Metaphysics is the study of reality, dealing with questions like: what exists (ontology), and what is there. I guess in keeping with the general trend of ontological query, my focus will mostly be on the question of ‘what exists’. I’ve recently started writing a three part series on the value of life; an ontological search for epistemological certainty. Basically its a vanity project from which I hope to unearth enough comforting truth to balance the uncomfortable reality disability proposes.
In the life segment most recently published, I worked through various abstractions common to every day life, and employed by almost everyone. People struggle with the ‘meaning of life’. You’ve probably seen a movie or a t.v. show where the characters describe what it means to be Human; for instance, lets say they lose their moral footing by rejecting a peer who doesn’t fit their model of what it means to be cool. So after a long time brooding in a dramatic circle, camera panning from one character to the next, they reach an ethical epiphany and discover that our ‘humanity’ or ‘humanness’ is found in how we treat one another.
This makes me think back to my first philosophy class ever. It was a very broad course which started with a brief introduction to philosophy; from ancient Greece to Modern North-America. This whole discussion about the essence of a thing makes me think of Heraclitus, who famously said ‘you can never step in the same river twice’ — meaning both you and the river will have changed. I feel comfortable talking about Heraclitus because I tend to think along similar lines. That’s not where I need to stop for my question, though. It was Democritus and Leucippus who postulated the existence of an indivisible atom. We now know that’s not the whole truth, because we are fortunate to live in a time where technology can take forward theory towards fact. An atom is not indivisible, but rather itself contains component parts. What’s that say about the atom, though? An atom is no longer an atom when broken a part. Where do we draw that line for ourselves? If you break down a human, does the abstraction still exist? Or is it just information translated and encoded by our minds?
The reason Democritus and Leucippus created their atomic theory, or rather the cause that influenced their actions, was that something cannot come from nothing. Their atomic theory was used to explain all matter in our universe. We now know that something probably can come from nothing (See previous post). Is that where we draw distinction between classes? The genesis of existence? Most religions define ‘humanity’ in terms of humanities creation. Being human is special and easy to define because the quiddity of being, or the essence of humanity was created. Some deity sat down and thought long and hard about what a human is. Our inability to clearly articulate that point is merely part of our own infirmities, intellectual frailty, or ‘sin’. For thousands of years this way of defining the sine qua non of humanity has been etched into our problem solving faculties.
Lets start there, then; at the ‘genesis’ of our existence. So far the major players in this ontological game have been, to one degree or another, ‘religious’ — whether that be Christian, Muslim, Deistic, Kant, Plato, or Descartes. They have assumed some creator has had its hand in our creation. Although I cannot definitely deny the existence of some creator totally (logic employed on my part; I could easily have said ‘no God exists’, but I chose to be logical… so don’t take that for more than it is. That is, it doesn’t demonstrate the ‘weakness’ of my position), we can look at the facts and deal with them alone, separating them from ‘god’ — at least temporarily. As I and many others see it, evolution is both theory and fact. It happened. Christians and other resistant religious radicals need to get over it. Macro-evolution by random mutation and non-random natural selection gave rise to life as we know it, and so far is the only mechanism scientifically and philosophically discovered that accurately explains how things came to be. If that be the case, then again, what does it mean to be human?
Well lets think, when did we begin this quest of introspection? If we concede the above is true, than far from our evolutionary inception (of which we know little about; that is, the very, very beginning of ‘life’). Well then our understanding of humanity is limited to what we have been able to consciously experience. For it takes a conscious, relatively intelligent mind to engage in self-talk — this is an non-particular statement, owing itself to the lack of available information regarding the exact evolutionary time-line of cognitive development. Descartes famously said ‘I think therefore I am’. For our purposes we can change that statement to ‘I think therefore I know what I am’. Given the theories of neuroplasticity, microevolution, mutation and epigenetics, we can concede that during the time between our species genesis (or rather ‘branching’), and now, a lot has changed. So if we happen to walk a little more upright, be a little more tall, be a little smarter and have bigger brains than our primordial ancestors, that’s okay; it doesn’t mean were a completely different class, or species (not that I’m in any way a taxonomist); it just means were moving towards change. Self-talk, at least the self talk that produced Diderot’s Encyclopedie, or even Meyer’s ‘Twilight’, is intimately related to language. As far as we know, we are the only living creature on this planet capable of producing complex language systems (even under the most extreme conditions (usually; feral children pose a complicated problem). I think that defining humanity even in terms of its ability to produce language is more correct and sophisticated than defining us whimsically by our random actions (such as ‘liking the ugly’, or ‘loving the poor and sick’; oddly enough the things we define ourselves by tend to be both things we inductively are not, and things that make us feel better and portray us in a better light).
There’s no need to detail the exact differences between ourselves and our genetic ancestors. We ‘know’ (intuitively) that we are different than say a neanderthal or an Australopithecus.
So, we ‘know’ we’re different, and we have language. Our definition of what it means to be human doesn’t really hinge upon some unique six thousand year history, where once upon a time a great God created Man in his Image… but than banned and tormented him… but then decided to choose a small insignificant hill tribe to rape, pillage and murder the rest of their foes in the name of the one true merciful god (did I mention slaughtering animals, children, men and women needlessly as sacrifices?). Rather, our definition of humanity is totally arbitrary (different than saying its totally relative, mind you). It depends on our individual word for, well, ‘us’. In Hebrew human means the son of Adam, the Greeks called it Anthropos, we, in the English speaking countries call ourselves ‘human’.
The common denominator is the need to know what we are. Maybe that stems from the ‘god’ in us, or maybe from an insecurity, or maybe (probably) from some evolutionary imperative.
I started this because I have this fear that maybe there’s some way, or some thing that could happen or something that I could do that would result in a taxonomic disqualification, whereby I no longer could be called ‘human’; and since a human isn’t defined by its morality alone, that would result in exile or enslavement. If we define human arbitrarily by our actions, say by our ability to produce language, or to engage in self-talk, or to have a specific genetic code, or to be ‘moral’, or to have social, or ‘free-will’, it doesn’t matter. Someone out there will lose out. I ‘believe in psychological determinism. So what happens to that person who is born a psychopath, or with a deleted segment on the long arm of one of their chromosomes, and has some form of severe motor or intellectual disability? If we define ourselves by our ability to ‘accept’ and care for others or by our ‘free-will’, and since we know that the progeny of a human at this time cannot just randomly be non-human, what does that say about that person? What happens to that person? Do we still have a responsibility to care for them? Are they worth more? Or less? Would it be ethical to change them back if the technology was available? If we could, what would that say about our individual uniqueness as humans? As a species?
I started this with both confidence and fear. Confidence that I could, within the confines of a blog article, easily answer the question of humanity, and fear of what it would mean to not be human. I’ve realized two things: Its going to take me many years, and many essays to get close to grasping the answer to the question of human quiddity. And that I no longer fear not being human. I’ve realized the term ‘human’ is arbitrary and relative to both the culture I have grown up in and the time frame that I was born into. If I had lived a thousand years ago, what it meant to be human would be radically different. Conversely, the same would be true if I lived a thousand years from now. I’ve also realized that I’m going to write many, many more articles on this subject. I also find solace in the notion that humans, if nothing else, are very diverse. We in the west pride ourselves on our individuality. That individuality inevitably will produce someone who has a predisposition to care for others (whether or not they’re ‘human’). So my neurotic existential side is saved by the exact property that frustrates my inclination towards more intellectual existentialism.