(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 12, 2015)
Who Are We? We may think we know the answer to this question, but there are possibilities we haven’t considered. For example, we may think that what we are is inside our bodies, but perhaps that’s wrong. Why do we end where our bodies do? After all, our skin is porous and interacts with the environment. We can’t survive for more than a few minutes without the air, so why isn’t the air as much a part of us as our lungs or legs? And for us there is no breathable air without plants, so why aren’t they a part of us too? In fact, our existence depends on the earth’s ecosystem and the sun. Following this line of thinking, our existence ultimately depends on the entire universe.
So perhaps we aren’t egos inside bags of skin; perhaps we aren’t separate egos at all. Maybe we are like windows, apertures or vortexes through which the universe is conscious of itself for a brief moment. While we are fond of saying things like “I came into this world,” as if our essence was preparing to wage war on reality, isn’t it more accurate to say, “I came out of the universe?” Don’t people come out of the universe like leaves come out of trees, or waves come out of oceans?
And such questions are not merely academic. If we feel separate from the world, then it is alien to us; it becomes something we must confront. But if we see that are connected the universe, then we are more likely to treat it as our home. We will realize that the environment that surrounds our bodies is as much a part of us as our heart or lungs. If we despoil the environment, we despoil ourselves; if we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves. So perhaps we are the universe looking at itself from billions of perspectives. In fact, couldn’t we say that we are the universe slowly becoming self-conscious?
These are just some of the ideas we will consider in this book. What we will discover is that there are many ways of thinking about human nature. We might be mostly social selves as Confucius thought, or God in disguise like Shankara believed, or have no self like the Buddha claimed. Aristotle and Kant thought we are primarily rational creatures, but Marx and Freud believed that we are largely determined by societal or irrational influences, while Sartre argued that the only nature we have is the one we create. But one thing is certain, we are animals with a long evolutionary history, and we will continue to evolve as science and technology transform us. We now know where we came from, but we are not sure where are we going.
In discussing individual theories I will consider each theory as encompassing a:
1) theory of reality; 2) theory of human nature; 3) major problem of life; and 4) solution to that problem. I hope that this will both better explain the theories, and allow them to be compared with each other.
We will begin by examining various religious systems that originated in the axial age: Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judeo-Christianity. Then, we will discuss the philosophical theories of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Kant and Sartre, as well as two theories of human nature from the social scientists Marx and Freud. Next we will turn to Darwin and the neo-Darwinians for insights into human nature from evolutionary biology. Finally, we will ponder the future of human nature, especially how science and technology will transform human nature to the extent that we may become become post-human.
Generally early theories of human nature are religious, modern theories of our nature respond to science or are full-fledged scientific theories, and theories about the future consider how science and technology will transform our nature. This transition from religious descriptions of reality and human nature to scientific ones is not surprising, given the rise of influence of science since the seventeenth-century. Today science is the only cognitive authority in the world, and if we really want to know who we are we must understand something of modern science, particularly our evolutionary history. And once we take an evolutionary perspective we will see that our descendents, should they survive, will come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang. Such concerns lead to our final question, what is the future of human nature?