Being human

Evanson, Peter

September 2001

Thesis or dissertation

© 2001 Peter Evanson. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"

In his angry and depressed state, Hamlet finds no consolation in his fellow human beings, but that's not to say that he doesn't attribute them with many fine qualities. But what are we to make of this 'quintessence of dust'? What a piece of work is a (hu)man? How are we to understand ourselves? What's more to the point perhaps is, why should we try? One reason springs to mind immediately that we can point to in order to justify an attempt at such understanding. It is surely true that by way of a greater understanding of ourselves we can come to a more complete understanding of 'the way things are' per se. By coming to a greater and more complete understanding of being a human being we can start to see how what we are informs the way we are and vice versa. For instance, the sort of beings that we are as human beings allows us to experience the world around us in a particular way, it may 'open' the world up to us in some respects, whilst 'closing' it off in others. The kind of understanding that I am aiming for involves an exploration and clarification of what it is to be human; what it is to exist as a human being and if there is anything unique about being a human being.

If we look for a dictionary definition of 'human being' we find something like the following: "Of or belonging to the genus Homo ... any man or woman or child of the species Homo Sapiens., Defining human beings in this way places them firmly in the 'natural order' of things, it makes them one species amongst many. Admittedly human beings are probably the most complex species in the natural world, but nevertheless they are open to understanding in just the same way as any other species be it an oyster, a cat or a chimpanzee. If we are to take this 'speciesistic', biological line then, we should aim to understand human beings in purely natural, materialistic terms supplied by the 'best' theory that science can offer to us at the time of investigation. In doing this though we might worry that we are missing out on something 'special' about human beings, surely there is something that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, for instance the fact that human beings possess the kind of consciousness that they do. In fact this worry goes deeper than just worrying about human beings being 'special' in some way and whether or not they are the only species that possess such consciousness. Indeed, we might think that there is in general something special about each animal species; namely that each one possesses a distinctive viewpoint upon the world and that this is only accessible if one is a member of that species. This is precisely the sort of worry aired by Nagel. Of course if Nagel is right, then human beings should have no problem with access to what it is like to be human beings, but he also argues that such access can never be explained in purely scientific, naturalistic terms.

His argument focuses on attempts to capture experience from the objective perspective of science and he claims that "no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically that there is something it is like to be that organism.' This being the case, if a scientific naturalist account is to succeed '''something it is like to be' features must be given a physicalist account." Nagel denies that this is a possibility, he claims that:
"Every subjective phenomenon is, essentially, connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view."
According to Nagel, materialist philosophies rest on the fundamental principle that the whole of reality can be described in objective physical terms. The physically objective world is the only world there is and it exists independently of subjective human or animal perspectives.

He describes the materialist conception of reality as saying that underneath the different appearances of things there must lie a reality that is independent of how things appear to human beings or any other animals. The world would exist even if there were no human or other observers in it; hence its true nature must be detachable from how it seems to any observers. This means that according to materialist philosophies, if we wish to reach a conception of the world as it objectively is we have to not think of it from an individual point of view or perspective, and not think of it from a general human perspective. The physical world as it is in itself contains no points of view and nothing that can appear only to one particular point of view. Whatever it contains can be apprehended by a general rational consciousness divorced from the sensory organs of particular individuals or species. Although this conception of reality has been immensely useful in the development of physics, Nagel believes that it cannot be the whole story. He argues that the subjective perceptual points of view which are left out of the objective account continue to exist, furthermore they are the necessary conditions of human beings acquiring evidence about the physical world. Human beings cannot collect evidence except from their spatio-temporal location and this means they must have a perspective; as well as this, the objective conception of the world is formed by mental activity. For Nagel then, a complete explanation of reality will have to take account of these things because they are also part of reality.

In his arguments against a scientific, objective conception of reality, Nagel appears to take an overly positivistic view of science and of philosophical analyses that take science seriously. However, I think Nagel is correct though in his attack on materialist theories of mind (and by implication, human beings) even if there are some problems with his arguments.7 In the next chapter I will show how materialist, conventionally naturalistic theories of human beings miss out on essential features of them, and also how non-naturalist accounts miss out on much the same sort of features. Much of this is due to both of them working with the same sort of disengaged view of the world, just the sort of view that Nagel is so critical of. I don't believe that Nagel's criticisms should make us give up on a naturalist programme altogether though. Rather what we need to do is to draw it in as inclusive a way as possible, a way that takes into account not just the 'objective' features of the world, but also the 'subjective' features of human experience of the world. In Chapter 2, I outline just such an inclusive, broad framework.

Such a framework provides us with the opportunity to explore the continuity between human beings and other non-human animals, whilst at the same time preserving the uniqueness of being human without having to resort to any form of unnecessary or distorting humanism. In other words, it allows us to place human beings alongside other non-human animals firmly in the 'natural order' whilst at the same time recognising human beings unique characteristics. The most interesting of these characteristics is human beings' 'personhood', which I will explore in Chapter 6. However, human beings are also uniquely 'social' beings and I shall look at this fact in Chapter 4 and show how being a social being is an essential feature of being human. This sociality depends in part upon the 'lived' nature of the human beings bodies and I shall look in detail at this in Chapter 3. However, I believe we also need to guard against any unwarranted humanism whereby human beings are overly distanced from other non-human animals. To this end I shall show how human beings can be regarded as unique but at the same time as continuous with the rest of the 'animal kingdom' in Chapter 5.

In the course of this thesis, my primary aim is not to provide conclusive or damning arguments against either conventional naturalism or non-naturalism; rather I hope to weave together the components of an alternative picture, one that presents a more convincing, persuasive and plausible alternative - broad naturalism. As Sherlock Holmes says:
"One's ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature."
In other words I intend to show that to come to anything like a full understanding of what it is like to be a human being we have to adopt a broadly naturalistic framework. Conventional naturalism and non-naturalism will be shown to be lacking because they cannot fully account for human beings' experience of the world or of how they are 'at home' in their world. However, at the same time by taking the broad approach we can accept that there are 'truths' in both conventional pictures and weave these into a cohesive whole that can account for the experience of being a human being. Most of all though a broadly naturalistic account will allow us to see what a wonderful 'piece of work' a human being truly is.

Department of Philosophy, The University of Hull
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