On Being Human

Are we human because of unique traits and … not shared with either animal or machine? The … of “human” is … we are human by virtue of the … that make us human 

Are we human because of unique traits and attributes not shared with either animal or machine? The definition of “human” is circular: we are human by virtue of the properties that make us human (i.e., distinct from animal and machine). It is a definition by negation: that which separates us from animal and machine is our “human-ness”.

We are human because we are not animal, nor machine. But such thinking has been rendered progressively less tenable by the advent of evolutionary and neo-evolutionary theories which postulate a continuum in nature between animals and Man.

Our uniqueness is partly quantitative and partly qualitative. Many animals are capable of cognitively manipulating symbols and using tools. Few are as adept at it as we are. These are easily quantifiable differences – two of many.

Qualitative differences are a lot more difficult to substantiate. In the absence of privileged access to the animal mind, we cannot and don’t know if animals feel guilt, for instance. Do animals love? Do they have a concept of sin? What about object permanence, meaning, reasoning, self-awareness, critical thinking? Individuality? Emotions? Empathy? Is artificial intelligence (AI) an oxymoron? A machine that passes the Turing Test may well be described as “human”. But is it really? And if it is not – why isn’t it?

Literature is full of stories of monsters – Frankenstein, the Golem – and androids or anthropoids. Their behaviour is more “humane” than the humans around them. This, perhaps, is what really sets humans apart: their behavioural unpredictability. It is yielded by the interaction between Mankind’s underlying immutable genetically-determined nature – and Man’s kaleidoscopically changing environments.

The Constructivists even claim that Human Nature is a mere cultural artefact. Sociobiologists, on the other hand, are determinists. They believe that human nature – being the inevitable and inexorable outcome of our bestial ancestry – cannot be the subject of moral judgment.

An improved Turing Test would look for baffling and erratic patterns of misbehaviour to identify humans. Pico della Mirandola wrote in “Oration on the Dignity of Man” that Man was born without a form and can mould and transform – actually, create – himself at will. Existence precedes essence, said the Existentialists centuries later.

The one defining human characteristic may be our awareness of our mortality. The automatically triggered, “fight or flight”, battle for survival is common to all living things (and to appropriately programmed machines). Not so the catalytic effects of imminent death. These are uniquely human. The appreciation of the fleeting translates into aesthetics, the uniqueness of our ephemeral life breeds morality, and the scarcity of time gives rise to ambition and creativity.

In an infinite life, everything materializes at one time or another, so the concept of choice is spurious. The realization of our finiteness forces us to choose among alternatives. This act of selection is predicated upon the existence of “free will”. Animals and machines are thought to be devoid of choice, slaves to their genetic or human programming.

Yet, all these answers to the question: “What does it mean to be human” – are lacking.