To get started with the inquiry into what it is to be a human being, consider the notion of cosmology. Cosmology is the “big picture.” Physicists who call themselves cosmologists use the word to refer to the physical universe as a whole. In subtle contrast, I’m using the word to suggest the story we tell ourselves about who we are, about the nature of the world in which we find ourselves, and about how we got to be here and why. When I use the word “cosmology,” I’m talking about an explanation. We human beings have explanations for everything; that seems to be part of what it is to be human. And the explanation I’m considering in this work is the one about who we are and what that world out there is. My first task is to summarize the explanation we all use, the story we tell ourselves, the one into which we live our lives.
I suspect that every human society, including ours, has a creation myth.
According to Wikipedia, a creation myth is “a symbolic narrative of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it.” Though one contributor to that online article states that all cultures have creation myths, the article appears to me to be heavily slanted in favor of the assumption that cultures more primitive than ours have creation myths, and we, on the other hand, have science. That assumption probably comes from the use of the word “myth,” which suggests “an idealized conception” and “a traditional story about heroes or supernatural beings,” according to the Encarta Dictionary. So the first proposition to explore is whether we have a creation myth, and if so, what it might be.
We are told that first a world somehow came into being. How the world might have come into being is told as a story. Religious people of one persuasion or another tell a story about how God created the world, but I will use a more secular story. The current version of this story is that there was a “big bang,” in which some unspecified but unthinkably small and energetic “thing” exploded, and what we see with our eyes, our instruments, and our minds’ eyes is the result of physical processes that this explosion ultimately set in motion.
What is common to these stories, whether religious or secular, is that there is a world, it existed before we were around to experience it, and it continues to exist independently of us and any other conceivable class of observers. In the secular story, that world has existed for a very long time. It continued to exist and to evolve, life appeared after eons of time, and eventually creatures evolved with the mental and sensory apparatus required to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the world, to experience it, and with the cognitive abilities required to think about it, to plan, to analyze, and even to understand. Even if your particular cosmology has it that God created that world with us in it, your explanation still rests on the assumption that there’s a world out there that we human beings are a part of and also experience.
ABOUT THE PREVAILING COSMOLOGY
So according to the prevailing cosmology, the universally accepted explanation, who or what we are is an enormously complex collection of atoms that form molecules that form cells that form tissues, etcetera. This progression of collections proceeds according to strict rules, rules which allow for variations and new forms. And somehow out of that enormous complexity arose awareness, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and all manner of strange and wonderful aspects to “being human.” The nature of the world in which we find ourselves is, so the story tells us, an equally complicated combination of matter and energy that scientists tell us has been evolving for some fourteen billion years and has produced planets, stars, galaxies, and finally, life. As for why we’re here, the explanations I’ve heard range from predictable and/or accidental manifestations of nature’s laws, to “working out karma or the paying off of karmic debts,” to “fulfilling God’s purpose,” or to, quite simply, a feeling that there may not be any answer to that question.
But I’m arguing for the consideration of another cosmology. And this other explanation, this other story we could tell ourselves, is a completely different story about who we are, why we are here and now, and even the meaning of “here” and “now.” It is at this point that a typical rational person would ask, “But is it true?” We notice here that when one argues for or against an explanation from a rational point of view, our most important criterion for evaluating that explanation is whether it is true. And I will argue that the word “true,” while useful in describing a particular fact, event, or situation, takes on a completely different meaning when considering an explanation for the world we experience and our presence in it.
With that background, I return to the question,
“What is it to be a human being?”
In terms of the prevailing cosmology, the phrase “human being” refers to a template handed down by the process of evolution (or if you’re so inclined, created in God’s image), and the differences among us, as specific examples of that template, are accounted for by appeals to “nature” and “nurture.” The part of that explanation that deals with our differences encompasses accidents of birth, in which genetic, societal, and environmental factors give us different combinations of attributes and paths through life. It also, of course, includes the results of decisions we make about what we should have, or do, or become. Ultimately, according to the prevailing cosmology, we humans are transients here on a planet that happens to be revolving at just the right distance around an ordinary star so as to provide the right combination of heat and light to sustain the chemical processes necessary to life as we know it.
We may recall the pseudo-philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear, will it still make a sound?” An equivalent question germane to our topic is, “If all sentient creatures somehow disappeared, would there still be a planet, revolving through space and time around a star?” According to the prevailing cosmology, there is no need to ask that question, and most people would find it silly. The degree of certainty with which virtually everyone answers that question in the affirmative (i.e., of course there would be a planet if we all disappeared) renders invisible any assumptions on which that certitude might rest.
If you accept the prevailing cosmology, and for the moment at least you leave a supreme being out of it, it seems to me that human awareness or consciousness must somehow be a byproduct of natural forces and processes. Now if you accept that explanation for the appearance of consciousness in the universe, I think your stance begs a few very interesting questions.
Is it just a happy accident, a product of a particularly fortunate (or even common on a cosmic scale) assembling of molecules, that physics and chemistry should give rise to biology and consciousness?
Could molecular biology possibly explain the richness of human experience, the depth of feelings, or the pull of abstract ideas?
Could it possibly explain love?
Does that explanation really satisfy anyone?
It turns out that there are many disciplines that have had something to say on the question of how consciousness came to be (or even what it is), and what its relationship to physics and chemistry might be. I have studied a number of these disciplines to some degree, without being an expert on any of them. I will outline and discuss here my experience of some of the disciplines I’ve examined, because I see those investigations as a road map leading me to the development of my understanding of the idea that is the subject of this work. At some level, I always knew I wanted to understand how the universe works. I have felt that desire as a calling for as long as I can remember.
What follows is a brief autobiography, which from my current perspective can be viewed as a partial list of the forms that desire to understand has taken. I generally try to avoid the hubris of thinking that my autobiography is important or distinctive in any way.
However, as the raw material of an investigation into what it is to be a human being, it’s all I have.