What makes us Human?

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Reply Sat 1 Mar, 2008 02:29 pm
There is an exercise my philosophy proffesor did one time. I don't know if it is feasible to do in a setting like this, but I will try.

First I must ask the question: What is it that makes us human?

For those who want to interact with this exercise, post your answers. When everyone has posted, I will compile all the answers into one post, then go on from there.

This may be fun, or fail miserably, we'll see.
 
Vasska
 
Reply Sat 1 Mar, 2008 02:53 pm
@de Silentio,
I would say:

Our ability to think & reason and to make our choices based upon our thinking and reasoning.
 
ogden
 
Reply Sat 1 Mar, 2008 06:22 pm
@Vasska,
The answer is limited by the definition of the word human. Words are only symbols and can only be consepts in a synthetic reality. We are not the word human so your question must be asking what is it that differentiates us from everything else.

We are biological life forms, mamals, primates, and homosapiens (biological classifications). These destinctions contribute to the concepton of what it is to be human and therefore are valid answers to the question of what it is to be human.

If your question is seeking the most significant unique atribute that make us human then my answer is that we have the capacity to question what we are (second-order thought).
 
Aedes
 
Reply Sat 1 Mar, 2008 11:04 pm
@de Silentio,
I cannot abide a definition of human that will knowingly exclude those of us who for various reasons are unable to reason. I can reason right now, but if in 5 minutes I have a bleeding aneurism that leaves me in a permanent vegetative state, have I ceased to be a human? What about people with mental retardation? What about people with advanced alzheimers?

Do we exclude from humanity those who don't share these higher neocortical cognitive functions? I don't think so. We are a biologically delimited group, and these biological limits pertain to ALL humans. If reasoning doesn't pertain to ALL humans, then it's not reasoning that makes us human.
 
Pythagorean
 
Reply Sun 2 Mar, 2008 08:22 am
@Aedes,
Aedes wrote:
I cannot abide a definition of human that will knowingly exclude those of us who for various reasons are unable to reason. I can reason right now, but if in 5 minutes I have a bleeding aneurism that leaves me in a permanent vegetative state, have I ceased to be a human? What about people with mental retardation? What about people with advanced alzheimers?

Do we exclude from humanity those who don't share these higher neocortical cognitive functions? I don't think so. We are a biologically delimited group, and these biological limits pertain to ALL humans. If reasoning doesn't pertain to ALL humans, then it's not reasoning that makes us human.


Pardon me, but that doesn't quite make sense to me.

Because what would it be then that distinguishes those handicapped persons who cannot think or reason from the bulk of healthy, living people who can think and reason? The answer I will venture lies in the fact that they can no longer reason or reason to the degree where they can make significant choices based upon thinking. This is part of the very definition of their handicap.

If you 'have a bleeding aneurism that leaves me in a permanent vegetative state' do you not then cease to be something of which most humans still are in a state of being? Whatever distinguishes us as human must also distinguish us as functioning normally as we would when we are healthy. It seems to me that the most normal case is where we should decide upon a meaning for a species not the most abnormal case.

(Also, if reason can found values then let it fall to reason to create humane care policies for the handicapped and not use the exceptional or most abnormal values as the guide for what is humane.)

Using your criteria what would, for example, prevent us from classifying dead people as human beings? Perhaps we could even determine what is human by their being chiefly motivated by emotions instead of reason?
 
Aedes
 
Reply Sun 2 Mar, 2008 10:49 am
@Pythagorean,
I think you've misread my post. I was making an ironic point as to why I think it's absurd (and arrogant) to use our highest cognitive function as a way of defining ourselves.

Pythagorean wrote:
Because what would it be then that distinguishes those handicapped persons who cannot think or reason from the bulk of healthy, living people who can think and reason? The answer I will venture lies in the fact that they can no longer reason or reason to the degree where they can make significant choices based upon thinking. This is part of the very definition of their handicap.
Right. I know. My argument is that they are[/b] still human. If one argues that "what makes us human is the ability to reason", then one is in the weird position of having to account for all the Homo sapiens sapiens who for various causes cannot reason.

Quote:
It seems to me that the most normal case is where we should decide upon a meaning for a species not the most abnormal case.
So that means that you could potentially have an abnormal child who would be excluded from being a human? What would you call them, then? Would you call them a subhuman?

Quote:
(Also, if reason can found values then let it fall to reason to create humane care policies for the handicapped and not use the exceptional or most abnormal values as the guide for what is humane.)
Fine, but interpersonal and societal values come largely from an empathic sense of shared humanity. So if a cognitively impaired human is devalued as "less than human" (i.e. a subhuman), then they can be (and through history have been) excluded from humane treatment.

Quote:
sing your criteria what would, for example, prevent us from classifying dead people as human beings?
I'd just call them dead. Or dead humans, or dead people, whatever you like. It's a qualification. We can speak of human beings in the past tense, and thus talk of dead people as humans solely with reference to how they were when living.

Quote:
Perhaps we could even determine what is human by their being chiefly motivated by emotions instead of reason?
Hehe, well I think that in reality this is a better characterization of humans than is ability to reason, but still I think that the object human being is a biological entity. If you want to define humans in metaphysical or moral terms, that strikes me as a different project and you need to justify why it should be something other than a biological definition.
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Sun 2 Mar, 2008 11:10 am
@de Silentio,
Quote:
Hehe, well I think that in reality this is a better characterization of humans than is ability to reason, but still I think that the object human being is a biological entity. If you want to define humans in metaphysical or moral terms, that strikes me as a different project and you need to justify why it should be something other than a biological definition.


I think this objective, to define humans in some metaphysical or moral terms, is usually begun by asking the question "What is it to be a person", instead of the initial question of this thread.

If I recall correctly, the question of personhood is where we get the thought experiments about aliens who have the use of reason, ect, as humans do yet are biologically different from humans.

In answering the question 'what is it to be human', I agree with Aedes - "the object human being is a biological entity".
 
VideCorSpoon
 
Reply Sun 2 Mar, 2008 12:00 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
It seems like the original question "what is it that makes us human?" is problematic. Does this imply the physical attributes of the substance called human? So is human just a heap of bone and flesh and sinew.

The question should very well be "What does does it mean to be human?"


Does "to be a human " mean "to have x?" Say one dies and the their body turns to dust yet the memory of the person remains. Are they not human anymore because they are not "what makes them (i.e. substance?"
 
RuhiWarrior19
 
Reply Sun 2 Mar, 2008 12:13 pm
@de Silentio,
What makes us human? Biological and immutable things. A skeleton is human, I am human, a foetus is human.

What makes us people? The ability to make moral choices. This is not something confined to humans, and no something all humans have equal degrees of. Thus, you can be less a person or more a person. A Chimapnzee may be marginally a person, and a human with limited cognitive and ethical abilities may be less of a person than me. It does not take definition of what morality is, or which decisions are right, but the ability to conceive of abstractions and make decisions based on abstractions rather than based on purely pragmatic and survival-oriented reasons.
 
Pythagorean
 
Reply Sun 2 Mar, 2008 01:08 pm
@Aedes,
Aedes wrote:
I think you've misread my post.

...My argument is that they are still human. If one argues that "what makes us human is the ability to reason", then one is in the weird position of having to account for all the Homo sapiens sapiens who for various causes cannot reason.

So that means that you could potentially have an abnormal child who would be excluded from being a human? What would you call them, then? Would you call them a subhuman?[/]



Why, I would call them a 'retarded' human (or whatever is the correct word for it).

I don't think its a weird position for a society to be in - since where it is societies' duty to classify, or give privileges and the like or to deny them to its sundry members. Even to declare when the life support should be removed from a non-functional brain.

Should a retarded person be allowed to vote on whether or not we go to war, for example? And the abnormal child will be excluded from jury duty, military service and possibly even the privilege of driving a car.

So in some sense they will be "sub" something in that they can't be allowed the full priviledges that society has to offer. And I wouldn't state that they are "sub" biological objects.

Aedes wrote:

Fine, but interpersonal and societal values come largely from an empathic sense of shared humanity. So if a cognitively impaired human is devalued as "less than human" (i.e. a subhuman), then they can be (and through history have been) excluded from humane treatment.


That's fine, but I think that carefully "devaluing" or classifying the mentally impaired is only done by humane societies. We classify them in some sense as "sub" standard in order to protect them. The important thing is whether or not the society they live in is humane or 'human'. It is 'human' to care for the handicapped precisely because they are less so; they can't care for themselves. And I believe that people can be better pursuaded to protect and pay for the care of the "sub" human, or sub-mental, than they would if we referred to them as being defective biological objects, meaning that they are nothing but flesh, bone and bio-tissue.

If you were to investigate the "inhumane" societies from the past (or today in the developing world) I think you will find a society that doesn't value reason i.e. which practices in-human policies.


Aedes wrote:

Hehe, well I think that in reality this is a better characterization of humans than is ability to reason, but still I think that the object human being is a biological entity. If you want to define humans in metaphysical or moral terms, that strikes me as a different project and you need to justify why it should be something other than a biological definition.


This is a thread about ethics I believe. And I still say that the highest cognitive faculty is a viable candidate for what we define as being human. Without this "arrogant" hierarchy which places reason above, say unreason, the mentally handicapped will be left to fend for themselves. Without reason who is to say they are retarded..maybe they are messengers of a god and should be...?

It's just that's how I always defined being human: the choice to me is between saying we are emotional beings or we are rational beings. And for now I say we are defined by reasoning capacity. And that's my answer to the original question, for now at least Smile
 
Philosopher phil
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 12:50 am
@Pythagorean,
Our feeling of our creativeness makes us human:)
 
Aedes
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 07:00 am
@de Silentio,
I like to distill problems down to their barest elements. And this boils down to whether to be human is some essential quality, or if it's the mere nature of being a member of this biological species.

Consider the following two hypothetical situations:

1. A group of Pan troglodytes (the chimp) that has complex spoken and written language, highly elaborate philosophy, abstract reasoning, and technology.

2. A Homo sapiens child with anencephaly (a condition in which most of the brain doesn't form, only basic brainstem and midbrain reflexes exist, there is no thought).

Which of these is the human? The thinking, creative, rational one? Or the biological one?
 
ltdaleadergt
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 07:37 am
@de Silentio,
Our mistakes and experinece! A child learns by experiences. In physical form the physical apperance, in genetic level our 22 pairs chromosomes( edit my bad), in intellectual level our ways of logic, and.........
A human is a creature that CANNOT be understood! NOT now NOT EVER! In order to know what is a human we need to ask this, WHO are YOU? We need to know ourself first, than the next step is to know others! The last step to see how exactly a NORMAL human can be!
 
ogden
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 08:03 am
@Aedes,
Aedes, your example is well taken and I must agree that our biology is most certainly the determination of a species. Given samples of DNA I know that science could determin which are human.

The ambiguity of the question is the problem. The original question uses the term "US". The word US could be interpreted as a totality of humankind, or as an average (normative) human. The former would include your example and eliminate cognition as a defining atribute, and the later would exclude your example and alow cognitive ability to differentiate human from non human.

Indeed you are correct Aedes. The determination of our kind must be biological even if our distinguishing atribute is cognition, because ustimately our biology is the function (mechanism) of our thoughts.

Again the original question is so simple in its design that the reader tends to (erroniously) expand it to its next level. I mean everyone intuits what is human so easily and rapidly that we assume the author is asking something more than is written in the question. Our DNA makes us human is the simple answer but thats not the answer we want to give. We want to answer in an idealistic way. Seekers such as ouselves want to know what makes us uniquely aware of ouselves, in a phenomenological maner, so we answer the question that is prominant in our mind instead of the one we see before us.

Does that make any sense?:rolleyes:
 
Doobah47
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 08:05 am
@de Silentio,
The answer to this is a long list of individual attributes that have to be considered individually and as a whole mass of inter-relating attributes. Unfortunately this list can never be compiled, as Daleader said we can never know everything about anything. The most specifically 'human' thing about humans is their brain, so in the question 'what differentiates a human from other life forms' the easiest and most conclusive response is 'their brain', because all other animals have all these vital organs and senses and reasoning capabilities, but they do not have this specific human brain. Perhaps if a surgeon were to transplant a human brain into a rabbit, the rabbit would be overcome by creative inspiration and go crazy at not being able to create due to such a limited body.

So maybe the most human part of us is not in fact the brain but the hands, the brain being secondary to the hands.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 09:28 am
@ltdaleadergt,
ogden wrote:
Again the original question is so simple in its design that the reader tends to (erroniously) expand it to its next level. I mean everyone intuits what is human so easily and rapidly that we assume the author is asking something more than is written in the question.
Amazing how so many abstract philosophical debates, in the end, are an issue of ambiguities in language. And sometimes presenting a question a certain way makes it seem like there is a one question / one answer relationship. But as you say the original question "What makes us human?" hinges entirely upon what the original poster means by "makes", "us", and "human".

<daleader> wrote:
in genetic level our 32 chromosomes.........

You have 32 chromosomes? :eek:
 
ogden
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 02:10 pm
@Aedes,
Hello Aedes,
Aedes wrote:
Amazing how so many abstract philosophical debates, in the end, are an issue of ambiguities in language. And sometimes presenting a question a certain way makes it seem like there is a one question / one answer relationship. But as you say the original question "What makes us human?" hinges entirely upon what the original poster means by "makes", "us", and "human".



Yes it is amaizing. It also shows how dificult it is to stay away from epistemology, for not only what you know is important but also how you know it:D. So I segway to fiction.

Our conversation reminded me of a sci-fi story "Island of Dr. Maroue". Have you seen it? There is an old black and white version and a newer version (both good). Anyway, the story has ideas that are significant to what it is to be human (or sub-human). For those who hav'nt seen it the scientist grafts animal and people together and his subjects are in conflict about what they really are.

Now I have a biological question for you. I have read that the human genome (and some others) are replete (or at least tainted) with snipets of viral genetic code that gets transmited (piggy back) during cell devision and are now incorperated onto our genome. Have you heard of this?

If our genome contains traits that are no longer expressed like dormant genes for a tail, then this dormant tail is also part of what we are. So then if this biological definition of human is constantly changing as we regenerate what it is to be human must also be constantly changing as well. What is the point of departure when we become something else?
 
Pythagorean
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 03:02 pm
@Aedes,
Aedes wrote:
I like to distill problems down to their barest elements. And this boils down to whether to be human is some essential quality, or if it's the mere nature of being a member of this biological species.


By all means, we should try to distill the problem down to the barest elements and although I disagree I will say that your position is well stated.

Aedes wrote:
Consider the following two hypothetical situations:

1. A group of Pan troglodytes (the chimp) that has complex spoken and written language, highly elaborate philosophy, abstract reasoning, and technology.

2. A Homo sapiens child with anencephaly (a condition in which most of the brain doesn't form, only basic brainstem and midbrain reflexes exist, there is no thought).

Which of these is the human? The thinking, creative, rational one? Or the biological one?


I think the chimp is acting more like a human in this case, although I don't believe it is aware of what it is doing as a real human would be aware. And I don't believe that the child with anencephaly fulfills all of the requirements of what it means to be fully human. And since she is biologically determined to be human her inability to behave in a mentally healthy manner points us toward a more complete definition of what it means to to human.

I wonder if it makes sense for me to say that the biological construction or biological makeup of a human being is only one (necessary) factor in the definition of what it means to be a human being? And since the biology of a human being is purely material I would further say that it is the 'material cause'.

I have thought about the possibility that we humans are in reality machines wholly explicable via material substance and forces. I wonder if your position entails this definition of man as mechanism? I don't think that is what you mean but I still must maintain that I find your definition of what it means to be human lacking.

Perhaps de Silentio can help here by providing clarification regarding the original question?

--Pyth
 
Aedes
 
Reply Mon 3 Mar, 2008 10:50 pm
@Pythagorean,
Ogden wrote:
I have read that the human genome (and some others) are replete (or at least tainted) with snipets of viral genetic code that gets transmited (piggy back) during cell devision and are now incorperated onto our genome. Have you heard of this?
Yes, that is true. A lot of our DNA sequence doesn't actually encode anything active. There are long non-coding sequences. Our genes are interspersed with non-coding sequences called introns that have to be spliced out. Many of these introns are thought to be dead viral genomes.

There are many virus families that cause human disease that integrate their genetic material into our DNA. The most famous ones are the HIV virus (well, after changing it from RNA into DNA), the hepatitis B virus, and the herpes viruses (of which at least 8 routinely infect humans). In ALL of these cases the integrated DNA becomes a permanent part of the genetic material of the infected cell. So it's easy to imagine us being infected with viruses that infect our germline cells (the cells that produce sperm and eggs), and some of these viruses may not be viable -- so we permanently get that viral genome passed through our offspring. Of course it would have to be incorporated in a way that does not disrupt an essential gene.

Quote:
If our genome contains traits that are no longer expressed like dormant genes for a tail, then this dormant tail is also part of what we are. So then if this biological definition of human is constantly changing as we regenerate what it is to be human must also be constantly changing as well. What is the point of departure when we become something else?
You can always divide, divide, and subdivide. But this is a big issue in biology these days -- not so much with big organisms (which are pretty easy to classify on taxonomic and genetic grounds), but rather with microorganisms. They're doing things like 16s subunit RNA sequencing (which is a highly conserved part of the genome) to define species among microorganisms -- because it's just too imprecise to use morphologic categories like "gram positive" or "spirochete" anymore. At any rate, we evolve too slowly to have to worry about a shifting definition of us. Furthermore, I'd argue that the point of exclusion versus inclusion among humans versus nonhumans is not all that difficult to find -- because the closest living nonhumans on the planet are chimps, and you might have noticed that they look a bit different Wink

Pythagorean wrote:
I think the chimp is acting more like a human in this case
Well yes, that's the point, and humans if they so desire can act like chimps. But the question isn't "what does it mean to act like a human".

Quote:
I don't believe it is aware of what it is doing as a real human would be aware.
This response means that you're not responding to my hypothetical scenario, though. I posited a group of chimps that IS aware, that has complex language, technology, is able to philosophize and think abstractly and rationally, and can communicate using language.

For my scenario to be worth pondering (and worth a response), then you have to imagine the scenario in which such a thing is possible. Because I'd argue that the ONLY thing that causes people to claim that reason or self-awareness or creativity is "what makes us human" is that these features happen not to be shared by other animals -- but if we suddenly discovered that they were shared by others, then you'd suddenly have to find another way of defining us. So my argument is that humans have to be defined by the ONE THING that cannot possibly be imagined in other animals -- and that is how we are biologically defined.

As I've said before, many times, this conflict lies at the very root of all philosophy -- the fact that we can't stand being things.

Quote:
And I don't believe that the child with anencephaly fulfills all of the requirements of what it means to be fully human. And since she is biologically determined to be human her inability to behave in a mentally healthy manner points us toward a more complete definition of what it means to to human.
Are you saying that there are full humans and partial humans? Certainly this example is of a biologically defective human, but it's still without any possible argument a live offspring of our species. It's as human as anything else.

Quote:
I wonder if it makes sense for me to say that the biological construction or biological makeup of a human being is only one (necessary) factor in the definition of what it means to be a human being? And since the biology of a human being is purely material I would further say that it is the 'material cause'.
I have to side with the existentialists here:

Existence comes first. Essence second. You have to define a human by the most universal feature, not by an idealized essence.

Your argument that I've quoted looks very much like Aristotle's metaphysical ideas, which I find to be not a very useful way of understanding things anymore. A human being IS a material thing. We can describe non-material things like abstract thought as unique elements of the human experience -- but unless it's universal among all humans, sick or well, it cannot be said that this is what it means to be human.

Quote:
I have thought about the possibility that we humans are in reality machines wholly explicable via material substance and forces. I wonder if your position entails this definition of man as mechanism? I don't think that is what you mean but I still must maintain that I find your definition of what it means to be human lacking.
Even if we were entirely explained in biological terms, it wouldn't matter. It doesn't change the fact that we feel and we experience. The biological mechanisms are incidental to discussions like this -- I think we can take them for granted and still have a conversation about meaning. But if you're going to define humans based on an essential quality, you have to alternatively and adequately define all the members of our families and communities who lack that quality.
 
ltdaleadergt
 
Reply Tue 4 Mar, 2008 04:41 am
@Aedes,
Aedes wrote:


You have 32 chromosomes? :eek:

hehe sorry it was a long time since I did bio mind me it was 4 years ago:D thx for reminding me :p
 
 

 
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