Skip to content

LC0a 5.Dignity of Man

On the Dignity of Man

To some of us (and here the loyal opposition within my own mind joins the chorus), the mechanical explication of mind is unnatural and demeaning of man. The criticism rises pointedly in the voice of David James, a humanist scholar with whom it was once my privilege to study:

“The vitalities and energies of the imagination do not operate at will; they are fountains, not machinery…”
Skepticism and Poetry

If David’s assertion be less obviously compelling now than once it was, that is not because the human mind has changed but because our conception of “machine” has been etherialized, has, indeed, even undergone apothesosis. When the digital computer became programmable, men first confronted an intelligent machine, a machine as man is, a general purpose symbol processor. The invention of the stored program is not a welcome advance to many, for it seemingly undercuts an argument supporting the post-renaissance view of man. A valuable expression of that argument — because it provides some historical perspective to contemporary views — appears in “The Dignity of Man” by Pico Dela Mirandola. He articulates two views of man’s place. Pico contrasts man as a member of a definite rank in the Heavenly Chain of Being (a chain of creation extending from Heaven to Chaos wherein each rank exhibits its own particular virtue and each is of equal worth as necessary to the coherence of the whole) with a view he proposes of man as a free agent, mutable and reflexive, unique in a world of perfect creatures (each with its god given and definitive characteristics and perfection) through his incompleteness, the need to fashion himself in the likeness of his best imagination.

Even though one commonly now views other creatures as the products of evolutionary processes, since Pico’s time men have striven to support views of themselves as creatures under self-construction. Machines already exist which can do calculus and chemistry problems better than any man. If we make a machine which can construct for itself a better mind than any man can, has not the work of our hands superceded the work of our loins?

The issue entangled in man’s dignity is not his relation to a created universe, a Heavenly Chain of Being, but his place in the process of discovery which is mind emerging. If it is no longer possible to view man as of divine descent or even as a free agent, we may still see him as having a particular and special place — in the chain of intellectual being.

“…if the fertility of a planet is life, and the fruit of life is mind, then the human species becomes the first sign of real wakefulness in the solar system. And this I believe is our true meaning and significance…
N. J. Berrill
Man’s Emerging Mind

If the mutability of man and the reflexivity of thought which we first embody are superceded by our progeny, by those created by our knowledge even more than by those of our loins, man as a species maintains his distinction as the miracle of accidents, the unplanned planner in whom mind first examined its own operation. And if we fear the transference of mind from neuron to transistor, if we so prefer meat to mind, would we have mind stop with man, halfway between ape and angel ?
And yet… and yet… I hug my children to my heart and worry.

Publication notes:
Written in 1984.
Unpublished.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email