Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Aug/140

Video Archives – Roger Berkowitz L&T Lecture (2010)

tech_humanity

Monday, August 16, 2010: “Earth Alienation: From Galileo to Google”

Lecturer: Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.

In this lecture, Roger Berkowitz welcomes the incoming Class of 2014 at Bard College with an important question: “Is humanity important?” The human race has witnessed impressive scientific and technological achievements, some of the most remarkable of which have occurred in the past 50 years. While some of these have advanced the history of humanity, others threaten to dampen its spark. Nuclear and biological weapons are capable of killing untold millions of people, and the urge to embrace automation in our everyday lives cultivates the fear that society may one day embrace euthanization as a way to rid itself of “superfluous persons”. Acknowledging this increasingly dangerous world we live in, Berkowitz argues it is imperative that we at this moment in time take a closer look at ourselves and consider our significance. He proposes two sources that can help us in our task: Galileo and Google.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
24Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/23/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Public Voice of Women

greekheadIn the London Review of Books’ winter lecture, classicist Mary Beard discusses how the silencing of women was a common dramatic trope throughout Greek and Roman antiquity. From Telemachus’ admonition to Penelope in the Odyssey (“take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men”) to the silencing of the princess Philomela by cutting out her tongue in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, female oratory was treated as inappropriate or even dangerous in the public sphere. In the classical tradition, “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. As we saw with Telemachus, to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of male-ness.” The derision of female speech, argues Beard, was not only embedded in our modern traditions of speechmaking but remains an alarmingly widespread issue today, as women speaking in public face a far greater quantity of death threats, Internet trolling, and verbal abuse than men. “The more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about,” writes Beard. “For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it.”

The Irony of the Elite

houseofcardsPeggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture in response to a video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally. “”House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the Capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity…. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.” Read more about the decadence and irony of elites on the blog in Roger Berkowitz’s Weekend Read.

On the Glory of Being Wrong

equationIn a review of Mario Livio's new book Brilliant Blunders, Freeman Dyson praises the theory, particularly the incorrect theory, as the engine of science: "They are free creations of the human mind, intended to describe our understanding of nature. Since our understanding is incomplete, theories are provisional. Theories are tools of understanding, and a tool does not need to be precisely true in order to be useful. Theories are supposed to be more-or-less true, with plenty of room for disagreement. A scientist who invents a theory that turns out to be wrong is judged leniently. Mistakes are tolerated, so long as the culprit is willing to correct them when nature proves them wrong."

The Singularity is Near Enough to Date

herRay Kurzweil reviews Spike Jonze's Her, which features a romance between a man and his computer's sentient operating system, and takes issue with the ending: “In my view, biological humans will not be outpaced by the AIs because they (we) will enhance themselves (ourselves) with AI. It will not be us versus the machines (whether the machines are enemies or lovers), but rather, we will enhance our own capacity by merging with our intelligent creations. We are doing this already. Even though most of our computers — although not all — are not yet physically inside us, I consider that to be an arbitrary distinction.”

To Hear the Truth, to Hear a True Fiction

thelastIn a review of Claude Lannzman's long percolating The Last of the Unjust, about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving Jewish elder of the Nazi's show ghetto at Theresienstadt, Leah Falk wonders whether reportage or art will ultimately prove more effective at preserving the terror of the Holocaust: "Is there a kind of truth that can’t be adequately served by even the toughest oral testimony, but only by art? The film’s investigation is not: Was Murmelstein a collaborator? But rather, did Lanzmann’s interview with Murmelstein tell his story? Or were we too late? Has everyone, with regard to the Holocaust, always been too late? About Shoah, Lanzmann admitted that he had made a film about the kinds of stories the human brain was not made to handle. Our handling of them as they grow more distant, as the emotional current underneath the facts becomes even less immediately accessible, is something fragile, a skill that must be not only taught, but also constantly reinvented."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jennifer Hudson considers Arendt's understanding of knowledge as tyrannical, and Roger Berkowitz asks two journalists what they understand as their role. And Berkowitz also turns to Nietzsche and Arendt in the Weekend Read to make sense of our elite culture of decadence and irony.

Upcoming Events

blogBlogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Learn more here.

R.S.V.P. to arendt@bard.edu

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
10Jun/130

Transhumanism: Overcoming Death

FromtheArendtCenter

Science fiction, Hannah Arendt tells us, has too long been undervalued by those who would seek to comprehend the human condition. It is in the human fantasies of our future that mankind reveals our desires, both possible and not yet possible. For Arendt, some of those deepest and longest-held desires included the desire to flee the earth, to play God and to make human beings, and to make labor unnecessary. Her book, The Human Condition, is in part an effort to think through the fact that many of these human desires were, for the first time in millennia, threatening to become possible.

We make a mistake to ignore science fiction, especially in an era where the unprecedented advance of technological ability makes it possible that today’s dreams will soon be realized. With that in mind, it is worth looking at Alex Mar’s profile of life, death, and cryogenic preservation of FM-2030, otherwise known as Fereidoun M. Esfandiary.

Writing in The Believer, Mar introduces FM-2030, one of the founders of the transhumanism movement. FM-2030 has a single defining dream for the future of man, that we overcome our given and earthly and biological limits. If man, as Arendt writes, is both someone who lives in a given and fated world and someone who can change and re-make that world, the transhumanists like FM-2030 imagine a time in the near future in which all biological, temporal, and physical limits will be overcome. Including death.

human

The ultimate goal for transhumanists has never been merely to improve mankind, but to defeat our greatest opponent: death. Of course, not all champions of Progress make the titanic leap to Immortality—the jump is so vast, so wildly immodest and presumptuous as to cross over into the realm of the kind of uncomfortably eccentric. But as FM would put it, “No one today can be too optimistic.” Transhumanists, in their crusade against time, have begun to buy themselves some of it, at the cost of a pricey life-insurance policy. With some cryoprotectants and a lot of liquid nitrogen, humanity—or at least the one-thousand-ish people affiliated with Alcor, currently the largest cryonics group in the country—has been gifted with the semi-scientific semi-possibility of radically extended life. Die a clinical “death,” go to sleep, wake up eons later, when existence is a whole new ball game. So when will immortality come?

If you want to understand the human condition, that means knowing well too our most human dreams. Today, technological optimism is at the center of those dreams. Fereidoun M. Esfandiary was for many the first great transhumanist of the late 20th century, the precursor to Ray Kurzweil, who also dreams of his own immortality. This story of his untimely death, and efforts to preserve him, reveal much about the movement he helped to found.

Read the article here.

Read related essays on the human dream of a non-human future here.

You can also purchase the inaugural issue of HA, the Hannah Arendt Center Journal, which features a selection of articles by Nicholson Baker, Babette Babich, Rob Riemen, Marianne Constable, and Roger Berkowitz from our 2010 conference, “Human Being in an Inhuman Age.”

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6May/132

Amor Mundi 5/5/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Muting the Words for the Book's Sake

bookOn the occasion of the publication of All That Is, James Salter's latest novel, the author is interviewed by Jonathan Lee. Lee notes that Salter seems to have toned down his sentences for the new book which, it turns out, was a deliberate stylistic choice. Salter elaborates:  "I suppose the truth is I became a little self-conscious about people telling me how much they loved my sentences. They'd come up and say, "You know what, I've memorized lines from Light Years." At book signings you'd see them with the corners of pages turned down, particular pages they'd loved and sentences they'd underlined. It's flattering, but it seemed to me that this love of sentences was in some sense getting in the way of the book itself."

The Inevitable, Unstoppable, and Coming Utopia

utopiaDavid Rieff writes in Foreign Policy about the unbelievable optimism of techno-utopianism. Rieff is biting and also thoughtful as he marshals enormous resources to show how uniform and repetitive the claims are about our coming perfection. "To me, though, what is most striking about the claims made by techno-utopians (though most, including Kurzweil and Zuckerman, reject the label) is the way assertions about the inevitability of unstoppable, exponential technological progress are combined with claims that human beings can, for the first time in history, take their fate into their own hands -- or even defy mortality itself. As Morozov remarks tartly, "Silicon Valley is guilty of many sins, but lack of ambition is not one of them.""

Think Like a Machine

machineNicholas Carr worries about the effect our growing use of machines has on how we think about thinking:  "I think we begin to believe that thinking is always just a matter of a kind of rapid problem-solving and exchanging information in a very utilitarian conception of how we should use our mind. And what gets devalued is those kind of more contemplative, more solitary modes of thought that in the past anyway, were considered central to the experience of life, to the life of the mind certainly, and even to our social lives."

Debating Drones

droneOver at Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes writes about his experience debating Jeremy Waldron about drones at the Oxford Union. Wittes summarizes the sides: "Our side interpreted the resolution as a debate over the propriety of using drones in warfare-that is, as asking whether the use of drones is ethical end effective relative to alternative weapons systems given that one has decided to employ military force. This is actually an easy question, in my opinion, since drones clearly enable more discriminating and deliberative targeting than do alternative weapon systems. Our opponents, by contrast, saw the resolution as implicating the wider question of whether the United States should be resorting to force at all in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. In other words, they saw the question not merely as one of choice of weapon but as about whether the particular weapon enables military actions the United States would not otherwise take and of which one should disapprove either on ethical grounds, as counterproductive strategically, or both."

Behind the Book

bookblocClaire Barliant examines the book bloc, a D.I.Y defensive shield utilized during and after the Occupy Wall Street protests. Barliant finds resonances between the blocs and the declining states of both the book in general and of higher education; several of them, which had been on exhibit at Interference Archive in Gowanus, were supposed to appear at the May Day protest of Cooper Union's decision to start charging its students fees in 2014.

Featured Upcoming Event

movie posterThe Official US Opening of the biopic, Hannah Arendt in NYC

May 29, 2013 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., NYC at 7:45 PM
Film followed by discussion with the director; Margarethe von Trotta, the screenwriter; Pam Katz, Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer (playing Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.)

 Buy tickets and learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

The Arendt Center hosted  the Hudson Valley premiere of Margarethe von Trotta's new movieHannah Arendt, which Natan Sznaider reviewed. Lyndsey Stonebridge explored the role of Shakespeare's Richard III in Arendt's thinking on thinking.  And Roger Berkowitz looks at the brewing feud between the faculty and the MOOCs.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Jan/130

Infinitely Intoxicating

Louis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.

All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.

The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.

David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? 

Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.

What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.

Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do?  Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.

The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.””  And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.

 Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.

Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.

I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.

As Birkirts writes:

For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.

Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.

Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.

Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.

And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
23Dec/100

Seriously Impressive Bard Early College Students at the Arendt Center Conference

In October, a yellow school bus full of Bard High School Early College Students  made the trip to Bard College for the Hannah Arendt Center's Human Being in an Inhuman Age Conference. Alexandra Eaton--videographer, Bard grad, and friend of the Arendt Center--was on the bus with the students and followed them along during the conference. Here is her remarkable video essay of the early college students and their engagement with the conference.

http://www.vimeo.com/18106184

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
16Sep/100

Is The Singularity Near? A Discussion.

On Wednesday, Sept. 15th, The Hannah Arendt Center inaugurated our new series of Wednesday lunchtime talks. The talks take place in the Mary McCarthy House seminar room.

For the first lunchtime talk, I invited three colleagues to discuss Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near. The talks are viewable below.

A Discussion on Singularity Part 1 from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

A Discussion on Singularity Part 2 from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

A Discussion on Singularity Part 3 from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

A Discussion On Singularity Part 4 from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

A Discussion on Singularity Part 5 from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
5Sep/106

Can We Know Ourselves?

If there is one core assumption that some, like Ray Kurzweil, make, it is that what we do, how we think, and what we are as humans can, as can all things in nature, be understood. Quite simply, Kurzweil adopts the fundamentally scientific view that the world is an ordered universe that can be analyzed, comprehended, and ultimately mastered. The fundamental scientific hypothesis is the principle of sufficient reason: that everything that is has a reason. Thus, nothing can be at all without a reason. Since human beings are exist, we too must be rationally comprehensible. Why can't we too be understood, figured out, reverse engineered, and even engineered?

One rejoinder to Kurzweil's scientific optimism comes from recent work in neuroscience, the science of the brain.

Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Theory Out of Bounds, Number 23)

In his book NeuroPolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, Bill Connolly highlights a pregnant line from the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers. Stengers writes that sciences of nature

cannot be dominated by a theoretical gaze, but must be explored with an open world to which we belong, in whose construction we participate.

The point is that the there are limits to the human ability to know the world, a world that is not a static object before us, but is a growing and open experience that we are helping to build.

The impact of this human limitation is made vivid and visible in Neuroscience. Connolly offers examples from the neuroscience literature of people like Philip, who lost his left arm and, like many others, is plagued by 'phantom pain'--a pain that cannot be relieved because there is no arm to treat. Discussing the work of V.S. Ramachandran, Connolly argues that there is a

gap between third-person observations of brain/body activity, however sophisticated they have become in recent neuroscience, and phenomenological experience correlated with those observations.

Why is there this gap? Why is it that scientific attempts to observe and explain the brain and thinking activities do not match up with those experiences themselves?

Confronted with Philip and his phantom limb, the Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran put Philip in front of a "mirror box" that allowed him to see an image in which both his arms seemed to be working normally. This has worked, with Philip and other patients, to reduce the phantom pain.

According to Ramachandran, when the limb is lost, the ususal messages sent from the arm to the brain cannot be sent. There are thus no signals that might counteract and self-correct the pain signals being sent by the brain. The "mirror box" seems to trick the brain into seeing the arm again, allowing the signals of a pain-free arm to be reactivated, even though the arm is still missing.

What Ramachandran takes from his "mirror box" treatment is a strong skepticism about the computer-oriented models of the brain that many, like Kurzweil, work from. The brain, he argues, is not like a computer with each part performing one highly specialized job. Instead,

[The Brain's] connections are extraordinarily labile and dynamic. Perceptions emerge as a result of reverberations of signals between different levels of the sensory hierarchy, indeed even across different senses. That fact that visual input [i.e. the mirror box] can eliminate the spasm of a nonexistent arm and then erase the associated memory of pain vividly illustrates how extensive and profound these interactions are.

Ramachandran's neuroscience shows that thinking, our human thinking, is a complex and layered activitity with dissonant relays, complicated feedback loops that connect different and competing centers of bodily and brain activity. The brain, in other words, is not simply a conception machine that works upon logical inputs. Instead, body image, affect, the unconscious, and other images and sensations are parts of thinking.

There are more than 100 Billion neurons in the brain and each neuron has between 1,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons. All told, "the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity, in other words the numbers of brain states, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe."

Connolly's analysis of Ramachandran's work on Neuroscience leads him to argue that since our brain works according to such a complex and infraperceptual model  the confidence of scientists like Kurzweil that we can model the brain is misplaced. The presence of such infraperceptions in our brain and our thinking are evidence of the "layered character of everyday perception" and suggest that the brain is not a logical, computer-like, reasoning mechanism that can be modeled and reverse engineered.

I think Connolly is right. And yet, even if human thinking is multilayered, complex, and not rationally deliberative, it is not inconceivable that computers might someday approach human thinking. More importantly, however, is the fact that as human beings continue to "enhance" their thinking with technology and computer-assistance, their own thinking will increasingly be rationalized. A few questions:

1) What will happen when humans have processors in their brain or assisting their thinking? Will we, technologically given the ability to process stimuli at speeds not humanly imaginable, be able to cognitively evaluate our stimuli and overcome the limits of human thinking?

2) As we augment our own senses with neural implants, will humans be overwhelmed by intense sensations beyond the human sensory capacity so that we either are paralyzed by sensory overload or depend on increased  cognitive power from computers simply to make sense of our world?

If  the answers to both of these questions is at least a qualified yes, the human thinking that Connolly celebrates becomes something that can be and likely will be overcome. Is this a problem? As Ben Stevens keeps asking on this blog: so what? Does "non-human" mean "inhuman"?

Hannah Arendt certainly thinks so. At the most basic level, Arendt thinks that humans, to be human, must be subject to chance, to fate, and to the spontaneity of a world beyond their control. Humans must, in other words, be mortal beings who are born and die in ways beyond their control. Without that mortal subjection to fate, humans increasingly lose our freedom and humanity.

The question remains: how to be human in an increasingly inhuman age?

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
9Aug/103

The Wonders of Man in an Age of Simulations

Here is my latest essay, The Wonders of Man in an Age of Simulations that just appeared in The Fortnightly Review.

It is a review of books by Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, and Sherry Turkle and sets up the question of Human Being in an Inhuman Age, the topic of the Arendt Center's upcoming conference.

Read the interesting history of The Fortnightly Review (founded by Anthony Trollope, Frederic Chapman and George Henry Lewes, with Lewes as its first Editor).

A foretaste:

IN “THE ODE TO MAN” from Antigone, Sophocles conjures “Man” as the wondrous being who wears out the “imperishable earth” with his ploughs. This man “overpowers the rough-maned horses with his devices” and tames the “unbending mountain bull.” He flees the “stormy darts” of winter’s frost and he escapes “needful illness.” Such a man who tames nature is a wonder, according to the Ode’s opening line:

Manifold the wonders
And nothing towers more wondrous than man.

The Greek word for “wonder” is Deinon, which connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. This is how Sophocles understands man. As an inventor and maker of his world, man can remake and master the earth. This wonder terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. Man, Sophocles imagines, threatens to so fully control his own way of life that he might no longer be man. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?

A new urgency has energized those who welcome and those who fear the power of man to transform his nature. While hopes of technological utopias and fears of technological dystopias may be part and parcel of the human condition itself, we are living through a moment when extraordinary technological advances are once again raising the question of what it means to be human. The problem that confronts man in the 20th and now 21st centuries, as Hannah Arendt writes, is that we face the danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance. To bring oneself up to date on this current version of the debate over our human, superhuman, and inhuman futures, three recent books serve as excellent guides.

Read the whole.

RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
29Jul/102

Green Eyed, Blonde, and an Einstein

One of those controversies from last summer that somehow passed me by while I was teaching in Italy was the mash up over the Fertility Institutes decision first to offer a service allowing parents to choose basic traits for their children (hair and  eye color, etc.) and then its subsequent retreat in the face of an ethical uproar.

The Institute did and still does provide screening for many diseases as well pre-selection options for sex (it has a 100% success rate on pre-selecting sex of the child). But the uproar over hair and eye color was too much to bear.

Embroyo - The Great Designer Baby Controversy OF ’09

One question raised by this is why we allow screening for sex preference and disease, but not hair color? Consider that discrimination is much more prevalent in the areas of disability and sex than it is around eye color. So we permit the erasure or compensation for those traits and conditions that society deems meaningful, but prohibit the choice around less impactful traits.

In a March 9, 2009 WIRED online interview, James Hughes--who will be speaking at the Arendt Center's October conference Human Being in an Inhuman Age--defends the rights of parents to make such choices. And he rejects the term "designer babies." As he said in the H+ interview:

“It’s inevitable, in the broad context of freedom and choice. And the term ‘designer babies’ is an insult to parents, because it basically says parents don’t have their kids’ best interests at heart.” He said, “If I’ve got a dozen embryos I could implant, and the ones I want to implant are the green-eyed ones, or the blond-haired ones, that’s an extension of choices we think are perfectly acceptable — and restricting them a violation of our procreative autonomy.

In a poll cited by H+, the majority of respondents supported pre-genetic implantation in questions of health, but most drew the line somewhere around selecting for athletic ability or intelligence.

More recently, a January 2009 study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center found that an overwhelming 75% of parents would be in favor of trait selection using PGD – as long as that trait is the absence of mental retardation. A further 54% would screen their embryos for deafness, 56% for blindness, 52% for a propensity to heart disease, and 51% for a propensity to cancer. Only 10% would be willing to select embryos for better athletic ability, and 12.6% would select for greater intelligence. 52.2% of respondents said that there were no conditions for which genetic testing should never be offered, indicating widespread support for PGD – as long as it’s for averting disease and not engineering human enhancement.

It seems that there are at least two worries that need to be thought through. One is socio-economic. To allow for-profit companies to genetically implant desired traits means that those who can pay for it and want to will ensure their progeny genetic advantage. Now, genetic advantage does not mean one will succeed, but it is an advantage--at least a perceived advantage even if not always a real one.

The second question is broader. If Hannah Arendt and others are right that one part of our humanity is that we are subject to chance and to fate, then the opportunity to control all decisions in life--including the decision of life itself--raises questions about our humanity. As the mystery is taken from childbirth, one of the great human experiences begins to approximate the experience of ordering from a catalogue. Of course, this is not yet the case. But with surrogacy pregnancies and genetic implants, it is now possible to go on vacation, order a boy with green eyes, blonde hair, and high intelligence, and come home to pick him up. Is this a human way to have children? Is it human to eradicate disease? What about creating such healthy people that they live to be 700 years old, as Ray Kurzweil imagines will soon be the case?

One needs to think: What it means to be Human in a World of Super-Human Technologies.

Read More in the original H+ Magazine Story

And read about the latest clone mammal, Got, the Spanish fighting Bull.

RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
25Jun/101

The New York Times on being human in an Inhuman Age

The theme of The Arendt Center's upcoming conference Human Being in an Inhuman Age is also the subject of an ongoing series in The New York Times, called "Smarter Than You Think."

From Fritz Lang's Metropolis

The first installment was a wide-eyed look at the Singularity movement, profiling Ray Kurzweil who will be speaking at the Arendt Center Conference on Friday, Oct. 22. Kurzweil will speak for an hour, followed by a discussion between Mr. Kurzweil and Bard President, Leon Botstein.

The latest entry looks at the rapid advance of speech software and artificial intelligence that allows machines to have meaningful conversations and perform tasks that require comprehension, conversation, and some level of thinking and learning.

For decades, computer scientists have been pursuing artificial intelligence — the use of computers to simulate human thinking. But in recent years, rapid progress has been made in machines that can listen, speak, see, reason and learn, in their way. The prospect, according to scientists and economists, is not only that artificial intelligence will transform the way humans and machines communicate and collaborate, but will also eliminate millions of jobs, create many others and change the nature of work and daily routines.

This raises as well the question of what the role of humans will be in the world when machines do more of the work that we have traditionally done. As Bill Joy worried in Wired, what besides altruism will lead our political leaders to keep superfluous workers alive when not only factory work but also teaching, warfare, and administration can be done by an automated workforce?

The advances, according to The Times, herald an era in which we interact with machines much as we do with friends and co-workers:

"Our young children and grandchildren will think it is completely natural to talk to machines that look at them and understand them,” said Eric Horvitz, a computer scientist at Microsoft’s research laboratory who led the medical avatar project, one of several intended to show how people and computers may communicate before long.

The question here, as with so much in the world of artificial intelligence, is what actually distinguishes humans from machines. If it is simply the ability to think, to reason, and to calculate, the day is coming when that difference will be no difference. This requires that we ask about the soul, the heart, and the ineffable nature of humanity. And as more and more of the beings we interact with and institutions we work with are governed by computer rationality, what does it mean today to be human?

Read More

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".