Category Archives: Human Nature-Philosophical

Modern Philosophers on Human Nature

The Reformation: Where Lies the Authority for Faith? – Christianity dominated the social, political, and religious life of Europe for more than a 1000 years, from the fall of Rome till at least the 17th century. The first major division of Christianity occurred with the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke from the western Catholic Church. But four successive cultural movements slowly unraveled the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 17th century scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment.

The Renaissance refers to the flowering of reason and humanism, literally “the rebirth” or rediscovery of Greek and Roman thought. The next great cultural movement was the Reformation, begun when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five thesis of the door of his German church. There had been other reforming voices before Luther, such as John Wycliffe and John Hess, but Luther’s protest really sparked the Reformation. [Both Wycliffe, who was one of the first to translate the Bible into English, and Huss met terrible fates. Huss was burned at the stake, while Wycliffe was declared a heretic whose remains exhumed and burned. William Tyndale, another of the early translators of the Bible was also burned at the stake.]

Luther had many disagreements with the Church, especially with their selling of indulgences which allowed people to believe they could buy their way into heaven. Theologically Luther believed that one is save by faith and grace alone, thus there was no need for the Church to act as an intermediary between god and humans. He also rejected reason which he famously called a whore. [He rejects the Church, its scholasticism (using reason in theology) and the rise of reason associated with the Renaissance.] And he emphasized the scripture as a truer source of religious truth than the Church.

This religious reform—especially the emphasis on faith and the authority of the Bible—spread throughout northern Europe. The emphasis on scripture was particularly strong in the thought of John Calvin. He helped develop a theocratic state in Geneva, and his ideas spread with the puritans to England and then to America where the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible was developed. Of course this hardly settled matters as the issue of interpretation of the Bible arose. In response some sects like the Quakers placed more emphasis on religious experience. All of this led to centuries of violent conflict and genocide between various religious groups. [Today Europe is almost completely secular, while America is much more overtly religious.]

The Rise of Science: How Does Scientific Method Apply To Human Beings? – The 17thcentury scientific revolution changed the world. [Look around you anywhere and you see the overwhelming evidence of its influence.] The combination of an experimental method [most associated with Francis Bacon] and the mathematical reasoning utilized by Galileo and Newton showed that science could explain the heavens and earth. Consequently appeals to the Bible and the Church in matters of science began to seem futile. But how far can a scientific approach go in explaining human beings? Are humans material only or is there some immaterial component to them?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1659) – Hobbes was a materialist [one who believes only matter exists] who rejected dualism [the idea that both matter and mind/soul exist.] He argued that the idea of an immaterial soul made no sense, espousing instead a materialistic explanation for all states of body and brain—human nature is exclusively materialistic. Hobbes also argued that humans are selfish, desiring wealth, power, fame, food, clothing, shelter and more for themselves. But as all these things are in limited supply, humans are at war with each other in an effort to obtain them. To avoid this state of war humans accept a coercive political authority to adjudicate their disputes—they trade some of their freedom for the security of the state. This is ultimately in each individual’s interest, inasmuch as it helps them survive. Hobbes was also an atheist who wanted the churches subordinate to the state.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1659) – Descartes is probably the most famous exponent of the dualist view—human nature is composed of a material body and an immaterial mind/soul. The body occupies space and is studied by science; the mind/soul doesn’t occupy space and can’t be studied by science. This immaterial component can exist without the body. While one can doubt the existence of the body and the external world—perhaps you are dreaming the world or some evil demon is making you think there is one—you cannot doubt your own consciousness. [Even if you are deceived about the existence of your consciousness, you must be to be deceived. Thus “I think therefore I am.] In this way Descartes could remain a Catholic and a and scientist at the same time.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) – Spinoza attempts to reconcile dualism and materialism. Spinoza is a pantheist—god and nature are identical. [This begins to reconcile the material and immaterial.] He also advocated the dual-aspect theory of mind or human nature. For Spinoza mind and matter are two aspects of one underlying reality. Mental events are the same as brain events but we can describe these events as either mental or physical. In other words mind is what the brain does. [This is a bit more materialistic than dualistic.]

The Enlightenment: Can Science Be Our Guide To Life? – As science became accepted as the only cognitive authority in the world [religion and science basically has switched places since the middle ages] the question of apply these insights to human nature arose. Could reason and science explain human beings and improve the human condition? [The evidence is in … the answer is YES.] Could scientific explanations replace religious, philosophical, poetic explanations of human beings? Gradually rational approaches, especially in politics, replaced religious explanations.

David Hume (1711 -1776) – Hume was an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge derives from sense experience. Reason tells us about the relationship between logical and mathematical ideas, but sense experience tells us how the world works. Our ideas are derived from impressions, either sense impressions or introspective reflection of one’s own mind. What we call matter is just a bundle of perceptions—and so are we. There is no soul or self, only a flow of consciousness, a succession of mental states. We are simply a bundle of perceptions, a continual flow of perceptions without any underlying substance. [This is similar to the doctrine of no self in Buddhism.] Needless to say there are no religious overtones to Hume’s thought, as he was a thorough going atheist and freethinker.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) – Rousseau is famous for his belief in the goodness of humans before the corrupting influence of civilization [the so-called “noble savage.”] He also believed that children have a good intrinsic nature that is corrupted by society. Like most romantics he believed that the natural was good. [This is quite dubious.] However he doesn’t allow for the innate selfishness so characteristic of the human race.

All these strains of thought will lead to Immanuel Kant, the crowing figure of the Enlightenment.

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 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 descendants, 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 personas? 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 ax 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 see 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.