Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What is a Human Being?

Introductory Remarks

As you may know if you have been following my music or this blog, this year I have been focusing my thinking and my art on the question which is the title of this particular blog. Namely, I've been asking what a human being is. I produced a ten part musical series whilst thinking about this but then, last night, it struck me that I haven't really written anything about it in so many words. (Even though I have written about what I was doing when I was making this music elsewhere in this blog and about related issues. Check out the rest of my blog for that.) And then I thought that I should at least try to put that right. This is not because I think I have anything startlingly original to say. Neither is it because I think there is not plenty that has already been written about it. Philosophers, as only one group of people, have been thinking and writing about being and being human for as long as they have been thinking and writing. It's a subject that has always been there and we as a species have always needed to come back to it again and again. Why else has this subject struck me as so important?

But in thinking about human being and human beings there are clearly a number of issues to overcome. For a start, I take the word "human" in my title as both an adjective and as a noun. That is to say that I am concerned with what a "human being" is as an individual creature and with what "human" being is as a specific type of being in the world. Here, immediately, we can see that this subject could become very dense and complicated and I hope not to make my writing about it appear that way. I hope to elucidate my thoughts clearly and concisely. This is a roundabout way of saying that I'm writing a blog here and not a paper for a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. (Although I would point out that my thinking and writing has been guided by an interest in academic philosophy stretching back more than 20 years now.) So I will try to keep my language as perspicuous as possible. I will do that, of course, at the risk of being misunderstood or not being as precise as I might be if I were writing in another context. So maybe now I should say what I'm setting out to do before then going on to make some observations about the subject of this blog.

Let me say straight away that I can't make any claim to be comprehensive here. I live a very specific (and unique) life that is not and will not be replicated by anyone else. (I thank the non-existent gods for that!) All our lives are individual in their particularity and this is something we value about our species. So the things I write below will be animated by my own life experience and the concerns that it has thrown up for me. I would more than welcome it, though, if you read this and feel that I have missed something vital out and feel the need to tell me what that is. I am certainly no oracle and am more than aware of my many thorough-going limitations. So I will be writing a very personal and situated answer to my question. (I could, of course, do no other.) My aim is to put into words issues and questions that I think bear on the subject and that are important to address. Each one could, I have no doubt, be subject to several book-length treatments in itself. I will, on the contrary, attempt to be brief and concise for the sake of my blog readers.

Some Thoughts About Human Being(s)

And so the first thing to say is that we, as human beings, are beings for whom "Being" is an issue. We ask questions such as "Why am I here?" and "Who am I?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?". This is to say that it occurs to us to be aware of our existence and our surroundings. And these are not just questions about ourselves as individual people who exist. They are also the greater questions about existence as a whole. "Where did everything come from?" is a question of great import that doesn't, we think, occur to every living thing to ask. So it is this consciousness, this inquisitiveness, this awareness of self and surroundings, that becomes a constituent part of our make up as human beings. To be a human being is to experience the world as one. It is neither a gift nor a curse. It just is. And we can reflect on what that means because, as human beings, the meaning of things is important to us too.

But there are also a whole slew of issues that are important to us as human beings just by simple virtue of being alive. I refer to these myself as "the issues of the living". I use this term in distinction to being dead when, of course, these things would not matter at all. For me these things are the things of every day life, of survival and of daily procedure, the questions that we deal with as almost background issues and that are rarely overtly thought about or noticed as important. "What's for dinner today?", "Do my teeth need brushing?" "Am I late for an appointment?" and "I wonder what my colleague at work thinks of me?" would be examples of things like this but there could be a billion other such things. They are the things you think about and process because you are alive. If we wanted to put it more simply we might just say that being alive entails caring about things.

Being alive as a human being also entails caring, or not caring, about other members of our species. It is not unique to human beings to be social as we can see from our observations of the wider natural world. But we also know, as human beings, that we are infused with a strong sense of self. We value and cherish the fact we have individuality and are not, instead, part of some Borg-like hive mind in which everyone else's thoughts are constantly present too. So, as humans, our form of being is shaped by a kind of dual nature as beings who are individual yet also part of wider social groupings, be they familial or otherwise. Most of us have experienced some great communal event together and shared in a kind of group euphoria and we experience that as a group, as beings together in a way that is not individual. And yet we retain a foot in both camps and we can be psychologically affected if either our sense of self or our sense of belonging, or not belonging, to groups is called into question.

A very basic way in which our human being is shaped is by our form. Human beings are physical beings of a very specific kind in a physical world. We breathe air. We pump blood. We can see thanks to our optic nerve and the electromagnetic radiation that exists as photons of light. We can hear, touch, taste and smell. We reproduce in a specifically physical way. We walk on two legs in an upright fashion. We have active brains which can learn and adapt, often overcoming some of these limitations or finding ways around them if some of them are taken away in an accident or due to illness. We can talk. We have organs which stop us from being poisoned by the waste products produced in sustaining ourselves. We can feel pain. We decay. We die. All of these physical things are very specific and I want to make the point very strongly that they are inherent to what makes us human. For me, a human brain in a vat or a mind uploaded to a computer would not be a human being. To lose our physicality is, for me, to lose something vital to our humanity, something that has shaped who we have become and what we are. It may be that one day we evolve our species into beings not made of flesh thanks to scientific advances. For me that would entail a possible gain but certainly also a loss and definitely a change in circumstances. Physical things eventually wear out. As human beings that is always before us in very specific ways. I ask you to consider the question: "If all my body parts were replaced with artificial ones, would I still be me?" My answer to this is that I think being a human being, living a human form of being, is intimately bound up with the specific physical form of our nature.

Another way we can talk of human being is in terms of time. I have already addressed this in a number of musical pieces and philosophers have remarked on our inherent temporality for centuries. The fact is that we are beings who exist within time and who are always conscious of it. This is not merely in terms of appointments or notable dates but also in things like consciousness of death and the cycles of life. (Mid-life crisis? Becoming an adult? Retiring?) But we are also aware of the infinity of time which exists in such large amounts that we literally cannot conceive of the age of the Universe or of even our own planet within it. So, as with the social and the individual, there is a dual focus here as human beings have an awareness of both finitude and infinity and that affects our form of life here on earth. A way to imagine this is to think of the future and the past. One, the future, stretches out before us as an infinite possibility whilst, on the other hand, the past lies behind us as something insubstantial that has slipped through our fingers. Time, in some senses, leaves us completely powerless. We try to grasp it and hold on to it, but it is gone. Only the photograph or the memory manages to hold some traces and time even fades those too.

An important aspect of our humanity is to be found in our fallibility. Put bluntly and rather obviously, we are not omniscient. We are, indeed, quite limited beings. We see more than through a glass darkly. It is easy to fool the senses of human beings, which are our means of gathering information about the world, and there are many parlour tricks which are capable of doing so such as the never ending staircase or the duck/rabbit made famous by Ludwig Wittgenstein as shown below.

                                                             Is it a duck or a rabbit?

We have also developed our own pattern and habits of thinking which, whilst useful for certain purposes, are by no means to be regarded as the best possible or unsurpassable. Human beings have developed by evolution and their powers of thought and means of gathering information have been shaped by their environment and become useful for the form of life they lead. It is conceivable that beings from elsewhere might be nothing like us because their development would be suited to their environment and form of life too. One simple truth is that, if we are honest, we, as human beings, don't even know what it is we don't know. We are working in the dark in the only ways evolution has equipped us to do so. We also need to remember that human beings are not passive robots whose job is merely to be carried out passively as a response to commands. But this is my next point.

Human beings have intentions, attitudes, feelings and emotions. And often we act not simply with intellectual goals in sight but simply because we feel a certain way or because we have a certain attitude towards something. Its also worth pointing out that to have a goal is to be human too. Can you imagine a fly or a table to decide that it purposely wants to do something? Probably not. But you can imagine that a person decides to do something. You can imagine they do this for a number of reasons from it being something they want to achieve to because some other factor motivates them to do it. Human beings, then, are not simply calculators or computers or machines. They can get angry and make bad choices and harm themselves and others and then feel sorry for it. And I think it is important to say this since the machine or computer metaphor is very often used casually and lazily to describe human beings. I think its wrong and misleading. Human beings are not machines. They are, instead, animals and they are imbued with animalistic attributes such as intuition. I recall to mind here a scene from Star Trek in which Spock, who does not have all the information he needs to hand to make a calculation, is advised by the very human McCoy to "make his best guess". And that, indeed, is something that humans often do. They guess. Now when a human being feels cold you might want to describe it as a programmed (or learned) response to sensory stimulation. But is it really that simple? I don't think so. When you cry do you think that a machine could do that? When you feel fear, or anxiety or love you are acting as a living being would not as any machine we have ever yet conceived. I don't regard these things as mere developments based on increasingly complex networks. I think it something fundamentally different that we don't yet, and maybe never will, understand. It is something human. It is something to do with being.

So, for the purposes of this blog, this is my list of attributes when thinking about human being:

1. Ontological
2. Alive
3. Individual and Social
4. Physical
5. Temporal
6. Fallible
7. Animal

There is one more that I finally want to add at this point. And that is that we are incomplete. We are not finished but are always in a process of continuing to become something else. We are like this blog. No matter how much I say, there is always more that could be said. There will always be new occasions or contexts in which it could be said again with new force or in new and probably better ways. The understanding and the searching never stops. And so it is with us as people and as a people. We are never complete, we are never finished. Human being and human beings never reach a point at which they can stop and say they are done and there is no more to do. A constant process of becoming as people "condemned to be free" (as Jean-Paul Sartre put it) is the only game in town.

8. Incomplete

I hope what I have written above gives anyone who has got this far something to think about. If you want some music to have in the background as you maybe think about these issues then my Human/Being series is just for you and you can hear it at my Bandcamp.

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