What makes a human being? Wait. For precision, allow me to phrase it thus:
“What model am I using to describe a human being?”
This is an important question, because when we talk about optimism and hope, and possibilities for the future, we are frequently accused of “not understanding” human nature. Of being naive. Simplistic. (Dare I say it?)…
I read the news. I know what people do to one another, and on what scales. I know about genocide, and violence against women, and the systematic use of rape as a strategy in war. And they just pulled a woman’s body out of a hockey bag in the river 7 km upstream of my house in rural Nova Scotia.
How can I stand up in the face of that reality and say that I believe that we are capable of more and better? Don’t I understand the human condition? “Human beings are violent and concerned only with themselves,” They Say. “That is that.”
To which I respond, “No. Human beings are capable of violence. There is a part of our brain which is concerned with our own survival, sex, food, and nothing else. It’s the same part that runs those systems in crocodiles. This is not an adequate description of a creature that tears up when listening to stories.”
“Well,” says a different They, “what about altruism? Isn’t that the most human characteristic? It’s our ability to form societies.”
“Ah, yes,” I can reply. “Mirror neurons and all that. Ability to form a theory of mind. Very important. Also occurs in great apes, possibly cetaceans and elephants. Kindness, generosity, love… good things. Tying together social clans, raising the next generation…”
But all this is connected to the next level in the brain, the part that develops in animals with complex social situations. It still gets hijacked by a part of the mind that triggers fear, and anxiety, and leads once more down the path to violence, because it is enormously concerned with social standing, power, and access to resources. And sex. Don’t forget sex. (It doesn’t sound like I think very highly of human beings, does it?)
Still. It is definitely an improvement over the stimulus-response version of humanity that lacks higher brain function entirely. We add on the neocortex, and now we can imagine, we can project, we can form models of the future, we can consider different alternatives, we can care about other people, we can steer our lives. Here, we are moving towards what I believe makes us human. In fact, it is hinted at in that last sentence.
There is some other thing happening in the human system that is able to pay attention. There is a part of each us that is, for lack of a better term, conscious.
It turns out to be a remarkably difficult concept to work with, this consciousness. The readings go something like, “Consciousness, essays on. Consciousness, meditations on. Consciousness, nature of.” I started out looking for, “Consciousness, definition of,” but gave up on that quest after several years, and decided to make up my own. Although it is often used to refer to simple awareness, I want to draw attention to a particular experience of awareness, that of being aware of being aware.
This is something different. It can’t be poked at or quantified by science, and it doesn’t yield well to philosophical exploration, because it is such a subjective experience. But there are a wide range of knowledge traditions that deal with this experience of human consciousness. The mystical traditions yield an abundance of techniques for working past the stimulus-response and social-power reactions, to find some deeper truth.
Depending on the tradition, we can call it soul, emptiness, atman, anatman… though these concepts are certainly not interchangeable. They posit different realities. Is this part connected to a higher consciousness? If there is a higher consciousness, does it have purpose? Does it want something from us? Is soul/emptiness/atman the way that the muse speaks through us or is it the True Self? Does it have shape, and did it come from somewhere? Does it tell us something about god and the nature of reality?
There was a time in my life that I had more answers than questions, but I was young, and I hadn’t studied as much. Now, the more I Learn, the less I Know. If you are looking for certainty, you’ve come to the wrong place. But I’m unconvinced by the approach that lumps together all the mystical experiences, (and the experiences of free will and consciousness) as mere illusion, or delusion. I take an empirical perspective on this question, and that what we experience has validity, whether or not we have a scientific explanation for it.
But this post is pragmatic, rather than empirical, so for future reference, let us review my model: Monkey-mind concerned with social standing, sitting on top of lizard-brain concerned with physical survival, and each of us with a deeper self able and willing to run the show. This faith in the deeper self is necessary for my faith in humanity, knowing what I know.