Friday, August 26, 2005

"What Keeps Mankind Alive?"--Bertolt Brecht

One summer I taught an Intro. Philosophy course, and since I had a long class day to fill, I opened with a two-day viewing of the film "A.I." Argue the artistic and literary merits of it all you want, the story is a fascinating examination of what it means to be human. And the answer seems to be: emotions.

This is a very modern question, in Western culture: what does it mean to be human? It originates with Descartes, but his speculations on the topic have roots that extend at least back to Socrates, and are certainly heavily influenced by Christianity and Augustine (who really taught us to begin to think of ourselves as, well, "selves.") It's no coincidence that phenomenology and its subgroup, existentialism, are still major players in modern philodophy. It's all about the self. But what is the self? How do we define it?

Locke would ultimately settle on memory; and that empiricist approach would influence psychology and the scientific approach to the question, ever after. But Descartes focussed on our ability to reason: "I think, therefore I am." And "I think," for Descartes, in good Platonic Christian form, specifically excluded emotions, which he attributed to the body, an obstacle to true being that had to be controlled like the rest of the body and its desires (food, sex, rest) by the "ghost in the machine."

But we've never been quite comfortable with that, and while most Western philosophy has worked assiduously to assert the primacy of reason over emotion, and to clearly delineate the two, it has never been a comfortable or clean split. Curiousity, for example, may have killed the cat, but it is often "lifted up" from the "merely emotional" and made an attribute of "intelligence," where it is both "purer" and can legitimately take its place among the "higher functions" of our humanness. Hierarchies abound.

Computers have made us reconsider all of this. Metaphors for the "mind" (itself a concept, sometimes related to "self," sometimes separate from it, depending on the philosophy invoked) soon took on all the features of the metaphors for what a computer "does." Metaphors, of course, are merely attempts in language to describe concretely something that is entirely abstract. What does a computer "do"? In the field of artificial intelligence, you can still stir quite a lively debate trying to nail down that question. We can easily explain what a hammer or a screwdriver does, and even how it does it. Describing what a computer "does" is a much more difficult task. Does it, for example, "think"? Well, of course, that would depend on our definition of "think". Since Descartes, we've always considered thought to be a purely rational process. But if computers are devoid of emotion, and yet seem to emulate human thought, are they "thinking"?

"A.I." makes us realize we aren't really so dogmatic in our opinion of "thought." The first robot the audience encounters in the movie is an attractive young woman in a crowded room of attractive young people, and our first clue that she isn't "human" is her emotionless response to the lecturer in the room (William Hurt). It is her lack of affect, the flatness of her social responses, that betrays her lack of "humanity."

The same is true of Jude Law's character, a gigolo robot who is framed for the murder of a jealous husband's philandering wife. But can one commit adultery with a robot? Well, can one commit adultery with a dildo, or a Playboy magazine? Jude Law's robot betrays his lack of emotion when he dips his fingers in the woman's blood, and doesn't immediately recognize that he is not only in danger, but this is a scene of horror. He doesn't, in other words, react to the situation. He finally reasons about it, but his reasoning is slower than an emotional reaction would be.

When Haley Joel Osmet's character is "turned on" in the movie, when he becomes "more human," at least in simulacrum, it is his emotional character that is activated. And then it is his reaction to situations that makes him both more human, and more dangerous. When he panics at his "brother's" birthday party and drags him to the bottom of the swimming pool, it is clear that he is not thinking rationally, but he is thinking. Unlike Jude Law's character, Osmet's immediately recognizes a threat to his existence. Recognizing that he even has an existence that should be protected is, it seems, an emotional response. Not a rational one, not even a reasonable one; but certainly a more human one.

So: is it because we think, that we are? Or because we feel? And can we even know the former, without the latter? Can we truly think, without knowing we are? And can we truly know we are, without feeling it?

This Cartesian split is the basis for Christopher Hitchens' critique of Cindy Sheehan, what Hitchens calls her "sinister piffle." For Hitchens, reason is what makes us human, and reason must triumph over all other human proclivities (which are, after all, weaknesses that undermine our "true nature"). While force and violence arise from emotions, reason employs force and violence to oppose emotion, and the use of force and violence is therefore sanctified. It is no accident that our metaphors betray our preferences, too. Science is supremely the realm of reason, but there are "soft" sciences, like psychiatry, and "hard" sciences, like physics. The "harder," of course, the better. And the cold equations of realpolitik mean that morality cannot be allowed to triumph over rationality; and rationality requires we recognize that the world is a harsh place, full of people who would kill us if they could; and the only reasonable response, is to kill them, first. "Hard" always triumphs over "soft."

But is reason our only human trait, and is "hard reason" the only sure guide to our actions? The neo-cons vision of the world is certainly a "hard" one; but they have succeeded only in making it harder on themselves, and on us, but their relentless employment of reason uber alles.

Hierarchies abound. But are the hierarchies justified? And if so, on what basis? On the basis that morality is all well and good, but we have a social order to get on with, here? Should we remind Mr. Hitchens that is was morality, both aggregate and personal, that drove the civil rights struggle in this country, that forced the President and Congress to change the course of the nation in order to "do the right thing"? Curiously, Martin Luther King recieved more vociferous condemnation for his morality after his anti-war speech at Riverside church than for any of his civil rights efforts. Some of his strongest supporters of the civil rights struggle condemned him for going too far when he denounced the reasoning behind the Vietnam War. Apparently morality is only valid so long as it doesn't touch on the supreme exercise of our reason, through violence.

Violence is usually considered an emotional human response, and this characterization is used to place it below rational action, the better to both denigrate it and to control it. But then we sanctify violence by making it the necessary tool of our reason, the one we cannot afford to abdicate or even allow to be challenged. Is this what it means to be human?

Many Gold Star mothers are standing with Cindy Sheehan. Are they being sinister, and "merely emotional"? Or are they being human? Perhaps we would do well to remember that pursuing survival alone is the life of rats and roaches. We justify competition as supremely rational, but as Wendell Berry reminds us: "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand. It is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy."

Perhaps being able to conceive, and even perceive, justice and mercy, is what makes us human. It certainly makes us privileged.

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