What it is to be Human

Courtesy of Sandeep Jaitly @ NASOE:

The body is socially constructed; and in this paper we explore the various and ever-changing constructions of the body, and thus of the embodied self……The one word, body, may therefore signify very different realities and perceptions of reality…..(Synnot 1992, 43)

It has been said that in order to understand life and society, we as people must first understand ourselves. Who are we as a people? Who are we as individuals? Who are we as humans? These questions all present themselves when discussing a topic such as this. I believe that it is indeed important to ask questions such as these, and also as important to answer them. All of this assuming of course, that there is one specific answer. My problem begins here, in that I do not believe that there is one defined answer to these questions. As you will see, many “great philosophic minds” have different views and beliefs relating to these questions, and it is my job to sort through these different beliefs and discover…… What it is to be human

It seems that for ages the human body has been studied and inspected. However, literal “inspection” only takes us so far. As humans, we all know that there are parts of our “being” that are intangible. Take thoughts, dreams, and things of the like. We know they exist, yet they are unable to be inspected scientifically (to any valuable degree at least). The distinction between beliefs begins here. How one views this intangible side of life with respect to the tangible, is the factor that defines one’s beliefs.

There are several ways in which one may view the body. A dualist is one who views the body and mind, or tangible and intangible, as two separate intities existing together to form one being. The principle of “Cogito, ergo sum,” or in english, “I think, therefore I am.” The “I” meaning the mind, and “I am” meaning the body. (Synnott 1992, 92) The tangible side of the person being bound of course, by the laws of biomechanics and gravity, and theintangible being bound by nothing but the laws of reasoning. “…..the body, from its nature, is always divisible and the mind is completely indivisible.” (Descartes 1995, 70)

Like anything, dualism comes with its pro’s and con’s. Many people choose to believe in the idea of dualism because of its truths. Obviously, we can all see that indeed, the body is real and tangible, and that the mind on the other hand is the intangible, although it too is real. Likewise, as evidence of dualism we have undoubtedly felt the physical as well as the non-physical. The physical being, exhaustion or heat. The non-physical perhaps being the “ah-ha” experience, learning something or even dreaming.

Dualism however, does have its share of con’s. Take for example, the actual evidence of this belief. No one has ever been able to explain totally how the mind and the body work together. How can a tangible reality coexist with an intangible one? This one question is the draw of most criticism of the belief, obviously because no one has been able to answer it. Along the same line of thinking, how does one explain the physical location of the mind, without giving it a physical nature? If I said that undoubtedly my mind is located in my brain, I have made it part of the brain, and thus into a physical, tangible intity. The same goes for wherever one would like the mind, or “soul.”

Dualism itself can be broken up into four types. Object dualism, value dualism, behavior dualism, and language dualism. (Kretchmar 1994, 37) Of the four, object and value are by far the two most prominent. Its important to understand that any dualist is an object dualist. The basis of object dualism is that of dualism itself, the idea that the mind and the body are separate intities. Value dualism however, is a bit different. A value dualist agrees that the mind and the body are separated, yet they value the mind over the body. A value dualist puts emphasis on the fact that the mind is superior to the body, and in effect supervises it. “The body is distanced from the thinking person because it is less capable.” (Kretchmar 1994, 42)

The attraction of value dualism is huge. The fact is that people simply cannot trust their senses (their body) all of the time. Kretchmar provides an excellent example of this:

For example, playing center field, we see the batter take a mighty swing, hear a loud crack of the ball against the bat, and see the ball start on a trajectory that would take it over our head. We begin to run back to make the catch, but we have been deceived. The ball actually struck the end of the bat, and it turns out to be a short blooper that falls in front of us. (Kretchmar 1994, 42)

It is facts like this that attract people toward the idea of a separate mind that is superior to a separate body. It seems that logic is indeed a better choice. Would logic have allowed our body to make the mistake?

The truths in dualism have allowed it to make its way into much of our culture. In society today, it is very hard to escape dualistic thinking. Take the Christian view of death and afterlife for example. “Does not death mean that the body comes to exist by itself, separated from the soul, and that the soul exists by herself, separated from the body? What is death but that?” (Plato 1995, 68) Of all the type of dualism, value dualism is the most evident form found all around us. For example, here at The University of the Pacific, the course of study now known as “Sports Sciences,” was formerly known as “Physical Education.” Although the same course material is covered, the name was “upgraded” due to the fact that society seems to place much more importance on the academic side of the human than it does the physical.

What would it be like if the physical were valued as much as the mental? Well thankfully there is a system of viewing the body that allows this mutual, equal importance to occur. Holism is a school of thought that views the mental and the physical on the same level. Holism actually incorporates four basic ideas, two stemming from the body, two stemming from the mind, all linking together. (Sverduk lecture 1996) The idea of holism is a defeat to the idea of mechanistic thinking which evolved between 500BC and 1300AD. (Sverduk lecture 1996)

The idea of mechanistic thinking is that everything on earth can be explained by breaking it down and examining its parts. It is evident how often the body itself is taken in a mechanistic view, and indeed many are treated as if their body is a machine, doing anything to make it better, bigger, faster, and more efficient. With the mechanistic view of the body comes many methods of which to enhance it. “This obsession with body image has led to exponential increases in cosmetic surgery, weight-loss fads, muscle building, and even disturbing uses of new genetic engineering techniques.” (Kimbrell 1992, 52) This view of the body even brings on several dualistic notions. The idea that we are “ghosts caught in machines.” (Kimbrell 1992, 59) Obviously this notion is a harmful one, “Much of the stress and illness caused by the modern workplace is due to the fact that man is not machine.” (Kimbrell 1992, 59)

Holism, as I mentioned earlier, is a defeat to this mechanistic line of thinking. The basic idea is that the body is made from a little bit of a wide variety of things. Feelings, emotions, biomechanics, kinesiology, phyco-social aspects of activity, etc.. These factors can be set up into a quadrant system, allowing us to view them all separately. Being viewed separately, these things become “holons,” each existing alone, while simultaneously existing as part of another. (Sverduke lecture 1996) All of these, along with many more things, make up the human.

Take for example the action of weightlifting. On one hand, the lifter feels the hate, disgust, or confidence brought about by his action. This aspect falling into the upper-left quadrant. The athlete also feels the laws of biomechanics. Things like gravity and the laws of motion. All of these falling into the upper-right quadrant. Physco-social aspects also enter into the lower-left hand quadrant. These are things like values and questions as to why the lifter is lifting (i.e.: to impress others, or for his own health). The last quadrant is reserved for the actual kinesiology of the lifter. He can feel his heart rate increase, his breathing increase, etc. A holistic view incorporates all four quadrants into the “complete” person. It is all of these “truths” that draw people to the idea of holism.

For a holist, physical education is just as important as mental education. It is just as important to move intelligently as it is to think intelligently. Holism is a bit like a piece of paper. You cannot have a piece of paper with only one side. Each side is separate, yet each are essential to forming one total piece of paper. (Beal lecture 1996)

Taking into consideration all of this information, I am now able to create my own personal philosophy as to what it is to be human. It is a very difficult task indeed, to sit and think solely about what comprises my human presence. To do so, one must consider values, ethics, and their beliefs. To be human, in my mind, is much more than merely the mind and the body. It seems strange to me that such a complex being could be explained by a school of thought such as dualism. Dualism seems a bit too vague.

I believe that I would take a more holist approach to this question. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I can relate to all the sub-groups in a holistic approach. I have felt all of these areas, and therefore seem to believe a bit more in this idea. To me, the human is a being comprised of a mind that takes into consideration time and space, as well as emotions and feelings, and a body that exists kinetically and spiritually. The physical aspect of life is just as important as the mental one. A human is a being that experiences life with respect to all these areas, and works throughout there lives to create the best life they can. The human searches for, and completely defines his beliefs. I believe in the existential idea of existence proceeding essence. “….first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards defines himself.” (Vanderzwagg 1969, 48) I do not believe that the human is born “into” a life, but works to create one.

Whatever the human may be comprised of, it is no doubt that it is a difficult question to answer. Different people believe different things. I am in no way to make the decision that tells specifically what the human is, but perhaps neither is anyone else. Maybe the important thing is that we answer the question individually, each coming to our own beliefs and understandings.


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