Orwell, Hamlet, and What it Means to be Human

Editor's Note:

Kurt Gray is a professor of social psychology at UNC Chapel Hill who received his PhD from Harvard University. He is the co-author of “The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why it Matters,” and joins Signature to gently remind us how the act of feeling, despite our endless fascination with reason, remains the true essence of humanity.

What are we? Human beings are variously described as bipedal mammals, fleshy robots, wise beasts, lovers, haters, killers, saviors, perpetrator of atrocities, paragons of virtue, makers of culture, readers, writers, consumers of both the media and hamburgers, sexual beings, emotional tempests, and deep thinkers forged in the image of Almighty God. There are as many ways to describe humanity as there are describers, but at its core, being human is about having a mind.

From Ancient Greece to today’s New York Times, we seem to define the specialness of humanity in terms of mental capacities — most often our ability to think. As the Stoics noted, it is our powerful capacity for reasoning and rationality that sets us apart from animals, an idea echoed by Shakespeare. In Hamlet, he writes:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god!”

The idea that humans are special thinkers explains many cultural quirks, including the tenacity of the ‘rational actor’ model in economics and the centuries spent on extolling the importance of chess. Chess used to be held as the ultimate human skill, a combination of cunning, reasoning, and foresight. Animals couldn’t understand pawn sacrifices or the King’s Gambit or the Sicilian Defense, and it was long thought that machines couldn’t either. Of course, machines understand chess even better than humans. (Not even world champion Gary Kasparov could beat IBM’s Deep Blue.)

In fact, machines seem to beat humans at all sorts of thinking — at structuring supply chains, at designing antenna shapes, at optimizing travel routes, and even at Jeopardy. IBM’s Watson beat the reigning human champion Ken Jennings by such a whopping margin that in the Final Jeopardy, Jennings wrote as his answer “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

If our ability to think rationally doesn’t make us special, than what does? Perhaps our ability to feel. It is not our ability for flawless reasoning that defines our species but instead our weaknesses and sentimentality. This idea was argued eloquently by George Orwell:

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty…and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

It is certainly the exploration of feeling (and not thinking) that make stories good. A novel that documents the relentless and perfect pursuit of a mathematical truth would never be a bestseller. However, novels that explore the fractured emotional life of someone pursuing such mathematical truths are often bestsellers — and made into Oscar winners. Even Hamlet, despite his speech praising pure reason, is compelling because of his loyalty, love, sadness, and rage.

That feeling is the essence of humanity is not only a literary truth, but also seems to be a scientific truth. Our research on mind perception — and our new book based on it — reveals how people understand the mental capacities of others and themselves. In one large scale study, we investigated how people see minds of various entities including humans, animals, machines, and gods. Although it was once thought that minds are understood along a single continuum, ranging from no mind (e.g., turnips) to some mind (e.g., dogs) to lots of mind (e.g., humans), we found that people viewed minds along two broad dimensions.  Reflecting the distinction between Hamlet and Orwell, one dimension was “thinking” and the other was “feeling.”

To investigate which was more important, we capitalized upon a long known psychological fact, that our deepest beliefs are revealed when we are unable to censor our responses. If you put people under stress, or make them drunk, or make them answer quickly, they will often tell you what they really think (even if they later take it back). So we designed a task in which people had less than a second to associate thinking-related (e.g., thought) or feeling-related (e.g., emotion) words with humanity. As we predicted, feeling words were much more tightly bound to humanity than were thinking words.

If you want further proof, just ask yourself what you would rather be without — the capacity for deep thought or the capacity for deep feeling? Imagine you suffered a car accident that damaged some part of your brain. Would you rather be reduced to someone like a child, who may not be able to reason well but can still feel emotional ups-and-downs? Or would you rather be reduced to someone like a robot, who can reason with stunning accuracy, but not feel love or pain. Most people seem to choose a life of feeling rather than thinking.

The deep importance of feeling suggests an irony. For most of our waking hours, we humans try our best to let reason reign, and suppress our experiences of pain, of worry and of sadness. But it is these very feelings which make us who we are.