Human Nature


1. What is a human being?

What does it mean to be human? What is a person?, Are humans persons, is anything else a person? How do we relate to the world around us? What is the soul, the intellect, the will? Am I my soul, or am I my body? …both? Am I special? What is human dignity?

  These are the most important questions from an individual’s point of view. Cosmology and such is important in order to know about reality, and the principles of being and logic, but you can live without it. But without at least some kind of an answer to the above questions, one’s life often is a internal disaster.

So what is a human being? There are answers given from one end of the scale to the other. Plato says we are primarily our soul, sort of a ghost driving a body like it was a car, the soul existed before the body and primarily that is what we are. One the other side Materialists often claim the human is no different than other animals, just a biological machine with chemical and electro-pulses to explain all intellectual activity. Classical philosophy, mainly expressed by Aristotle's De Anima and Aquinas' treatise on man proposed a balanced middle theory. We will start with these basics, as well as look at some variations.

2. Life.
Humans share the basic state of "life" with all other plants and animals, so let's start there. Aristotle defined life in general as consisting of three acts: nutrition, growth, and reproduction. This is what all living things have in common. A living thing has these aspects, and if something shoes these aspects we call it life. These are all acts that are self perfecting – that is directed toward the enhancement and benefit of the living things itself.

Living things then divide into three levels: 1) with acts depending on the living thing only for their execution = plants, 2) acts depending on the living being for execution and form, = animals, 3) and acts depending on the living being for execution, form, and intention, or goal, = humans. So a human is an animal life that directs its own acts intentionally, meaning with reason, or as Aristotle says “a rational animal”. He uses this as a basic definition of a human - a rational animal.

3. Human Origins.
What can we know about the origin of humans? How did we begin? There is no evidence that clarifies this question. There are fossil records of human like animals, then there are records of humans, there is no record of what kind of transition took place. First there are brutes that look sort of like animals, then there are similar looking creatures that have art and religion, and language. What changed? Some have said intellect evolved out of a lower animal nature. This is difficult to understand philosophically, since the cause of an effect needs to have some aspect of the effect in it, in order to cause it, in order to pass it on. Philosophically it is difficult to see how a non-rational being could generate a rational being, it is not a proportionate cause. It is still a mystery, unexplained by science. If we could go back to that moment and see the very first rational human - what were its parents like? They were not humans unless they had reason, if they had reason then we are not at the first...

Archaeological records show evolutionary development within plant and animal species based on natural selection, and from this has been created a theory of evolution from one species to another based on common ancestors, it is an explanatory model that mostly works, there is very strong evidence for large parts of the theory, but it is indirect but not totally conclusive. As an explanatory model it works in most ways and seems backed up by a lot of indirect evidence. There is no direct evidence in the sense that it has not been observed or made to occur by investigators.

Darwin proposed a non-finalistic (random) evolution, where natural selection helped some beings live better than others by allowing beings to survive better if they had certain traits. Later Hugo de Vries, Mendel and others  proposed that genetic mutations occurred that were passed on. Neither is currently promoted any longer as explanatory by itself, but a mix of the two, sometimes called Synthetic Neo-Darwinism, or just the Synthetic theory, is the current idea.

Philosophically, much of evolution is explainable with matter and form, potency to another form being actualized by a cause to bring about change. Darwinian random evolution has problems philosophically, as well as biologically. Not only are the mutations are very small and give no benefit, but many mutations would need to happen in the same being at the same time to allow better survival. When one adds in genetic mutation theory, a better explanation is presented, a cause that produces a new form through DNA changes, etc. This is why many see large leaps in development occurring throughout history in order to explain the variation in species, not gradual change. And there are some that propose that species have always been fixed, only development within species occurs.

Applying the philosophical principles that we have been using would indicate that if evolution from one species to another has occurred, a change in form from old to a new form, it must have a cause that enacts the potency, bringing it to act. A cause cannot produce what it does not have, an elephant cannot produce plant, fire cannot produce ice, rocks cannot produce living material, etc. This seems especially applicable to the origins of humans. The arrival of intellectual being requires a source cause sufficient enough, so as to produce an intellectual cause. There are no half-humans, a being is either capable of rational acts or not, there are not degrees or shades of it. So human origins remain a mystery. In classical philosophy, the form of human, like every new form, needs have an efficient cause that changed it from non-rational primate, to human.

4. What is a rational nature?

But what does it mean that humans are rational, with a level of life above plants and animals? Like we mentioned with Plato, some believe a human is radically split between body and intellect, a radical dualism. Some modern philosophy has followed Plato, mainly Descartes, in claiming the human is dualistic. Others such as Hobbes and David Hume see man as only material, materialism without a immaterial soul, thus man is one sided, only a body. But Aristotle develops a framework to understand the human within the larger theory of reality that we have already seen. For him humans are part of nature, composed of matter and form like everything else. The matter is the body, the form is the soul, together they are a human unity, neither one separately is a complete human being. The formal cause is the soul, the material cause is the body, the efficient cause of the form would be a higher intellect, and efficient cause of the body is the parents, the final cause is the good, or..... absolute good? ... or...itself, or development of thought? or self giving to others, or  the supreme being, or whatever the fulfillment of human nature is... there are many answers...

In our experience of ourselves we see humans with a level of interior life, self reflection that allows us to say “I”. This presence of an intellectual form or soul, allows our manner of knowledge and our will. We sense objects the way animals do, with the 5 senses, but we go beyond that, we take the data from the senses and form a universal concept of the essence or form of the thing. I may sense a dog, or a wood chair, but I do just have an idea of “Rover” over there, I also have the idea of “dogness”, the form or essence of it is in my mind as well, a concept that applies to every dog, no matter how different they are from Rover. A completely immaterial and universal concept, which we can judge according to true or false. I can have intentions, "reasons" for doing and choosing, these are all things that lumps of matter (fancy machines basically) do not do.

Now according to Aristotle, since the operations or acts of the intellect are not material, the intellect is not a material organ, it is not directly dependent on matter. Universal concepts, contemplation of the absolute, reflecting on itself thinking, knowing that it knows, knowing our knowledge process, determining actions by choice, symbolizing with art and writing, these are all immaterial acts. The brain is a unit of matter, made of carbon and other elements and if one follows the principles of classical philosophy, it cannot produce these highest of actions of the human intellect. The brain is a necessary organ obviously for much of our thought and emotion, but it is used by the intellect, it is not the cause of thought by itself. Now if something is immaterial such as the intellect that means is has no matter. Without matter it cannot decay or corrupt or decompose, it has no parts to break down into. It cannot “die” or decompose it is an everlasting type of existing. This is the sense in which Aristotle and classic philosophy says the human soul, the form of a human, is immortal. Since it is immaterial, it must also go on indefinitely once it comes into being. But Aristotle also said that a form cannot exist apart from matter, so where does that leave the human form or soul?

The way we know and what knowledge consists of we will look at more in the next section.  Now let's look at the will and freedom.

5. Human acts.
Freedom of choice seems to be something we experience everyday constantly. Along with thought, it seems to be one of the key aspects of human nature. But are we really free?, How free? Totally or partially or not at all? What is freedom?

Types of acts.
As with every philosophical exploration, we will begin by clarifying terms. Then we will look at some various positions. First we must establish what acts we are talking about that appear to be free. The actions we do fall into groups: 1) Acts of a human – unconscious acts, such as heart beat, sleep walking, etc. They are things we do, but are not the acts we are interested in here since they do not involve the will. 2) Human acts – conscious acts of the will. These can either be chosen but not willed, such as acts we must do under force, or acts chosen and willed, deliberate acts. It is these deliberate human acts we are looking at.

7. Types of freedom.
There are also various types of freedom: 1) physical freedom (a-coactione) is the basic level, free from physical restraint, force, external obstacle, or coercion (i.e. not tied up or in jail). 2) Free choice (a-necessitate) is the internal freedom from need to act in a certain way, the ability to select options without psychological impediments to specify our actions. (This is the type of freedom we are interested in here). Lastly 3) Moral freedom – the freedom of character built by forming habits of choosing the good with our intellect, a freedom from being guided by animal desires. (This we will see more of in ethics.)

8. Various theories, Determinism.
So at question is the Free choice of deliberate human acts. There are various theories denying we have free will, and others exalting freewill above everything else. The theory that claims humans are not free is called Determinism, meaning our acts are determined. The textbook mentions two, BF Skinner, and Sigmund Freud. Neither were philosophers, Skinner was a behaviorist, and Freud was a psychologist, but their opinions about free will have been developed into philosophical theories. The text gives fairly good explanations of both, and both can generally be boiled down to one foundation, materialism.

Skinner says all choices are really determined ahead of time by our life situation. We seem like we freely choose, but really we must pick the choices we make, we do not have an option. Due to our life situation, we are naturally required to make a certain choices in a certain situation. This is called a physiological or sociological determinism.

Freud says psychologically we, our ego and superego, are guided in all our choices by subconscious forces of the “id”. We are not aware of the force of our psyche and thus seem free. It is a psychological determinism.

There is also a physical determinism, meaning physical aspects of nature determine our choices, such as stars and astrology. These are all materialistic views of reality, the theory that all is matter, including the acts of the intellect or soul, that physical causes explain everything, the acts of the mind are biological, chemical processes. By removing the immaterial nature of the human, the human becomes basically a machine, and thus has no free choice. In Determinism it is believed that if we could know a human, we would be able to predict every choice they would make always.

These theories are problematic and usually not convincing. Why? The book briefly mentions Aristotle and Albert Ellis as a more middle way, a moderated freedom. How does this measure up against Determinism? First, the examples of Determinism are not denials of freedom, they are ways in which freedom can be suppressed or influenced or restricted. But in order to restrict or diminish something, it must exist. Determinism fails to see the root freedom as underlying all the types of suppression of limiting circumstances that may influence us. It seems true that genes, our psyche, our upbringing, etc, influence our choices, however this does not destroy our free will, or prove it never existed in the first place. One cannot separate the acts we do from the “I” doing them, there is no substitute for the “I” as actor. One cannot lay the responsibility elsewhere.

Many observations demonstrate free choice. Observing humans in action we see in each action, 1) deliberation, considering the actions benefits, 2) judgment, picking the action, the internal act of the will to do it, 3) execution, following through on the judgment. In this also we see the call of conscience which is the underlying knowledge of moral norms. We also see the deep call of responsibility which is manifested in our rules and laws. We see also the calls for justice and fairness, or giving what is due, and repugnance at the suffering caused to innocents. All these aspects of human life presuppose and manifest freedom of choice, and are meaningless within Determinism.

If one wants to look deeper, metaphysically we see that our will follows our knowledge. We know something, then we want it or choose it, we cannot desire or will what is unknown to us. But our knowledge is not exhausted in the finite or particular, it tends to an evermore universal and absolute object. The will follows, desiring an ever greater good, even an absolute good. But all objects in the world are only possible and contingent, they are not necessary and not absolute good, thus they are “choosable” goods, and thus free will exists.

9. Existentialism.

At the opposite end from Determinism is existentialist theories on freedom such as Sartre. The textbook gives a good summary of him. Sartre would say it is true we are free, we are so free that we even choose what we are, we have no predetermined essence, we make ourselves, and thus are completely responsible for every single thing we do. It is a freedom without any conditions or restrictions. Even what you are forced to do, or seems to happen by accident, is really your choice. For some existentialist philosophers the great question for humans is why not to commit suicide. The angst of life and the aloneness that these philosophers see, and the radical responsibility for ourselves often comes from an atheism, but many also see this stage as a means to embrace an inner freedom and thus find some meaning.

Again this does not match the classical understanding of freedom. Classical philosophy accepts a true freedom, but one that is lived out within concrete, limiting, circumstances. It is the freedom of a limited being. We can certainly make ourselves with our freedom, but not to such a degree that we are without an essence. A thing cannot exist without being some type of thing, that means having an essence.

10. A middle way.
So what is the meaning of human freedom? Both Determinism and Sartre's existentialism have valid aspects, which are brought together in Aristotle's middle way. We are a being able to make ourselves to large degree, we have a human essence which limits us, but within that we realize our existence by our choices, we have an essence that is open, able to be filled, but open within the limits of our personal circumstances. Freedom is the trait of our human intellect that allows it to self-guide itself to the goal of the good. To say freedom is simply doing whatever one wants or feels like is not to guide ones self properly, is is “in-autos”, that is, “not-self” or in-authentic unless is tends to the good. True freedom is in order to choose the good. Although one is free to choose the evil, only choosing good expands one's freedom. This we will see more of in ethics.

11. Love and the will
And what is often identified as the highest good act of the will? Love for another. But what is love? Is it possible to explain love sufficiently? Does our understanding of the will and freedom shed light on understanding love? The least we can do is try to define the terms. The Greeks had three (at least) words for love's three different aspects. 1) ερος / eros, the sexual, physical possession, biological aspect. 2) φιλια / philia, the union of thought, desire in friendship, family and marital love. 3) αγαπη / agape, the self-sacrificing, not self seeking love that seeks the good of another above oneself. These three aspects all work together, are all needed in relationships of different types, but do they explain what love is and why we fall in love, or love others sometime very intensely?

Lets look at what love is not. Love is not desire, since we often desire what we do not love. It is not passion, since passion is instant, physical, and instinctual, whereas love builds slower, and is more than just physical. Love is not sex, which often happens without any love involved. Love is not reducible to any of these things. A truly human love would be an act of the will. Falling in love means an intellectual fixation of the will to the exclusion of others. An attention to one that matures following more and more knowledge of the one loved, and ends in the highest level of self donation for the sake of the other, without self seeking. Of course it is always mixed with all the human emotional aspect we saw above, and probably to a large part is unexplainable, but the core of it is the choice of the will.

12. Personhood.
How are all these aspects of the human being summarized? We have seen that we have an form with an intellect that is immaterial and knows universally and is unique among animals, we have a free will which can direct us to love and toward choosing the good. We have seen how the form of the human, the soul, is the form of this certain matter we call body, we are not a soul only stuck in a body, or a body only like a plant, we are a union of both, a unified whole, In sum – a person. Humans are persons.

So what is a person? What is personhood? The classic definition is from Boethius, a Roman philosopher in the 600's, and he defined it, “substantia individua de natura rational” that is, an individual substance with a rational nature. Lets break this down a bit. 1) Substance – something with being in itself, not existing in another. The substance is the subject or base for the accidental traits, the subject that performs the acts. 2) Individual – indivisible in itself and divided off from others, an internal unity. 3) Rational – the essence of a human, meaning all that we have seen, the immaterial universal, spiritual traits of the intellect, the ability to self-reflect, to choose freely. 4) Nature – the defining characteristics of a thing, the form, the essence of it.

So according to this definition, if a being is an individual substance, that has a rational essence, then that being is a person. We earlier defined humans as rational animals. Humans are individual substances with a rational nature, so humans are persons. We have expanded on our previous definition.

Is anything else a person? Is a newborn or a preborn human a person? Is a mentally retarded human a person? Is God or the supreme being a person? Is a dolphin a person? If the proofs for the supreme being as first cause hold up, then the SB is a person as well, as cause of personhood. The severely mentally handicapped, the comatose, or the baby, would be persons as well, even though they do not have use of reason. The definition does not say “uses reason” it says, “has rational nature”, if the criteria was “uses reason” then humans would not be persons while we were sleeping.

Is a dolphin a person? The text books tries hard to make the case, and gives a list of possible reasons why, but the argument fails in numerous aspects of the list (pg 442, 448), such as #2, #7. For example, Awareness is the closest thing on the book's list to what we have called “self-reflecting”. The book tries to make the point that if we admit of degrees of awareness, dolphins would have a lower degree of awareness. But it seems more apparent that self reflecting or “awareness” does not admit degrees in the way the book claims. There are levels of mental power among animals and among humans, but between the two there is a huge gap. There are no half humans with a rudimentary language, one either has a rational nature or does not. If one does, then a universal and conceptual way of thought is present. A gorilla or dolphin may learn a few hundred words after years of intense training, and make basic sentences in imitation, but a child learns a complete language, with full structure and an almost infinite way to put ideas together in sentences without any labor by others to teach them. A dolphin may be an advanced animal, the top of animal development, but is is not a person.

Abstract concepts about ourselves often help only a little in understanding what we are. It is helpful to think about what makes a human a human, why we are different from other beings, but for any philosophy to mean something to an individual, that individual must come up with their meaning. The principles that philosophy can provide give a general foundation to build your own meaning on. If someone asks you, "what is the meaning of a human person?" you may answer "an indivudual substance of a rational nature." But if someone was to ask you, "what is the meaning of you?", the answer needs to be more.

13. Dignity of persons and rights.
What does being a person mean? What is human dignity? Somethings follow from personhood, things that set person aside as special among all reality. One thing is a person is entitled to certain rights, what does this mean? Since a human is free, they have responsibilities and duties, for themselves, and often for others. Because a person is responsible to direct themselves to their end, they must be given the right to perform the actions that are needed to fulfill these duties. This is the basis for human rights, and the foundation of human dignity. A human person must be respected in their decisions they must take in order to pursue the good. You have the right to do what you need to do. To fulfill yourself as a human you need to think, speak, choose goals, relate to others, protect your life, etc - see how these are reflected in the US Bill of Rights such as free speech, assembly, exercise of religion, possession of weapons, voting, etc.

14. Death.
All this that we have seen about the human life ends in a moment we call death. No matter what one did, how great one was, or how much of a disaster one made of themselves during life, it all ends the same. Spanish Philosopher Ortega y Gasset said every life is a ruin and among the rubble one must seek to find the gems and jewels left there. How can one define death? Nature leads every human to a moment we call death. Whether it comes fast when the ceiling your under caves in one you, or if you approach death slowly when your 90 years old, it entails the same thing.

Under general terms one can say the physical body (the matter) reaches such a condition, under the influence of efficient causes (such as falling roof, or disease), that it can no longer support the existence of the human form. The form and matter separate, the matter takes on the form of elemental compounds as decay occurs. What about the form. As we saw in the Aristotelian understanding of reality, a form does not exist without being in matter, but at the same time the form of a human, also called the soul, performs acts that require its immateriality. If something is immaterial it cannot corrupt or decay or come apart, since it has no parts. Without matter means it is not destructible. So Aristotle concludes that the human form continues to exist in some way after separating from the matter of the body.

So a philosophical definition of human death could be the moment the form separates from the matter of a human being. As a concept it can be a cause fro both great achievement in life, or for some of great fear, a moment to be avoided at all costs - see how people try to live longer and longer, and be younger and younger... Death is more than just the end, it is present throughout life.

Now if one is a Platonist, then death is freedom at last, freedom to know truly the essences of all things without the shadowy uncertainty of matter. For Aristotle the human being is a unity, is meant to be material and intellectula both, so if just the form remains existent, is it still human, is it still a person? Are you still a human or a person after death? Will you be able to still know and love? We have no evidence to answer these questions clearly, it is speculation, and thus most turn to religion and revelation of an answer from God about these things to find an answer.