Comment On The Importance Of Human Life
The preservation of human life is the ultimate value, a pillar of ethics and the foundation of all morality. This held true in most cultures and societies throughout history.
On first impression, the last sentence sounds patently wrong. We all know about human collectives that regarded human lives as dispensable, that murdered and tortured, that cleansed and annihilated whole populations in recurrent genocides. Surely, these defy the aforementioned statement?
Liberal philosophies claim that human life was treated as a prime value throughout the ages. Authoritarian regimes do not contest the over-riding importance of this value. Life is sacred, valuable, to be cherished and preserved. But, in totalitarian societies, it can be deferred, subsumed, subjected to higher goals, quantized, and, therefore, applied with differential rigor in the following circumstances:
1.. Quantitative - when a lesser evil prevents a greater one. Sacrificing the lives of the few to save the lives of the many is a principle enshrined and embedded in activities such as war and medicinal care. All cultures, no matter how steeped (or rooted) in liberal lore accept it. They all send soldiers to die to save the more numerous civilian population. Medical doctors sacrifice lives daily, to save others.
It is boils down to a quantitative assessment ("the numerical ratio between those saved and those sacrificed"), and to questions of quality ("are there privileged lives whose saving or preservation is worth the sacrifice of others' lives?") and of evaluation (no one can safely predict the results of such moral dilemmas - will lives be saved as the result of the sacrifice?).
2.. Temporal - when sacrificing life (voluntarily or not) in the present secures a better life for others in the future. These future lives need not be more numerous than the lives sacrificed. A life in the future immediately acquires the connotation of youth in need of protection. It is the old sacrificed for the sake of the new, a trade off between those who already had their share of life - and those who hadn't. It is the bloody equivalent of a savings plan: one defers present consumption to the future.
The mirror image of this temporal argument belongs to the third group (see next), the qualitative one. It prefers to sacrifice a life in the present so that another life, also in the present, will continue to exist in the future. Abortion is an instance of this approach: the life of the child is sacrificed to secure the future well-being of the mother. In Judaism, it is forbidden to kill a female bird. Better to kill its off-spring. The mother has the potential to compensate for this loss of life by bringing giving birth to other chicks.
3.. Qualitative - This is an especially vicious variant because it purports to endow subjective notions and views with "scientific" objectivity. People are judged to belong to different qualitative groups (classified by race, skin color, birth, gender, age, wealth, or other arbitrary parameters). The result of this immoral taxonomy is that the lives of the "lesser" brands of humans are considered less "weighty" and worthy than the lives of the upper grades of humanity. The former are therefore sacrificed to benefit the latter. The Jews in Nazi occupied Europe, the black slaves in America, the aborigines in Australia are three examples of such pernicious thinking.
4.. Utilitarian - When the sacrifice of one life brings another person material or other benefits. This is the thinking (and action) which characterizes psychopaths and sociopathic criminals, for instance. For them, life is a tradable commodity and it can be exchanged against inanimate goods and services. Money and drugs are bartered for life.
When The Morning Dawns
The following article covers a topic that has recently moved to center stage-at least it seems that way. If you've been thinking you need to know more about unconditional love, here's your opportunity.
When darkness turns to day, the sun moves over the horizon and touches everything in sight. This movement across the landscape brightens everything. Such an illumination awakens us all. We rise with energy moving in and through us allowing us to create a new day. A day unique from all the rest and creatively woven into our soul.
This is the landscape of our soul. As you can see, nature has a way of showing us just how powerful we are. The same power that created the moon and the stars and the movement of all space and time lies within the human heart. It is the heart of creation itself, and perhaps, the heart of our Creator.
Human beings are fortunate to be able to be aware of our awareness. This awareness gives us an opportunity to reflect on our soul and find blessing in being alive. Our consciousness of a creative force inside us guiding us into this world, through it, and eventually to our eternal home allows us to fulfill a purpose on this earth.
Such a purpose is beyond our own ability to really know. Yet, we can open our heart enough to allow our purpose to find us. This is done by recognizing that the things in life that really matter ARE the things in life that isn't matter.
Yes, it is our soul's longing to fulfill the purpose for which we came to earth for. No one really knows how a baby is conceived totally. Science and human understanding still hasn't been able to fully comprehend such a force of nature. We can only embrace what is beyond us and find a way to bring into being forces of nature such as a tiny child.
When a child is born, we are in awe. The miracle of birth creates something inside us all. It is the remembrance that life does not come from us. Instead, life comes through us. As such, we are living in a dream come true. All of us are probably living our soul's purpose more than we know, and even, can know. It is the mystery of all mysteries.
This does not explain why some of us find peace and other's find pain. But, such a philosophy will enable us all to find grace in knowing our lives create in our world facets of ourselves we all are a part of. An understanding of such grace gives every one of us a chance to find mercy and grace and the same unconditional love we came into the world with when we were born.
Samuel Oliver, author of, "What the Dying Teach Us: Lessons on Living"
Enlightenment Is Not Just One State
Many people has the notion that enlightenment is one state. Many also believe that when it is attained, a person is forever in that state.
The following is not a definitive article on this subject. It is just an expression of my own thoughts.
My opinion is that enlightenment is not just one state but is a progressive and gradual establishing of states of consciousness.
I, myself have not reach the end of the road. But from years on a spiritual quest, I can safely say that enlightenment happens in a series or stages of self-realisations and self-discoveries.
Usually there is a difference between an initial awakening and a later stabilisation of that stage that happens through practice or experiences. The initial awakenings are new discoveries about the dynamics of consciousness, while the stabilisation is the assimilation of what is being discovered into one's life experience. Sometimes, a new discovery can completely over-rule or modify upon an older one.
Almost all stages of enlightenment can be said to be associated with Presence. However, the enlightening Presence comes in various degrees of intensity and clarity. The degree of intensity is directly dependent on the level and depth of one's clarity as well as one's realisations/discoveries.
Also, as one progresses along, the relationship or connections of oneself to the universe and existence at large also becomes clearer.
Below very briefly illustrates the progressive and stage-based nature of enlightenment:
When one first begin meditating, one may first experience the all-pervading Presence. This Presence, is most often experienced when thoughts are momentarily suspended. This Presence which exists in the Eternal Present Moment is our true self.
However such an experience can only be classified as an awakening to the true self.. which is no-self. This is because, after the meditation, the Presence seems to have disappeared. One cannot understand and find the connection of presence to our everyday life. Therefore one will have difficulty re-acquiring the Presence. And it takes many stages and series of realisation to understand the relationship of Presence to our phenomenal world. It can be said that the prolonged sustaining of Presence is dependent on the stages and depth of realisation.
Also, during the earlier stages we may mistaken another state to be the pure presence. For example, we may mistaken 'I AM' for pure presence. This is because the thinking mind has created a reflective image of Pure Presence. This reflection of the absolute is 'I AM'.
Usually, in order to pass through the 'I AM' stage, the person must move unto even deeper understandings. These understandings may include realising that one's personality is not the doer of action. This stage may persist for a while before the person realises the illusion of subject-object division. This stage involves recognising the hypnotic impression of there being an observer and the being observed. Here is where one begins to see through the illusionary nature of our phenomenal world.
I cannot comment on the stages before me as they are beyond me. Nevertheless, one can still see from the above description that enlightenment is not so straight-forward after all.
For your necessary discernment. Thank you for reading.
Words To Live By
Watching the news the other day, it occurred to me that people who have "words to live by" often begin to attack and even kill others. I thought back to my own angry youth, when I could easily use words to justify violent thoughts which might have become violent actions. Words are tools, and yet it seems that they can be more dangerous than gunpowder.
Imagine two men facing each other, pointing past one another. One is pointing at a tornado that is coming, and the other at a raging fire headed towards them. Each sees their own truth and is angry at the sight of the other's hand. Each feels that the other's hand is "wrong." This may seem silly, but replace the tornado and fire with any modern issues, and the hands with words, and this scene describes how we often try to communicate.
We point past each other with our words, arguing as though we are looking at the same facts and experiences. We want to prove our words are the right ones, instead of learning to look at what the other's words are pointing at. Words are seductive, and for all their undeniable usefulness, they also can lead us away from understanding when we focus on them, when we make them more important than the truth they are meant to point at.
There Are No Words To Live By
This isn't just about communication with others. We focus on, and get trapped in a net of words that we use to explain the world to ourselves. We call things "right" or "wrong" for example, according to how they compare to our "definitions." Unlike mathematics, though, word formulas and definitions can never be so precise. They cannot encompass the whole truth of reality. For example, with the least effort, you can create a circumstance where "stealing" would be right, and "helping" someone wrong.
This isn't an argument against using language or logic. It is just that both only go so far. Like a car that takes you across the country or world, they are useful, but like a car, they are only useful in certain ways, and you have to get out of them when you arrive at your various destinations. Taking a car to the lake isn't a problem, but taking it into the lake is. This is what we do when our words and logic take us to dangerous situations.
Can having words to live by be dangerous, though? Absolutely. I once heard an otherwise compassionate person say he was against animal cruelty laws because he couldn't find a logical and defensible set of words to defend them. If he saw a new machine, would he refuse to believe it existed until he could explain it and describe it? Reality, and the reality of right and wrong exist outside of words - they are not the words themselves.
I watched a man say on the evening news that we have the right to drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq, and that we should. As he explained why, you could see that whatever compassionate impulses he had, they were over-ruled by his total allegiance to his words, logic, and where these take him. It never occurred to him that maybe there is truth outside of his words and logic.
It's great to have guidelines, like "don't lie," or "we have the right to defend ourselves." It is even better to remember that these rules will someday fail us, and we will have to make new ones. Words are just tools. There are words to die by, but there are no words to live by.
Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
I was always somebody who felt quite sorry for myself, what I had not got compared to my friends, how much of a struggle my life seemed to be compared to others. I was caught up in a web of negativity and needed someone or something to help me to escape.
During an afternoon at work one day, aged around twenty one, a colleague I was working with started to talk to me. What he said was quite upsetting and disturbing, however would have a profound effect on my future. He said to me:
"Your quite a depressive person, aren't you?"
I said in a shocked voice as I believed I was no different to anybody else. He continued:
"Yes you are. You very rarely smile, you are negative about most issues and you always seem to be carrying the world on your shoulders".
This man was aged around fifty three and continued:
"I used to be like you and then I was given some advice, of which I am now going to relay to you. When you feel down, depressed or sorry for yourself, read the newspapers or watch the news on the television. You may then realise that you are in fact one of the lucky ones."
I listened and thought about what he had said. I had never been a big reader or watcher of the news, but decided to start. The advice was totally correct, the news from around the world and even my own country was quite shocking. I realised that the worries I had were actually quite trivial and that I needed to cherish everyday and start to look on the bright side of life.
Fact And Truth
Thought experiments (Gedankenexperimenten) are "facts" in the sense that they have a "real life" correlate in the form of electrochemical activity in the brain. But it is quite obvious that they do not relate to facts "out there". They are not true statements.
But do they lack truth because they do not relate to facts? How are Truth and Fact interrelated?
One answer is that Truth pertains to the possibility that an event will occur. If true - it must occur and if false - it cannot occur. This is a binary world of extreme existential conditions. Must all possible events occur? Of course not. If they do not occur would they still be true? Must a statement have a real life correlate to be true?
Instinctively, the answer is yes. We cannot conceive of a thought divorced from brainwaves. A statement which remains a mere potential seems to exist only in the nether land between truth and falsity. It becomes true only by materializing, by occurring, by matching up with real life. If we could prove that it will never do so, we would have felt justified in classifying it as false. This is the outgrowth of millennia of concrete, Aristotelian logic. Logical statements talk about the world and, therefore, if a statement cannot be shown to relate directly to the world, it is not true.
This approach, however, is the outcome of some underlying assumptions:
First, that the world is finite and also close to its end. To say that something that did not happen cannot be true is to say that it will never happen (i.e., to say that time and space - the world - are finite and are about to end momentarily).
Second, truth and falsity are assumed to be mutually exclusive. Quantum and fuzzy logics have long laid this one to rest. There are real world situations that are both true and not-true. A particle can "be" in two places at the same time. This fuzzy logic is incompatible with our daily experiences but if there is anything that we have learnt from physics in the last seven decades it is that the world is incompatible with our daily experiences.
The third assumption is that the psychic realm is but a subset of the material one. We are membranes with a very particular hole-size. We filter through only well defined types of experiences, are equipped with limited (and evolutionarily biased) senses, programmed in a way which tends to sustain us until we die. We are not neutral, objective observers. Actually, the very concept of observer is disputable - as modern physics, on the one hand and Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, have shown.
Imagine that a mad scientist has succeeded to infuse all the water in the world with a strong hallucinogen. At a given moment, all the people in the world see a huge flying saucer. What can we say about this saucer? Is it true? Is it "real"?
There is little doubt that the saucer does not exist. But who is to say so? If this statement is left unsaid - does it mean that it cannot exist and, therefore, is untrue? In this case (of the illusionary flying saucer), the statement that remains unsaid is a true statement - and the statement that is uttered by millions is patently false.
Still, the argument can be made that the flying saucer did exist - though only in the minds of those who drank the contaminated water. What is this form of existence? In which sense does a hallucination "exist"? The psychophysical problem is that no causal relationship can be established between a thought and its real life correlate, the brainwaves that accompany it. Moreover, this leads to infinite regression. If the brainwaves created the thought - who created them, who made them happen? In other words: who is it (perhaps what is it) that thinks?
The subject is so convoluted that to say that the mental is a mere subset of the material is to speculate
It is, therefore, advisable to separate the ontological from the epistemological. But which is which? Facts are determined epistemologically and statistically by conscious and intelligent observers. Their "existence" rests on a sound epistemological footing. Yet we assume that in the absence of observers facts will continue their existence, will not lose their "factuality", their real life quality which is observer-independent and invariant.
What about truth? Surely, it rests on solid ontological foundations. Something is or is not true in reality and that is it. But then we saw that truth is determined psychically and, therefore, is vulnerable, for instance, to hallucinations. Moreover, the blurring of the lines in Quantum, non-Aristotelian, logics implies one of two: either that true and false are only "in our heads" (epistemological) - or that something is wrong with our interpretation of the world, with our exegetic mechanism (brain). If the latter case is true that the world does contain mutually exclusive true and false values - but the organ which identifies these entities (the brain) has gone awry. The paradox is that the second approach also assumes that at least the perception of true and false values is dependent on the existence of an epistemological detection device.
Can something be true and reality and false in our minds? Of course it can (remember "Rashomon"). Could the reverse be true? Yes, it can. This is what we call optical or sensory illusions. Even solidity is an illusion of our senses - there are no such things as solid objects (remember the physicist's desk which is 99.99999% vacuum with minute granules of matter floating about).
To reconcile these two concepts, we must let go of the old belief (probably vital to our sanity) that we can know the world. We probably cannot and this is the source of our confusion. The world may be inhabited by "true" things and "false" things. It may be true that truth is existence and falsity is non-existence. But we will never know because we are incapable of knowing anything about the world as it is.
We are, however, fully equipped to know about the mental events inside our heads. It is there that the representations of the real world form. We are acquainted with these representations (concepts, images, symbols, language in general) - and mistake them for the world itself. Since we have no way of directly knowing the world (without the intervention of our interpretative mechanisms) we are unable to tell when a certain representation corresponds to an event which is observer-independent and invariant and when it corresponds to nothing of the kind. When we see an image - it could be the result of an interaction with light outside us (objectively "real"), or the result of a dream, a drug induced illusion, fatigue and any other number of brain events not correlated with the real world. These are observer-dependent phenomena and, subject to an agreement between a sufficient number of observers, they are judged to be true or "to have happened" (e.g., religious miracles).
To ask if something is true or not is not a meaningful question unless it relates to our internal world and to our capacity as observers. When we say "true" we mean "exists", or "existed", or "most definitely will exist" (the sun will rise tomorrow). But existence can only be ascertained in our minds. Truth, therefore, is nothing but a state of mind. Existence is determined by observing and comparing the two (the outside and the inside, the real and the mental). This yields a picture of the world which may be closely correlated to reality - and, yet again, may not.
The Basics Of Western Astrology Explained
This article covers the basics of Astrology and how they are inter-related. Astrology is defined as 'the art or practice of determining the supposed influences of the planets and their motions on human affairs and human disposition'. From this practice a horoscope can be produced - a diagram (or chart) of the relative positions of planets and signs of the Zodiac at a specific time, usually the time of birth. A forecast can then be produced.
Western Astrology originated way back, around 500 BC, with a concept called the Zodiac being developed. This comprised of an imaginary sphere surrounding the earth, which followed the path of the Sun through the constellations during the year. The Zodiac was split into twelve sections, each named after the specific constellation noted in that area.
Many ancient philosophies used a set of classical elements to explain the way nature behaved. Each sign was connected to one of the classical elements (fire, earth, air, or water) and was also related to a region of focus; social, personal or universal.
* Water signs are related to growth processes, identification and emotion. In tandem with the other elements, water feels that fire will make it boil, air will evaporate it, but earth will shape and channel it.
* Fire signs are related to action, passion, and energy. In tandem with the other elements, fire feels that earth will smother it, water will drown it, but air will fan and enliven it.
* Air signs are related to thought, perspective and communication. In tandem with the other elements, air feels that water will obscure it, earth will suffocate it, but fire will inspire and uplift it.
* Earth signs are related to sensation, stability, and practicality. In tandem with the other elements, earth feels that air will dry it, fire will dry it, but water will refresh and nourish it.
Each sign is connected to one of three modalities; cardinal (sometimes referred to as movable), fixed, and mutable.
There are four quadrants following the order of the zodiacal signs, with three signs in each. Each quadrant describes a season, beginning with a cardinal sign, continuing to a fixed sign, and ending with a mutable sign.
Modalities and Related Zodiac Signs:
* Mutable signs are related to adaptability, resourcefulness and holism. They are Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces.
* Fixed signs are related to determination, focus and individuality. They are Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius.
* Cardinal signs are related to creativity and initiation. They are Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn.
Summary of Zodiac Sign Characteristics:
* Aries (cardinal, fire, personal): defensive, energetic, head down, assertive, impulsive.
* Taurus (fixed, earth, personal): patient, indulgent, resourceful, thorough, devoted.
* Gemini (mutable, air, personal): quick, logical, inquisitive.
* Cancer (cardinal, water, personal): clinging, protective, sensitive.
* Leo (fixed, fire, social): theatrical, generous, proud.
* Virgo (mutable, earth, social): critically, practical, efficient.
* Libra (cardinal, air, social): lazy, co-operative, fair.
* Scorpio (fixed, water, social): anxious, passionate, sensitive.
* Sagittarius (mutable, fire, universal): careless, free, straightforward.
* Capricorn (cardinal, earth, universal): suspicious, prudent, cautious.
* Aquarius (fixed, air, universal): detached, democratic, unconventional.
* Pisces (mutable, water, universal): distracted, imaginative, sensitive.
Vampires The Romantic Ideology Behind Them
The French Revolution constituted for the conscience of the dominant aristocratic class a fall from innocence, and upturning of the natural chain of events that resounded all over Europe; the old regime became, in their imaginary, a paradise lost. This explains why some romantic poets born in the higher classes were keen on seeing themselves as faded aristocrats, expelled from their comfortable milieu by a reverse of fortune or a design of destiny. Byron and Shelley are the prime instances of this vital pose. In The Giaour he writes on a vampiric character: "The common crowd but see the gloom/ Of wayward deeds and fitting doom;/ The close observer can espy/A noble soul, and lineage high."
Byron departed from England leaving a trail of scandal over his marital conduct and since then saw himself as an exiled expatriate. Shelley was expelled from Oxford and he fell in disgrace by marrying an in-keeper's daughter; he always struggled to reconcile his origin with his political ideas: "Shelley could find no way of resolving his own contradictory opinions" (Cronin, 2000).
This icon of the fallen aristocrat is rooted on another character revered by romantic poets: the fallen angel. As Mario Praz proves, miltonic Satan became the rebel figure of choice among romantic poets. Milton reversed the medieval idea of a hideous Satan and wrapped its figure with the epic grandeur of an angel fallen in disgrace. Many of the byronic heros share with Milton's Satan this fallen-from-grace condition, such as Lara: "There was in him a vital scorn of all:/
As if the worst had fall'n which could befall,/ stood a stranger in this breathing world,/An erring spirit from another hurl'd" ( Lara XVIII 315-16)
There is another social factor that is behind the formation of the romantic myth of the vampire. In the early nineteen century, the foundations of what would later become a mass society were laid; the expansion of the press and of the reading public produced an increased diffusion for literary works and fostered movements such as the gothic and the sensation novel. Byron himself experienced the event of being turned into a proto-bestseller. The unification of literary taste and preferences that was a correlate to this social changes could not be more alien to the romantic notion of individual gusto and original sensibility. In order to combat this unifying forces, romantic poets revered the individual who stands outside society and is free from common concerns. Many of Byron's heros look down on the masses from above, even though they walk among them and do not lean towards wordsworthian escapades into nature; they achieve to remain untainted by the masses in a sort of exile within the world akin to that of a ghost or a dammed spirit. This self-definition of Manfred is revelatory:
From my youth upwards
My spirit walk'd not with the souls of men,
Nor look'd upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine,
The aim of their existence was not mine;
My joys, my griefs, my passions, and my powers
Made me a stranger; though I wore the form,
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh, (Manfred II, ii, 50-58)
Not only Byron's works contrived to produce the modern image of the vampire in relation to the Male Seducer archetype, but also some odd events in his life and the life of those surrounding him exercised a decisive influence. A critical study bundled with an anthology of vampire tales (Conde de Siruela, 2001) attributes to the short story The Vampire (1819) by John William Polidori the fixation of the "classical images of the literary vampire as a villanious, cold and enigmatic aristocrat; but, above all, perverse and fascinating for women". Mario Praz, in the same line, also states that Byron was "largely responsible for the vogue of vampirism". Polidori was the unfortunate doctor and personal assistant of Lord Byron who died half-crazy at 25. The idea for the tale published in 1819 came from the famous meetings at Villa Diodati on June 1816 between Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Polidori, in what was probably the most influential gathering for fantastic fiction in the history of modern literature. In order to pass the stormy and ether-fuelled nights, they agreed to write each one a ghost story. Mary Shelley (who was then 17 years old) got during these nights the idea of what later became Frankenstein and Polidori wrote the tale The Vampire that he would publish three years later. The story appeared in the New Monthly Magazine falsely attributed by the editor to Lord Byron (taking advantages of the aura of Satanism that surrounded the poet in the popular view to promote the sales of the magazine). A misguided Goethe hailed the story as the best that Lord Byron had ever written. The tale was, actually, a covert portrait of Lord Byron disguised as the vampire Lord Ruthven, a cruel gambler and killer of innocent girls. Polidori had introduced in the story fragments from an autobiographical and revengeful novel called Glenarvon written by Caroline Lamb, an ex-lover of Byron. The Lord
On Being 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.
The set of attributes we designate as human is subject to profound alteration. Drugs, neuroscience, introspection, and experience all cause irreversible changes in these traits and characteristics. The accumulation of these changes can lead, in principle, to the emergence of new properties, or to the abolition of old ones.
Animals and machines are not supposed to possess free will or exercise it. What, then, about fusions of machines and humans (bionics)? At which point does a human turn into a machine? And why should we assume that free will ceases to exist at that - rather arbitrary - point?
Introspection - the ability to construct self-referential and recursive models of the world - is supposed to be a uniquely human quality. What about introspective machines? Surely, say the critics, such machines are PROGRAMMED to introspect, as opposed to humans. To qualify as introspection, it must be WILLED, they continue. Yet, if introspection is willed - WHO wills it? Self-willed introspection leads to infinite regression and formal logical paradoxes.
Moreover, the notion - if not the formal concept - of "human" rests on many hidden assumptions and conventions.
Political correctness notwithstanding - why presume that men and women (or different races) are identically human? Aristotle thought they were not. A lot separates males from females - genetically (both genotype and phenotype) and environmentally (culturally). What is common to these two sub-species that makes them both "human"?
Can we conceive of a human without body (i.e., a Platonian Form, or soul)? Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas think not. A soul has no existence separate from the body. A machine-supported energy field with mental states similar to ours today - would it be considered human? What about someone in a state of coma - is he or she (or it) fully human?
Is a new born baby human - or, at least, fully human - and, if so, in which sense? What about a future human race - whose features would be unrecognizable to us? Machine-based intelligence - would it be thought of as human? If yes, when would it be considered human?
In all these deliberations, we may be confusing "human" with "person". The former is a private case of the latter. Locke's person is a moral agent, a being responsible for its actions. It is constituted by the continuity of its mental states accessible to introspection.
Locke's is a functional definition. It readily accommodates non-human persons (machines, energy matrices) if the functional conditions are satisfied. Thus, an android which meets the prescribed requirements is more human than a brain dead person.
Descartes' objection that one cannot specify conditions of singularity and identity over time for disembodied souls is right only if we assume that such "souls" possess no energy. A bodiless intelligent energy matrix which maintains its form and identity over time is conceivable. Certain AI and genetic software programs already do it.
Strawson is Cartesian and Kantian in his definition of a "person" as a "primitive". Both the corporeal predicates and those pertaining to mental states apply equally, simultaneously, and inseparably to all the individuals of that type of entity. Human beings are one such entity. Some, like Wiggins, limit the list of possible persons to animals - but this is far from rigorously necessary and is unduly restrictive.
The truth is probably in a synthesis:
A person is any type of fundamental and irreducible entity whose typical physical individuals (i.e., members) are capable of continuously experiencing a range of states of consciousness and permanently having a list of psychological attributes.
This definition allows for non-animal persons and recognizes the personhood of a brain damaged human ("capable of experiencing"). It also incorporates Locke's view of humans as possessing an ontological status similar to "clubs" or "nations" - their personal identity consists of a variety of interconnected psychological continuities.
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