Will the Real Human Please Stand Up?
By Brian Emmet
When I was young, there was a popular TV game show called To Tell the Truth. There was a panel of “celebrity judges,” whose job it was to figure out which of three guests was, in fact, who he or she claimed to be. A round would begin with each guest saying something like, “My name is Joe Schmo and I am the first person to climb Mt. Everest blindfolded.” The host would then read a brief statement by Joe Schmo, adding some details about his blindfolded climb. The judges would question the guests and then vote for who they thought was the real Joe Schmo. The host would then intone, “Would the real Joe Schmo … please … stand up.” While he was saying this, the Joe Schmos would look at each other, feint at standing up, and then the real Joe Schmo would arise. Cue gasps of surprise and APPLAUSE.
So let’s play a round of To Tell the Truth. Consider yourself introduced and empaneled as a celebrity judge. Our three mystery guests have arrived, and one by one, each says, “My name is Humana, and I am the real human being.” The host then announces that “we’ll be doing something brand-new and never-before-done! For this round, I’ll read three brief statements, each of which was actually composed by one of our mystery guests. Judges, you’ll have to decide which is the real human being!” The host then reads:
“My name is Humana. I am a highly intelligent animal. While I share with other animals the need for air, food, water and other environmental supports, I am able to transcend my limitations through the application of my intelligence. The goal of us humans is to bend the natural world to our wills, to make nature serve us in every way possible. In fact, though we humans are products of evolution, we have evolved to the point where we are the first animals to be able to begin to control and direct our own evolutionary development moving forward!”
“My name is Humana. I am a sophisticated biological robot, a “meat machine,” if you will. What makes us humans so distinctive is our ever-increasing ability to get beyond our physical bodies—or to transform those physical bodies into ever-more reliable machines. We’re becoming code-breakers, not only able to crack the codes of biology and the digital world, but to develop and rewrite and even create our own coding to accomplish our transformation into more efficient and powerful machines. We look forward to the day when we will at least be able to drop the “meat” from “meat machine”!”
“My name is Humana. I was created by love, to love. I am an ensouled body, or, if you like, an embodied soul. What most distinguishes me from every other animal or machine is something called the image of God: what it means to be human is to carry the image of God. Since the one God is an eternal community of love, what it means to be human is to be created by love, for love, to live a life of love within the love of God.”
OK, judges: who’s the real human?
Yes, it’s a far-from-perfect thought experiment. You may find none of the Humanas’ descriptions adequate. But rules are rules: in this game, you have to vote, so which Humana gets your vote?
We’ll tend to dismiss Humana #3 as “too overtly religious” or “too obviously Christian.” But all three Humanas are in fact staking out a religious position to the question, “What does it mean to be human?”
Humana #1 is voicing a version of the religious view known as Enlightenment Humanism. It claims to be a “purely rational” and therefore “unreligious” position, but it isn’t. While it is true that humans are highly intelligent or rational creatures, what makes “intelligence” or “rationality” the primary determinant of “human-hood”? Why is the cosmos subject to our rationality, why is reason able to explain so much about the cosmos? From where does the “reasonableness” of the cosmos come? If the answer is ultimately, “That’s just the way it is!”, Humana #1 is indicating that she is making a metaphysical statement.
Humana #2 is giving voice to a version of the ancient religion of Gnosticism. For Gnostics ancient and modern, the “real me” is trapped inside of physicality—in a body, in a world ruled by the “laws of nature” that are guilty of limiting our possibilities. The way to power, freedom and enlightenment entails escaping from our physicality. For ancient Gnostics, that escape was achieved via “spiritual” means. For the modern tech-savvy Gnostic, there is no meaning or reality to a term like “spiritual,” so the way to escape our physicality is through becoming ever more a non-biological machine.
Humana #1 and #2 may voice popular positions, but that doesn’t mean that they are not as intrinsically “religious” as #3. This is an important conversation that we are not currently having. We tend to assume that “everyone knows what ‘human’ means,” or “Human means whatever we decide it means,” or “the question is meaningless,” but we need to remember that how we answer the question makes a real difference to the way we treat one another, especially those who are the weakest and most vulnerable.
While we all may not agree on “what it means to be human,” there is still, but perhaps only for a time, agreement on what it means to be inhuman or on behaviors that can accurately be described as dehumanizing. Sex trafficking, violence, environmental destruction, strip malls and shameless injustice can still be characterized as inhuman or dehumanizing. Interestingly, we might still even describe the practitioners of such behaviors as “soulless.”
Is the essence of being a human creature a matter of power over (Humana # 1 and 2) or of love for?