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Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes

The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes
Mortimer. J. Adler
Fordham University Press (Fifth printing, 2005) 

In The Difference of Man and The Difference It Makes, Mortimer J. Adler offers a philosophical analysis of the problem of human nature and defends the thesis that human beings differ in kind rather than in degree from animals. He also explores the legal, political and social consequences that will follow if this thesis is not accepted.

Adler demonstrates that the study of man’s nature needs both scientific and philosophical methods of investigation and that the answers can only be found through cooperation between the scientists and the philosophers.

The thesis that he is defending was developed much before the Industrial Revolution—the roughly sixteen hundred years between Aristotle and Aquinas. Though Aristotle had a hylomorphic view of man, he believed that the attribute of sense perception is a function of the body while the power of “intellect” is immaterial in its origin. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 12, “The Efforts of the Philosophers to Resolve the One Issue That Remains”:

“The one striking exception, according to Aristotle, is the power of understanding or intellection—the power of conceptual thought. This one power (distinctive of the rational soul that is the form of the human body) belongs to the living or besouled man in exactly the same way that his power of digestion or his power of perception does; but unlike all his other powers, this one power is not the power of any bodily organ. It alone is an immaterial power; its acts are not the acts of any bodily organ; yet its acts never occur without the acomapainment of sensory or perceptual acts, especially acts of imagination and memory, that are themselves acts of corporeal power, i.e., acts of the sense organs and of the brain.”

This shows that Aristotle believed that human beings, because they possess the power of intellect or conceptual thought, differ “in kind” from every other creature on this planet. This view, which in some form or other, was held by most major philosophers in history, is now facing a challenge because of the advances in science, and the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

According to the Darwinian theory, man differs from animals only in degree—which in essence entails that man is an animal capable of conceptual thought in the same way in which a blue whale is the heaviest animal or a leopard is the fastest animal. But if we accept such a view of man then what will be the implications for our way of life?

If the difference between man and animals is only of degree then the idea that man should be treated differently from animals cannot be defended. Adler points out that the argument that man is more intelligent and therefore deserves a different treatment can lead to absurd and dangerous political consequences because the same logic can be used to defend the idea that it is morally justified for advanced human cultures to overtake and even obliterate inferior cultures.

“Why, then should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups, on factual and moral grounds akin to those that we now rely on to justify our treatment of animals that we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pets or as dangerous predators?” (Chapter 17: “The Consequences for Action”)

The advent of the computer age has given rise to the idea that scientists may at some point of time be able to create a so-called Turing machine, or a robot which is capable of producing propositional speech, or hold a conversation like human beings. If such a robot gets built then it can be said that since the robot exhibits conceptual thought despite being entirely material in its constituents, no immaterial factor is required either for the robot’s performance or man’s.

The creation of a conceptual robot and the acceptance of the idea that man differs from animals only in degree will bring about a fundamental transformation into mankind’s moral beliefs. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 17:

“If man were just another animal, different only in the degree to which his rudimentary instinctive mechanism needed to be supplemented by learning, the pursuit of happiness would not be the peculiarly human enterprise that it is, nor would there be any ethical principles involved in the pursuit of happiness. There can be an ethics of happiness only if men can make mistakes in conceiving the goal that they ought to pursue in life, and can fail in their efforts by making mistakes in the choice of means. Lacking the power of conceptual thought, other animals cannot conceive, and hence cannot misconceive, their goals; only man with the power of conceptual thought can transcend the perceptual here and now and hold before himself a remote goal to be attained.”

Adler patiently takes the reader through a wide range of scientific and philosophical argument before developing the thesis that man differs from the animals in kind—that man represents a massive jump over everything on this planet. He offers valuable perspectives on critical issues like man’s rights, animal rights and the nature of the environment in which we live. The section on footnotes, of almost 70 pages, is insightful and like a book on its own.

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