Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What is Human Existence?


The aim of this paper is to define human existence as the capacity for the brain to generate self-reflective consciousness, along with the conditions of its beginnings and endings.
Before we can start to stipulate human existence, existence itself should be clarified. What is existence? As defined by Oxford dictionary: “the fact or state of living or having objective reality” This does not tell us much, as the definition relies heavily on the words objective and reality. Reality is defined by Oxford as: “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them” This last definition brings us closer to a description of existence, yet it still relies heavily on the term exist. We can now start to see that existence has to do with the state of affairs in the world outside of conscious experience. We can call this arena, that is void of awareness, objective reality. But then that leads to the question: if objective reality is different from personal reality, then are there more then two levels of reality? This paper will demonstrate that there are various levels of reality, needed to describe human existence/reality.
The first two levels of existence are easily understood as objective and subjective. Lets take a closer look at objective reality through the ancient Asian proverb, “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around, does it still make a sound?” This line points out that if there is no one to sense reality, does it really happen? Common sense will tell us that the world exists (world as that arena void of awareness) unaffected by our perception. But what kind of shape or depth can this objective reality have if like Protagoras said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Can objective reality exist if no one is there to say it does? This question can inspire many pages of writing, but for our purpose, we will use the answer that the Quantum Field Theory has given, as this is most relevant for this paper’s aim. According to this theory (this is an oversimplification) when we penetrate elementary particles, their individuality starts to dissolve and what is left after a certain point of magnification, is more like an ocean of waves instead of particles. These waves are not any definite thing, but rather the potential to be something until an observer locks them into a exact position, as a particle. Thus we can define objective reality/existence as the resting potential for phenomenon and conscious experience.
Lets now move on to the subjective side of reality and its various levels. Unlike objective reality which has only one stage, subjective reality has many. The reason for this is that many different kinds of brains produce various kinds of subjective experiences. These various levels are: self-reflective consciousness, self-aware consciousness, and animal-instinctual consciousness. The last level can be further divided into subcategories, but for the purpose of this essay they will be joined into one group, as it will better serve the aim of this paper. The first plane of consciousness we will discuss is the animal-instinctual. This is the kind of awareness most animals, including the lower mammals, generate. It is characterized by its purely reflexive nature. These animals behave as mere sensory machines, and are not able to tell themselves apart from the environment. To illustrate how this category of consciousness differs from our own, we will look at a brain-sensory disorder called blindsight. This condition is very similar to blindness but it has a very peculiar difference. Although the patient cannot see, his eyes do work and his brain does revive images. Thus if one were to throw a ball near his face, his body will flinch, yet he will be unaware of why he did so. This is caused by brain damage to one of the two areas that are responsible for vision. The area affected is linked to our conscious vision(which is, in terms of evolution, a new adaptation) while the second area is inherited from our reptilian ancestors. Thus, the animal with this kind of sensory system does not have any conscious experience as their behavior is impulsive.
Moving on, the next level of subjective reality is self-aware consciousness. This type of awareness is almost the same as the former, but the animal now has the ability to tell itself apart from the environment. This is verified by painting a dot on the forehead of the creature, and then placing them in front of a mirror. If they touch the dot on their forehead, it confirms that they recognize the image in the mirror as themselves. This kind of awareness is generated by infants, chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants.
This leaves us with the kind of existence that is unique to humans, the self-reflective type of consciousness. What makes this level different from the self-aware state, is that now in addition from being able to tell itself apart from the environment, the subject can also reflect on the situation to the point of inquiring about, and eventually investigating it. This is what caused our species to go from adapting to manipulating their surroundings.
In regarding the beginning of human existence, we must first consider the developmental stages of the infant brain, specifically memory and language. The development of memory and language are important when discussing the beginning of human existence, because the capacity for self-reflective consciousness requires a consistent, linguistically-narrative memory. Memory has two major temporal distinctions: Preverbal and Verbal memory. The preverbal memory acts in much the same way as instinctual-reflexive memory might work for animals; that is, the memory is purely impulse, incapable of retrospective analysis. While verbal memory gives us the ability to infer and inquire phenomenon. The capacity for verbal memory grows slowly after about 20-24 weeks after birth, and matures at around 12-18 months. So if we agree that human existence carries this kind of consciousness, we can argue that its initial point is shortly before the maturation of verbal memory (shortly before because the mind at that stage is capable of basic-provisional verbal memory).
Concerning the conclusion of human existence, we can take the reverse of the idea stated above and determine the ending at the irreversible cessation of self-reflective consciousness. This notion is quite distinct from just the irreversible cessation of consciousness; in this case the subject has ceased to exist, although he or she may still be conscious. An example of this would be an individual who has undergone a lobotomy. Thus, we can see that what produces human existence is that specific self-reflective property of consciousness. If that aspect is permanently removed, the existence of the person has ceased.
When on the subject of the person, one must tell it part from the organism or body. If one agrees that brain loss, or higher order brain demise (neo-cortex) is death, then it can easily be concluded that the person (what gives the subject “life”) is not the same as the physical machinery of the carbon-based somatic structure. Therefore the same can be said about conception; that it is the beginning of the organism, not the person. And it is the person which makes the life in question valuable. Even if one comprehends the zygote, fetus, or infant to have the potential to be a person, that potential is not intrinsic; the value of potential (to be a person) lies within the caretakers and their rearing of the child. For it is that which produces the functional person, not the inherent nature of the infant.
One implication of this view of human existence is the issue of infanticide. On the surface, it seems that nothing justifies such a horrendous action. But if one would to look deeply into the matter, it becomes clear that what makes infanticide wrong is not the act itself, but the reason for it. For instance, if an infant was terminated because it had a disorder like anencephaly, it would not, in most cases, be called infanticide. Thus the motive behind infanticide is what creates its stigma, not the act in of itself. Knowing this, it can be concluded that the act of infanticide can be justified when the outcome benefit’s the local group or society as a whole. An example of this would be the abortion of an unwanted or seriously ill infant. The growing infant should not be forced to exist just because of its intrinsic value to live. If it grows up unwanted, the tension carried by the caretakers will seep into it’s upbringing. This will result in a lower self-esteem throughout their life and an overall less functional person. In addition, with the population of the earth growing exponentially, and resources diminishing, it does not seem too terrible to have one less life come into the world. In other words, the perceived problem of infanticide, as a result of agreeing that human existence begins with the capacity for self-reflective consciousness, is non-existent; that is because infanticide is not an issue of when we come into the world, but one of why would someone need to kill the infant in the first place; and that issue of why has no direct link to when we come into existence.