What does it take to be human?

Occasionally a question comes out to my mind-Are we human just because of the unique traits and attributes not shared with animal or machine?

If I follow the definition of “human” , it is circular: we are human by virtue of the properties that make us human (i.e., distinct us from the animal and the machine). Clearly this is a definition by negation: that which separates us from animal and machine is our “human-ness”.

However, inevitably, we are human because we are not animal, nor machine.

Such thinking has been rendered progressively, less tenable by the advent of evolutionary and neo-evolutionary theories, which postulate a continuum in nature between animals and Man.

Our uniqueness is partly quantitative, partly qualitative.

Many animals are capable of both – cognitively manipulating symbols and using tools, but few are as adept at it as we are. These are easily quantifiable differences – just two of many.

Qualitative differences are a lot more complex to substantiate. In the absence of the privileged access to the animal mind, we cannot and do not know if animals feel guilt, for instance. Do animals feel love? Do they have a concept of sin? What about object of permanence, meaning, reasoning, self-awareness, critical thinking, individuality, emotions, or empathy?

Is artificial intelligence (AI) an oxymoron, being restricted in particular path of knowledge? In this sense, a machine that passes the Turing Test may well be described as “human” – but is it really in practice? And if it is not – why it isn’t?

World literature is full of stories of monsters – Frankenstein, the Golem – and androids or anthropoids, with their behavior described as more “humane” than the humans around them. Most probably, this is what really sets humans apart: their behavioral unpredictability!

The unpredictability is yielded by the interaction between the mankind’s underlying immutable genetically-determined nature – and Man’s kaleidoscopically changing environments.

The Constructivists claim that Human Nature is a mere cultural arte fact. Socio-biologists, are determinists, by believing that the human nature – being the inevitable and inexorable outcome of our bestial ancestry – cannot be the subject of moral judgment.

One improved Turing Test would look for baffling and erratic patterns of mis-behavior to identify humans. Pico della Mirandola in “Oration on the Dignity of Man” wrote that Man was born without a form and can mould and transform – actually, create – himself at will.

Existence precedes essence, claimed the Existentialists, centuries later.

The things that are defining human characteristic may be our awareness of our mortality. In this sense, the automatically triggered, “fight or flight”, battle for survival is common to all living things (and to appropriately programmed machines).

The catalytic effects of imminent death is uniquely human. The appreciation of the fleeting, translates into aesthetics. The uniqueness of our ephemeral life breeds morality, whereas the scarcity of time gives rise to ambition and creativity.

In an infinite life, it comes out that everything materializes at one time or another, so the concept of choice is spurious.

The realization of our finiteness, makes us choose among alternatives. This act of selection is predicated upon the existence of the “free will”. Animals and machines are thought to be devoid of choice, slaves to their genetic or human programming.

However, all these answers to the question: “What does it mean to be human?” – are lacking and are being unanswered.

The set of attributes we designate as humans, are subject to profound alteration. Drugs, neuroscience, introspection and experience cause irreversible changes in these traits and characteristics. The accumulation of these changes can lead, to the emergence of new properties, or to the abolition of old ones.

It is worth emphasizing that the animals and the machines are not supposed to possess free will or to exercise it. What, about fusions of machines and humans (bionics)? At which point, does the human turn into a machine? And why should we assume that free will ceases to exist at that – rather arbitrary – point?

Introspection being an ability to construct self-referential and recursive models of the world, is supposed to be a uniquely human quality. But how about introspective machines? Such machines are programmed to introspect as opposed to humans. In order to qualify as introspection, it must be WILLED, so that they continue. But, if introspection is willed – WHO wills it? Self-willed introspection leads to infinite regression and formal logical paradoxes.

The notion, if not the formal concept, of being “human” rests on many hidden assumptions and conventions.

Political correctness notwithstanding: why presume that men and women (or different races) are identically human? For example – Aristotle thought they were not.
A lot separates males from females – genetically (both in genotype and in phenotype) and environmentally (culturally). What is common to these two sub-species that makes them both being “human”?

In this sense another question rises – Can we conceive of a human without body (i.e., a Platonian Form, or soul)?

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas thought – no, as a soul has no existence separate from the body. A machine-supported energy field with mental states similar to ours today – would it be considered human? In this line is the question – What about someone in a state of coma – is he or she (or it) fully human?

Further on – Is a new born baby human – or, at least, fully human – and, if so, in which sense? What about the future human race – whose features would be unrecognizable to us? Would it be thought of the machine-based intelligence as human? If yes, when would it be considered human?

In all these deliberations, undoubtedly, we may be confusing “human” with “person” – but the former is a private case of the latter.

Locke‘s person is a moral agent, that is being responsible for its actions, constituted by the continuity of its mental states accessible to introspection.

Locke’s definition is functional. It readily accommodates non-human persons (machines, energy matrices) if the functional conditions are satisfied. An android which meets the prescribed requirements, is more human than a brain dead person.

Descartes’ objection that one cannot specify conditions of singularity and identity over time for the disembodied souls is right only if we assume that such “souls” possess no energy. A bodiless intelligent energy represents the matrix which maintains its form and identity over time by being conceivable – certain AI and genetic software programs already do it.

Strawson is Cartesian and Kantian in his definition of a “person” as a “primitive”, as both the corporeal predicates and those pertaining to mental states apply equally, simultaneously, and inseparably to all the individuals of that type of entity. Human beings are one such entity. Wiggins, limit the list of possible persons to animals – but this is far from rigorously necessary and is unduly restrictive.

The truth is probably in a synthesis of all above said:

In this sense, a person is any type of fundamental and irreducible entity whose typical physical individuals (i.e., members) are capable of continuously experiencing a range of states of consciousness and permanently having a list of psychological attributes.

This definition allows for non-animal persons and it recognizes the personhood of a brain damaged human (“capable of experiencing”). It incorporates Locke’s view of humans as possessing an ontological status similar to “clubs” or “nations” – their personal identity consists of a variety of interconnected psychological continuities.

One must always remember the virtues of the meanings of being human, explore and expand the horizons and educate him/herself further, as this is one of the crucial essence of being human.

You can learn more at:
Ravi Zacharias – What does it Mean to be Human? – The Veritas Forum


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