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Roger Scruton on AI and the Human Soul

Is something missing in the discussion on AI and human exceptionalism? Back in the 1980s, Roger Scruton thought so

The late Sir Roger Scruton, who died January 2020, was a well-established polymath best known perhaps as the foremost conservative British philosopher of his generation. He was also a journalist with scintillating insights, and his compendium of op-eds have been wondrously collected in the book Against the Tide, edited by Scruton’s literary executor Mark Dooley. In one of the essays in the collection, Scruton addresses comments from John Searle, a philosopher known for his work on the philosophy of language and mind, in an essay titled “De Anima,” which was originally published by The Times in 1985.

Searle was describing in a lecture how artificial programs could never bear the same qualities as human beings. Scruton goes a step further, though. Supposing human beings are unique in some of their capabilities, like creativity and so on. Scruton asks, bluntly: So what? Even if we’re fundamentally different from computers, does this automatically imbue our lives with significance? According to Scruton, we need something more than simply being set apart from the machines. In response to the notion that computers will always lack understanding of its own computations (which is surely a blow against some optimists who think AI might someday become sentient, or already is) Scruton writes,

Even if we are, as he says, distinct from every artificial intellect, why should this matter to us? Is this the sign that we are free, that our lives have purpose and value, that death has lost its sting? Or is it just a weird addition to the sum of human misery: that we are not only, like the rest of nature, purposeless, but also cursed with the capacity to know how purposeless we are?” (p. 92).

It’s comforting to know that human beings are unique, but Scruton asks further about what humans are unique for. Even if we can understand our own situation and computers can’t, does this make our situation any better? Or are we, as he mentioned in the passage, sort of burdened by our own self-consciousness?

The explosion of ChatGPT and similar AI models over the last couple years has caused many to wonder what makes the human intellect so special. If the premise is that we’re simply advanced computing machines, though, we should consider a deeper philosophical notion of personhood, the question of the soul, and the relational nature of the human being. That’s the territory Scruton eventually traversed. For him, this conversation led to the topic of the “soul.” In a soulless world, where nothing beyond the material realm exists, how much different than algorithmically driven computers can we really be? And will we start to regard each other as little more than complicated data centers if we lose the concept of the soul entirely?

These thoughts are helpful to hold in conversation with AI, human exceptionalism, and the ongoing exploration of what human life is for and why we really do matter, not because of what we can compute, but because of who we are.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

Roger Scruton on AI and the Human Soul