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The Distinctiveness of Being Human

For now I'm going to turn to a somewhat different issue, that is, the question of the distinctives of the human person. If we put organisms in a hierarchy; viruses, bacteria, sponges, plants, lower animals, mammals, chimpanzees, humans, what are the distinguishing features in the transition from animals to humans?

Now, again, I'm assuming divine creation through evolutionary processes. So I can ask the question in terms of divine action: What did God give us that makes us truly different from the animals?

Many modern religious believers would say that the main difference between us and animals is that we have souls and animals don't. Now I have to specify modern because, as many of you know, for the Medievals it was assumed not only that animals have souls but that plants have souls as well. So the difference between us and the animals is that we have the deluxe version of the soul, not that we have one and they don't.

But again, a non-reductive physicalist says there's no need to postulate the addition of a new kind of entity, a mind or soul. Rather, what we have is more complexity and specific organization for new functions.

We can guess from looking at our brains as compared with chimpanzees that an important factor is that large neocortex that you saw a picture of this morning. And a plausible thesis is that both the larger size of the human neocortex but also significant rewiring of the brain as a whole is what permits us to have sophisticated language; that is, true language as opposed to just calls and signaling that birds and animals have.

Genuine language involves symbolic representation; that is, a sign or symbol can stand not just for a thing but it can stand for an abstract category. It's the difference between knowing to call a certain elderly lady grandma versus having the concept of grandmother. And think of what a sophisticated change goes on in our children when they catch on how to use the term grandmother as opposed to just calling their own grandmother granny or grandma.

Symbolic language then allows for all or perhaps I should say most--but I'm inclined to say all--symbolic language then allows for all of the features that make us distinctively human. I'm going to list for you what I think are seven of the most important features that we have that distinguish us from the animals.

Self Concept

First of all, we have a more refined self-concept; that is, we not only recognize that this is me, my body, when we see ourselves in the mirror, but we have a concept of ourselves as a human being, as a specific member of a family, as an American, as a Christian--whatever. And this distinguishes us from animals with the most primitive version of self-concepts. Certain monkeys, if you put a red spot on their forehead and then put them in front of a mirror, they'll notice that it's there. They'll recognize that it's themselves in the mirror but, of course, they don't have any symbolic representation of myself or me, the chimp, or whatever. So refined self-concept is the first distinctive.

A Theory of Other Minds

Second, given that refined self-concept we have the ability to represent to ourselves the concept of other people's minds. That is, I realize that I'm conscious, that I have ideas but I also realize that you are conscious. And so I can think about what you think. I can think about what you know; I can think about what you are ignorant of. Chimpanzees can do this to a small extent, they can be aware of the fact that a chimpanzee in another position can't see what it sees. So it's a difference of degree. But we can have very sophisticated representations of what other conspecifics have in mind.


Third, we have the capacity for true morality. Now, as you probably know, there's a lot of debate among sociobiologists as to whether altruism is genetically determined. But I want to distinguish between so-called animal altruism because it's genetically determined and human altruism--human morality--which is based on having the concept of right and wrong. So again, language plays a crucial role.

Social Structures

Fourth, language gives us the capacity to form complex social structures. Now, animals have social structures of a sort but they can't be as complex as ours. We, for example, can write bylaws and laws and constitutions. And so there's the quantum leap in the complexity of the social structures that we can devise.

Awareness of Mortality

Fifth, we have the capacity to anticipate death. Again, I think this depends on concepts: I'm human; all humans die, therefore, I'm going to die.

Religious Sensibilities

Sixth, we have the ability to ask questions about what is ultimately important; that is, we can ask about the ultimate cause of everything; we can ask about whether the whole has a purpose. And, in short, we are able to ask what's traditionally been understood as religious questions.

And, finally, language gives us the capacity to conceive of God or Gods. It may be that prehumans had stirrings of religious awe or wonder but they could not have a concept of God without having concepts. And so language is an essential mediator of our ability to have religious beliefs.

So here's the physicalist's side. The main thing that accounts for human distinctives; morality, cultural, and religion is language. And the main thing that accounts for language is our large neocortex, plus the rewiring of the brain that goes along with that. And here I'm following Terrence Deacon in his book, The Symbolic Species, which I found fascinating and would recommend to you as a good read.


So the physicalist's part is it depends on the brain. But here's the non-reductive part in a nutshell: Those mental constructions that involve language make a real causal difference in the world. We can see that this is true. Laws make human beings behave differently than they would have otherwise. Belief in God results in different behavior. And it even results in there being different physical objects in the world than there would have been in the world without it. For example, you can think of churches as monuments to--if nothing else--the causal efficacy of belief in God.

In my next lecture, what I'm going to try to do is put all of these pieces together with a concept of the downward causation of the mental in order to reconcile the notion of mental causation and free will with neurobiological causation. But I stop here and I have saved you 20 minutes to ask me questions.

The Distinctiveness of Being Human

Getting Mind Out of Meat - Introduction
A Hierarchy of Sciences
Defining ‘Life’
Reductionism and Non-Reductionism
Downward Causation
Consciousness and Information Processing
The Physicalist Thesis


Dr. Nancey Murphy

Presented at the 'Ethics, Values and Personhood in the 21st Century' Conference held in January 2000 at Seattle Pacific University

See also:

The Cognitive and Neurosciences
What Makes us Human?
Are we Free?
Saint Augustine
Rene Descartes
Sir Isaac Newton
Books on Neuroscience and Theology