Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Humans, Matter, and Mattering

There's a confused discussion going on at Crooked Timber about whether there is a "radical difference... between human beings and all other terrestrial species". It's patently obvious that the answer is "yes", so I'm surprised that the majority of CT commenters can seriously deny this. Obviously the human mind is leagues beyond all others in important respects, as evidenced by the fact that no non-humans have yet joined in the debate. Sure, dolphins or chimps might have some capacity to exhibit crude precursors of language and culture, but they pale in comparison to human capabilities. To deny our vast rational superiority would be as ridiculous as denying the vast aquatic superiority of dolphins on the basis that "humans can learn to swim a bit too".

Several commenters seemed to buy the old fundamentalist's canard that only an immaterial soul could explain human exceptionalism. To avoid metaphysical extravagance, then, they seem forced into the absurd claim that humans "really" aren't that different from other animals. But this is silly -- the real problem lies with the first premise. The fundamentalists are mistaken: naturalism is entirely consistent with human exceptionalism.

Fundies object to physicalism because it implies that humans and rocks are made of the same "stuff" (i.e. matter), and thus "must" be the same in kind. The anti-exceptionalist argument, that humans must be like chimps for sharing so much DNA, is similarly foolish. The great fallacy in both is to overlook the importance of arrangement or internal relations between the constitutive 'stuff'. A great poem is obviously of far greater value than a page of random words, even though both are made of the same "stuff" (namely, words). The arrangement matters. Similarly, a chair is vastly different in kind from a newspaper, even if both are made from tree products. And a human being is vastly different in kind and value from rocks, even if both have purely physical constituents. For full knowledge of an object, it does not suffice to learn merely what materials it is composed of, in ignorance of their compositional arrangement. Contrary to the "fallacy of composition", the whole may have properties that differ (and cannot be inferred) from those of its isolated individual parts. This point is so patently obvious that I have to wonder if the fundies who make the "how can 'mere matter' matter?" objection have some kind of mental defect. It's as silly as asking how "dry", "colourless" atoms could suffice to make green grass or wet water.

So when Richard Cownie suggests that the purported human difference is "obviously nothing physical," I respond that he is obviously mistaken. There are hugely important physical differences between the human brain and the brains of other animals. Otherwise we wouldn't be capable of having this debate. Though, if it makes the anti-exceptionalists feel any better, I'd be happy to grant that human infants are similarly miles away, in terms of cognitive development, from the rest of us. (From what I've heard, chimps perform comparably to 3 year old children against several cognitive measures, so it might not be a bad analogy to bear in mind.) You won't find infants, any more than dolphins, starting philosophical academies or building spaceships. There is a vast and undeniable difference here.

Of course, it isn't an entirely unbridgable gulf. Infants do develop into (variously) rational adults, after all. And the human species did evolve from a common ancestor shared with other animals. So one can point to important similarities, I certainly wouldn't deny that. But none of that changes the fact that an adult human being is a very different kind of creature from an adult chimp or dolphin, which in turn are vastly different from ants and earthworms. There is something quite exceptional about the human capacity for general intelligence, or rational thought, which is not found in any other animal. Animals can be cognitively skilled in various domain-specific ways, but they don't have anything remotely comparable to the incredible cognitive plasticity of most humans. We don't need to posit anything so extravagant as an immortal soul in order to be able to accomodate this undeniable fact. Instead, we may simply recognize that the human brain is a remarkable piece of matter.


  1. In one sense a human in 100 years time may well be of a whole new order to a human now or a person in america (or lets say korea) might be of a whole different order to an uneducated man in africa.

    I think that much of the difference between humans and other animals is less about processing power or some sort of a "soul" but more about key traits required to allow knowledge to accumulate in a society.

    These include a decent memory, written language, spoken language, the habits that result from being many years without the need to fear preditors the opposable thumbs etc to facilitate the testing of this knowledge and a number of other traits. These come together in such a way as to allow knowledge to accumulate within our comunities and build upon itself (bouncing around and magnifying itself as it does so) so that the achievements of society are vastly greater than the potential acievements of a single human.

    In addition of course we are smarter and we DO have a lot more processing power (in certain areas) but this is less important and to a large extent a result of the former.

    I personally doubt that a baby put out in the wild and raised by monkeys would create any innovations that would cause much surprise to a person examines chimps.

    But leave a tribe of humans out in the wild for 200 years and (if they survive) they will probably be far ahead of the chimps.

  2. Oh, for sure, the difference is one of potential; individual humans aren't going to achieve what they're capable of unless raised in appropriate conditions (including a flourishing literate/intellectual culture, etc.). But other animals aren't capable of such achievements even at the best of times.

  3. Well maybe we can consider a fairly philosophical question...

    If we were to, let's say, provide a chimpanzee with a attachmnt that made it able to provide an incredible range of vocalizations and recognize the difference between all of those sounds and the ability to look at letters and instantly recognize them and record all that information easily and retrieve it and to live to be 90 years old with minimal loss of intelligence.

    AND if a community of such chimps were to naturally develop a language and agriculture and metal working and maybe a mini industrial revolution does our computer enhanced chimp gain the rights of a human? Or is it just a chimp?

    Does it have rights as a result of its potential to achieve such things? Or would you argue it is incapable of achieving these things for some other reason?

    Or am I breaking a rule by this though experiment (I am a little concerned about the concept of helping them to recognise letters since you might have to raise their brain power to do it)

    At the moment I am envisaging the chimp being able to act rather like a very low IQ (but not “mentally handicapped”) person.

  4. "I think that much of the difference between humans and other animals is less about processing power or some sort of a "soul" but more about key traits required to allow knowledge to accumulate in a society."

    I agree with that. And the point is that only
    very small biological and evolutionary differences
    were involved in establishing those traits. Small
    differences with large consequences. Though not
    such large consequences as most imagine: humans
    are doing very well compared to other mammals,
    but I believe ants still have way more total

    Now if you want to say that human *society* is
    vastly different from chimpanzee *society*, I'll
    agree. But the human *species* just isn't very
    different from the chimpanzee *species*. The
    gap is much less than, say, the gap between
    chimpanzees and horses. It just looks like a
    really big gap to us because the gap between
    "Us" and "Them" always looks big.

  5. Well, that really depends on which properties you're interested in. Clearly there are many similarities between species. We even have a fair bit in common with rocks, if you look at the right things (we're both solid hunks of matter, for starters!). But there are some very significant differences too, in the areas which really matter, and this is surely the point at hand. No other animal has the potential for the general intelligence and rationality that human beings are capable of. This is a difference in the species, not just society. Even in the richest cultural environment imaginable, other animal young will never grow up to have general intelligence, becoming philosophers or engineers.

    Contrary to Genius' comment, animal brains simply are not capable of "naturally develop[ing] a language and agriculture and metal working and maybe a mini industrial revolution". You might as well be birds asking whether humans could fly if only they flapped their arms fast enough.

  6. Who says intelligence is one of the "areas which
    really matter" ? To an evolutionary biologist,
    there are a multitude of possible strategies for
    survival and reproduction, and the intelligence/
    adaptability strategy of humans is just one - and
    also one whose success can't be judged yet, since
    it's only been around for perhaps 200K years, and
    the really successful strategies work for 10M years
    or more.

    Sure, it's very interesting. But in biological
    terms it's a mere curiosity - and when you're
    talking about comparisons between species, the
    biological viewpointis the most natural one.

  7. "Small differences with large consequences" seems about right as a slogan. What it fascinating to me is that our common ancestry means that our remarkable capabilities are derived from (or build on) those of the common ancestors. We must resist the tendency to analyze the human mind as something utterly unique as we used to do.

  8. > Contrary to Genius' comment, animal brains simply are not capable of "naturally develop[ing] a language and agriculture and metal working and maybe a mini industrial revolution".

    I am unclear on exactly why you have come to this fairly definite conclusion without providing even a vaguely convincing argument while there are other potential explinations and you have rejected them out of hand.

    My best gues is that your chain of logic works from the conclusion backwards - you may well have the same problem as I have here when arguing with about Anselm. Frustrating isn't it.

    Personally I am not concerned with the implications of the argument and instead concerned with the logical chain that preceeds those implications if it turns out there is some huge key diference between humans and chimps then that is interesting.

    But this appears to be yet another argument where people on the whole refuse to engage with the logic.

  9. I can just imagine some old collinist looking at black peopel and saying - they are not capable of developing a civilization even at the best of times.

    Also I am not sure your argumnt about xistance not overbalalcing the other areas works.
    lets say you have one island with 99.99 units of good/perfection and another with 99.98 (and it exists). it depends on what causes the perfection but the result is likely to be 0 and 99.98 because hte non existing island is unable to create perfect or good without existing.
    UNLESS you use a different definition of perfection wherein it is actualy more perfect to NOT exist because there wil almost certainly be a perfection/existing tradeoff and since value is carried across no existing always has the higher state of perfection.

  10. In a theoretical case Y=(100-x) lim x --> 0 % perfection
    where in some finite quantity Y/Z (where Z is a finite number >1) is dependant on being real (ie if it is not real then it disapears - the other component (Y-Y/Z) is things like the good (or perfection) god might create just as a result of being concievable as opposed to actually existing (logic suggests these are much smaller)
    Ie as x tends towards 0 (Z is static) then reality tends towards mattering more and more regardless of the example.

    now if there are only a small set of concievably real perfect islands this analysis may still fail BUT then if there is a non-existing island that is adding value in excess of a concievable existing one (for example lets say samoa) then we should know about it one would think otherwise it brings into question how it is more perfect(/good etc)

  11. Were those last comments meant to be in the Anselm thread?


    "I am unclear on exactly why you have come to this fairly definite conclusion without providing even a vaguely convincing argument"

    Background knowledge. This much is science, not philosophy, so an "argument" wouldn't really help much. Instead we have to look to the experimental studies that have demonstrated the domain-specific limitations in animal cognition.

  12. >Were those last comments meant to be in the Anselm thread?

    Yes - how annoying.....

    > Background knowledge... Instead we have to look to the experimental studies that have demonstrated the domain-specific limitations in animal cognition.

    Again you are asserting this is true presumably based on either
    1) faith regardless of evidence
    2) some evidence that you could, but choose not to reference
    3) some impression you have of evidence you have seen in the past (but are not truely sure what it was or if it said what you think it said)

    I personally think 2 is highly unlikely because experiments seldom work that way.

    Note this has nothing to do with whether you are right or not (you may well be) but you are highly unlikely to convince someone just by restating your position again and again.

  13. I don't particularly care about convincing people here. But I'm going by knowledge picked up in the animal cognition course I'm taking. I can't be bothered going into details, but if you're interested you could read:

    R. Byrne, The Thinking Ape.
    D. Cheney, How Monkeys See The World.
    M. Hauser, Wild Minds.

  14. Have you ever considered that the intellectual-gathering capacity of a human my be itself domain-specific just as an earthworm.
    Maybe relative to our genetic structure or automatic instinct rather then our intellectual capacity. Sure the brain can account for alot of our cognitive intellectual prowess, but how do we know that given the same circumstances for another animal their instincts wouldn't change or 'evolve' at the same capacity.
    After all we are so wonderful that in the last 10,000 years our individual intellectuality without empirical information is barely unchanged and apart from slight adjustments we have only slightly changed physically. I wouldn't necessarilycall that 'plasticity'.
    Moreso couldn't our great power over the natural world also be explained by 'irrationality' as you mentioned in a different thread. By eliminating traces of competition and allowing ourselves to perpetually grow until self-destruction surely is as tyranically and methodically irrational as my old buddy Saddam.
    I am not particularly good at this philosophy stuff(first go), but i think to an extent Richard Cownie has a point worthy of exploration..maybe uncontrolled intelligence is irrational after all; and used more to justify what we do to the natural world then understand it. There is after all great evolutionary advantages to being a dolphin...

  15. god damn it man you're a smart cookie i'm a mate of lukes..can't believe you're the younger brother

  16. Well Richard I guess I will take that as a resounding (3).

    By the way I'm a litle confused as to what you think the purpose of "here" is if not to convince people. Even if just to convince people you are smart. (apparently you are - with a few sctomas and fairly domain specific intellectual-gathering habits)

    Anyway you have not really understood/dealt with my proposition. Since as far as I can tell those books dont get anywhere near proving what you suggest they prove. Certainly not in their summary anyway.

  17. I generally agree with your statement that there are physical differences between humans and chimps that make a difference in the debate, but that's not really a complete answer to the critics of materialism. The people who revolt against naturalism and scientific explanations of evolution are concerned about the moral and social *consequences* of these facts. Since they illogically assume that materialistic explanations imply amorality, they feel they have no choice but to challenge the legitimacy of science in general.

    What the metaphysicians usually fail to appreciate is that human rights are defined by what people are willing to fight for, not by what people are made of. Human rights are the rules we agree to live by in a society.

    If we augment chimps with artificial neurons so they become more like we are, then they would probably be granted "human rights". As humans recognize ways in which animals are indistinguishable from themselves, they are more likely to extend rights to animals than to withdraw rights from humans. Do I have my "Planet of the Apes" correct? :)

  18. hmm maybe my post seemed rude..
    appologies if it did. *punishes himself*

  19. I think the 3-yr old child analogy is a problem. Not just a question of "potential" which may be existential. Homo sapiens exhibits a remarkable ontogeny.

    On heterchrony in Homo, Pan and primates, please see:


    I do not think this satisfactorily settles the matter of exceptionalism. It is another way of looking at the problem which may you find interesting.


  20. hey richard
    of course there is a HUGE difference between human beings and all other terrestrial species; on the other hand, there is also a HUGE difference between elephants and all other terrestrial species; dolphins and all other terrestrial species; and ants and all other terrestrial species. the bone of contention here is not whether we are different (difference itself does not mean anything, newspaper is differed from a chair, as yuo observe, what of it?); but whether there is something so unique about us that it entitles us to treat ourselves differently from all other species; and specifically, whether it allows us to enslave, kill, exterminate and eat other species. i think the answer to that is that ***we are unique to ourselves***: we can only reproduce with other human beings, enter into meaningful requited loves and friendships only with other human beings, debate the meaning of life only with other human beings, pass on our possessions and ideologies only to other human beings. a fundamental recognition of this uniqueness is built into us by evolutionary forces. it is part of being "us" just as is bipedalism and infrared blindness. it is true that sometimes some of us become confused and attempt to mate with other species or become enamored of their cats or refuse to eat pigs (or ducks), thats the sort of occasional malfunction you would expect in a permanently mutating organism, but one which is consistently selected out by natural selection.
    it is this natural selection which is reponsible for our feelings of uniqueness (and empathy), not some process of elementary deduction. as such it neither stands up to an argument nor needs to. (to argue against it or for it is akin to arguing whether or not we "ought" to have eyes on our feet instead of our heads)


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