Academics probe nature of humanity

Defining “what makes us human” is no easy task, according to speakers at Friday’s Veritas Forum.

Rosalind Picard, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Laboratory, and Joshua Knobe, professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale, spoke to more than 300 members of the Yale community last Friday about what makes humans unique from technology. While Picard approached the question from a more religious perspective, Knobe examined the ways that people rationalize their intuitions about humanity.

The discussion was part of the Veritas Forum, a Cambridge-based group that partners with Christian groups on college campuses to promote discussion of both faith and science on an academic level.

Both speakers at Friday’s forum referenced a “special sauce” that makes humans unique.

Though traditional criteria for humanity include “consciousness” and “autonomy,” Picard said these definitions do not encompass all of humanity. The fact that certain disabled people may not have agency does not make them any less human, she said.

Picard said that her worldview is based on the idea that meaning arises from human relationships to family, friends and God.

Knobe, whose research has helped popularize the field of experimental philosophy, explained that he studies how people come to understand deep philosophical questions, stressing the importance of questioning one’s own intuition. According to his research, people generally point to several factors when attempting to define what it means to be human: complex psychology, religious beliefs and even physical appearance.

Picard — whose research focuses on affective computing, which is the use of technology to sense and communicate emotion — showed a video of Kismet, the MIT robot that physically responds in a human-like manner to praise or reproach. While computers might act as if they can experience feeling, Picard stressed that, at least for now, there is no evidence to believe computers can gain emotional experience.

Though it might be possible in the future to genetically engineer living flesh, Picard emphasized that this does not mean scientists ought to. She added that having the ability to construct something does not indicate that scientists fully understand it.

The forum was moderated by Nii Addy, a professor of psychiatry and of cellular and molecular physiology at the Yale School of Medicine. Each speaker gave a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation on their research and a brief summary of their beliefs, followed by a dialogue with Addy and questions from the audience.

Attendees interviewed said the event gave them more questions than answers.

Many attendees said they had heard of the event through their churches. Sinclair Williams ’17 said he received an email from Yale Students for Christ and came to the event to explore the topic of humanity in a different setting.

Will Davenport ’15 said he appreciated the opportunity to hear a dialogue about faith and science, adding that, at Yale, he has been presented with a biased, one-sided view from both his classes and his church.

“Yale is secular to the point of ignorance,” he said.

The last Veritas Forum held at Yale invited Oxford mathematician John Lennox to campus to address the question “Is Anything Worth Believing In?” in Septwmber 2012.

 

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