Category Archives: Human Nature-Philosophical

Who Are We?

(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?

(excerpt from Who Are We?: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific and Transhumanist Theories Of Human Nature)

Who Am I?

(Today is my 60th birthday.)

Who am I? This is surely one of the most fascinating questions we can ask. Am I an immaterial soul trapped inside a body, or am I just matter, or do I have “no self” as the Buddhists say? Am I a separate ego distinct from every other thing, or a window, vortex, or aperture through which the universe temporarily becomes conscious, or something else?

Or if I do have a self, is it just a social face I present to the world, what Jung called “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”1 After all, the English word person derives from the Latin word “persona,” which referred to the mask actors wore in stage plays. Do I then have many masks, many persona? I just don’t know. 

Notice how language is deceiving? I ask “do I?” “Am I” “I have” “I think” assuming there is an I. If I say “I have a body,” that assumes dualism of self and body. If I say “I am a body,” that’s better, but it still sounds like the I exists. Perhaps, when pointing to myself, out of this mouth should come the phrase “bodying.” This points to an event rather than a substance—an event rather than a substance ontology. It is all so confusing. Perhaps some snippets of poetry might help.

Here’s the Italian poet Eugenio Montale:

I am no more
than a spark from a beacon. Well do I know it: to burn,
this, nothing else, is my meaning.

The Chilean Pablo Neruda began his poem, “We Are Many,” as follows:

Of the many men who I am, who we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.

The American poet Ezra Pound said it like this: “In the search for oneself, in the search for ‘sincere self-expression,’ one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says ‘I am this, that, or the other,’ and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.”2

In T.S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman, a character says:

I’ve been freed from the self that pretends to be someone
And in becoming no one, I begin to live.

All this reminds me of Keats who talked of one’s need “to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thought not a select party … to have no identity … no fixed character, no fixed opinions.”3

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in the Estate of Poetry said:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person.

I am not one person, but am I anything? You are not one person, but are you anything? If I pretend to be someone, who is doing the pretending? Could it be there is no one pretending, because there is no one or no(thing) behind the mask? Both the Buddhists and Hume said as much. (And the atheist Sam Harris argued for no self in his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.) But surely this is true. I am not a self/soul in a body, for my body is porous and needs the air which needs the trees which need water which needs earth which needs the universe … and the multiverses too if they exist. So is I just another name for everything?  We’ve come full circle to the same question. Who am I and do I exist?

Confusion reigns. Poetry reveals the mystery we live within, but it gives no answers.


  1.  C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (London 1953) p. 190
  2. Michael Hamburger, The Truth in Poetry: Tension in Modern Poetry… p. 267.
  3. Michael Hamburger, An Unofficial Rilke, p 16.

Alan Watts: Who Am I?

(This multimedia presentation was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 23, 2014)

One of my first encounters with philosophy came when I was about 15 years old and was watching a PBS video featuring Alan Watts (1915 – 1973). I wasn’t philosophically sophisticated enough then to understand much of what he was saying, but I do remembering thinking he was cool. He had a beard, drank tea and seemed so … philosophical.

Alan Watts was a British born philosopher, and one of the first writers to popularize Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western audience. One of the first philosophy books I ever read as a teenager was, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts. It asked one of the most fundamental questions we can ask: who am I? .

Now we may think we know the answer to this question. For example, we may believe that our individuality ends with our bodies. But Watts asked, 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 legs or arms?   And there is no breathable air without plants, so why aren’t they a part of us? In fact, our existence depends on the earth’s ecosystem and the sun. Following this line of thinking, we ultimately depend on the entire universe for our existence.

So perhaps we aren’t egos inside bags of skin, or even separate egos at all. Maybe we are like windows or 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,” 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? Or as Watts asks, doesn’t the universe just “people?”

And such questions are not merely academic. If we think we are separate from the world, then it is more likely to feel like something alien to us that we must confront. But if we see that we came out of the universe, then we are more likely to treat the universe as our home. We will see 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, in some sense, we are the universe?

Summary of Sartre’s Theory of Human Nature

Sartre: Radical Freedom

(This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 -1980) was France’s most important philosopher for much of the twentieth-century as well as an important novelist and playwright. Sartre is classified as an existentialist. This means at least three things. Sartre is interested in: 1) the uniqueness of an individual life, not abstract theories about a shared human nature; 2) the meaning of life from a subjective point of view; and 3) the freedom to choose one’s projects, meanings, and values. To better grasp existentialism, here is a very brief sketch of some of a few of the philosophers who influenced Sartre.

The Danish Christian Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is usually thought of as the first existentialist, although there is an existential dimension in many previous Christian thinkers especially Augustine and Pascal. Like Marx, Kierkegaard reacted to Hegel’s philosophy, rejecting its abstruse metaphysics and focusing instead on individuals and their choices. Kierkegaard believed people generally choose one of the following as their basic attitude toward life: 1) they searched for pleasure; 2) committed to family, work, and social responsibility; or 3) concentrated on religion and the divine. The latter life is the best but it involves taking a “leap of faith.” [Kierkegaard writes of his agony about choices and their implications as passionately as anyone.] What is most important about Kierkegaard’s thought for existentialism is its turning away from objective truth to focus on subjective consciousness.

The other seminal figure in existentialism is the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 -1900), who is famous for declaring that “god is dead.” The idea is that religion no longer plays a very significant role in western culture, we have seen through its illusions, and we need to find the meaning of life without invoking gods. Nietzsche thinks we must create our own values, we must become supermen who reject conventional, religious values [“slave morality”] and exert our will to power [“master morality”] Nietzsche investigates subjective phenomena like  emotions, will and consciousness. [The most accessible introduction to existentialism that I know of is William Barrett’s Irrational Man.]

Sartre’s Life and Work – Much of Sartre’s work originates from and is influenced by his experiences as a Frenchman in Nazi occupied France. His focus on choice was surely influenced by the choice that the French faced: collaboration, resistance, or quiet self-preservation. He later became a Marxist, although he thought Marxist philosophy would benefit by emphasizing freedom. He joined the Communist Party in the early 1950s, although he left it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He was politically active later in life, supporting exploited workers, nascent political revolutions and condemning American aggression in Vietnam. In the first phase of his thinking, he focuses on individual freedom, and in the second, he explores the social and economic limits on human freedom. [It is if his early bedrock belief in freedom was shaken by the reality of the social and economic world.]

Metaphysics: Consciousness and Objects, Atheism – Sartre distinguishes human consciousness and inanimate non-consciousness. This is not a distinction between two different substances, it is not a mind/body dualism, but between “two modes of being.” One is the way conscious beings exist—being for itself—the other the way non-conscious things exist—being in itself. Consciousness is always about something, including sometimes itself, whereas inanimate things are not conscious. [He’s trying to get at what it is to be, to be conscious, to be human.] The other main foundation of Sartre’s thought is his thoroughgoing atheism. He assumed that there are no transcendent values, and no intrinsic meaning or purpose for our lives. Life is absurd, we are forlorn. We have to grow up and choose our own values and projects. The meaning of life isn’t something discovered, but something we create. We must give our lives meaning.

Theory of Human Nature: Existence and Essence, Negation and Freedom – Sartre doesn’t believe in a human nature or essence that precedes individuals. Rather our existence precedes our essence; we have to create our own essence. Nothing, not god or evolution, created us for any purpose other than the purposes we choose. Of course Sartre recognizes that we are biological beings, but there are no general truths about what we should or ought to be. The most basic thing we can say about humans is that they are radically free, to be anything except to not be free. [They can choose anything except choose not to choose.] In his words, we are “condemned to be free.” Consciousness is also aware that it is not the objects it ponders, that many things are not the case, and that we lack many things. The concept of nothingness or negation relates to freedom for Sartre. For the ability to conceive of what’s not the case—I could have done that—implies the freedom to imagine and choose other possibilities. In large part consciousness is this conceiving or desiring things to be different—not to be as they are. Negation implies freedom of mind and of action.”

Sartre rejects Freud’s psychic determinism as well as the idea of the unconscious. Sartre believes we choose our mental states like emotions. This may be true sometimes but other emotions, like concern and care, seem to be very much a part of our nature. He also thought that character traits are choices. I am not shy, I choose to be shy. While this may be partly true we now know enough about biology to know that it’s not the whole truth. Still Sartre thinks that our radical freedom is evident when we make resolutions. I say I won’t eat cookies starting Monday, but when Monday rolls around and I’m confronted with cookies—I face my freedom because my past resolution doesn’t constrain me. Confronting choices leads to angst or anguish. We don’t know what we will do or what to do. We can jump off a bridge, and we could throw our child off a bridge too. When we confront our freedom it brings anxiety.

Diagnosis: Anguish and Bad Faith, Conflict with Others – Freedom brings anxiety which we try to avoid by denying our freedom. But we cannot escape freedom, we must choose, we are condemned to be free. [Think about the anxiety of choice. What job should I do? Who should I marry? Where should I live? What should I believe?] A way out of choice is to imagine we must believe this or do that, to act in bad faith in Sartre’s language. This is a kind of self-deception where we imagine that our thoughts and actions are determined when they are up to us. [You could be an axe murderer or join the Peace Corps. You could be an atheist or a join a religious order. You could do or think whatever you want.] In Sartre’s famous examples a woman acts in bad faith when she doesn’t recognize her freedom to resist a man’s advances; and the waiter acts in bad faith when he assumes, if he does, that he must act like a waiter. The woman is not an object to be seduced and the man is not essentially a waiter. Actions and beliefs are sustained by our choices.

Sartre rejects that bad faith could be explained by Freudian repression. Is there a censor in the mind that represses? If so it must decide what to repress and what not to, so it must be aware of what’s repressed so as not to be aware of it. Bad faith then describes a whole person, not some part of their mind. But to say one is sincere or has good faith is also problematic because again, we are not essentially anything. If I act gay, shy or arrogant there is still a distinction being made between the self doing the describing and the self that is described. But we cannot be described because we are not artifacts. So I am not essentially shy, gay, or arrogant. To say so is to act in bad faith. [Sartre says you choose to be gay, shy or arrogant.] While this is all perplexing, the key and best idea in Sartre is that we can always be different from we are, which is probably a good thing to believe.

Sartre does think we can justifiably infer that other people have minds. [Some thinkers argue that we can’t know this.] When others look at us we know we are being observed, hence we experience emotions like shame, embarrassment or pride. Sartre also argues that relationships between conscious people are necessarily ones of conflict. Other people look at us and objectify us, thereby threatening our freedom. In response we might try to control others by treating them as objects. So Sartre believes that Hegel was right; all human relationships are master/slave relationships that depend on differences in power. Sartre believed that master/slave relationships were expressed in sexual desires, and he also thought that we couldn’t really respect the freedom of other people. This is Sartre at his bleakest. [When you read Sartre you often feel that he just had a fight with his longtime lover, companion, and intellectual giant, Simone de Beauvoir.]

Prescription: Reflective Choice – Sartre rejected objective values—values are wholly subjective. So there is no specific way of life or course of action he can recommend. What he can do is condemn bad faith and praise making choices with an awareness that nothing determines them. This means accepting responsibility for our actions, beliefs and everything else about ourselves, while rejecting the idea that there are objective values to which we must adhere. [Sartre, following Marx, ascribes the latter to the ruling classes for whom the status quo works.]

Sartre illustrates how objective values [or ethical theories] don’t help us in situations where we must freely choose. In a famous story he asks: should a man go off to fight the Nazis or stay home and care for his mother? No moral theory, intuition, or emotion tells you what to do. You must simply exercise your freedom and choose. [To say that some moral principle forces you to do one thing or another is to act in bad faith, it denies your freedom.] Sartre is partly right that no moral theory answers every moral question, but that seems different from saying you should do whatever you want.

What Sartre says we should do is act authentically. We should act recognizing that we are free to act in many different ways, and we are responsible for our actions. Today Sartre’s assertion flies in the face of research about how much of our mental processes are unknown to us consciously. [Not to mention the influence of genes and environment on our behavior.] But Sartre maintains that to have self-knowledge entails understanding the reasons, not the causes, of our actions and beliefs. He also thinks that people must choose their own values and create their own meaning in life. But is authentic choice all there is to it? If so it would seem Sartre has to commend dedicated Nazis, compulsive child tortures, or sadists like Cheney, Yoo, Addington, Rumsfeld and other members of the George W. Bush administration who approved torture. Also, Sartre would have to condemn someone who does apparently good things because they believe in objective values. But does that make those things wrong? So an ethics which boils down to “just choose” is incomplete.

Authenticity and Freedom for Everyone – As Sartre’s thought developed he did come to see how freedom was situated within the contexts of facts about human beings—their facticity. Our freedom is limited by our bodies and our place in history and society [none of us will ever be born to Sam Walton and inherit about 20 billion dollars!] Some have the chance to go to Harvard or Oxford and become physicians or scholars, but most do not. So Sartre backtracked a bit from his claims about our radical freedom as his thought matured. He also advocated for social change. He believed that we might change the world by becoming  more godlike, by seeing ourselves as the only source of salvation and meaning in this world.

Sartre also came to believe that relationships with others could be authentic. If others sees you as free, they give some meaning to your life through that recognition. He even argues there can be authentic love. [Perhaps he was experiencing the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.] Still his most basic value was freedom, but not just the freedom that conscious beings have when they choose, “but the value judgment that every person ought to be able to exercise his or her freedom in concrete ways, and thus that human society should be changed in the direction of making this a reality for everyone.” To be authentic is to recognize the freedom of all people. And this obtains in a socialist, classless society where “all human beings will be able to express their freedom. Thus Sartre encourages us to use our freedom to change both ourselves and the world.

On Human Nature and Its Future

Here are some thoughtful quotes on the topic of human nature.

[Humans] will become better when you show [them] what [they are] like. ~ Anton Chekhov

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. ~ Oscar Wilde

This may be the curse of the human race. Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike. ~ Salman Rushdie

Anton Chekhov                                 Oscar Wilde                        Salman Rushdie

The above quotes hint at the depravity of human nature, or at least that something is not quite right about human nature. We could be so much more than we are now. But this is not a matter of simply ascribing to a new religion or philosophy:

The man’s (a heathen south sea islander) a human being, just as I am; he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. ~ Herman Melville (Moby Dick)

There is something deep in human nature that isn’t ameliorated by religious practice or erased by our fantasies of being angelic. Why? Because we are not what we think we are. As Darwin wrote in his Notebooks:

[Humans in their] arrogance think [themselves] a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider [them] created from animals. 

Today we would go even further than biology to explain human nature—we employ chemistry and physics too:

The astonishing hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. … This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing. ~ Francis Crick

Herman Melville                   Charles Darwin                                 Francis Crick

Yet reductionism need not leave us hopeless. Darwin himself told us as much in some of the most beautiful and profound lines ever penned in the English language:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But even Darwin didn’t know that cultural evolution would evolve exponentially, outpacing biological evolution by many orders of magnitude. Cultural evolution, especially technological evolution, changes the world with rapidity. There is now a realistic possibility of transforming this human nature, so that our descendants may come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang. Many thinkers from the Shakespeare onward have glimpsed new worlds.

We know what we are, but we know not what we may become. ~ Shakespeare

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Frederick Nietzsche

All the past is but the beginning of a beginning; all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.~ H.G. Wells

Mankind is still embryonic … man is the bud from which something more complicated and more centered than man himself should emerge. ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Frederick Nietzsche                                    H.G. Wells                                 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Even from the cold and darkness of Russia a glorious future was envisaged:

But at the same time, in reality, what a difference there is between the world today, and what it used to be! And with the passage of more time, some two or three hundred years, say, people will look back at our own times with horror, or with sneering laughter, because all of our present day life will appear so clumsy, and burdensome, extraordinarily inept and strange. Yes, certainly, what a life it will be then, what a life! ~ Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov