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Residents ask: How do we differ from animals and machines?
Carolina Meadows

Humans are composed of functioning parts. So are animals and machines. We can break down. So can they. How do we differ? Do animals have rights? Do machines? On what basis?

These were some of the questions with which more than 20 Carolina Meadows residents wrestled recently at a meeting of the Philosophy Discussion Group.

A group participant suggested that humans are unique because they have the capacity for self-reflection. Someone countered that we can’t be certain that animals, especially higher functioning animals, don’t have the capacity to reflect. And who’s to say that someday computers won’t be able to think for themselves….

And so it went.

Readings from Rene Descartes had been assigned in preparation for the discussion. Of course, Descartes’ famous “Cogito, ergo sum” was cited. I can think; animals…and certainly machines…can’t. Or can they?

And what about a “soul?” Descartes believed that humans had a component that was not material but that interacted with the material body. Do humans have a “soul,” but animals and machines don’t?

What about ethical rights? We kill animals for food…and for sport. Is that OK? Chickens and other food animals are raised in what would seem to be cruel and painful conditions. Is that ethical? Will computers progress to the point that they will have rights?

Questions…questions…questions. Lots of answers too, but most of all a stimulating hour in which residents savored the joy – and frustration – of wrestling with ponderous questions of life, death, and meaning.

Guided by two skilled University of North Carolina graduate students, the group meets bi-monthly to discuss basic philosophical issues. Next up, Evolution and Ethics.

From resident Public Relations Committee member Bill Powers

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