Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity

We are in the midst of a striking convergence of scientific research and technological innovation on the oldest and most fundamental of all humanistic questions, the question of the human. Researchers in a number of scientific and technological fields have achieved remarkable advances in understanding such fundamental human processes as cognition, learning, communication, expression, emotion, imagination, moral reasoning, and creativity. While certain scientific thinkers, including Darwin, Freud, and Chomsky, to name just a few, have in the past claimed special insight into human being, we see today a wide range of individual projects, some quite modest in their scope, that may have implications for our most basic conceptions about humanity. The increase in knowledge about these processes has not only affected the ways we think about them, but has raised expectations in some quarters of a dramatic expansion in our capacities to intervene in them. This convergence of knowledge and power, embraced by some and feared by others, creates the opportunity for a wide-ranging conversation among scientists and humanists on the contemporary terms of human self-understanding.

“Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity” (ASC) seeks to crystallize a conversation already begun. A small but growing number of philosophers, literary scholars, and other humanistic thinkers has turned to the work of computational scientists, primatologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, and others in their attempts to gain a contemporary understanding of human attributes that have traditionally been described in abstract, philosophical, or spiritual terms. It has been widely noted in the public media that many contemporary scientific projects — attempts to upload the component parts of consciousness into a computer, research into primate emotions or language skills, stem cell research, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, robotics, and the Human Genome Project among them — appear to have serious implications for our basic understanding of human existence. And many feel that knowledge now being gathered, produced, and developed in various scientific domains may well force us to modify our understanding of such traditional moral and philosophical questions as the nature of human identity; the legitimate scope of agency in determining the circumstances or conditions of one’s life; the relation of cognition to embodiment; the role of chance, luck, or fate; the definition of and value attached to “nature”; and the nature and limits of moral responsibility. But these suspicions and intuitions have remained preliminary, and have not yet gathered into a fully formed, or informed, consensus.There have, moreover, been obstacles to achieving a general awareness of the implications of scientific work on this question. The different kinds of training specific to academic disciplines have enabled extraordinary sectoral advances in knowledge, but have also inhibited the kind of conversation between specialists in different fields that is required today. Scientists are often unable to assess the ways in which their work, which is necessarily limited in its scope, affects human self-understanding, while humanists are unequipped by training to participate fully in the generation of new knowledge. The effect on both sets of disciplines is troubling. The fact that knowledge about the human is being developed in the sciences appears to undercut the traditional function of the humanities, the analysis, interrogation, and interpretation of the human. But it also means that the sciences are deprived of a full awareness of the contexts and implications of their work.

A full dialogue between humanists and scientists on the question of the human could, then, produce significant consequences within the academy. But it could have implications beyond the academy as well. In Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio justifies his attempts to undo “Descartes’ error” by redescribing body and mind in neuroscientific terms as “parallel and mutually correlated processes… two faces of the same thing.” A correct understanding, Damasio suggests, would have a direct and positive impact on a broad range of social policies that are implicitly based on what he considers misconceptions. In the same vein, Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate that particular doctrines about human nature have “distorted the study of human beings, and thus the public and private decisions that are guided by that research.” And if, as Tzvetan Todorov has recently argued in Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism, “liberal democracy as it has been progressively constituted for two hundred years is the concrete political regime that corresponds most closely to the principles of humanism,” then we might well question what political regime corresponds to the new era, which some have called “posthuman,” that we are approaching.

These questions are usefully focused by considering three distinct but related areas:

  1. Human autonomy, which entails the capacity for self-determination, self-awareness, and self-regulation that is central to our conceptions of free will and moral accountability. Traditionally, this is the subject matter of philosophy and religion; today, it is being explored by researchers working in cognitive science, genomics, and the technology of bioinformatics.
  2. Human singularity, on which our privileged place in the order of being, distinct from animals on the one hand and from machines on the others, is premised. Traditionally, this is the subject matter of history; more recently, questions associated with human singularity are being explored by those working in computational science and animal intelligence, as well as by specialists in genetic engineering and advanced nanotechnology.
  3. Human creativity, through which mankind demonstrates its capacity for representation and expression, and which many take to be the distinctive feature of the human species. Creativity has traditionally been studied by scholars in literature and the arts, but today this issue is the focus of research in cognitive science, neuroscience, and even software development.

Autonomy, singularity, creativity: each of these terms names not only an aspect of human existence that has been the object of humanistic scholarship, but also an ongoing research agenda in science and technology.

Clearly, both humanists and scientists could profit immensely from extended conversation on these subjects, which concern them both deeply. Accordingly, the National Humanities Center is launching a three-year program devoted to exploring new directions and possibilities in the understanding of the human.

The overarching goals of the project are:

  • to indicate the kinds of work now being done that explore what are in effect fundamental attributes of human being, and thereby raise the question of the human;
  • to articulate the larger stakes involved in projects or inquiries that may be quite limited or highly focused in their scope and self-understanding;
  • to anticipate or propose the adjustments in our thinking about human being that may be entailed by advances in scientific knowledge or technological expertise.

The Center will both convene and chronicle the project. In each of the next three years, beginning with the 2006-07 academic year, it will bring together a small group of scholars; provide them with the resources to invite distinguished visitors and organize seminars; and create on its website a permanent and growing archive, with original papers, biographies, bibliographies, and hyperlinks to relevant projects around the world. There will be a conference on the topic each year.

Several scholars in residence each year will form the core of a seminar on the issues raised by the project. This seminar will include short-term visitors as well as faculty from nearby universities. Scholars interested in participating in the project should submit applications to the Center’s fellowship program, indicating their interest in their applications.

For more information about the project, please contact Geoffrey Harpham at