WHAT IS MAN?
Perhaps the most well-known philosophical question is the one that questions the meaning of our existence, our lives. Existential debates and queries are inherent to human behavior, to justify our choices and actions based on a greater purpose. Whether religious, philosophical or nihilistic, it's quite common to think about your place in the world, relating to deities, other humans, and everything else we share our existence with. To truly ask this question however, and to answer it in a meaningful way, it is perhaps important to first understand what we are, before asking what it all means. What is man? What sets us apart, how can we define ourselves in the all of existence, how do we compare to the world around us and what is our place in it?
To start at the beginning, let’s establish some things about our place in the universe. It is important to understand that as far as we can tell, we're alone. Whether or not there are other planets out there capable of sustaining life means little until we actually know it to be true. Any potential (e.g. the quite plausible theory that life is possible on other planets) is meaningless unless realized. To put it simply, unless and until we have definitive proof that life on other planets exist, however probable or plausible it may be, it cannot be counted as being true. As such, there is little value in assessing our existence and worth based on unknown possibilities and unrealized potential. We assess what we know and what we have. Only when new variables come to light can we consider them. To assess the unknown is an endless chore of guessing at what could be, rather than assessing what is. In this case, that means that as long as we have no definitive and undisputed evidence of life on other planets, we cannot assess our existence and worth based only on the possibility (or probability) thereof. And so, for the sake of this text, I'll assess humanity within the scope of our own understanding, as I firmly believe that there is meaning to be found in what we are, rather than what we could be within hypothetical scenarios. It's important to understand what we are in relation to what we know, before expanding that with new discoveries. A basis to work from, essentially.
To keep things clear I'll be splitting the argument into three separate pieces:
The human mind is an incredibly complicated matter that is difficult to condense into averages and norms. Comparing the human mind to that of other species is even more difficult as our understanding of others’ minds pales in comparison to our understanding of ourselves (what we really know, beyond what we can reasonably assume). I feel it's unwise to assume our individual intelligence carries some grand superiority. Without certain knowledge to process, our intellect is but an engine without fuel, a recipe without ingredients, a theory without practice. As such, I'd disqualify intelligence as something that sets humanity apart from other animals. In addition to that is the fact that we are vastly incapable of assessing our own intelligence beyond mere approximation and comparison, so intelligence is ultimately a pointless merit to use in a defining capacity. I believe the main thing that sets us apart from other species in matters of the mind, is our unrivalled and unparalleled ability to preserve and retain knowledge over many generations. While other animals are known to pass on information through both instinct and education, they lack the ability to communicate directly with descendants past the extent of their own lives. A man however can write a book that is read centuries after he passes away, detailing knowledge, information, discoveries or observations, complete or fragmented. Mankind also has the motive to do so. As mankind is more than a simple combination of individuals, there is much value to be found in interaction, and much of our existence is driven by and for these interactions. We are a social animal, after all. I would argue that what truly sets humanity apart isn't so much unity in and of itself, as many animals form groups and advance as a collective, but the extent to which we take it, and our ability to have interactions beyond the grave.
In the end, what humans have come to greatly excel at is communication. It is our exceptional ability to communicate that has allowed us far greater accomplishments, beyond what a single individual, or even a single group or generation of individuals could accomplish. In summary, what truly sets us apart is the extent of our ability and will to communicate, the quality and quantity, and especially our ability to do so indirectly and across long periods of time.
It would be impossible to determine anything particularly unique about the human body. It's simply not possible to determine with any certainty whether or not any physical trait we have is unique enough to be considered as "defining" (you could settle for uncommon, at best). That being said, the main benefit present in the human body, our primary strength if you will, lies in the amount of resources our body dedicates to the function of the brain, in terms of nutrition in comparison to its relative size. Another important aspect of the human form is the ability to manipulate its surroundings, as well as the dimensions of movement available to it. The reach, control and delicacy with which we move all contribute toward the main area in which our form excels. I would argue that the single most defining attribute of mankind’s physical form isn't so much in our biological forms themselves, but rather in how we augment our strengths and reduce our deficiencies externally. While the use of tools isn't unique to mankind, the ability to adapt to extreme environments has allowed mankind to spread across the world, and has allowed us access to a very large range of data. Where birds might evolve to match available food, humankind instead makes changes in what type of food is available; where other mammals might grow a coat of fur to combat the changing climates, humankind instead lights a fire. Humankind has stepped away from changing their form to suit their environment, and has instead turned to modifying that environment to suit ourselves. This has reached such an extent that attaching any kind of inherent value to the human form seems utterly meaningless. We're now at a stage where there isn't really something the human form could accomplish that we couldn't create a machine to do better, besides perhaps the brain itself.
In summary, what can perhaps be the only valuable asset in the human form to us currently, is our brains and their function, though it seems only a matter of time before that too is outdated and outperformed by something of our own design and creation. A more specialized or expanded version of the brain seems inevitable, but for now, the defining value of our form is in what our brains are capable of, more so than our muscles.
Each of us has a sense of self in relation to our surroundings. And with that sense of self, we begin to wonder about it all. We ponder about the purpose of life, of our purpose in life. Why are we here? What, if anything, comes next? What am I, in the grand scheme of things? In our attempts to answer these questions we do a lot of soul-searching indeed. Now this so-called soul being searched for the answers to these existential queries, I find, is an artificial construct, born of our need to explain that which we do not understand. But more on that later. First, it’s important to know that it is human nature to fill in the blanks within our understanding with whatever plausible explanation we can come up with. The human mind requires a method to process events that are (as yet) beyond its understanding, in part to cope with instinctive responses such as fear. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. When confronted by thunder and lightning, and observing the destructive danger it poses, how could anyone feel secure unless they understand the source? A threat that you cannot comprehend is a threat you cannot cope with, and so in absence of true understanding we create an approximation that we can believe. So at first, lighting was attributed to an act of a god. Instead of cowering in abject fear of this unknown phenomenon, we cower in fear of a god. A god that we have the possibility of appeasing, of influencing. It gives us a handhold with which to cope with something fearful. A god throwing lightning bolts is far less frightening that not knowing what lightning is.
Then, over time, mankind discovered the specific physical causes of thunder and lightning. We began to find out how to mitigate the threat and we understood the source. The stories we’ve told ourselves in absence of this understanding lost their value and became obsolete. The idea of a lighting-throwing god was no longer believed. Like with a stage magician, once you learn how the trick was done, it becomes impossible to assert the use of “magic”. In order to establish an understanding of what we are, it’s also important to acknowledge what we’re not. Or rather, to recognize and perhaps refute longstanding beliefs about ourselves, pruning away the stories we have told – and still tell – ourselves and each other in absence of understanding. The example that ‘it isn’t a god throwing lightning bolts, it’s an explicable physical phenomenon’, becomes ‘we aren’t beings purposely created in the image of an all-powerful god, we are beings that evolved naturally over countless millennia from the primordial soup’. Our lack of understanding the purpose of our existence has led to much theorizing. The hypothesis that our current existence has a higher meaning and does not end with the death of our physical bodies, has led to the idea of a soul, an immortal religious construct that essentially defines who we are. However, we have no tangible proof whatsoever that such a thing as a soul in the religious sense exists. Therefore, I cannot in all conscience state that such a concept of a soul is true. That being said, regardless of what the actual truths may be, it is undeniable that a truth, or any truth for that matter, has little value at all until that truth is actually perceived as being true. Even though a certain truth has realistic merits and could well be true, as long as we do not admit or accept it as truth, that truth has little value as it cannot be used or applied in any meaningful way.
Therefore, a truth must be observed and be acknowledged to be valuable. To go back to the example of lightning, until we discern it for the phenomenon it is, and what attributes it has, it is impossible for us to exploit it in a significant manner. In other words, if man does not know about or does not accept the scientific causes of the phenomenon lightning, it means that the myth of Zeus throwing down bolts from Mount Olympus has equal value to the as yet unknown, unproven or unaccepted truth of the natural causes of lightning. This essentially argues that both understanding and acceptance of truth are necessary for truth to have any meaningful merit. The purpose of this text was to approximate a definition of what it means to be human; or what defines humanity in a variety of contexts. For that to work the truth needs to be united with what is understandable and acceptable. Our identity, our soul if you will, and existence itself (or at least, the defining of them), is meaningless unless it is accepted.
So why does this matter, why is it important?
A lot of people are of the opinion that, as we as a species are always evolving, we should concentrate our efforts on our potential, on that what we could be. However, I would point out that the concept of what could be is little more than a red herring to the perception and acceptance of truth. Unless and until we have the ability to truly influence potentials and make them come true, events that could happen but don’t are ultimately little more than diversions. That’s not to say potential is entirely meaningless. A task that can be repeated can be improved; providing there is the potential to improve and those performing the task have the potential to realize this improvement. While improvement could occur by chance, I would argue that humanity has been overriding that concept with directed purposeful improvement for a long time now. We no longer sit around shivering and waiting for our skin to grow furry in order to survive the colds of winter. Instead, we apply our knowledge towards realizing a potential improvement or change. We make clothing that keeps us warm. We build housing to protect ourselves from the elements. Of course, it’s key to understand that any potential is still worthless without its realization. Thinking of making clothes is to keep warm is worthless, if you don’t make the clothes and put them on. Believing that a house will protect against the elements is worthless if you don’t build one. One could then argue that there are two main components to change: the potential to it, and the catalyst that makes it happen. To further this argument, if change is the goal, the options are to wait for it to occur “randomly” or to coordinate it. Coordination of change however, requires the aforementioned understanding and acceptance. This ties into a bit of existentialism which I need to share with you, and while I won’t say much on the morals or ethics involved, it’s an important aspect of the definition I’m trying to establish, so bear with me if you will. The question is, is the concept true that the potential for something, already that something, as yet unrealized? Is an unbaked cake a cake, or is it just the batter that could potentially be a cake, once baked? Is a human fetus a human, or merely the elements that could potentially develop into one? Is a log of wood a chair, or only the component that could become one?
Is it really that simple? You could argue that a log of wood is indeed a chair, as you could sit on it and treat it like one. But then not everything you can sit on is a chair; there are also benches, for example. So it’s rather complicated, as you can see. The main thing that is important to consider among all of these potentials and realized potentials, is that what’s defining is what we consider it to be. A log is a chair the moment people sit on it and consider it to be a chair. A definition, much like our perception itself, is a combination of identifiable elements (understanding) and acknowledgement (acceptance). As such, to define what makes a human being, there needs to be understandable components (body and mind) as well as acceptance (soul). The main component of acceptance is in interaction. We can accept that a log of wood is a chair the moment it functions as one. We define the actor (the chair) based on the action (sitting). How we perceive and interpret the actions determines how we define the actor. For example, if we were to advance robots to the point where we can make a machine that looks like a man, acts like a man and talks like a man, and we ultimately accept that it is a man, how then could it not be a man? Can our humanity truly be defined by what we are, rather than what we do? Does humanity primarily have value in what it does, rather than what it is? This would lead to the conclusion that our purpose in life is not to be found in what we are, but rather in what we do. Should the core of humanity then not be “to act acceptably human”?
Hmmm…. More on that then, in my next article.
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