What factor distinguishes common life from human life? Why have we been able to differentiate ourselves as a species from the crowd and rise to incomprehensible heights? There are a myriad of purported answers to this question, but most of these are effects not causes. In this post I tackle the underlying reason that these explanations strike at. I explore what makes us intelligent, adaptable, and human.
A key aspect of our humanity seems to be our morals and beliefs. I have asked a couple of acquaintances what “humanity” means to them and the majority of them responded with “morals” or gave examples of morals. While this is certainly not intended to be an empirical study, it shows that morals are clearly yet intricately intertwined with the question we seek to answer. Yet morals are fundamentally the endpoints of a belief system. To construct and stabilize our morals we must begin with some principles held as axioms and logically derive from those axioms conclusions which become our morals.
We follow morals because we know it’s right, but there is always some way we are sure what we believe is right actually is right. Our sense of what is right can be constructed as a set of statements held to be true. “You should follow the golden rule” is a statement, and so are our other beliefs of rightness. We can verify that these statements follow from certain fundamental principles that we assume are true. This is my meaning when I say our morals are the endpoints or results of a logical chain originating from assumed truths. Saying that morals are a fundamental component of humanity is included in saying that logic is a fundamental part. So we have arrived at the first answer: the ability to carry out a coherent logical conclusion. This is one factor that allows us to change ourselves and adapt to a changing world.
Logic seems, perhaps, to be a cold, unbending side of our lives. Logic evokes impressions of sparse courtrooms and cold supercomputers. Logic also represents our ability to stabilize and control ourselves. Yet our ability to change radically is also important in examining ourselves. There are so many aspects of our twenty-first century life that seem orthodox to us but would be completely arcane to anyone from, say, the seventeenth century. Our ability to radically change ourselves and our original axiomatic belief system accounts for the other half of our ability to change, adapt, and create.
We have advanced so far in terms of knowledge, society, and technology. Yet there is still so much more to create and discover. What will propel us is ultimately our humanity. And we have seen that stability and change make us human. In this yin-yang sort of duality, these two aspects of our nature–the desire for tradition and stability and the excitement brought on by radical revolution–synergistically combine to form what we call humanity and human nature. We have discovered our secret weapon: two conflicting yet supporting principles that guide our ever-shifting path into the future.