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SNU Professor Speaks about Achieving Balance Between Science and Philosophy

Nov 13, 2016

Professor LEE Sukjae
Professor LEE Sukjae

By now it is clear that the only “outdated” aspect of science and technology is the age-old fear and uncertainty over its rapid development. Ethical concerns have been growing alongside this alarming progress, and with the onset of artificial intelligence, robots, virtual reality, and never-before-seen technology, the future has never seemed more dynamic and potent.

In recent history, science has made breakthroughs that have challenged previous theories and notions of nature and humanity. However, philosophy, which is the study of life, has failed to keep pace with the discoveries and to incorporate the sciences into its discipline.

LEE Sukjae, professor of philosophy at SNU, spoke about the necessity of up-to-date studies in philosophy and the humanities at his lecture at the Kyungnam-alumni-in-Seoul’s Dukhyung conference, held on November 9 at the Lotte Hotel Seoul. The title of his lecture was “Human Inside Nature, Human Outside of Nature,” which focused on the role of philosophy in the age of science and technological development.

“Philosophy and humanities departments in universities should require the studies of sciences… The age of Plato, Socrates, and Descartes was the time of rapid scientific progress,” Professor Lee explained.

As science began to change the world and threw people into a state of confusion, the solution lay in advancing philosophy in order to find a way to make sense of these scientific developments. “There is currently no philosopher who can explain to us how the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics should fit into our world view.”

Professor Lee majored in modern philosophy and was awarded the Rogers Prize by the British Society for the History of Philosophy (BSHP), known as the “Nobel Prize” of philosophy, in 2012 for his article, “Berkeley on the Activity of Spirits.”

Professor Lee mentioned the example of the recent spectacle of the Go match between LEE Sedol and AlphaGo. He pointed out that in the classic Turing case, if the level-nine Go player had played against AlphaGo without being aware of the fact that he was up against an artificial intelligence, then he would have assumed that AlphaGo possessed veritable intelligence.

“The materialist perspective believes that the human mind can be recreated just like any other material in the world. It is the idea that everything that exists is made of material and that the soul and mind are no exception. Many philosophers take this materialist stance,” Professor Lee said.

The opposing view is that human emotion and intelligence are components unique to humans and cannot be recreated. An example is the ultra-realistic dental training android robot named “Hanako 2” used at the Showa University in Japan. Despite its realistic appearance and movement, the robot ultimately feels no pain, supporting the stance that mental and emotional suffering are unique to humans.

“Even if Hanako develops to a point where she is indistinguishable from a human, some philosophers believe that the fact that she cannot feel pain distinguishes her from a human being, and that feeling pain is something that only a being with a soul can experience,” Professor Lee explained.

“Pain is also not subject to discursive understanding; rather, it is a unique, personal experience. This calls into question the materialist viewpoint.”

Using these philosophical questions as examples, Professor Lee urged the philosophers to actively participate in the discourse of these scientific developments that pose major changes to the current philosophical understanding of humanity and what it means to be a human being.

Written by Ho Jung Annie Hwang, SNU English Editor,
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations,