Thursday, 17 December 2015

There is Nothing Necessary About The Human Being

Earlier this week I wrote a blog about what I called "human exceptionalism". I could also have referred to "speciesism", it later occurred to me. The term would have done equally well for the phenomenon I was talking about. But it occurs to me that I can go further in my thinking than I did in that earlier blog, a blog which asked why we find it relatively easy to denominate some beings as lesser beings than ourselves and then commit atrocities upon them. The direction that we can go further in is that one which asks us to address human beings as a species in themselves. We can do this whilst at the same       time recognizing that our species, the human being, is just one of millions that this planet has produced, the vast majority of which have been and gone again, vanished from the planet that once gave them birth. Indeed, a wide spectrum view of life on Earth, if not elsewhere in the universe, seems to suggest that life forms in general have their time and then they vanish, a cosmic version of Andy Warhol's "famous for fifteen minutes".

Outside of the pride and ego of the human consciousness there is no reason to think that we, the humans, will be any different. But due to the way we have developed, and the higher brain functions that have come along with it, we can imagine other futures, ones in which the humans survive. Indeed, some imagine futures in which the humans become the first creatures to leave this planet and colonise others, heading out into the vastness of space. As time passes by there will certainly be an increasing urgency to do that and a scenario somewhat like the plot for the film Interstellar may arise. This is because space, that still, quiet, unchanging void, is actually none of these things. Things are changing in space all the time, constantly. Its moving. Its just that this change occurs over such unimaginably long periods of time that our tiny species, that lives for a few decades, never really lives long enough to notice the difference. One of the changes that will have occurred in what we would call the far future is that our sun will have grown in luminosity to such an extent that the heat it gives off will terminally threaten our existence. 

And this is what the universe is like. Its a dangerous, changing, chaotic place. From a universal perspective what are human beings but just another form of life? What are you and I but just individual examples of this "just another form of life"? You and I are as an individual ant is to us. Or a worm. Or a slug. There is, from this perspective, nothing special or remarkable about us. There's no reason to want to treat the humans differently to the worms or the slugs. We can be sure that the rest of the universe, in all its physical processes, will not spare us over them either. It would also be quite easy to imagine that other forms of life on other planets would not share our high regard for ourselves as well. Indeed, from an alien perspective we might not even be the dominant form of life on our own planet because who knows what they might see with their eyes? Perhaps, for them, the insects are king. Or the rats. My point is that our vision is uniquely human-shaped. We are prepped and primed by our human form of life to value and prefer human things and to weigh things to human advantage. But no other form of life is.

Imagine, for a moment, that humans had never come to pass. This is a live scenario because the fact that humans did come to pass is not to say that they had to. Evolution is a blind process and has no purpose. Neither is any divine figure guiding it. So our species did not have to be. It is contingent. It just happened because it could, because earlier versions of us survived that became us. And, who knows, some contingent event may yet wipe us out in one fell swoop. If that happened who in this universe of ours would miss us? No one would. Our planet wouldn't. The universe wouldn't. Both would just carry on. We are not necessary to everything else that exists in order to give it some meaning and purpose. Indeed, as far as we know, meaning and purpose are things unique to our species. When a dog sees a ball we do not imagine it asks itself what a ball means even though the dog may link the ball with play through memory. We do not think that the cat that sits purring in front of the fire is asking itself about its purpose in life as it purrs. We as humans have a tendency to think about things by analogy to ourselves. This is perhaps understandable. But it can also be somewhat arrogant and its certainly wrong-headed.

There are those among us who like to accentuate the progress our species makes. Five hundred years ago, however, there were very powerful bodies who thought that our planet was the centre of the universe, then thought of as God's creation, a place he made for human beings, his finest achievement and pinnacle of his creation. But our growing capabilities shattered such notions and now we know we are but a pinprick in a vast void. We are not in the centre of anything. Indeed, there is nothing special or remarkable about us or our solar system. We just are, one of billions like us, lost in the anonymity of it all. And yet the notion that we are somehow different, special, persists. Perhaps we may regard this as but the ego necessary to survive. It can be imagined that if you thought of yourself as nothing special and had a kind of species-based lack of self-esteem that this would be to the detriment of our primary evolutionary purpose which is to exist long enough to multiply. And maybe this is so. But does this mandate the ideas of some who see us as future lords of the universe and, worse, lords of our planet right now? On what basis is a human being lord of anything? 

So what I have a problem with here is a speciesist egocentrism that we humans possess. I want to see we humans as but another animal, something as contingent as bees, sharks and those horrible crawly things that come out from under rocks. We had as much to do with our existence as they did. We are largely as powerless in the face of an uncaring universe as they are. We live and die (so far) as they do. In short, we share very much in common with all other living things on planet Earth. But I don't think we have the required humility that that should entail. And that becomes a problem when you start to regard the planet that birthed you as your own species' bank of resources such as we clearly do. Of course, there is little, at this point, to stop us. "Nature is red in tooth and claw", "survival of the fittest", "might is right" and all other such vulgar notions spring to mind and do so because there is a grain of truth in them. But we can, perhaps, turn the argument of those who think humans are special and different back on them. For if this is so then maybe, just maybe, we have a responsibility to use our specialness, our special powers over and above those the rest of this planet's inhabitants have, for good.

It is not impossible to imagine that our increasing technological knowledge will bequeath us ways to extend our lives. We even have members of our species, the Transhumanists and Futurists of which I have spoken earlier in the year on this blog, who are actively looking at how technology may both extend and transform our lives. But, if this is so, then surely some of these technologies will be useful for the rest of our world. It would be a very solipsistic vision of the future if it did not. We, as humans, have always, up until now, been biological beings that lived in a biological world. This presents problems to be sure (disease and decay being just two pressing ones) but it also constitutes the only situation of life we have ever known. We appreciate the fact of sun and rain on our skin, the feel of the wind, walking across a grassy field, interaction with other animal species, and these sensations engender feelings and emotions and constitute part of what it feels like to be a human being. Any future iteration of the human consciousness, whether that be as some kind of robot or even as a computer program, must account for this if we are to retain any link to our past human development. So I would argue that the human future is not just about preserving a personal human identity, or even a collection of personal human identities. It is about preserving our world in all its biological variety. 

Another way to say this is that as we destroy our world we destroy ourselves, piece by piece, tree by tree, hedgerow by hedgerow, field by field, river by river, sea by sea. Of course, things change over time. But changes have consequences and there is all the difference in the world between things that happen and things you cause, perhaps by not thinking it through or even not thinking at all. We recognize the difference in human thought between an accident, something unforeseen and something done as a deliberate act of vandalism. My argument here is that we, as a species, have some humility, recognize our contingency and how bound up we are with the planet that gave us life and even now sustains us, and use the advantage our evolution has given us to make the world better for everything that lives here. Because, in the end, helping others is really just helping yourself. Its a recognition that you are truly not an island, you're part of a bio-system, a circle of life, a community of life. A life without everything else this planet holds would not be a human life at all because we do not and have never existed in isolation. 

We may think we can throw off such notions and that our ingenuity can prosper us even whilst everything else is sacrificed or fails to survive. Should that happen then it may yet be, as some say, that the "human beings" were only a phase and the post-humans, beings who once were us, take our place instead. If that did happen it would be yet another demonstration that the universe doesn't need us and that all things must pass.

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