Thursday, June 4, 2009

What is "Human"?

To be human was defined by Aristotle as being "the rational animal." For that, we can't ignore intelligence.

But because we see intelligence in other animals---chimps, dogs, whales, elephants, dolphins---we have to wonder about their reasoning abilities, especially when a dog, for example, has been seen to "think" in stressful situations and run for help, continuing to bark until someone pays attention to it, then leading people to the problem, such as a child who is hurt.

But the great naturalist Loren Eiseley described this kind of intelligence as the animals' "eternal present" because they learn nothing from it that is learned by others of its kind. It does not pat itself on the back and later think about the good deed it did, and it does not tell other dogs of its exploits. Once the event is over, it may remain as a part of the animal's overall empathy toward the child it saved, or it may even bolster its own self-esteem if such a thing exists in an animal; but these would be sub-conscious since we see no evidence of its own conscious recognition of what it has accomplished.

Ayn Rand had another description for this kind of "thinking" on the part of animals; "range-of-the-moment consciousness." That is easier to understand than Eiseley's phrase, when used without an explanation.

So "being human" is a matter of retention of consciousness, which it expands all the time by integrating other moments of consciousness into it. First Responders, for example, make a career out of what the dog does only in emergencies.

Retention and integration of moments of consciousness removes man from that "eternal present" and presents him with a dilemma: what to do with his memory?

He "feels" his memory as conscience when it deals with morality; and when it deals with morality it becomes part of his (natural, not super-natural) soul.For this reason, "being human" must at least implicitly involve being "good" or "bad", and certainly involves intelligence.

The fact that much of our literature and entertainment have let society down by not standing up to moral scrutiny in its explanation of "human-ness" means only that modern philosophy, the philosophy of context-dropping and of creating moral greyness where black-and-white ought to be visible, is present in our forms of art.

That does not make the authors, painters, actors and other artists correct in their evaluation of what it means to be human. It means they are obfuscating and refusing to face up to the fact that man has moral choices to make if he wishes to remain "the rational animal."

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