We Are Not Born Human

From The New York Times:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/opinion/we-are-not-born-human.html

Our humanity is a process that begins with negation.

By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Mr. Lévy is a French philosopher, filmmaker and activist.
Aug. 22, 2018

What does it mean to be human? The immensity of this question can be boiled down to an old principle proposed by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, which he attributed to fellow philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “Determination is negation.”

But negation of what?

First, of God. In the beginning there was God — the source of infinite action. In the Western tradition, man has no purpose without God. For Christians, man was created in God’s image; for Jews, God is a good worker who lends a hand. For atheists (who, let’s not forget, are Judeo-Christians in their own way), man’s purpose is in part to topple God from his throne. If this isn’t a complete negation of God, then it at least limits his power, as humans come to occupy the space formerly reserved for God alone.

Determination is also a negation of nature. Nobody will deny — most of all not Spinoza — that a human is “natura naturata,” a thing among things, a nature among natures, a figure of the world woven from the same fiber as all other ordinary figures. But to be human is also to desire transcendence, to aspire to be more than merely a sliver of nature.

In his day, the philosopher René Descartes pondered the difference between humans and machines. Today, on the cusp of a revolution in artificial intelligence, we are pondering a similar question: How will we be able to tell a real human from a synthetic one?

A real human is “res cogitans,” a thinking thing, as Descartes put it. A source of “intentionality,” as the philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote. Being human means taking a leap out of the natural order. To be human requires an escape, in one way or another, from that mass of atoms, cells and particles from which you and I and everything else is composed. It is to be endowed with a soul, which — even if it is immaterial, without expanse or density, even if it is perfectly invisible, impalpable and inconsistent — acts as a passport out of nature and into our human essence.

This systematic denaturalization, this confidence that a piece of oneself can escape from the natural order of the world, is akin to a second birth. Nature is the first stage of humanity; but it can, under no circumstance, be its horizon.

But there is also a third birth. To be human, of course, is to be part of another entity that we call society. With all due respect to the “Rousseauism” of those who have never truly read Jean-Jacques Rousseau, man has never existed entirely on his own, with no attachment to a community of others.

But here, we must be very careful. To idolize the social sphere, to passively accept the constraints that result from the imposition of social laws and norms, can prove fatal for human striving. Here lies the bleak realm of Martin Heidegger’s “we.” Here are the nameless, faceless mobs prophesied by Edgar Allan Poe and who today have been unleashed on social media.

To be human is to preserve, inside oneself, against all forms of social pressure, a place of intimacy and secrecy into which the greater whole cannot set foot. When this sanctuary collapses, machines, zombies and sleepwalkers are sure to follow.

This private power may not be accessible to us at first. We aren’t born human; we become it. Humanity is not a form of being; it is a destiny. It is not a steady state, delivered once and for all, but a process.

To be human also means knowing that one can win battles, but never the war. Death will have the final say. If this seems all too tragic, if we are troubled by the sense that the inhuman is the rule and the human the exception, we must come to understand it as a source of salvation.

Ultimately, I am sure of nothing. Philosophy is strictly concerned with the field of the possible, not the knowable, so I can only wager on what may be.

But I do know one thing: The history of this past century teaches us that when we place our bets on nostalgia — when we dedicate ourselves to the search for some lost native land, for something pure — we only pave the way for totalitarianism. We trigger the machines to clean, purge and wash us away.

When we instead commit ourselves to moving forward, to diving into the unknown and embracing our humanity in all its uncertainty, then we embark on a truly beautiful and noble adventure — the very road to freedom.

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