What is a human being?

‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.’

Shakespeare, Hamlet

Shakespeare’s Hamlet highlights the fact that, although we may believe we act nobly and see something in ourselves that places us above the rest of the natural world, we are essentially mistaken. Human nature and behaviour rarely live up to the aspirational portrait we often like to paint of ourselves.

Are we unique?

At first glance human beings may appear to be very different from anything else that we are familiar with in the universe. But the closer we look, the more we are able to recognise our similarities to other things. The chemical elements we are built from are found in everything around us, both organic and inorganic, in rocks, in rivers, and in rodents, even in the stars, in which those elements were first made. Science continues to reveal how many of our behaviours and talents are shared with other species across the animal kingdom: empathy, communication, and problem-solving. In the modern world, we are now even able to see ‘human’ attributes appearing in the technology that surrounds us. Machines can already far exceed many of our capabilities. How long before they truly challenge our sense of what it means to be a person?

What then is a human being to a humanist? Is there anything special or unique about us? Anything to be celebrated? Or are we merely nothing more than the elements from which we are made and no more worthy of reverence than anything else?

A humanist understanding of human beings

Jeaneane Fowler, in Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, draws our attention to the fact that the ‘hum’ in ‘human’ and ‘humanism’ stems from the Latin ‘humus’, meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’, with ‘homo’ (as in homo sapiens) meaning ‘earth-being’.

We are made from matter. We are of this world and this world alone. When we leave it, we do not continue to exist in some other world, nor will we return to exist again in this one. We were not individually created by some supernatural power, but are rather the result of natural, purposeless, physical and biological processes. We are a product of both nature and nurture: the result of the genetic inheritance acquired from our parents and our ancestors dating back to the origin of life, but those genetic propensities are also influenced by the environment in which we grow. Our personalities are located in, and dependent on, our physical brains, not within anything immaterial, such as a spirit or soul.

What is left?

One criticism of humanism is that this picture embraces a diminished conception of what it means to be human.

‘The dilemma for atheistic humanism can then be put like this. On the one hand the word ‘humanism’ suggests a recognition of something importantly special and distinctive about human beings. On the other hand, because of its championing of scientific knowledge, humanism seems to be committed to a materialistic conception of human beings as physical systems and therefore not radically different from anything else in the universe.’

Richard Norman, On Humanism

However, we shall learn how and why humanists might argue there is much that is special and wonderful about human beings, and much to be valued, without the need for us to be built from anything other than atoms. We shall also see, in this and in the coming weeks, how a recognition of our oneness with the natural world, and the need to balance our sometimes lofty aspirations with our intrinsic animal nature, can lead to positive outcomes.

There will still be much we can celebrate about being human.

‘Our entire bodies and brains are made of a few dollars’ worth of common elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, enough calcium to whitewash a chicken coop, sufficient iron to make a two‐inch nail, phosphorous to tip a good number of matches, enough sulphur to dust a flea‐plagued dog, together with modest amounts of potassium, chlorine, magnesium and sodium. Assemble them all in the right proportion, build the whole into an intricate interacting system, and the result is our feeling, thinking, striving, imagining, creative selves. Such ordinary elements; such extraordinary results!’

James Hemming

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK