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The Sense of Self

"The story of humans' sense of self is...the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence."

Brian Christian reports in the March 1, 2011 issue of The Atlantic on a most interesting competition in which he was involved. The Loebner Prize is awarded each year to the designer of artificial intelligence (AI) software whose program comes the closest to stumping a panel of judges during what is called the "Turing Test." The "Turing Test" involves judges dialoging with human beings and computers, trying to determine which is which. Thus far over the years of competition, the computers, pretending to be human beings, have yet to fool a majority of judges.

However, the computers are getting better. And the progress of AI research and development offers yet another challenge to the human sense of being special. If computers can disguise themselves as humans, and fool other humans, then what's so special about being human at all?

Brian Christian uses his experience to reflect on the nature of human intelligence and, more importantly, on our "human sense of self." He writes, "Philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history." We are the only beings, so far as we know, who ponder the question of what makes us special. Christian quotes a Harvard psychologist what says "that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls 'The Sentence.' Specifically, The Sentence reads like this: The human being is the only animal that __________."

And therein lies the problem. By presupposing human beings to be just another, albeit higher, type of animal, we continue to come up with wrong ideas about what makes us special. Language? Not any more? Use of tools? Nope. Ability to do math? No, not even that.

Christian concludes, "The story of humans' sense of self is, you might say, a story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence."

The Sentence could be improved, and we might actually have a livelier and more fruitful discussion of this question, by substituting the word "being" for "animal." This would give believers in the Biblical view of humankind a place at the table and allow us to demonstrate why we insist that what makes human beings special is that we're made in the image and likeness of God and are the only creatures who can know, love, obey, and consciously partake of God.

The fact that materialists and secularists deny such a possibility is not a function of science, but of bias, since it is not possible to prove by science that God does not exist. When you start your questioning with the notion that (a) man is an animal and (b) God either doesn't exist or is not relevant to the question, you're always going to end up frustrated and scratching your head. People are more than animals. They occupy a kind of "mid-space" between pure spirits and animals, being the only creatures whose spirits commune consciously with God's Spirit in a relationship of trust and love.

The mere fact that people keep asking this question and trying to come up with better answers for The Sentence is itself evidence of something deep within that demands to be acknowledged: Human beings are special; we occupy a unique place among all other beings and things; and this both holds out greater privileges and entails greater responsibilities of us than of other beings or things. But we will not be able to sort out a proper answer to The Sentence without allowing revelation, alongside reason, into the conversation.

God has made us for Himself, Augustine noted; and our hearts will continue to be restless until we find our rest in Him.

Additional related texts: Genesis 1.26-28; Psalm 8; Romans 2:14, 15

A conversation starter: "Do you ever wonder about what makes human beings special? I mean, why should we be the ones telling all the other beings and things what their place in the scheme of things should be?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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