Thinking out loud

Foreword: The author wishes to make it clear at the outset that he does not intend to advocate one position over the other in this entry. This entry’s sole purpose is one of (semi-public) self-exploration, in light of his position of indecision. This also serves as a word (or twenty) of warning: I may be about to treat serious issues with less gravitas than is warranted.

What does it mean to be human? I’ve thought about this a good deal lately, both within and outside the context of the current political environment. So what does it mean? Is it just a matter of having the right type, number and sequence of nucleic acids? Are characteristics that separate “people” from other animals relevant? What are those characteristics? Am I boring you to the point of abandoning those characteristics?

I’ve always felt that being human was more than a matter of genetics. Many of you are likely the same in this regard. Technically, it’s precisely a matter of genetics – but I’m after more than simple speciation. We view ourselves as special, set apart from other forms of life on this planet. It’s not just arrogance, we are different (as far as we know) – on some level that goes beyond cellular makeup. On the other hand, to insist that we are special based solely on our chemical or biological makeup would be a kind of arrogance; if or when we ever met another species or entity with a similar “spark” to our own. (Wouldn’t it be dandy if we already had, on this planet, but were too DNA-centric to recognize it?)

I believe this “spark,” this thing that makes “us” special, is cognition, intelligence, and self-awareness. As a side note, there are some cool studies on the “mirror test,” which attempts to quantify self-awareness. You look in a mirror and you recognize the reflection as yourself. Part of this is just good old fashioned learning (at some point you figure out that the reflected image is doing all the same things you are). A bigger part may be our sense of self. Studies have shown that many other animals never come to recognize themselves in a mirror; instead they perpetually see another animal. This ties in (loosely) with why I could never latch on to Behaviorism when I was in school. I think it works just fine in lower animals or simple behavior modification in humans… but has more trouble explaining complex behavior (look at me… I’m not a PhD… but I play one on TV!). Color me the optimist, but I think our ability to think, to consider our place in the world, allows us to see the big picture (or at least a bigger piece of it)… making us more than a collection of learned responses to stimuli. There’s more to our “spark” than self-awareness and the “mirror test,” but I thought it was too cool to pass up discussing in a little detail.

Identifying those characteristics that make us “human” is a slippery slope, particularly when it comes to the debate over reproductive rights. While we can reliably say that a fetus lacks a quantifiable “spark,” we can say the same of a three month old child. No one is going to advocate the right to dispose of an inconvenient infant, so what’s the difference? Is there a difference? Is it a question of self-sustainability? There’s no question that a post-partum, full term infant, is more “self-sustaining” than a fetus (not that any infant is truly “self-sustaining”), but should the debate boil down to a “survival of the fittest” competition; a reproductive smackdown if you will? Maybe it’s a question of potential to produce the “spark?” If that’s the case, where’s the cut off? How much potential to produce the “spark” becomes precious… essentially human when it comes to protection under the law? Is any potential enough? This is where the Catholics come in, with the prohibition against birth control (sex has one purpose: to produce spark – no, get your mind out of the gutter, not THAT kind of spark). But by that logic, why not take it a step further? Even abstinence is an overt act to prevent the kind of “life” we hold dear. Does that make it a kind of sin NOT to have sex? (What would that say about the strict requirements of priesthood?)

Moving beyond reproductive rights, what does this say about end of life matters? What does it say about the hospitalized person who’s lost all higher brain function? Emotional attachments aside, are these people still “human,” to be protected and sustained at all costs?

Ironically, we can rationalize compromise because we are self-aware, because of our gift of cognition. The Catholic Church’s point of compromise is at the “rhythm method.” Our president has pegged his point of compromise at conception. Many Americans have pegged theirs at the end of the first trimester (or at the termination of cognition, depending on which end of the life cycle you happen to be on). Believe it or not, I don’t know where I stand, on any of the issues I’ve referenced. My peg is a floating peg, susceptible to the drifting whim of my fancy. In this way I’m the worst kind of flip-flopper… just one more reason why I could never be a politician (like that was a going concern). The only thing I’m sure of is that these issues are REALLY complicated; perhaps beyond my qualifications to decide (which is readily apparent). What I REALLY don’t understand is how so many people can be so damned sure of themselves. Maybe I’m not sure because I’ve divorced myself from emotion on these issues… emotion being another lynchpin of being human. You may be sure… if so, God bless you. If you’re out there, convince me.

Give the gift of words.