What it means to be human
Are we forgetting ourselves or is this just evolution?
How does one even begin a discussion like this? Where does one start? And when? I suppose the most pertinent question is “why?”, as it usually is. The reason and purpose behind who we are, what we do and why – individually and collectively – has been of great interest to many, myself included, but we keep seeming to trip over ourselves and fall down the rabbit hole.
Over the past four thought pieces I’ve written, I like to think I’ve been building up to this one, the endgame if you will, exploring the current zeitgeist and illustrating why we feel so let down by it. I wish more people would like to know where we’ve been, so we know where we are so we can see where we are going, but some camels just won’t drink from the oasis no matter how many times you lead them there. I guess I’m just not a good enough salesman.
“Human history is not just everything that ever happened (past events), but a resume of our species (human actions in past time).”
I find a lot of people take for granted the unearned wisdom and knowledge that has been bestowed upon them merely for being alive in 2023. This is why understanding history as human actions in past time does a better job of reminding people that they aren’t so removed from it and that more than likely the majority of people now would have acted in a similar manner back then.
It's not like there isn’t past human deeds that deserve to be critiqued and condemned (because people ARE responsible for their conduct), but this holier-than-thou derision of previous times and peoples by modern man is an exercise in misunderstanding and ingratitude – not only of history, but who they are – and an indictment on the current zeitgeist. Either that or people have been bombarded, saturated and exhausted with modern living to the point where they simply don’t care anymore – which feels partly by design if I’m honest.
“Like Telemachus (Odysseus’ son), we don’t know who we are and we are searching for ourselves.”
I think we’re trying to undo the burden of history without realising it’s impossible. In our attempt to do so, we’re projecting our cosmic and spiritual concerns onto politics. As poet James Joyce pointed out, “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to wake”, but for an increasingly secular society filling a God-sized hole with politics isn’t the way. It’d be better to do it with art given the bluntness of politics. The planet will be fine folks, it’s us you should worry about. Earth was here long before we were and will be long after we’re gone, it’s human prosperity or extinction that is more concerning, but it's not the question people are asking, sadly.
“Science fiction has a way of foreshadowing a dispiriting and unflattering new reality.”
As we (electrically) charge head-first into a data-driven techno-centric world in the 21st century, the transformation of human beings has already begun. Not that we’ll all be walking around with Mantis Blades like V from Cyberpunk 2077, but a technologically enhanced race of superhumans interacting with a mass flow of data is not too difficult to imagine – I mean, the groundwork is already there with our computers, phones etc. we just haven’t morphed with it yet. The development of artificial intelligence is of great concern to the continuation (or elimination) of humans and human values as we know it. This is not in an Arnie coming back to kill us kind of way, but as a result of marvelling at our own magnificence, appealing to vanity as much as the aspirations of the “techno-elite” where data becomes the new religion, man continues to worship himself and humanity is a romanticised afterthought consigned to the pages of history like a noble savage.
While I cannot stress the importance of science and scientific knowledge – it has done a great job with informing us about the natural world which then leads to us knowing more about ourselves – what it does not do is inform us how to be and why. This is why you need a dialectic between the natural and social sciences. Humans are narrative beings who have used myths and religions to tell our stories and guide us throughout the entirety of history. They help create/give us meaning, alleviate our pain and make our existence bearable, comprehendible and valuable.
Are we like a despairing Odysseus, unable to find home, who settles for the island of the Lotus Eaters as a poor second best substitute for Ithaca. In a very Rousseauian sense, modern beings have a tendency now to believe “what I feel to be good, is good; what I feel to be bad, is bad.” However, under the Epicurean notion of seek pleasure, avoid pain, then life/ethics is whimsical. If there’s no good or evil? Then there’s just winners and losers. This is the difference between Nazis being immoral/abhorrent or they just merely lost. This is the difference between Socrates being a model of virtue and Hitler being authentic.
The current state of our culture is a mess because we do not know who we are. We have lost sight of the human. Both our high and low culture are saturated in irony, the abnormal has become normalised (just look at our TV shows!), we have an increased anxiety about the future, a crisis of confidence and a spiritual malaise. There are a lot of boring and sterile ideas floating around out there as people desperately cling to something that has died/dying or moved on from us. We separated from the animals and yet we’re regressing.
At the end of the day, is life meaningful or are we deluded?
Do human beings have an intrinsic value?
Does logic and reason in the service of love seem like a reasonable idea?
Do we have minds and souls or are we just a bunch of neurons firing and electrical energy?
Are you aware of the darkness in your own heart?
Is there nothing sacred about being human?
Who am I? Where am I? A conscious human being embedded in nature.
Why am I here? That my dear friend I cannot answer for you, but you must ask it honestly.