What does it mean to be human? How would you describe us?
Evolved animal? Mind encased in flesh? Soul encased in flesh? Biological machine? Economic actor? Manifestation of the divine?
Our heads might hurt just considering such an intractable question. Perhaps the fact of us asking this question in the first place defines our humanity? Humans are those animals which seeks to understand themselves!
The list of possible answers I’ve suggested above is, of course, not comprehensive but provides some of the common responses. As well as the proposals for how we do define ourselves are ways in which we usually do not. In this essay I explore one key characteristic of being human which is not only overlooked, but which is positively denied by the prevalent cultural story. Accepting that this feature is, in fact, true, radically changes how we see our place on the Earth.
But let’s start five hundred years ago. During the scientific revolution we were driven forward by the mantra ‘we . . . don’t . . . know?’ Although this does not seem like a particularly revolutionary question to ask, many people at that time assumed they already knew everything there was to know, or was important to know, about the world. This was largely because of religious beliefs; if your version of God wants you to know something important it will be in your religious texts.
Recognizing that not to be the case opened the floodgates to a general thirst for inquiry and led to a host of technologies and areas of study which have ultimately comprised the world we now know. The ages of great European exploration were driven by scientific curiosity as well as the desire for conquest and wealth. Vast new discoveries occurred in a range of disciplines and around the globe; in some cases European scholars even added to a foreign nations understanding of their own history or culture – albeit a conquered nation. India and Egypt are obvious examples.
But many of those discoveries lay waiting to be made, even if it did take a voyage to the other side of the world to make them. Closer to home a Frenchman was busy asking more fundamental questions about who exactly these people making such discoveries are. Rene Descartes wanted to probe deeply into the human and see what lay waiting to be discovered there. He reasoned that ultimately the human is a flesh robot, controlled by an all-powerful mind. For Descartes, the body was subservient to mind with no essential intelligence of its own. Furthermore, he contended that it is the capacities of the human mind which separates us from other animals who, Descartes reasoned, operate on instinct alone, lacking any real sense of self determination or will.
Since the human species had shown itself capable of having a significant impact on nature, it seemed that the human mind was, in some sense, master of the entire world. This obsession with mind as primary source of intelligence (and power) has accelerated throughout the last 500 years, giving rise to countless once unimaginable technologies but also, some would claim, to a range of fundamental problems such as a general retreat from nature with significant health and social implications. Is it any surprise that we modern humans prize our massive brains over other faculties when this is the one key physical advantage we have over all species?
Perhaps Descartes was also influenced by the general Christian consensus at the time of the flesh being a source of sin, shame and even disgust. Thus it was natural to elevate the mind to a higher status than the body. Perhaps the body was an unwanted reminder of our obvious animality, and therefore something we wanted to shy away from? Whatever the myriad influences of the time were, Descartes’ conclusion was clear; I think, therefore I am. Not I am, therefore I think – mind was the master of flesh.
We can understand why this was an easy perspective to accept. After all, it is our thoughts that lead to movement and control of the body . . . isn’t it? I have the intention to reach out for my coffee cup using my left arm and seemingly before I can even complete the thought I’ve achieved it. Incredible! In fact, is it so incredible as to be almost unbelievable? Doesn’t it sometimes seem like our body is thinking for us; as though our body acts and then our brain catches up?
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