Thoughts on the Meaning of Humanity
by Adam Blatner

(Stimulated by a Class, "What is Man?" at Senior University Georgetown, taught by Prof. Doug Browning, February, 2005)

1. What is the need behind the question? What concern does a potential answer address? Aside from the trivial fiddling with abstractions, I think there are two themes that immediately occur to me: (a) Where can we imagine ourselves as belonging, and can this image even be partially rationally coordinated? (b) What can we sense as our purpose?

Another theme has been mentioned, but has limited social implications: What are the boundaries of what we call "human"–which overlaps with the socio-cultural definition of person-hood. Are babies persons? What about the "unborn"?  Fetuses who are viable? Embryos that aren't viable outside the womb?  At what point is a human being? An egg, a fertilized egg (zygote), a small clump of cells the ovum has divided into–yet still before implantation in the womb? The still near-microscopic clump of cells after implantation?
       What about the mentally deficient? Those with severe mental deficiency, unable even to feed themselves? What about the severely senile?
        Can people forfeit their rights to personhood? Through being adjudge guilty of a crime? Which rights are forfeit?

2. The problem cannot be easily answered because it's not a matter only of logic or deduction from principles. Many of these questions realistically demand the involvement of depth psychology. For example, pure philosophy implies the authority to rationally dictate where one should belong or what one's purpose should be. In fact, this is trivial intellectualizing, because if those formulations are not felt to be relevant, engaging, or personally compelling by the reader, the audience, the actual person-in-living, then they're merely mind-games. Questions that ask what makes you feel that you belong? or what feels as if it is a helpful guide to your own personal life purpose?-- depend on your interests, life style, and numerous other values, many of which are tastes as much as rational axioms.

3. Can the idea of humanity be appreciated on its own, or must it be placed within its contexts? Indeed, there are several of these:
   Humanity in relation to other life forms; and in relation to the predominant pervasiveness of non-sentient and not-even-biological existence.
   Humanity in relation to history, to pre-human and what might be post-human life. Can it be that we are not the apex but rather only a transient form on the way to a "higher state" of both personal consciousness and civilization?
   How responsible must humanity be, what personal responsibility should an individual take on to support other life forms, ecology, and the biosphere in general?  Should we all become vegetarians?

Earlier questions to Prof. Browning (around January 29, 2005):

1. Can the question, "what is Man" (i.e., what is humanity?) be separated from a broader metaphysical perspective of "what's it all about, Alfie?"

What is the greater all of which we are a part, and does this All, does the Cosmos have a purpose, a life or existence worth noticing or considering ourselves a part of?

One answer: No, it's all just inert, non-living stuff, there is no God, and there is no purpose. We make our own meaning, if we have the courage to look at the world without illusion. We can help the world advance somewhat, or at least help avoid making it worse. This is better than sustaining illusions, which for the most part tend to lead to unfortunate if not horrible beliefs and social movements that end up imposing violence, disease, exploitation, persecution, corrupt domination, and other side effects of a self-rationalized righteousness.

Another answer: It is possible to imagine a deity and purpose that doesn't require traditional religion and the obligation to convert nonbelievers "for their own good." Prof. Browning has indicated some sympathy with the "process" philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, but this is a very rational philosophy that nevertheless has deduced such a deity as the source of value.  The value of this formulation is that it gives us a bigger process to imagine ourselves as being part of, addressing both belonging and purpose.

2.  It is more rational to approach the problem of what is Man by considering the ecological matrix in which humanity is embedded. Can a cell in a larger organism be appreciated on its own? For example, what is a heart cell if the whole of the organism isn't considered?  This is different from asking about a single celled animal that independently conducts all basic functions of life, but a cell that's more specialized, within an organism that conducts more than the basic functions, and engages in more complex behaviors. Thus, within a human being with consciousness and purpose, what then "is" a heart cell, or a pancreas cell, or a neuron in the brain? Can it be explained without reference to its function in the bigger system?

And is Man a herd animal, or an individual? I tend to hold that humans are social beings, and require complex cultural matrices to function fairly well for their actualization.

3. Nor is reason, or even self-reflection, as Scheler seems to indicate, sufficient. Species Homo is not only sapiens (and not very much of that, either!), but equally homo ludens, man the player (Huizinga), and other elements–aesthetics–which Hartshorne helped me to see as a more fundamental category of consciousness–becoming more recognized by philosophy.

4. So what are the implications of Jung in this? And psychology in general? We don't just think and reflect, but love, desire, and sublimate our animal instincts in complex aesthetic acts of self-expression and exploration.  Several authors in the text used for the class address these "higher" potentials, but the question then arises, what is the meaning of art, poetry, drama, and other purposes that lack strictly utilitarian value?

5. My own inclination is to imagine each human as a "cell" in the vaster "organism" of God, with the following purposes:
   – experience in myriad modalities, to satisfy God's desire and curiosity
  – help work together as God's only hands and fingers and muscles to make this a better world
    – better means balancing an optimal level of differentiation and integration
         And other aesthetic dualities–order and disorder, intensity and mildness, superficiality and profundity, etc.

6. What is the significance of the unconscious. The question "What is Man" must take into consideration the idea that the ordinary awareness of the ordinary person is perhaps only a fraction of the fullness of that individual's potential. Jung's contribution, in contrast to Freud's, is that the unconscious is not merely the repository of the repressed, but also a source of inspiration and wisdom.

7.  Beyond this, what is the significance of altered states of consciousness? Perhaps we are indeed greater than we are–meaning that the we that is familiar is far less than our essence or potential, and thus the purpose of life is to expand this circle of actualization to become a bit closer to the potential.
        And the seemingly ubiquitous instinct to seek such experiences–intoxication–
   What, then, if who Man is transcends ordinary waking consciousness, no matter how intellectually developed?  What if that saying is so, that we aren't bodies having spiritual experiences, but rather spirits having physical experiences.  It's a cute twist, but I think it also poses a very fundamental world-view that deserves serious philosophical consideration.

There is a wealth of evidence for it–mainly in the rich phenomena associated with unconscious life. The main argument against it is that it can't be proven as viewed through the narrow lens of conventional empirical science. The problem of Plato's parable of the cave comes to bear, here, the problem of epistemology, of what counts as evidence for reality versus what may be discounted as non-reality.

8. We also need to weave in the perspective of those who view ordinary reality only as the outward expression of a number of levels of more implicit yet abstract patterns and dynamics. Science has become more comfortable elucidating such a hierarchy of underlying dynamics in the realm of chemistry, for example. Perhaps we need to do the same for psychology, and then extend that into philosophy.

Of course, this all hinges on a phenomenological perspective, if I'm using the term correctly: Can we take experience as a fundamental category rather than as a mere epi-phenomenon, a sort of brain secretion that has no ultimate significance.

9. Back to Descartes: The problem he raises is greatly intensified as our appreciation of mind expands. The implications of this dichotomy are resolved by the aforementioned Prof. Hartshorne, who notes that mind and matter are two aspects of the same underlying essence.

10. Re Prof. Browning's agnosticism or atheism–unclear which–it is a bit inconsistent with his association with process thought. What about Whitehead's and Hartshorne's theology? They offer a view of the cosmos as organism that I find congenial and intellectually compelling. What's wrong with it?

It isn't doctrinaire religion, and I tend to agree with your wariness about the intellectual foundations of classical theism and its associated various religions. However, I see a general movement towards consciousness transformation that includes a transpersonal sensitivity, a relationship with a kind of living wholeness of being that some might call God. Tillich's "ground of being"–I wasn't clear why you dismissed that.
            -                      -                          -                                      -
Here are some further contemplations on the question, What is Man: (2/16/05)

1. It seems to me that the more relevant question might also be: "What can we imagine humanity evolving toward? What is the human potential?"

Some examples: Tools and techniques shift the way people think. Around 1976 Julian Jaynes wrote a book suggesting that the growing spread and access to literacy changed the way people thought, habitually, and this shifted the balance towards the left hemisphere of the brain, correspondingly inhibiting the flow of imagery and "voices" of prophecy.  I question a number of his ideas, but I suspect he's generally right about the way that writing as a part of life makes people think differently. A number of books on linguistics have also suggested this, and of course Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s, in his "Understanding Media," also suggested this.

Extending this, I venture to hypothesize that growing up on the internet and with cell-phone text messaging will shift things.

Let's go further. I imagine in a century or less that techniques for cultivating intuition will become part of the normal school and pre-school curriculum, and that young people will be far more sensitive in that way–perhaps even mildly psychic.
     Also, in that climate, about 10% of kids will be more talented, psychically, and begin to find actual ways of elaborating this role in society, such as that lady character on Star Trek.

2. I imagine social and emotional learning becomes a more basic part of the curriculum, and practical psychology becomes as basic in our culture as reading and writing. This may make it easier to develop more effective group cooperative efforts with much less friction, backbiting, and under-cutting. The ideal of community-building will correspondingly be advanced.

3. I imagine new approaches to physical education and development, as hinted at by Michael Murphy in his mid-1990s book, The Future of the Body.  New games, new sports, will increase a more holistic sense of flow.
          There may be a corresponding lowering of the domination of competitive sports in the mind of a growing number of people.

4. Television will have been recognized as an addiction and measures taken to attempt to counter this prevalent problem.

5. People will be self-medicating with psychotropic drugs far more pervasively, and most of these efforts will enhance rather than detract from performance. It will be a social norm rather than an anomaly.

6. There will be new forms of inter-faith spirituality continuing to advance, and the domination of conservative religions may peak and then decline as it becomes clear that one can be spiritual without having to adhere to doctrine. "Religion" will lose some of its negative connotations in some circles... or maybe it will become associated with doctrinaire spirituality, while simply "spirituality" becomes associated with the more liberal and inclusive forms.
              The value of religion as the social organization of spirituality is the development of sub-community organizations, wholesome youth groups perhaps being the most important element.

7. The idea of human evolution itself may become a functional "meme," an idea that catches on, so that people strive more to advance their own thinking to become more inclusive. Example: Ken Wilber, the contemporary philosopher, has more recently written about stages of consciousness, using Clare Graves "color" scheme, and addresses himself to those who are more humanistic, warning them to move beyond their own thinking so as to appreciate and integrate the best of all the other levels–aiming at "integral" thinking.

8. There will be more rituals in everyday society, the power of focusing the mind in group settings, for all kinds of purposes. This will deepen the multi-sensory experience, integrate and celebrate imaginativeness more.

9. People will participate more personally in art, music, dance, and the like, instead of abdicating the arts to "professionals."  Like fighting television addiction, this may require some countering of the mindless drift into commercialism.

10. As part of the growing psychological-mindedness of our culture, there's a corresponding emphasis on recognizing and countering forms of self-deception, manipulation, advertising, propaganda, oppression, hidden assumptions, misleading semantics, rhetorical devices in political campaigns, etc.  In other words, a higher level of critical thinking.
       Example: I imagine a core class throughout middle school through college titled "re-evaluations," in which students are invited to prepare and present some re-thinking of some aspect of the culture, for the class to discuss. Each student might take 4 weeks or so to do this and present 3-4 times a semester. Some group work also encouraged. A mixture of socio-cultural criticism, philosophical analysis, and sublimated rebelliousness.

Comments:   email to