2018 Confucius Academy Winter Debate Held


On December 1, the 2018 Confucius Academy Winter Debate was held in Guiyang. DONG Ping, Director of Institute of Chinese Ideology and Culture of Zhejiang University, SUN Xiangchen, Dean of the School of Philosophy of Fudan University, and DAI Maotang, Dean of the School of Philosophy of Hubei University unfolded their debate themed “Can‘Human-Beast Distinction’ in Confucianism Be Applied to Robots”. WU Genyou, Dean of the School of Philosophy of Wuhan University hosted the debate.

DONG Ping: Technological development should include and reflect the deep concern for human life

At the debate, Professor DONG Ping firstly expressed his ideas. He pointed out that the premise of “human-beast distinction” is “everything as a whole”. Both human and beasts belong to the same category of existence, and the “distinction” is to separate “human” from “everything”. The idea of “human-beast distinction” embodies the consciousness of human beings. Only by being separated from other things in nature can human beings truly become what they really are. From this point of view, the basis of “human-robot distinction” is different from that of “human-beast distinction”.

As for such phenomena as artificial intelligence, intelligent manufacturing and newly gene-edited babies, Professor DONG asked, “if future artificial intelligence is self-aware and capable of learning independently, and even responds to current situation rationally and emotionally, then is it still a machine? Can it be regarded as a new life?” He further pointed out that the problem between human and machine lies in that what their relationship will be when “new life” born from new technology begins to appear in people’s lives? Can human ethics be applied to robots? Is interconnection among robots a form of their “groups” or “society”? As a matter of fact, cyberspace and the Internet of things have provided a great possibility for the “group” of robots.

Professor DONG Ping noted that scientific and technological development is for better survival of human beings. Scientific progress should always include and reflect the deep concern about the existence of human life, while the philosophy of science should maintain profound rational reflection and philosophical criticism on the progress of science and technology. Robots are expected to be educated if they involve in real human life in the form of “new life”.

DAI Maotang: The emergence of robots gives rise to another chance for human beings to reflect on themselves

From the perspective of Chinese and Western cultures, Professor DAI Maotang analyzed the “human-beast distinction” in Chinese cultures and “human-God distinction” in Western cultures to reveal the bigger philosophical topic behind the theme, that is, to know humans themselves. He said that based on “human-beast distinction,” Chinese people conclude that humans are different from and superior to animals because humans cherished morality, while based on “human-God distinction,” Western people conclude that humans are different from and inferior to God because humans have original sin. Along with the “human-robot distinction” discussed today, the three distinctions provide three different angles for humans to know themselves. “The significance of robots’ emergence is that we have another opportunity to reflect on and understand ourselves”.

“If we say that the tension between humans and machines is manifested as the mechanization and inferiority of humans during the period of modern industrial civilization, then it is manifested as the robotization of humans and superiority of machines in today’s era of artificial intelligence. It marks the great reversal of and even overturns of the relationship between humans and machines”. Professor DAI Maotang expressed his concerns that the ethics, dignity and moral superiority are being deconstructed with machines, and machines are changing humans and their interpersonal relationships fundamentally, which raised a higher level of philosophical challenge. To solve the problem, it is imperative to define the boundary between humans and robots from the dimension of self-consciousness.

SUN Xiangchen: The information technology era presents new challenges to traditional cultures

“Will robots produce new species and communities, and even create new civilizations?” Professor SUN Xiangchen further led the audiences to think about the group belongingness of humans. Therefore, a bigger issue derives from the “human-beast distinction”, namely how should we deal with new civilizations. “Previous discussions about ‘human-beast distinction’ in Chinese and Western worlds are premised on a natural whole that has been eliminated now. The idea of ‘nature and man in one’ put forward by Confucianism is destroyed by the ‘whole unity,’ which presents a new challenge to Confucianism”.

Professor SUN Xiangchen further stated that such types of future-oriented thinking were beneficial to the current reflection of Confucianism. “Only when traditional Chinese cultures face the challenge and new trend can it be meaningful and contribute to humans”. At the meantime, we should know the “progress” made in modernity as well as “where to stop “while reviewing classics and reflecting on life from the perspective of Confucianism. “Scientific and technological is not necessarily the new, the better, nor the quicker, the better, but should aim for the highest goodness and know where to make progress and stop”.

During the Q&A session, the audiences have actively proposed questions, which generated a lively atmosphere. Finally, Professor WU Genyou concluded that the topic discussed today fell into the category of traditional Chinese cultures. In particular, it was originated from the awareness of potential dangers embodied in the Six Classics of Confucianism, which was an organic combination with the crisis awareness of modern Western cultures in contemporary China.