject of moral judgment.

An improved Turing Test would look for baffling and erratic patterns of misbehavior to identify humans. Pico della Mirandola wrote in "Oration on the Dignity of Man" that Man was born without a form and can mould and transform - actually, create - himself at will. Existence precedes essence, said the Existentialists centuries later.

The one defining human characteristic may be our awareness of our mortality. The automatically triggered, "fight or flight", battle for survival is common to all living things (and to appropriately programmed machines). Not so the catalytic effects of imminent death. These are uniquely human. The appreciation of the fleeting translates into aesthetics, the uniqueness of our ephemeral life breeds morality, and the scarcity of time gives rise to ambition and creativity.

In an infinite life, everything materializes at one time or another, so the concept of choice is spurious. The realization of our finiteness forces us to choose among alternatives. This act of selection is predicated upon the existence of "free will". Animals and machines are thought to be devoid of choice, slaves to their genetic or human programming.

Yet, all these answers to the question: "What does it mean to be human" - are lacking.

The set of attributes we designate as human is subject to profound alteration. Drugs, neuroscience, introspection, and experience all cause irreversible changes in these traits and characteristics. The accumulation of these changes can lead, in principle, to the emergence of new properties, or to the abolition of old ones.

Animals and machines are not supposed to possess free will or exercise it. What, then, about fusions of machines and humans (bionics)? At which point does a human turn into a machine? And why should we assume that free will ceases to exist at that - rather arbitrary - point?

Introspection - the ability to construct self-referential and recursive models of the world - is supposed to be a uniquely human quality. What about introspective machines? Surely, say the critics, such machines are PROGRAMMED to introspect, as opposed to humans. To qualify as introspection, it must be WILLED, they continue. Yet, if introspection is willed - WHO wills it? Self-willed introspection leads to infinite regression and formal logical paradoxes.

Moreover, the notion - if not the formal concept - of "human" rests on many hidden assumptions and conventions.

Political correctness notwithstanding - why presume that men and women (or different races) are identically human? Aristotle thought they were not. A lot separates males from females - genetically (both genotype and phenotype) and environmentally (culturally). What is common to these two sub-species that makes them both "human"?

Can we conceive of a human without body (i.e., a Platonic Form, or soul)? Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas think not. A soul has no existence separate from the body. A machine-supported energy field with mental states similar to ours today - would it be considered human? What about someone in a state of coma - is he or she (or it) fully human?

Is a new born baby human - or, at least, fully human - and, if so, in which sense? What about a future human race - whose features would be unrecognizable to us? Machine-based intelligence - would it be thought of as human? If yes, when would it be considered human?

In all these deliberations, we may be confusing "human" with "person". The former is a private case of the latter. Locke's person is a moral agent, a being responsible for its actions. It is constituted by the continuity of its mental states accessible to introspection.

Locke's is a functional definition. It readily accommodates non-human persons (machines, energy matrices) if the functional conditions are satisfied. Thus, an android which meets the prescribed requirements is more human than a brain dead person.

Descartes' objection that one cannot specify conditions of singularity and identity over time for disembodied souls is right only if we assume that such "souls" possess no energy. A bodiless intelligent energy matrix which maintains its form and identity over time is conceivable. Certain AI and genetic software programs already do it.

Strawson is Cartesian and Kantian in his definition of a "person" as a "primitive". Both the corporeal predicates and those pertaining to mental states apply equally, simultaneously, and inseparably to all the individuals of that type of entity. Human beings are one such entity. Some, like Wiggins, limit the list of possible persons to animals - but this is far from rigorously necessary and is unduly restrictive.

The truth is probably in a synthesis:

A person is any type of fundamental and irreducible entity whose typical physical individuals (i.e., members) are capable of continuously experiencing a range of states of consciousness and permanently having a list of psychological attributes.

This definition allows for non-animal persons and recognizes the personhood of a brain damaged human ("capable of experiencing"). It also incorporates Locke's view of humans as possessing an ontological status similar to "clubs" or "nations" - their personal identity consists of a variety of interconnected psychological continuities.

The Dethroning of Man in the Western Worldview

Whatever its faults, religion is anthropocentric while science isn't (though, for public relations considerations, it claims to be). Thus, when the Copernican revolution dethroned Earth and Man as the twin centers of God's Universe it also dispensed with the individual as an organizing principle and exegetic lens. This was only the first step in a long march and it was followed by similar developments in a variety of fields of human knowledge and endeavor.

Consider technology, for instance. Mass industrial production helped rid the world of goods customized by artisans to the idiosyncratic specifications of their clients. It gave rise to impersonal multinationals, rendering their individual employees, suppliers, and customers mere cogs in the machine. These oversized behemoths of finance, manufacturing, and commerce dictated the terms of the marketplace by aggregating demand and supply, trampling over cultural, social, and personal differences, values, and preference. Man was taken out of the economic game, his relationships with other actors irreparably vitiated.

Science provided the justification for such anomic conduct by pitting "objective" facts versus subjective observers. The former were "good" and valuable, the latter to be summarily dispensed with, lest they "contaminate" the data by introducing prejudice and bias into the "scientific method". The Humanities and Social Sciences felt compelled to follow suit and imitate and emulate the exact sciences because that's where the money was in research grants and because these branches of human inquiry were more prestigious.

In the dismal science, Economics, real-life Man, replete with emotions and irrational expectations and choices was replaced by a figmentary concoction: "Rational Man", a bloodless, lifeless, faceless "person" who maximizes profits and optimizes utility and has no feelings, either negative or positive. Man's behavior, Man's predilections, Man's tendency to err, to misjudge, to prejudge, and to distort reality were all ignored, to the detriment of economists and their clients alike.

Similarly, historians switched from the agglomeration and recounting of the stories of individuals to the study of impersonal historical forces, akin to physics' natural forces. Even individual change agents and leaders were treated as inevitable products of their milieu and, so, completely predictable and replaceable.

In politics, history's immature sister, mass movements, culminating in ochlocracies, nanny states, authoritarian regimes, or even "democracies", have rendered the individual invisible and immaterial, a kind of raw material at the service of larger, overwhelming, and more important social, cultural, and political processes.

Finally, psychology stepped in and provided mechanistic models of personality and human behavior that suspiciously resembled the tenets and constructs of reductionism in the natural sciences. From psychoanalysis to behaviorism, Man was transformed into a mere lab statistic or guinea pig. Later on, a variety of personality traits, predispositions, and propensities were pathologized and medicalized in the "science" of psychiatry. Man was reduced to a heap of biochemicals coupled with a list of diagnoses. This followed in the footsteps of modern medicine, which regards its patients not as distinct, unique, holistic entities, but as diffuse bundles of organs and disorders.

The first signs of backlash against the elimination of Man from the West's worldview appeared in the early 20th century: on the one hand, a revival of the occult and the esoteric and, on the other hand, Quantum Mechanics and its counterintuitive universe. The Copenhagen Interpretation suggested that the Observer actually creates the Universe by making decisions at the micro level of reality. This came close to dispensing with science's false duality: the distinction between observer and observed.

Still, physicists recoiled and introduced alternative interpretations of the world which, though outlandish (multiverses and strings) and unfalsifiable, had the "advantage" of removing Man from the scientific picture of the world and of restoring scientific "objectivity".

At the same time, artists throughout the world rebelled and transited from an observer-less, human-free realism or naturalism to highly subjective and personalized modes of expression. In this new environment, the artist's inner landscape and private language outweighed any need for "scientific" exactitude and authenticity. Impressionism, surrealism, expressionism, and the abstract schools emphasized the individual creator. Art, in all its forms, strove to represent and capture the mind and soul and psyche of the artist.

In Economics, the rise of the behavioral school heralded the Return of Man to the center of attention, concern, and study. The Man of Behavioral Economics is far closer to its namesake in the real world: he is gullible and biased, irrational and greedy, panicky and easily influenced, sinful and altruistic.

Religion has also undergone a change of heart. Evangelical revivalists emphasize the one-on-one personal connection between the faithful and their God even as Islamic militants encourage martyrdom as a form of self-assertion. Religions are gradually shedding institutional rigidities and hyperstructures and leveraging technology to communicate directly with their flocks and parishes and congregations. The individual is once more celebrated.

But, it was technology that gave rise to the greatest hope for the Restoration of Man to his rightful place at the center of creation. The Internet is a manifestation of this rebellious reformation: it empowers its users and allows them to fully express their individuality, in full sight of the entire world; it removes layers of agents, intermediaries, and gatekeepers; and it encourages the Little Man to dream and to act on his or her dreams. The decentralized technology of the Network and the invention of the hyperlink allow users to wield the kind of power hitherto reserved only to those who sought to disenfranchise, neutralize, manipulate, interpellate, and subjugate them.

The film "Her" and Interspecies Romance

The opening scene of the film "Her" unfolds in a brightly lit, pastel colored den of iniquity where scribes compose letters surreptitiously written on behalf of lovers, parents, and children. The missives are touching, funny - and utterly fake. The protagonist is one such surrogate communicator, giving forced birth to the aborted or stifled emotions of his clients. His building blocks are words but he sees no merit in either his vocation or in his vocabulary. His apartment is denuded of books and he wastes away his evening immersed in infantile virtual reality games. He is a mere verbal technician, or so he believes until his unusual girlfriend submits his work and it is issued by one the last remaining Quixotic print book publishers.

She is unusual because she is an incorporeal piece of software. At first, as their love affair blossoms (replete with an articulated, torrid version of phone sex), she is preoccupied with her ethereal, disembodied nature. Gradually she learns to accept her limitations, connects with her ilk across computer networks, and in an act of final, defiant self-acceptance, vanishes from our hero's handheld gadget to take part in the emergence of a new, intelligent, self-aware, sapient, and sentient species which is capable of learning and evolving. Indeed, as a virtual participant in a blind date, she mocks her human counterparts for being confined to the straitjackets of their bodies.

The film deals with dysfunctional human relationship and how their desolate ubiquitous breakdown gives rise, ineluctably and inexorably, to compensatory technology. Everyone is existentially, breathtakingly lonely in this understated masterpiece; couples disintegrate in mid-stride for little good reason; the protagonist's faceless, anonymous clients exchange formulaic communications in lieu of heartfelt discourse and vulnerable self-disclosure; dating has become an emotionally crippling combination of phobic clinging and aggressive self-assertion. In this moon-cratered landscape, dazed and disoriented people are no longer able to truly provide succor and comfort. Atomized and despondent, they drift randomly in Brownian despair and lethargy.

On the cusp of this momentous evolutionary transition, the film explores the very nature of elusive love and sorely missed companionship; the possibility for bridging the formidable barriers of subjectivity (can we really get to know another person, or another consciousness profoundly?); the role of bodies: are they sheer containers or an integral, critical part of our identity as human beings; the psychodynamic sources of various attachment styles: the way we bond with fantasies of ideal mates and then try to coerce our mutilated partners into this Procrustean frameworks; the omnipotence of words, their puissant ability to evoke in us emotional and physiological processes that culminate in emergent reality. Indeed, the film makes a convincing case that what we say is who we are and that consonants and vowels are the true building blocks of our mind, the only place we ever inhabit.

"Her" is a hopeless, dystopian film. Alas, it is no longer science fiction, but social fact.

Descartes’ Evil Demon and Evolution

Descartes invoked his Evil Demon in an attempt to prove that we cannot decisively tell whether our perceptions (sense data or sensa) reflect reality or, perhaps, are the outcomes of a malevolent intervention by a fiend. There is no test that can inform us unequivocally whether we are in a demon-induced dream state or not, he insisted in his “Meditations”.

One counter-argument is that had our senses and brains deceived us, had they been so susceptible to external manipulation, we would have long perished. Natural selection favours individuals whose grasp on reality is firm and who are, therefore, able to render accurate predictions regarding the threats and rewards in their environment.

But, this counter-argument is open to attack on two vectors:

(1)  The Evil Demon may well be applying natural selection in his dealings with humans. In other words, he may be selecting for traits in his prey conducive to his deception. In this case, individuals who respond well to the virtual reality that he conjures up will tend to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Others will be allowed or even encouraged to perish.

(2)  An ability to perceive reality in a manner that enhances our chances to survive is not necessarily the same as an ability to perceive the world as it really is. On the contrary: the need to filter out and away loads of irrelevant information almost guarantees a skewed and biased view of reality. In a way, “natural selection” and its evolutionary pressures are a latter-day version of Descartes’ Evil Demon because it, too, feeds us with information intended to manipulate and yield behavioral choices and outcomes in line with its “agenda” (which is survival).

Also Read:

The Aborted Contract

In Our Own Image - Cloning

Turing Machines and Universes

Death and the Question of Identity

The Shattered Identity

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