This is a question I’ve heard and pondered in many philosophy and literature classes. However, we never came to answer. I suspect it’s because it’s kind of a nonsensical question akin to asking “What does it mean to be a chair?” The question itself implies there’s some symbolic meaning behind our species and that’s an arrogant supposition to begin with. It’s not like asking “What does ‘A’ mean?” because “A” is a symbol representing a sound and a word- which is also symbolic.
Perhaps it’s better to define and figure out what a human being is and then ask more specific questions like “What sort of environment would be most hospitable to the human being? How should we live to be the most content individual we can be?
So let’s start, shall we? What is a human? Humans are animals made of flesh and blood- which in turn are composed of cells, DNA, and eventually atoms and a quantum structure no one really understands. We are gene vessels; biological creatures with biological needs and urges which are often the source of our drive. We all have to shit, fart, and burp; we’re all covered in bacteria (inside and out) that feed on our dead skin, help us digest food, and plenty of others- good and bad. Some, like toxoplasmosa can even change the way we behave. In fact, it could hardly be said that a human being, or any animal for that matter, could be entirely defined on it’s own individual characteristics and without a larger context. Living things are all complex processes taking part in larger processes. We are nothing without the cooperation of those bacteria, along with our fragile environment. Without trees producing oxygen, without other organisms on which to live, without water, without the protective veil of our atmosphere and magnetosphere, we’re nothing except dead. And that’s just the basics of homeostasis.
Homo sapiens are also very complex psychologically and sociologically. Embedded in our biology is the need for social interaction. We literally need it, or else we become sick- mentally and physically- from prolonged isolation. These interactions often compose a great deal of what we think and how we feel. Emotions like anger, lust, and greed are as natural as compassion and love. They all served very important functions during our evolutionary history and still do. All of our emotions and biological drives are important because they compose us and our ambitions. And if we are then, reacting to our environment based upon our genetics and experiences (nature and nurture) how can it be said we have free-will? Neuroscience is leaning more towards the conclusion that we have very little, if any, free-will. We take pride in our looks, athletic abilities, intelligence, and various other traits we had nothing to do with creating. Then with these facts where does it leave us with questions like “Who am I?” and “What is the self?”
The most accurate answer I’ve been able to find is that the self, the thing we call “I” is an emptiness upon which our thoughts and experiences are projected upon. “I” is a very individualistic word which should encompass not just our bodies and minds, but our place in the universe and the necessary interactions between it and us. Even writing it that way seems inaccurate because it implies a separation, when in fact we all connected through a common lineage, and possibly through space and time itself.
Too often we get lost in words and cultural norms which shape our worldviews which may be helpful for navigating the world, but are woefully inaccurate. Language shapes the way we think even if don’t notice it and seems to be one of the main reasons for so much philosophical confusion.
We also like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution which is simply arrogant and false. The future of our genetic family will probably look back at us as we look back on the Australopithecines- if we make it that far.
Now that we have a better idea of what a human being is, how should we live? As animals with social hierarchies, conflict and competition will not be going away anytime soon as much as we might like it too. The natural state of man was not a great state to be in. Life was short and harsh. We have since domesticated ourselves for urban life but this can hardly be said to be purely beneficial. Our land, water and air have become poisonous. Our food is more unhealthy than ever and it seems everybody has anxiety, depression, or both. Money is life. Without it, you probably wont have shelter or food, let alone access to health care. We need to find a balance between our destructive and creative potentials and a balance between man’s natural and domesticated states.
There are lot’s of people in this world and lots of ways to live, and certainly there are different lifestyles that will be optimal for some and not others. Unfortunately the paradise where everyone has a habitat (home) and quality natural resources (food, air, and water) seems desperately far away.
We can strive for that future, but in the meantime, remember, we’re much more than only human.
~David T. Kukulkan~