Monday 10 February 2020

What Is It to Be Human?

Hello, world!
Posted by Keith Tidman

Consciousness is the mental anchor to which we attach our larger sense of reality.

We are conscious of ourselves — our minds pondering themselves in a curiously human manner — as well as being intimately conscious of other people, other species, and everything around us, near and remote.

We’re also aware that in reflecting upon ourselves and upon our surroundings, we process experiences absorbed through our senses — even if filtered and imagined imperfectly. This intrinsically empirical nature of our being is core, nourishing our experience of being human. It is our cue: to think about thinking. To ponder the past, present, and future. To deliberate upon reality. And to wonder — leaving no stone unturned: from the littlest (subatomic particles) to the cosmic whole. To inspire and be inspired. To intuit. To poke into the possible beginning, middle, and end of the cosmos. To reflect on whether we behave freely or predeterminedly. To conceptualise and pick from alternative futures. To learn from being wrong as well as from being right. To contemplate our mortality. And to tease out the possibility of purpose from it all.

Perception, memory, interpretation, imagination, emotion, logic, and reason are among our many tools for extracting order out of disorder, to quell chaos. These and other properties, collectively essential to distinguishing humanity, enable us to model reality, as best we can.

There is perhaps no more fundamental investigation than this into consciousness touching upon what it means to be human.

To translate the world in which we’re thoroughly immersed. To use our rational minds as the gateway to that understanding — to grasp the dimensions of reality. For humans, the transmission of thought, through the representational symbols of language, gestures, and expressions — representative cognition — provides a tool for chiseling out our place in the world. In the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein laconically but pointedly framed the germaneness of these ideas:
‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.
Crucially, Wittgenstein grounds language as a tool for communication in shared experiences. 

Language provides not only an opening through which to peer into human nature but also combines  with other cognitive attributes, fueling and informing what we believe and know. Well, at least what we believe we know. The power of language — paradoxically both revered and feared, yet imperative to our success — stems from its channeling human instincts: fundamentally, what we think we need and want.

Language, to the extraordinary, singular level of complexity humankind has developed and learned to use it as a manifestation of human thought, emanates from a form of social leaning. That is, we experiment with language in utilitarian fashion, for best effect; use it to construct and contemplate what-ifs, venturing into the concrete and abstract to unspool reality; and observe, interact with, and learn from each other in associative manner. Accumulative adaptation and innovation. It’s how humanity has progressed — sometimes incrementally, sometimes by great bounds; sometimes as individuals, sometimes as elaborate networks. Calibrating and recalibrating along the way. Accomplished, deceptively simply, by humans emitting sounds and scribbling streams of symbols to drive progress — in a manner that makes us unique.

Language — sophisticated, nuanced, and elastic — enables us to meaningfully absorb what our brains take in. Language helps us to decode and make sense of the world, and recode the information for imaginatively different purposes and gain. To interpret and reinterpret the assembly of information in order to shape the mind’s new perspectives on what’s real — well, at least the glowing embers of what’s real — in ways that may be shared to benefit humankind on a global, community, and individual level. Synaptic-like, social connections of which we are an integral part.

Fittingly, we see ourselves simultaneously as points connected to others, while also as distinct identities for which language proves essential in tangibly describing how we self-identify. Human nature is such that we have individual and communal stakes. The larger scaffolding is the singularly different cultures where we dwell, find our place, and seek meaning — a dynamically frothing environment, where we both react to and shape culture, with its assortment of both durably lasting and other times shifting norms.


Martin Cohen said...

here's a comment on this post at Twitter by Richard Caldwell

"The older I grow, the more cynical I see myself becoming, to the extent now where I believe half the people we encounter have no consciousness of interior thought processes beyond repetition and machine-like reaction (fire = hot, Theresa May nudes = gross, etc.)"

docmartincohen said...

Theresa May is the former British Prime Minister who otherwise leaves rather a small footprint on history. Maybe some contribution to Brexit, some implementation of the racist "hostile environment" policies... I wonder if that's why Richard says the thought of her naked is to these 'unthinking' people 'gross'! I suspect however that would be the thinking person's response, so perhaps he means some sort of physical repugnance which I'm afraid would seem to be rather ungracious.

docmartincohen said...

But now I should mention what an interesting post I think this is. Thanks very much for sharing, Keith. I've also thought that since language is not a solitary activity, surely it requires at least two people? and the words we use surely are created by many people over many years - indeed those who coin them lose control of their usage over time... (whatever the Academie Fran├žaise says), then, to the extent that we think about (frame) the world using language, consciousness is social too.

That said, mutatis mutandis, to the extent that we comprehend the world without langauge, then that is presumably direct and not social?

Keith said...

I wonder, Martin, if language might at times indeed be a ‘solitary activity’. Take, for example, if I engage in an original thought experiment, or imagine erstwhile-unknown situations, or puzzle over an abstraction, or ponder my emotions — and do so solely internally rather than sharing or otherwise interacting with someone else. It seems to me that perhaps we can engage in those activities only by thinking and ‘internally talking to ourselves’ by means of language — or at least, by means of some form of internalized symbols, no matter how primitive they are or once may have been at the onset of language those tens of thousands of years ago. To borrow your term, ‘direct and not social’ events.

I would propose, too, that we can even think about, understand, and give arrangement to the world in such manner, that is, strictly internally and solitarily. Even if that’s indeed best accomplished, in the majority of instances, by powerfully leveraging the thoughts of the collective. (The exception of contributions of the occasional isolated genius, in imagining fundamentally different paradigms, notwithstanding.) In short, to my mind, I don’t think in any of these instances do we absolutely need the presence of a second person — even if eventually other people typically do join the intellectual fray. What all that might say about consciousness, and any correlated, possibly instinctual social drive it might experience, with its presumably serving as the seat of language, I’m not sure.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Since about the 1950s, language has become increasingly important, since it is thought to reveal how we think and structure the world. What is language? Most of it is non-verbal. Some say that we don't in fact speak, but are spoken.

The purpose of language? The philosopher Max Black asked, 'What are the purposes intended to be served by speech?' There are various answers. To inform. To survive. To motivate. To transmit culture. To co-operate. To assimilate. To imply. The most common answer, which is Locke's: to communicate thought. Is there a principle which underlies all these? My personal answer: language traces relations between things. Yet relations and things are fairly much imaginary.

Do any of the above separate humanity from other species? Are other species conscious? Do they too, as Locke said, communicate thought? Someone said, humans are unique in that they can think beyond their beginnings and ends.

Keith said...

‘[H]umans are unique in that they can think beyond their beginnings and ends’. Indeed. I like this, Thomas! It’s one of many ways in which human consciousness and mind and thought and language distinguish themselves. I tried to hint at some of that in the third paragraph of my essay, beginning with the words ‘We’re also aware that….’

docmartincohen said...

Yesss... my idea was more "Whorfian" (see earlier posts!). I mean that we don't have a "language-free" way of thinking - though we may have some basic sensory inputs. But even there, take colours. It seems our ability to distinguish colours is affected (though doesn't exactly 'depend') on how many terms we have. But certainly, if we are talking about say, the origins of the universe, it would seem necessary to do so via a shared linguistic inheritance. You don't need anyone there to talk to, though, Kieth. That's not the claim. Just that you need the shared language "in your head" to organise your thoughts.

Post a Comment