Archive for April, 2010

This week’s discussion of human exceptionalism began by revisiting last week’s list of ‘uniquely human characteristics’.  Of our two exceptional human traits, this week’s discussion focusses mainly on free will/choice/agency.   For sake of simplicity we took human free will, redefined as “the experience of choice” to be a given (for extensive discussion of whether or not you actually have free will, see Mary Midgley Part 1) and tried to determine whether or not choice is actually unique to human beings.

The very real problem of how one would even detect free will in animals came up immediately. How would one determine scientifically if a mother gray whale defends her young from Orcas because she chooses to, or because she is genetically programmed or conditioned to do so? Our general tendency is to dismiss the idea of choice in animals as anthropomorphization. Philosophically we are all deeply conditioned to seek mechanistic explanations for animal behavior and psychological explanations for human behavior. Midgley argues that this separation of humans from other animals is wrong.

We then discussed whether or not there is a compelling scientific reason to invoke a different explanation for human behaviour than for animal behaviour. Do humans have an additional faculty or force that governs (or allows us to consciously govern our own) behaviour? In short: we couldn’t think of any. This finding made many of us very uncomfortable, however it was quite nice to have the entire room agree on something for a change. Some of us believe that the answer to human exceptionalism must come from outside of science, an issue which will probably be discussed at length in future forums.

Discussion then took a more specifically evolutionary turn as Lucas prompted us for reactions to a pair of famous-ish quotations:

“Descended from monkeys?  My gracious, let’s hope it isn’t true. But if it is true, let’s hope it doesn’t become widely known!”

-Attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Worcester

The universal reaction of forum participants was to laugh at the above statement. Why is it funny? To be honest, I wasn’t immediately sure, though I had definitely laughed. There must be something laughable, to our 21st century ears, about the blatant valuing of social status over truth.

“The wine in the miracle was not water because water had been used in the making of it, nor is man a brute because the brute has made some contributions to its creation.”

-AH Strong (President of Rochester Theological Seminary, in Systematic Theology 1885)

So at least as early as 1885, religious thinkers who supported evolution were downplaying its perceived threat to human exceptionalism. Strong is saying – hey, it’s OK to have a monkey for a grandfather! You are no less human, no less God’s creation, for having an evolutionary past.

We begin to approach the real point of today’s forum: How has the slow scientific erosion of human exceptionalism interacted with religious and philosophical thought?

In particular, is evolution’s perceived disproof of human exceptionalism the root cause of anti-evolutionary sentiment? Is our attachment to exceptionalism the underlying reason biology is the only science that triggers massive political debates? (Of course it is.)

But can one reconcile personal beliefs in science and in human exceptionalism? Clearly so. We constructed a handy chart of famous evolutionary biologists and their stances on exceptionalism.

Non Exceptionalism: we are animals Progressive Exceptionalism: we were animals but have ‘risen up’ and are better now Eternal Exceptionalism: We have always been better
Charles Darwin (debatable)

T.H. Huxley

J.B.S. Haldane

S.J. Gould

T. de Chardin

T. Dobzhansky

E. Darwin

A.R. Wallace

Notably Empty Space

For in depth discussion of historical evolutionary biologists and their relationships to exceptionalism, see Michael Ruse’s book Monad to Man.

Forum participants were split between Progressive Exceptionalists and Non Exceptionalists.

A viewpoint that emerged again and again from the Progressive Exceptionalists in the room was that if science cannot provide an explanation for, or verification of, human exceptionalism, then those answers must come from other ways of knowing (philosophy, theology, religion). A further discussion of just how to get those answers from ‘other ways of knowing’ seems like it could sustain several forum sessions of its own.

Another argument for (or at least, not-against) Progressive Exceptionalism is the fact although science may not be able to explain something currently does not mean that thing is forever closed to scientific inquiry. Science does not produce certainty, only increasing confidence, and has a demonstrated tendency to undergo revolutions following the discovery of new information (the Central Dogma of biology is no longer dogma, for example). As scientific understanding of biology, psychology, ethology and neuroscience accumulates, science may in the future localize that ‘additional faculty or force’ that differentiates us from animals.  (Or not.)

Or, as a Non Exceptionalist would expect, science may continue to provide more and more evidence linking us ever closer to other animals.

(Summary thrown together by M.T.)

Fun bonus links:

Jane Goodall speaks on what separates humans from apes

A (real, published) lab experiment that claims to demonstrate ‘free will’ in fruit flies


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(Especially) for those of you who were not present, here is a summary of the meeting that spawned so much controversy:

Meeting 5: Mary Midgley

The reading materials for this meeting are Chapter 21, 22 and 23 of Mary Midgley’s book The Myths We Live By.

The basic subject of the section from Midgley is the question of what it means for humans to be or not to be animals. As scientists, we may agree that humans are animals. But we also have to deal with the majority of the world who makes a fairly large distinction between humans and animals. So we are faced with not only finding what the correct word is, but also communicating with people who may use the word differently.

(Descartes was mentioned because he compared humans to ghosts in machines. The body is the machine, and there is the mind which is the ghost operating the machine. Most modern westerners still have the concepts of ghosts and machines subconsciously and it becomes a big problem because we start referring to animals as the machines. And the question is what the ghost is.)

Free will is regarded as a classic distinction between humans and other animals, although its own existence is disputed. One experiment that undermines the idea of choice is the brain study that records the moment at which a person has the feeling of making a choice.  By imaging the brain during a period of time, the researchers can determine that the signal that reaches out and makes the choice happens before the subjective sense of making that choice. Then the question arises: is free will simply the feeling of making the choice?

Another related question is asked: if we might be culpable (responsible) without making a choice (the relation between culpability and the existence of free will has been under much discussion). Cases of drug users and homosexual people are discussed. As a result, the question regarding free will is expressed in a clearer way. We tend to think that we do not have entirely free will. Our choice is limited. There are genetic and social conditions which affect how we make choices. Then the question is: do they just influence or fully determine our choices?

After the discussion about free will, we turn back to discuss other distinctions between humans and other animals. Here is a list of our results.

1. Fancy abstract thought (including imagination, creativity, the ability to do math, etc). Abstract                   reasoning has been weakened by the ability of some animals to solve problems in spaces that they cannot see. So we add the word “fancy”.

2. Fancy language (again, a matter of degree).

3. Free will (existence is still disputed).

4. Fancy altruism. We start discussing it with the term “anonymous non-kin generosity”. Example: dolphins.

5. Private un-shown art. Most people believe that animals can create arts. For example, bird songs. But arts created by animals are largely about sexual selection.

6. Fancy group behavior. For example, culture.

7. Fancy tool use. Humans can build complicated machines.

8. World dominance. This could be thought as a qualitative distinction.

Finally, we start talking about human exceptionalism. Is everything listed above that makes humans unique really good? A lot of people put evolution together with the human exceptionalism and conclude that evolution has produced good things and this is progress. People especially equate anything sexually selected in humans with good. This kind of reasoning is used to distort scientific facts and human exceptionalism is the negative force that prevents us from getting scientific results.  We will come to this point in later discussion.

Summary contribued by Y.W.

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A summary of this week’s forum event is still forthcoming, however ,there has been an email exchange going on privately. Here we post the core content of this exchange so that all can join in!

Robert to Lucas – Would you agree

1.)  No free choice and no culpability = mechanism

2.)  No free choice and culpability = intelligent design

3.)  Free choice and no culpability = Existentialism

4.)  Free choice and culpability = Thomism

I think everyone was a little thrown by the word culpability; sounds like all

blame and yet not actions/choices are blameful are they?


John to Robert – Interesting cataloging!  Does your “=” mean “if and only if” or “belonging to”?

The word “culpable” does carry a negative connotation to the modern ear.  I like the German word “Verantwortlichkeit” for “accountability” or literally “answerability” or “responsibility”. I think it is neutral and clear.

In choosing the “right” or “accurate” word, I had a process as well as a goal.  If I had only the process and not a goal, where do I end up?  If you had a goal, but not a process, can I reach my goal?

Just some questions.


Lucas to Robert – I would say that the idea of culpability, or better responsibility

(acquired blame or merit) entails free will and vice versa.

choice <–> responsibility

If there is no choice, then how can you blame or praise someone.

If you blame or praise, then you must presume there was choice involved.

No choice and no culpability = determinism: mechanistic universe or fate

Choice and culpability = Free Will

If you are accountable to the Eternal and Natural Law, then this is Thomist.

One can imagine choice with consequences but not culpability; no value judgement, just results.

The choice was not mechanistic, but the outcome is:  that’s karma (Hinduism and Buddhism).

Non-Christian existentialism looks something like this.  The only meaning comes from within.


Robert to John – The “=” is just mental shorthand and can be variously applied; in fact the 4-by categorization itself is just discussion place holding and is not meant to be

anything rigorous.

I brought our seminar discussion up with some friends at the Red Garter last night (play

pool there on Wednesdays) and 2 things were striking

1.) They also struggled with the word culpability

2.) There was vigorous assertion that free will and evolution, mechanism, and

even determinism itself are compatible; there seems to be an acquiescence to that

cognitive dissonance, and most are OK with asserting determinism when it comes to the

phenotype and some soul or mind or “I” that makes decisions outside of that determinism.

I like your distinction between process and goal.  It’s very akin to the distinction Thomas made between intellect and reason, the one giving us the end and the other the means.

Regarding all these debates about mind and reason and intellect and will and emotions

and appetites, etc, I find myself resorting to old-fashioned faculty psychology.  Give me Aristotle, baby.


Robert to Lucas – Thanks for the reply.  I think I was thinking that you were saying free will was driving culpability, but now I see they drive each other.  I think that’s correct.

I am struck by contradictions between philosophical world-view and moral actions, e.g

how the evolutionists assert values.  They’re not the only ones; for example, if you

take the existentialist view that the world is absurd at best and threatening at worse, then every day is Apocalypse Now and what’s the point in asserting anything?  Still, the

existentialists, Camus and Sartre, just like evolutionist, Monod were horror-struck by

the Nazis and joined the Resistance.

Seems like the older beliefs based on moral intuition still prevail when it comes to values, no matter the logical consequences of one’s world view.   I guess that was Ruse‘s point.


Joanna – First I should say that while I believe the world is real, I’m not so convinced that we ever get a good picture of it. I think our understanding of it comes through models and metaphors of diverse kinds. One can ask two questions of each such metaphor. First, is

it correct? Second, is it useful?

So Lucas, you have persuaded me that free will and moral culpability must logically be taken as a pair, so I was previously being inconsistent in accepting moral culpability without free will. But I think I fall the other way now, and think that neither are true (not as strong a statement as it may seem, since there isn’t much out there that I do think is true). However, I still think that the moral culpability metaphor is useful if not true, more useful than fate or determinism. Free will I can take or leave in terms of usefulness. Where does that put me? Robert, I’m afraid I don’t think I come under “No free choice and culpability = intelligent design”!


Lucas to Joanna – I succumbed to pragmatism about 6 years ago.  In the absolute sense,   the world may be an illusion (if a persistent one).  The only   practical philosophies, however, treat it as provisionally real. Therefore I make the initial caveats:

My knowledge of the universe is incomplete and necessarily biased.

The real universe is infinitely more queer than we could image

AND there is neither rational nor empirical evidence that it even exists.

Then promptly move on as though a real comprehensible universe existed.


Robert to Joanna – I think ID and for want of a better word what I call mechanism are aligned in that one way – both are deterministic, but I think the former does not assign

culpability, while the latter does; even though you don’t have a choice, you’re “guilty.”  Maybe I’m being unfair to that crowd.  But mechanists seem to go the other way.  Nobody is guilty of anything because they don’t have a choice in it.  That kind of thinking has had a huge impact on our criminal justice system.

I think we are born with choice – timshel or “thou mayest” – as God declared to Cain

(and is the focal point of Steinbeck’s East of Eden which a bunch of us recently

re-read) and also with culpability.  Our posture to the rest of nature is our assigned

job of husbandry.  We do have dominion, but I wouldn’t call that world domination.

Responsibility goes with the charge.  Something puzzling me a little is original sin;  I

think Thomas would call that a natural deprivation or a lacking you are also born into – e.g. you will age, die, not know everything (some would say anything for me!)

Big stumbling block to Thomas and Natural Law theory is a topic that came up one day in the seminar – sociopaths.


Joanna to Lucas – There are still multiple different ways of “moving on as though a real comprehensible universe existed.” When the issue is with models and metaphors, it is not obvious that totally logical consistency across all metaphors is required. To give a concrete example, I assume that as a martial arts instructor, you are comfortable with the metaphor/model of chi, but do you believe it “exists”? My feelings on free will are culpability are in a similar category.


Lucas to Joanna – I do believe Chi exists.  That’s one worldview.  I use it because   translating to the Western Physics worldview makes it unusable, but the two systems are theoretically consistent.  Even were they not, it would not impinge on the agency question.  One can accept multiple worldviews that might be adopted – much as one might switch from everyday glasses to reading glasses to sunglasses.  Each worldview, however, needs to be consistent.  In any given worldview, responsibility requires choice/will and an agent to make that choice.

So logical consistency across metaphors is not required.  I can put on the sunglasses of determinism; however, with my goggles of responsibility on, I cannot deny will.  I suspect we agree on this. My primary challenge is people who view determinism ontologically (they think it means no glasses of any sort) rather than methodologically.  Presently, science operates with a certain methodological determinism.  My secondary challenge is people who seem to recognize that methodological determinism is not pragmatic in general life (though it is in science).  We operate as though individuals (including ourselves) make choices.


Lucas to Robert – You hit on a bunch of topics here.  I’ll try to tackle them.

Culpability requires a judge.  In the case of many Christians, it requires a Judge.  This is similar to the idea that complexity requires a designer (or a Designer), but it is not identical.  It’s one of the reasons I think that John’s term responsibility is a little safer than culpability.  For good or ill, the outcome was the result of your personal choice.

ID need not be deterministic.  Quite the contrary; one of the better (if still not, in my opinion, rigorous) arguments for God is that humans have agency and agency could not have come about with a Creator (an Agent, an unmoved mover) who gave us that agency.

What ID does seem to require is a Plan.  It shows God’s hand at work.  Personally, I think God is more subtle.

> But mechanists seem to go the other way.  Nobody is guilty of

> anything because they don’t have a choice in it.  That kind of

> thinking has had a huge

> impact on our criminal justice system.

Yes, I agree.

> Our posture to the rest of nature is our assigned

> job of husbandry.  We do have dominion, but I wouldn’t call that

> world domination.

I believe in responsibility.  I also believe that all power comes with responsibility.  Therefore, control always entails obligation.  Dominion makes no sense to me otherwise.

> Something puzzling me a little is original sin;  I think Thomas

> would call that a natural deprivation or a lacking you are also born

> into – e.g. you will age, die, not know everything (some would say

> anything for me!)

Yes, original sin for Thomas reflects a deficit in our original ability to see clearly.

> Big stumbling block to Thomas and Natural Law theory is a topic that

> came up one day in

> the seminar – sociopaths.

I don’t think Thomas would have trouble with this at all.  Some people are corrupt, possessed, or defective.  It’s our egalitarianism which makes it hard for us to tolerate sociopaths.


Joanna to Lucas – I guess I do lean towards ontological determinism (recognizing of course that certainty about such questions is in all cases impossible), but with a strong commitment to avoid methodological determinism in favor of will/culpability in normal life. In science, I use methodological determinism as a matter of course, as is normal. Have I just successfully sidestepped the whole question by this approach?

To break it down further, methodologically I have no problem denying will/culpability in others in favor of determinism. If someone is behaving badly, I find it preferable to look for causes, ideally ones that I can influence, rather than just blaming the person in front of me. It’s only when it comes to myself that I feel the need to avoid methodological determinism. Not because it is “wrong”, but because it is unhelpful.

BTW, as a probabilist, I do hate the word determinism, but I’m sure you know what I mean in this context.


John – Let me just add one more way to look at the different glasses of Lucas.  Reality is far more richer and intricate then my mind can comprehend.  I have to use different glasses or languages to convey my description of different aspect of the Wonder.  Using different glasses, often incompatible one; if compatible, why do we need more?  Two or more mutually incompatible languages maybe needed to give an adequate description of Reality.  This is the principle of complementarity started by NIels Bohr, influenced by Dao.  I am sure you all know this, so I need not repeat.  Being a practitioner of science and of religion, I need two incompatible languages and I love them both in the same way I walk with both legs.

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