What does it mean to be human?
When ancient philosophers and playwrights posed this question centuries ago, the logical and common sense presumption was to distinguish human beings from gods, beasts, flying animals, and creepy crawling things. Think Plato, Aristophanes, Confucius, Lao Tzu and Shakespeare: The vestiges of their thinking (and wisdom) point to language and ideas that invite comparative “ontological” analysis — an area of study that picked up fuel with early modern philosophic, psychological and scientific questions raised by Darwin, Nietzsche, W. James and Freud in the West, and extending to Nishida Kitaro, the father of Japanese philosophy.
Today, the question “what does it mean to be human” calls for a new and equally challenging comparison, namely our human relation to machines in light of the greater forces we often ironically refer to as “Mother Nature.” Throughout the 1990’s for instance, I raised the machine/nature conflict in my “post-human” seminar organized for grad students in arts and design for whom the conflict centered on the cult classic film METROPOLIS. These were heady times when the coupling of human/machine in the work of international artists Stelarc or Eduardo Kac and in the academic writing of Donna Haraway demanded critical thinking about the biotech implications of neurotech, robotech and gentech on our lives. This too, was the era of popular and triumphant “transumanism” — Xman, Grey’s Anatomy (McDreamy was a neurosurgeon!) and The Matrix — all science fiction narratives that reflected the serious scientific revolution actually happening on ground with the competitive race to map of the human genome, the US Gov. earmarking of funds for neuroscience research (thank you George Bush Senior) and the visionary AI writings of Ray Kurzweil. Let us not forget, 1990’s ushered in a new age of digital prosthetics extending our conceptual and neurological sense of self to the mobile and personal use of laptops, cellphones and virtual worlds.
Image credit: Eduardo Kac, “Genesis,” 1999, multi-media installation
It’s been more than a decade since teaching post-humanism and to my delight, questions concerning our the present and future state of our humanity are now pressed through the sieve of both science and spirituality. BEING HUMAN conference organizer Peter Baumann and his curatorial cohorts are among those asking the “spiritual” question. Baumann, a professional musician and self proclaimed seeker of spiritual wisdom, shares the voice of the technotribe, the art/sci geeks who turn to 21st century science for spiritual guidance and who now gather by live stream - a defining feature of our techospiritual age. Opening the conference with the claim, ‘We have no handbook to humanity,’ Baumann echoes Buckminster Fuller, the Puck designer / inventor who had raised the point for the modernist generation, alienated from traditional religious, political and moral stories, rituals and objects that had enabled cultures to persist on Spaceship Earth — lovingly named by by “Bucky,” who followed others in making this quaint futurist call.
That Baumann turned to neuroscientists, neurophilosophers and evolutionary biologists to lay out humanity’s handbook was itself the conference message. (That’s right, neuroscientists, not high order members of New Age Spiritualism, nor revisionist minsters of the Church, the Synagogue nor Sweat Lodge.) With University of Wisconsin meditation and compassion researcher Richard Davidson moderating the event, the dialogue was decidedly “academic,” emphasizing a cognitive science / neuropsychological logic that revealed both the deconstructive and constructive aspects of brain/mind mechanics. Heavy on Ivy League research — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the UC system (Berkeley, San Diego) — east and west coast American academics were saddled with the question to define humanity for our age, the brain age, charting a current understanding of perceptions, decision-making, emotions, culture and reflective/integrative practices, e.g., wisdom or mindfulness practice for the Being Human crowd. Perhaps the binding agent of a proceedings so decidedly analytic, came through the sensory imagery shared by two artists, poet Jane Hirshfield and film-maker, Webby Award provocateur Tiffany Shlain, each adding palpable, reflective fiber and tone to the skeletal ideas paraded across the conference stage. Art as whole-brain breathing space for intellectual engagement?
For those who have spent any time penetrating the mystery of our humanity, it was no surprise to find the conference cartography mapping the usual suspect nodes of the symbolic, the syntactical and the self-aware aspects attributed to “mind.” Yet, by drawing neuroscience into the center of the conversation, BEING HUMAN curators signaled a powerful collective need to map as well, the simple fact of our “embodiment” — a supple form of self aware experience known to all who have trained in mind/body integration, e.g. from dancers, actors and athletes to yogis, martial artists and massage therapists. For a moment, the body-mind crowd was redeemed: Neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger joined pop stars VS Ramachandran, David Eagleton and Beau Lotto in naming “the body “as both necessary to concepts & experience of mind … and as an illusion!
Image Credit: Dr. V.S Ramachandran on stage with Richard Davidson and Beau Lotto, Being Human 2012, Palace of Fine Arts.
The body image illusion meme was so central, so vexing that when Lotto, commanding the stage like a Magic Castle magician, revealed the hidden mechanics of how we perceive color or estimate spatial location in a simple ball throw, the crowd went wild! Together, Ramachandran, the emergent Yoda of neuroscience, and Metzinger gave resounding stamp of authority on body image illusion pointing to the famous RUBBER HAND illusion and the network agency calibrating visual, haptic and proprioceptive awareness ( Scientists, any thought on using somatically gifted research subjects for future research? Hint Hint.)
Taken alone, illusion surprise is deeply satisfying. I’ve found kids 5 to 35 will delight in magic tricks playing with scale and proportion, light differentials and attentional blindness (the now famous Simon & Chabris Gorilla test). But to presume body misperception must necessarily lead to concluding the self is “merely an illusion” pushes ordinary human intuition and ordinary language into the defensive zone. Perhaps to calm the philosophers in the room, conference speakers shared ample evidence of neurological distortion, like spatial neglect or phantom limb for — research which helped to push Ramachandran into the popular limelight; still, I remain wondering why conference bloggers sitting nearby raced to the easy, reductive nihilistic conclusion (our sense of a whole, enduring self is an illusion) rather than sit with the more uncomfortable yet liberating idea that we exist and persist as a constructed process!
As if to derail nihilistic thinking, BEING HUMAN insured a social and cultural imperative with talks by primate specialists, medical and cultural historians along with clinical and behavioral psychologists, most notable and compelling being emotion analysis expert Paul Ekman. Considered a virtuoso of micro-facial analysis (his work gave rise to the popular TV show “Lie to Me,”), Ekman’s evo devo perspective gave cultural fat and psychological skin to what might only be thought of as a conference on neuro-analytics. His frank bordering on contentious clinical view was matched by a round table of leaders in the “mindfulness and compassion” movement: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Gelek Rimpoche, and Richard Davidson who had relinquished his role as moderator and handed the torch to Sounds True publisher Tami Simon. The curatorial move was not lost on this writer, a pointed reveal of how neuroscience has drawn Asian meditative and contemplative practices into the lab bearing forth research that impacts 21st century health, education and business systems. Also patently obvious as a pattern of conversation? The repeated use of the terms “attention and awareness,” two brain/mind threads in the rich weave of “3 C” research and practice: cognitive, contemplative and creativity neuroscience. (Shameless back patting aside, I called for “3 C” studies and focus on attention and awareness thirty years ago in my own doctoral research and now advocate it as a robust paradigm for applied neuroscience.)
Sounds audacious or ‘sounds true’? Stepping back from a conference that placed neuroscience within the cult of healthy narcissism, I would be hard pressed to argue with the organizing effort given my own applied neuroscience advocacy goals and values. In fact, kahuna kudos to Baumann and crew for daring to resurrect the question from a neuroscience perspective on a world stage — in San Francisco no less. Doing so is sure to help popularize the disruptive and recuperative aspects of the neuroscience revolution. Public Will, after all, determines how and when we rethink BIG questions for new generations to inhabit SpaceShip Earth.
In the meantime, it is enough to kick-start both zany and easy defensible projects that tell new stories about our constructed selves. We, who are said to come from stardust, have yet another chance to understand ourselves, this time by taking that old narcissistic urge and face ourselves in the mirror of neuroscience to discover our own beautiful, ever-changing and enduring reflection.
For wisdom seekers fascinated by our human relation to our world’s oceans, join the upcoming discussion ‘Your Mind on Blue’ on April 15 at Fort Mason in S.F.
For Marvel Comic readers and toy designers intrigued the narrative aspect of biotech, consider the legal distribution implications of Mutant Toy Rights in the age of “being human.”
Image Credit: Rubber Hand Illusion, Science Magazine 2004: “Probing the Neural Basis of Body Ownership,” by Matthew Botvinick
BEING HUMAN was sponsored by Science 2.0, Mind and Life Institute, and the California School of Integral Studies.
P.S. Regarding the logic of no-self: The constructive aspect of personhood has served as a cherished intellectual argument within in Buddhist philosophy and within the French Deconstruction and yet, when one considers these arguments whether in conversation, or in private thought, the idea that we, in and of our selves, are merely an illusion often leads to the unfortunate conclusion of nihilism (not to mention a positive spin on borderline personality disorder). It also points to the ideological acquiesce of a morally and socially responsible active self. Consider, for instance the heavy critique of Buddhism by moral and social activists calling for holistic paradigms that attempt to recuperate a divided self (I refer readers to recent responses to the Occupy Movement http://www.tricycle.com/blog/buddha-buzz-teacher-thoughts-occupy-wall-street )