Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2090th Meeting

Speaker: James Trefil, Professor of Physics, George Mason University
Topic: “Are We Unique?”

President Agger called the 2090th meeting to order at 8:22 p.m. on April 24, 1998. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2089th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2090th meeting was James Trefil, Professor of Physics at George Mason University. The title of his talk was, “Are We Unique?"

As we learn more about the intelligence of other animals and the capabilities of computers, it becomes reasonable to ask whether there is anything unique about the human brain, something not shared with other animals and not duplicable by machine. Mr. Trefil summarized recent research in animal intelligence and the development of learning machines. He argued that it is still possible to be a good twentieth century materialist while answering that question in the affirmative, “Yes, we are unique!”

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to think? Traditionally, we were unique because we each had a “soul"” However, many of us no longer believe that as strongly as we once did. Further, the existence or not of a soul is not a question for science.

To assess then how does the brain work, address two areas: the boundary between humans and other animals and the boundary between humans and machines. The first area, the boundary between humans and other animals isn't very neat or kind to our egos. We share our DNA with many other organisms. At the biochemical level, the distinctions are not very great. There is a 99.5% match of our DNA with that of our fellow humans. Slightly less flattering is the 98% matchup with chimpanzees. However, please note that we still share a goodly 58% matchup of our DNA with that of a pumpkin. Consider the arguments of the academicians that only humans are tools makers. This is no longer true since chimps are known to often use sticks as tools. Thus, the academicians gleefully declare that the difference between humans and other animals is only a matter of degree. However, this argument is somewhat underwhelming since the same rationale considers the difference between a stick and a 747 airplane to be only a matter of degree.

Another parameter of comparison is self-awareness. Simply put, can you recognize your image? Humans, orangutans and chimps recognize themselves in a mirror. However, elephants, rhesus monkeys and gorillas do not. So much for self-awareness being a neat boundary. Next, consider language. Have no doubt animals have language. Chimps don't have vocal cords, but they can handle language at the level of a 3-year old human. Keep that in mind the next time your grandchildren visit. Although bonobo chimps are the smartest of the species, we don't have to worry about chimpanzees doing calculations or writing symphonies no matter how much training we give them.

Lastly, consider the complexity of the nervous system, for example the nervous system of the sea anemone. Some call it a “bag of muscles” that looks like a flower. It has no brain and only about 300 neurons. However, it can recognize danger and flee, and it can recognize and attack a fellow sea anemone encroaching on its feeding area. Lobsters on the other hand have only a few more neurons, about 1,000, and yet they can recognize other individual lobsters. For comparison, we humans have about one billion neurons in our brain. Thus, with only rudimentary nervous systems, the sea anemone and the lobster demonstrate quite complex behavior.

The second area, the boundary between humans and thinking machines is also fuzzy. It is somewhat tempting to consider the brain as a kind of a digital central processor — with the nervous system acting as input and output channels. Although many computer scientists have moved beyond this simplistic view, it remains the reigning paradigm of popular writers on the subject. If for no other reason than it's simple, graphic, and easy to understand — as well as completely wrong! The brain is not like a computer. Brains are awash in a chemical system, the endocrine system. Computers are not awash in anything. The brain evolved. Whereas, computers were designed. Brains have millisecond time scales. However, computers are a million times faster.

The boundary between humans and other animals and humans and machines is the same word, “intelligence” to describe a brainless sea anemone running away from an enemy as we do to describe Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Thus language is limiting us in this work.

Mr. Trefil then closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Agger thereupon thanked Mr. Trefil for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. She then adjourned the 2090th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:35 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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