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Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminars

A series of Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminars, taking place at Stanford University, will invite academics and experts from various fields to hear about and discuss key issues related to the boundaries of humanity. This page will be regularly updated as each session is scheduled; invitees will receive information on time and location by e-mail.

Past Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminars

  • April 28, 2017

Ian Tattersall shared his comments in a talk titled “The Boundaries of Humanity: The Emergence of Modern Human Cognition".

Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes:

Dr. Tattersall believes that symbolic thought – our ability to use discrete symbols to describe our interior and exterior worlds – is unique to Homo sapiens. Although other animals do have complex thought, they cannot imagine or create multiple alternatives through rearranging these symbols as we can.

Our ancestors, however, did not share this same skill. Rather, humans became both symbolic and linguistic during our evolution. Dr. Tattersall discussed two theories regarding this advancement. The first theory posits that the development of this skill was gradual, while the second argues that the change was abrupt. The former theory implies that we are fine-tuned by nature while the later suggests that our behavior is emergent and thus we have greater discretion over it.

Dr. Tattersall discussed many types of evidence for these theories, specifically, fossil brain endocasts, evolutionary trees, the lithic record, and symbolic artifacts. While there was evidence of complex culture left by other hominids, the type and speed of changes that were made in human culture were unique. The development of symbolic thought was evidenced by the invention of new technologies to meet demands, rather than the repurposing of old technologies. Furthermore, this change was much more rapid than previous conceptual changes, which often took over 1 million years.

Dr. Tattersall examined what may have caused this change. Because the change was so rapid, long-term natural selection is likely not the cause. Dr. Tattersall argued that genetic changes that distinguished homo sapiens from other hominid species likely resulted in neural innovations that created the potential for symbolic thinking. However, these genetic changes existed long before symbolic thought. Thus, a behavioral stimulus must have triggered the development of symbolic thought. This behavioral stimulus was likely the spontaneous invention of language. Language and symbolic thought are closely intertwined and language has been shown to develop spontaneously, as in communities of deaf children, and would have spread rapidly in a species that had the biological prerequisites for language. Additionally, human mouths were more suited to speaking than those of neanderthals.

This theory implies that the modern human condition is not biologically specified; instead, we have open behavioral flexibility.

Summary compiled by Boundaries Project Student Assistant, Sarah Waters Bell

  • March 7, 2017

    Following an introduction by Dr. Gary Heit, Professor Eric Halgren discussed consciousness and neuroscience in a talk titled: "What if awareness really is physical (but not an epiphenomenon)?".   

    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes:

    Professor Eric Halgren discussed mind-brain dualism and evidence for and against interactions between the mind and the brain. Halgren argued that in order to disprove dualism, one would need to measure and model everything that happens in the brain. While neuroimaging techniques have pushed us closer to accomplishing this task, it is still far from possible. However, although no one has yet discovered definitive evidence of interactions between the brain and awareness, this lack of evidence does not prove an absence of these interactions. Halgren stated that in order to prove that there are mental effects on the physical world, one would need to create a theory that applied coherence to this ambiguous idea of awareness. He gave quantum mechanics as an example of a similar theory.

    Quantum mechanics findings are used in multiple biological theories, which are part of the field of “quantum biology.” These theories include explanations for the fluorescent glow of green sulfur bacteria and the navigational abilities of the European robin. While aspects of quantum mechanics may be applicable to biology, quantum decoherence, the decay of quantum behavior, creates a currently insurmountable issue. Halgren presented the example of Hameroff and Penrose’s Microtubule Theory for neurotransmission. In this theory, actions of microtubules help to give rise to consciousness. However, given quantum decoherence, the timing of this theory is inaccurate. Halgren also discussed other dualism theories, including Koch and Tononi’s Neural Correlates of Consciousness theory, which posits that consciousness arises from a small set of cells in the cortex.

    Halgren then examined how the brain controls what is in our conscious mind. He argues that these thoughts likely reside in our upper cortical layers, specifically the posterior ventral association cortex, which interacts with both the hippocampus and the thalamus. Halgren believes that the structure of the cortex, namely the immense amount of connections and interactions that it has with itself, reflect the function of consciousness. Consciousness creates the world that we live in; the cortex’s internal connections reflect its ability to talk with itself and tell itself what to think.

    Finally, Halgren discusses the ability of different parts of the human brain to work together. He discussed memory, and the necessity of the hippocampus and sleep in consolidating memories. He emphasized the importance of communication between the thalamus and cortex. He also briefly compared our neurobiology to that of other species, pointing to the complexity of our cerebral cortex as an uniquely human characteristic.

    Summary compiled by Boundaries Project Student Assistant, Sarah Waters Bell


  • January 17, 2017   

    William Newsome joined us as our guest speaker with a talk titled “Thoughts about neuroscience and and our conception of human freedom”.

Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes:

Though there’s a deep history of debate about the existence of freedom or free will, there’s general agreement that if, indeed, any entity (animal or machine) actually is free, it is Homo sapiens. Thus, understanding what we mean by free will and how our brain-body structure give rise to it (through neuroscientific study), are central to understanding what makes us human and what, precisely, makes humans “free” beyond other animals and artificial intelligence.
Consider three explorations of “freedom” that Professor Newsome rejects:

  1. To understand human freedom, we must examine what we mean by “cause” in the context of “one’s behavior is caused” (by free will, by deterministic chemical processes, etc.).  Looking for “cause” at a fundamental level ignores everyday intuitions about the causes of behavior, doesn’t describe what neuroscientists do, poses a regression issue (what is truly fundamental?), and points to a level of causation that may, in fact, be acausal (in physics and quantum mechanics, one basically never speaks of “X causing Y”).  Looking for causes at higher levels will be more fruitful for scientific study.
  2. Causes at the quantum level also fail to explain our everyday understandings of our behaviors (that are internally caused and fairly consistent with our personal history, motivations, goals, etc.).  Quantum effects are random, and our everyday understanding of causes of behavior and freedom are far from random.  Quantum indeterminacy effects are also ineffective at the relatively large scale of ion channel macromolecules.
  3. To say freedom is means our behavior simply is “uncaused” or has no physical cause violates the central dogma of neuroscience, which holds that all animal behavior and the human mental life are inextricably linked to the biology of the brain.

Then, consider freedom as meaning self-determination/autonomy.

This theory looks for cause not at the fundamental level, but at the level of beliefs, values, memories, goals, and aspirations.  Conscious, rational thought also operates at this level as a cause of behavior.
From a neuroscientific perspective, “causes” are intrinsically multi-level, and we can explain a behavior at any number of levels:

A useful concept is mutual manipulability: “a part is a component in a mechanism if one can change the behavior of the mechanism as a whole by intervening to change the component, and one can change the behavior of the component by intervening to change the behavior of the mechanism as a whole” (Craver 2007).

This concept allows us to talk about causation on non fundamental levels, and it allows us to talk about causation at the mental level (which is also the level we intuitively use when judging others’ behavior).
As an example of causing changes in behavior: SSRIs for depression modify behavior at the neurotransmitter and receptor level: bottom up. Meanwhile, cognitive behavioral therapy (or as the inventor, Aaron Beck calls it, cognitive restructuring) operates on ideas and beliefs: top down.  Both directions of causality are possible and both are important.

We can also acknowledge that there are myriad subconscious, biochemical, coercive, and cultural levels of explanation which, to some degree, diminish free will and personal responsibility.
Belief is a non fundamental level of causation for behavior that is parsimonious, predictive, and manipulable.

The nature of human freedom is the most important problem facing the neurobehavioral sciences, with great importance for human dignity and social responsibility, and for promoting flourishing in human societies.
It is also of great importance for science itself.  

In particular, the right level of analysis for behavior (for freedom as well) is crucial.  How far up or down the multi-level explanatory ladder is appropriate?  Part of the art of goods science is to pick out the right level.
We also see that, to a certain degree, humans are alone in being free from immediacy.  We have an ability to project into the future that is not evident in other animals.  Monkeys, for instance, never pass the marshmallow test.  They always want the immediate payoff.

Roy Baumeister sees a notable step of complexity and free will in humanity, while acknowledging that the better angels of our nature may get fatigued:


  • Human evolution seems to have created a relatively new, more complex form of action control that corresponds to popular notions of free will. It is marked by self-control and rational choice, both of which are highly adaptive, especially for functioning within culture. The processes that create these forms of free will may be biologically costly and therefore are only used occasionally, so that people are likely to remain only incompletely self-disciplined, virtuous, and rational (Baumeister 2008).

J.B.S. Haldane sees a failure of bottom-up determinism to provide reliable access to truth:


  • If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of the atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. (Haldane 2001).

Taken together, this event encourages us to consider the tremendous complexity of human behavior, its putative causes, and the degree to which it can be considered free.  Against context, constraint, and ideas of determinism stand notions of culpability, responsibility, and freedom.  And an undercurrent to this conversation is desire.  To the extent that our behavior is caused by our beliefs, and the extent to which our beliefs shape our desires, we can consider the sources of these desires, and even second-order desires.  As we anticipate what our human future looks like in the age of bio (and information) technology, consider an excerpt from Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens, on desire, desires about desire, and freedom:


  • the most important question facing humankind today is “What do we want to become?”. And since we might soon be able to design our desires too, the real question facing us is: “What do we want to want?” Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought (Harari 2015).

Baumeister, R.F. 2008. Free Will in Scientific Psychology. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science 3(1), pp. 14–19.
Craver, C.F. 2007. Explaining the Brain. Oxford University Press.
Haldane, J.B.S. 2001. Possible Worlds: J.B.S. Haldane: 9780765807151: Books. 1st ed. Routledge.
Harari, Y.N. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. 1st ed. Harper.


  • December 7, 2016   

    In a talk titled "Zero: Reflections on December 7th", Professor Alex Nemerov led the seminar through a series of historical meditations, exploring on memory, poetry, and words as human phenomena – as things indefensible, attackable, forgettable, and perhaps on the way to becoming extinct. Yet strangely they all are as alive as they ever were.

    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes:

    Art is about intention. It may be a social construction, but it is the fact that humans intend to create a piece that separates it from creations in nature.

    Art is one way of relating to the truth. It’s a human interpretation not constrained by making sentences that correspond directly to a factual series of events. It’s inspired by experience, and experience is true, but artistic interpretation can provide different dimensions of truth than a literalistic account can provide. Nemerov’s art (images and poetic language) tapped into this uniquely human pathway to accessing and interpreting the reality of past events. Using language to spark images and associations in the minds of the audience, specifically those related to mental time travel, is a uniquely human way of accessing our concept of a deep history: events and states of the world that existed in some fashion well before our own lifetimes. As far as we can tell, no other animal experiences or claims knowledge of reality beyond its immediate experience or own lifetime. History may be in the past, but through Professor Nemerov’s artistic meditations, we may still re-experience a scene for which none of us were present. This capacity of inspired imagination allows us access to a privileged perspective on truth.

  • October 4, 2016   

    Professor David Spiegel spoke on the topic of “Tranceformation, Dissociation, and Social Support: Being Humans.” He explored how our social essence is built into our brain’s capacity to alter our identity, with a variety of consequences.
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes:

    “The only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.” -Chris Abani

    This IFS introduced the complex considerations of personal identity as related to our human social nature. Humans, perhaps more than any other, are a social species. As Yuval Noah Harari explains, humans are the only animals who cooperate flexibly and in large numbers. We can easily land in a new country and immediately cooperate with others of a different culture and language on a number of levels, and we can do this at a massive scale, something no other animal can do.

    A number of table discussions brought up the relevance of sociality to human flourishing (in addition to the importance of a sense of identity to human flourishing and the alignment of that identity between internal and external experiences of reality). We need to be connected to other individuals as well as groups or a sense of something larger than ourselves. To flourish, humans must belong; we must be able to make sense of our lives in the context of family and social history. A number of tables touched on the pros and cons of technology and its impact on our social flourishing. Social connection and social support is connected to a number of aspects of physical and psychological health. For instance, as recently mentioned in a The Guardian article on loneliness:

    "It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system."

    Other table discussions focused on the philosophical treatment of individual personal identity, and of particular relevance is the philosophical approach of finding essential qualities that allow for continuity of personal identity. In this is an important parallel between what gives a particular individual human an identity relationship to themself and what gives humans as a species/entity an identity relationship with the rest of the species. What are the core essential properties of humanity? In the same way as you'd ask what are the essential qualities that make humans human, you also ask what are the essential qualities that make an individual an individual. Locke points to memory as one of these qualities. Is there a parallel to memory (or to physical continuity, faith, personality, body, collective identity) in the essential qualities of humanity as a whole, as set against machines and other animals?

    Dr. David Spiegel’s talk focused on identity: how it can fall apart, why that happens neurologically, and how it can be put back together. He touched on the importance of both challenge and reinforcement for constructing one’s identity. He also emphasized that the brain is constructed such that having a continuous and smooth sense of identity is quite a challenge. We’re set up for fragmentation of our identity because we have many different circuits in charge of different aspects of our experience of identity. This fragmentation can be addressed through therapy, and Dr. Spiegel shared the particular case of cancer support groups that help recognize and validate an important identity (as someone with cancer) that is difficult to integrate into everyday sociality.

    Having multiple social identities, when not pathological or due to trauma, can actually be a powerful feature of human psychology, as well. Robert Sapolsky emphasizes how we exist in multiple hierarchies and can flexibly emphasize the one where we do well to protect our psychological health. We may be at the bottom of the ladder in the office, but if we can be the star of the weekend softball league, this gives us psychological resilience and buffers us against the stressors we may otherwise face.

  • May 11, 2016   

    Guest Speaker Andy Meltzoff  shared the relevance of his expertise in infant and child development to our central questions in the Boundaries of Humanity.
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: Andrew Meltzoff brought the developmental psychological perspective to the Boundaries of Humanity Project. Specifically, he elucidated the mechanisms by which humans come to know their own bodies, particularly in relationship to other bodies they observe in the world. Though Professor David Lyons brought up the point that rhesus monkeys can also imitate human facial expressions, we discussed their much more limited ability to demonstrate other aspects of self representation, as shown through the mirror test. In Professor Meltzoff's presentation to our class the night before, he also shared a series of experiments showing that babies do not tend to engage in gaze-following with robots initially. However, if babies observe their mother and the robot mirroring each other’s actions, they come to ascribe sentience to robots by following the robot’s gaze as if the robot knows something and is worthwhile to emulate These fascinating experiments teach us a lot about the developmental psychology of the human, how we come to know our bodies, and the ease with which human babies can shift their perceptions of a robotic doll from non-sentient to sentient.

  • April 13, 2016  

    Guest speaker Kim Hill spoke to our group about “the origins of human uniqueness: culture and cooperation.”
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: Kim Hill illustrated our human uniqueness through an examination of our distinct life history trajectories relative to other primates, and how these changes in life history strategies allowed humans to be the dominant species on earth. Specifically, changes in our ecological foraging and hunting patterns led to our interdependence and our prosocial traits. With these prosocial traits, we developed the capacity for cumulative culture (where an individual human can benefit from the cultural progress of thousands of previous generations of humans) and thus our tools, technologies, and complex social structures. Thus Professor Hill suggested that the key human distinction that led to our dominance on the planet is not our slightly bigger brains, but cumulative culture.
    Overall, this discussion brings to the project a much-needed comparison of the ecological strategies of humans compared to closely-related nonhuman animals, and demonstrates the ways in which our unique cultural and institutional capacities evolved.

  • March 10, 2016  

    Guest speaker Blakey Vermeule spoke about the phenomenon of moral tribes and their breakdown in the modern world—and how certain literary fantasies can relieve the cognitive pressure that we are under to make sense of and manage our moral intuitions.
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: In this meeting, we explored morality, a characteristic that many consider a uniquely human trait. We discussed moral psychology frameworks for how morality functions.
    One such framework (from Greene, 2013) considered the dual nature of morality: (1) a “default” mode, in which we defer to what we think or feel automatically based on our own background and culture, and (2) a more energy-intensive “manual” mode, in which we reflect more critically on our own moral values. Some argued that this framework suffered from dichotomizing the concept too much. Others suggested that our ability to operate on manual mode may be limited by our own “messy” brain, filled with biases of which we may not even be aware. Science was proposed as an analogous process to morality; if neither science nor “manual” morality are inborn traits, perhaps humans can be trained to operate more successfully on manual mode, just as we require training to conduct effective science.
    We also used Haidt’s framework (2013) to understand the moral tribes that humans tend to organize into and the ways in which they ally us with or separate us from other human individuals. In examining this framework, we noted an inherent challenge in moral evaluation: the ways in which moral psychologists define, categorize, and evaluate morality are undoubtedly colored by psychologists’ own belief systems and cultures. Moreover, it is challenging to know whether a given human behavior is done for a moral purpose or not.
    In addition, we discussed the role of literature in human morality, considering why humans take great pleasure in reading or watching stories with depraved characters. We reflected upon the ways in which literature might serve as a moral outlet.
    Some further unanswered questions prompted by the discussion were:
    (1) How did morality in humans evolve, given that there are no new brain regions for morality (i.e. how are humans using brain regions shared with nonhuman organisms for new functions?)?
    (2) How do we create a successful “metamorality” that can be used at the institutional level to reconcile the various moral preferences of different moral tribes?

  • February 10, 2016

    Guest speaker Trevor Blackwell discussed artificial intelligence in a session titled "Robots and Humans." 
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: This meeting was the first time our Interfaculty Seminar took up the issue of humans and machines, and we were led on a fascinating discussion of how human and machine abilities compare and what this means for our nature. Particularly, we considered our own self-concept relative to advancing powers of artificial intelligence, robots, and computers. Some argued that humans are headed for a crisis of identity as computers exceed our abilities at most domains of life. Others argued that the advancing powers of AI would force us to confront our real nature, something the mystics have pointed to as being right here in front of us all along. Others still argued that AI will always be fundamentally lesser than humans in a certain sense: it will just be our tool and it won’t usurp our authority or deeper abilities in a meaningful way. We also touched on the topic of sentience and consciousness and whether these arise in humans simply by merit of our being information processing “meat machines” (in which case these attributes would be / are shared by AI) or whether there’s something distinctive about our biological, embodied instantiation as humans that gives us privileged license over claims of being conscious or sentient. We similarly considered the ideas of embodiment, desire, personal vs. collective experience, and creativity.

  • January 13, 2016

    Guest speaker Manuel Vargas discussed the challenges facing our understanding of distinctly human agency, with an eye towards freedom and responsibility in particular. In addition, he shared how a scientific worldview has pressured our traditional ways of understanding what's distinctive about humans, and at the same time, given us new resources for thinking about the kind of organism we are.  
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: In examining the boundaries of humanity, one key boundary that philosophers, theologians, and psychologists alike are interested in is the boundary of moral responsibility. Within humanity we have variation in how morally responsible we hold a particular individual, depending on their age, upbringing, and mental status. Across species we also have variation in how we hold different animals morally responsible. Dog owners tend to think that their dogs have some sense of right and wrong behavior, and appear to show guilt and shame. However we tend not to hold non-domesticated animals (let alone paramecia) to the same standards. This session also raised issues of determinism and free will, considering the extent to which humans are simply machines operating in a deterministic paradigm, as machines present and future presumably would, or to what extent we can alter our destiny at any given moment by exerting a freely decided choice. Professor Vargas made the case, broadly, that there are two views of human morality – the individual, autonomous, rational agent view and the socially-embedded, developmental approach to our decisions and their moral worth.

  • December 9, 2015 | Human Beings: Symbolic by Nature 

    Guest speaker Terrence Deacon discussed the role of symbolism in human nature. 
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: Professor Deacon shared the nuances and complexities of human symbolic thought and communication, and the implications of this key system for our human uniqueness. Elevated capacity for symbolism, Deacon argues, is at the root of the distinctly human mind, and shapes our human nature in domains as distinct as religion, emotion, communication, and others. He calls humans “symbolic savants” because of our highly developed tendency to symbolize, a tendency which permeates our interpretation of reality and which happens automatically.

  • October 28, 2015 | Historical Perspectives on Human Nature

    Our opening dinner featured James Sheehan, who helped set the conceptual frame for our project by providing commentary on historical perspectives of what it means to be human. 
    Summary of intellectual relationships between meeting content and project themes: This introductory meeting saw many great minds come together to discuss what their varied disciplines contributed to understandings of human boundaries. We discussed many approaches to boundaries, and Professor Sheehan also examined human-animal and human-machine boundaries in his talk. This talk included distinctions between humans, machines, and animals around performance of specific tasks, feeling and emotion, and language.