Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts about human nature at the end of the semester

Because a few students asked what I think about some of the issues we have discussed through the semester, I put together a few of my (not necessarily consistent) thoughts about what we can know philosophically. I am leaving out all the argument that I think establishes these points. I am leaving out what additionally we might be able to know via faith, because I take that to be a separate realm from what can be known by more or less pure reason.
To know anything completely, we have to be able to step back from it and get an objective view of it. Our own humanity precludes us from taking just such an objective view of humanity. At one and the same time, we all are intimately aware of what it is like to be a human, but we may never be able fully to articulate what it is to be human. So, every attempt is going to give us the shape of the human condition without ever quite filling in all the detail. At least, I am going to use that claim to explain the way that I will fail to give a full and fully clear picture of human nature.
We are, by our biological and psychological natures, social beings. We cannot survive well alone, either as children or as adults. Our identities are formed in relation to others and continue, to some degree, in relation to others. For this reason, our ethics have to be concerned with others, but this is not somehow in distinction or opposition to our interests to ourselves. We don’t exist without others and our interests cannot be separated in some clear way from the interests of those around us. We are neither good nor bad by nature, but rather torn between our narrow self-interest and a wider interest, sometimes opting for one rather than the other. And, this connection is not just a matter of our reason, but also of our emotions, which also must have a part in our conception of humanity and in our ethics.
Similarly, though we like to think of our selves as entirely individual, we are communal and our identities are relational. There’s no hard and fast delineation of my “self” from those around me. This is another reason why concern with others is not opposite to concern with myself.
For these reasons, there is very little more important to a well-lived human life than friendship and the virtues that underlie it: courage, justice, honesty. 
I think we are more determined than the existentialists would have us believe. Our choices are often severely constrained by our situations, our backgrounds, and—as current neuroscience suggests—the operations of our brains below the level of our consciousness. We are not absolutely free. But, I believe that we are free—we certainly cannot help but feel free—that our conscious decisions make a difference to our action. In our conscious decisions, we need to be more aware of the ways that we are constrained in our decisions and assert our control in spite of these constraints. Freedom is a burden, but partly because we have to struggle against our unfreedom and because we have to be careful not to constrain the choices of others.
In one sense, there is certainly more to us than just our physical being. We are not merely matter; we are also conscious, we have minds. But, we cannot know whether this mind is some substance over and above the physical body. And, we have no evidence to think that it is, while believing in substance dualism has largely intractable problems. We do know that somehow, out of a very complex physical mechanism, a very complex mental mechanism arises. That makes us special, though perhaps not unique. It also means that we are on a continuum with the other animals, who resemble us physically and, to a lesser degree, psychologically. But, we are pretty distant from the other animals on that continuum, whether that is for better or worse.
That being said, I don’t think we can have any evidence that there is more to our lives than what we experience on this earth. That means that we should make this life the best life we can. In no way does this mean that everything is permitted or that there is no morality. Given our social nature, given our physical nature, given our interconnectedness, there are better and worse lives for us and there is no account of a good life for me that doesn’t take into account its effects on you and others around me. Many of us—perhaps most of us—don’t achieve a happy or fulfilled life, but it is what we all aim at.
Our consciousness is what makes each of us what she or he is. This consciousness is both intensely private and personal—making us each alone in it—and formed in our interactions with one another and in our presentation of ourselves to others—making us profoundly partial and interrelated. We are each individual and alone but driven by a need to connect; back to that idea of the importance of friendship.
This consciousness, at least as self-consciousness, is also a creation and a constantly changing creation of some part of us. The best evidence we now have tells us that even our memories are constantly in flux and not “stored” in the static way that external memory can be. So, we are always creating ourselves, in every moment. In a sense, there is only the me that exists at this moment, but a me that is generated by the same brain, the same mind, arising out of the same body, and with a sense of being the same self. One sense in which we survive is through the continued re-creation of this consciousness in the consciousnesses and memories of others. One way, for instance, that my grandfather lives on is through my memories of him and through the sharing of stories about him. If we survive in any other way that can matter to us, this consciousness must be part of that survival.