What makes us Human? Part 1

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Part 1. A Biblical Understanding.

(Opinion Piece)

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (נִשְׁמַ֣ת neshamah); and man became a living soul (לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה nephesh chayah).

(Genesis 2:7 [KJV]

Humans have an inescapable problem of understanding what defines them, because the nature of the definition is both paradoxical and complicated. Biblically, some things regarding the essence of what constitutes a “living soul” may be known, others are left to the domain of speculation. These are intentionally cryptic and we should leave the ambiguities as such, and allow for the fact that they are known unknowns. The story of the birth of humanity found in Genesis (B’reishit בְּרֵאשִׁית) pronounces the human struggle with mortality and the limits of what we can know, represented by the two trees having special mention.

However, conflicting worldviews to Christianity, render biblical definitions as counter cultural conjectures based on myth and are disparagingly dismissed “out of spite”. Apologists, that hold scholarship in higher esteem than the Word of God (for fear of being regarded as kooky) are the first to be dragged into interminable philosophical vortexes of “going nowhere” (Colossians 2:8) and to capitulate to heresy. The answer to what makes us human is theological, not scientific nor philosophical. People who do not subscribe to this view will accuse those of us who do of (being crackers in a circular pantry) circular reasoning. My advice is to be prepared to give your apologian (ἀπολογίαν) to all who require a reason (logon λόγον) [1 Peter 3:15] 

[27] And God created man in his own image , in the image of God created he him ; male and female created he them . [28] And God blessed them : and God said unto them , Be fruitful , and multiply , and replenish the earth , and subdue it ; and have dominion over the fish of the sea , and over the birds of the heavens , and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth .

(Genesis 1:27-28 [ASV])

What can we know?

Physically.

  1. Humans are formed from the dust of the ground and hence have a physical material body, a necessary and inseparable constitutive part of being human. No body, not a human being.
  2. Humans are either male or female. Not male or female, not a human being.
  3. Humans reproduce after their own kind. The natural reproductive product of human parents. Not born of humans, not a human being.
  4. Humans are mortal (Genesis 6:3). Not mortal, not a human being.

Otherwise.

  1. Humans are stewards for God in the material realm of their habitat (Earth) for His creation in that habitat. (Genesis 1:28)
  2. Humans are created in the “image” (tselem בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ in the Hebrew, or translated into the Greek LXX as eikona εἰκόνα; refers to the nature or essence of a thing) of the Creator. (Genesis 1:27). Not in the image of the Creator, not a human being.
  3. Humans have free will and therefore the ability to choose (can choose to, or not, whether to eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil [Genesis 3:6]). No free will, not a human being.
  4. Humans can communicate with God and each other (Genesis 2:16, 19) therefore having the ability to understand and discern.

This is not an exhaustive list but one derived from a cursory reading of the Creation narrative. A clear biblical concept of what it means to be human is useful when confronted with questions such as, “Is possession of a human consciousness enough to be considered human?” A Christian answer to this question would elicit a negative response on the basis that being human requires a physical material body.

Christianity teaches the doctrine of the resurrection of the body after death: This is our eternal life (after death). Maybe this is what people find so scandalous about it (from the Greek skandalon σκάνδαλον, stumbling block [1 Corinthians 1:23]). It proceeds to the inevitable conclusion that the body is an essential and integral part of the person. “This led the Patristic writers to insist on the indispensability of the body for what it was to be human. To deny the importance of the body was to deny that it was created by God, and that it had been redeemed through the incarnation and bodily death and resurrection of Christ; in fact, it was a denial of redemption as such.” (Gousmett 1993 p.22) 1 Gousmett, Christopher John. Shall the Body Strive and Not be Crowned? Unitary and instrumentalist anthropological models as keys to interpreting the structure of Patristic eschatology. © 1993, 2008 Christopher John Gousmett.  p. 22 Available at https://earlychurch.org.uk/book_gousmett.php Not a human being, no redemption.

I live in what can be described as a post-Christian Europe, more specifically the United Kingdom, and thus where secularism (intended in its sanitised sense; a political idea, separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state. In the unsanitised sense it can mean; the elimination of Christian ethics from the public sphere) has taken over as the dominant worldview. However in spite of this, the resultant sense of what constitutes a human being may be understood and summarised by the two freedoms the majority of people feel are inviolable. The right to ones body and the right to ones thoughts (or more specifically one’s sense of Self). This “minimal” ideology has been elaborated and expanded upon in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the U.N. which has now become synonymous with that list of principled platitudes, which morally bankrupt politicians use as a cheat sheet to spout their empty rhetorical cliche’s to arrive at their agendas.

This sense of self has an almost ineffable quality to it, but is probably best expressed as a form of “mental and physical isolation”. The experience of the exclusively owning ones impervious thoughts, internal conversations, perceptions and affective states that go on to constitute a sense of personal identity, unique individuality, personal continuity and a personal differentiation from the senses of selves of others.

It is interesting to note that the right to the body and to the sense of Self are both being subtly “assailed” by subliminal cultural pressures in today’s world. Plastic surgery allows for the “tweaking”, the altering of the body to ones specifications including ones sex. The idea of the “upgrade” being transferred to humans and not just personal electronic gadgets is the ideology behind trans-humanism. 2the proposed use of technology to allow human beings to develop beyond their natural capabilities. Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers This is basically the hacking of body parts, in a kind of tool like bodily interchangeability of mechanical prostheses considered to be (in a transhumanist view) upgrades to somewhat “lacking” biological structures. The biblical view is Psalms 139:14 3I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. Psalms 139:14 (ASV)

Although, some trans-humanists purport a religion free ideology, trans-humanism does not seem to liberate itself from a form of spirituality. There seems to be an acceptance of a form of asymmetrical unity between the transcendent and the immanent, and thus (arguably) axiomatically between a perceived dichotomy of the spiritual and the material.

Zylinska argues that it could be regarded as ingenuous to believe in a lack of connection between the immaterial essence, “animating” the body and the body that envelops it as its’ habitation. “The metaphysical perception of the self as a sum of bodily parts plus ‘something else’ (psyche, soul, practical reason) can itself be described as a prosthesis, an extension of the corporeal towards the spiritual, a bridge between materiality and ideality.” (Zylinska, 2002, p.229-230).4ZYLINSKA, Joanna (ed.) 2002, Technologies: Studies in Culture & Theory : The Cyborg Experiments : The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age (1), Continuum, London, GB. p.229-230 If the self is defined as just; the sum of bodily parts plus the soul, it seems logical to assume that the the sum of the self is threatened by a gradual replacement of those parts. Ghost in a Shell, the Japanese manga-movie examines the replacement of body parts by transplants and mechanical prostheses, and questions if there is still a soul inside it?

Mirt Komel makes a parallel with the paradox of Theseus’ ship asking the questions; “Regardless of its many variants the question remains always the same: does a thing remain the same if we change one by one all of its parts? Or to articulate it in a cyberpunk manner: does a human remain the same if we change all his body parts into prosthetics?” (Komel 2016) 5Komel, Mirt. “The ghost outside its shell.” Teorija in praksa volume 53. issue 4 (2016) str. 920-928, 1023. (p.922)
<http://www.dlib.si/?URN=URN:NBN:SI:DOC-D4DTTRWO>
He precedes that by stating “In the cyberpunk world we are immerging in the very word “ghost” denotes an individual’s consciousness that differentiates a human from a robot. Even if someone replaces his own biological body with a fully cyborgized prosthetic one, including a cyber-brain as the locus of the ghost, one can still be considered human as long as one retain one’s own ghost”? (Komel 2016). News Flash! It’s worth noting; the separation of the body from the soul is the “biblical” definition of death (to give up the ghost). Hence I am left somewhat doubtful of the achievability of such an operation.

The ancient question inexorably follows the paradox: at what point is the genuineness of the original compromised? (when would that person become a new human being?). This question is somewhat reflected in an adage attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus which states “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” and is not an easy question to answer. I am now obviously not constituted in the same manner as when I was born, however I identify myself as the same person and so do others (my “identity” has apparently remained the same).

Christopher D. Green writes: “Initially, Heraclitus may have been one of the first victims of a major misquotation in philosophical history. No less an authority than Plato (Cratylus, 402a) said he had argued that “it is not possible to step twice into the same river,” and this claim continues to be widely attributed to Heraclitus to this day. This misunderstanding may have been due to a group of proto-skeptics active in Ephesus at Plato’s time (about a century after Heraclitus’ death) who erroneously called themselves “Heracliteans.” Arius Dydimus, a 1st century BC doxographer reported that what Haeraclitus had, in fact, said was, “as they step into the same rivers, different and still different waters flow…” (DK22 B12, emphasis added), a very different sentiment indeed: the river remains the same but its material composition changes as different water flows through it.”6 Green, Christopher D. “Heraclitus’ Theory of the Psyche” available at https://www.yorku.ca/christo/papers/heraclit.htm Accessed Sunday, 03 July 2022.

If the Fragment DK22b12 (K&R 214) is taken as genuinely Heraclitus’ what he does say is: ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ (potamoisi toisin autoisin embainousin hetera kai hetera hudata epirrei) On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow.

Daniel W. Graham comments: “The major theoretical connection in the fragment is that between ‘same rivers’ and ‘other waters.’  B12 is, among other things, a statement of the coincidence of opposites. But it specifies the rivers as the same. The statement is, on the surface, paradoxical, but there is no reason to take it as false or contradictory. It makes perfectly good sense: we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed. There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains (cf. Hume Treatise 1.4.6, p. 258 Selby-Bigge)………………the message of the one river fragment, B12, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism7Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus/..

I feel this “constant metabolism” could be better articulated in terms of the Greek word οὐσία (ousía), in its philosophical sense of “essence”. The term ousía is difficult to explain, however can be understood by the suffix “ness”. Using an analogy: All non mechanical pencils in the world share a “pencil-ness” about them. They have a long cylindrical body made of wood, the dimensions of which fit comfortably between the thumb and index finger of an average person. This exterior, envelopes an internal core of graphite that leaves a mark on surfaces when applied to them. The core is worn out with use and shaving the wooden exterior reveals new graphite that allows a continuation of its use. Changing the colour of the core or shaving off wood, does nothing to “essence” of the pencil. This “pencil-ness” is the οὐσία (ousía) or essence (some translate as substance) that all pencils share with each other, in order that they may be defined as pencils.

This οὐσία (ousía) persists over time. One could compare it to Ariadne’s thread extrapolated into a temporal fabric. Thus, if one was to replace a part of the body with a prosthetic, its replacement would not subtract from the quality or quantity of one’s “human-ness” as long as this human “essence” returns the same value as the original. Clearly this is just my personal opinion and there is no pretence to it being otherwise.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

(II Corinthians 13:14 [ASV])

Featured Image: Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

Footnotes

  • 1
    Gousmett, Christopher John. Shall the Body Strive and Not be Crowned? Unitary and instrumentalist anthropological models as keys to interpreting the structure of Patristic eschatology. © 1993, 2008 Christopher John Gousmett.  p. 22 Available at https://earlychurch.org.uk/book_gousmett.php
  • 2
    the proposed use of technology to allow human beings to develop beyond their natural capabilities. Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers
  • 3
    I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. Psalms 139:14 (ASV)
  • 4
    ZYLINSKA, Joanna (ed.) 2002, Technologies: Studies in Culture & Theory : The Cyborg Experiments : The Extensions of the Body in the Media Age (1), Continuum, London, GB. p.229-230
  • 5
    Komel, Mirt. “The ghost outside its shell.” Teorija in praksa volume 53. issue 4 (2016) str. 920-928, 1023. (p.922)
    <http://www.dlib.si/?URN=URN:NBN:SI:DOC-D4DTTRWO>
  • 6
    Green, Christopher D. “Heraclitus’ Theory of the Psyche” available at https://www.yorku.ca/christo/papers/heraclit.htm Accessed Sunday, 03 July 2022.
  • 7
    Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus/.

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