I have written numerous posts advocating that because humans are animals they should be recognized as such (for example, see here , here, here , and here). For zoologists and others who study animals, it is obviously true that we are animals. We do hundreds of things that the other mammals do, plus a few extra. You can see it every day when you eat, breathe, emote, poop, become fatigued and fall asleep. Yet millions of Americans are horrified by the thought that human beings are animals.
Consider that we aren’t simply animals. Our species is a carefully defined type of animal. We are apes. Frans de Waal explains:
Darwin wasn’t just provocative in saying that we descend from the apes—he didn’t go far enough . . . We are apes in every way, from our long arms and tailless bodies to our habits and temperament.
If you want even more detail on what type of animal humans are (we are in the ape sub-division of primates), watch this brisk video by Aron-ra.
Again, this sort of information is really disturbing to many people, especially religious conservatives.
So why don’t I simply leave religious conservatives alone? Why do I persist on standing on rooftops and proclaiming this message that humans are animals? Why don’t I just whisper this sort of information only to my closest of friends: “Pssst. Human beings are animals.” Why don’t I just let it be, and keep it all to myself? What could possibly be at stake that I feel compelled to spread the word that human beings are animals? I was in the process of assembling my own list when I just happened to read Chapter 12 of Mark Johnson’s new book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.
Johnson is well known for his work with metaphors and embodied cognition with George Lakoff. Chapter 12 of his new book contains a section that leaped out at me: “The Philosophical Implications of the Embodied Mind.” In that short section, Johnson sets forth nine reasons why it really and truly matters for people to acknowledge that they are animals and to fully accept that their minds are embodied, not free-floating entities independent of physical laws.
Johnson’s biggest target is the “objectivist theory of meaning,” the idea that meaning “gets defined without any connection to the experience of the creature (i.e., the human) for whom the words are meaningful. Johnson points out that those who follow the objectivist theory of meaning believe that words and sentences somehow “carry” meaning without even trying to explain how words and sentences ever come to acquire meaning. It should send up immediate red flags that the predominate theory of meaning relies on floating thoughts, a theory of meaning that is not biologically anchored. Reacting to (and rejecting) this objectivist approach, Mark Johnson premises his analysis “with a mind that is not separate from or out-of-ongoing-contact with its body and its world.” His worldview includes a specific definition of body and his impressive list of why it matters for human beings to take seriously “the embodiment of mind and meaning.” Here are those reasons (I will be borrowing liberally from Johnson’s book with these descriptions, beginning at page 279):
1. Mind and body are not two things. Johnson points out that the mind “is not a mysterious metaphysical guest that just happens to drop in for a temporary visit at the home of the body.” A human being is not a body plus a mind. Rather, it is a “body-mind.”
2. Human meaning is embodied. It is possible to understand meaning only because we learn meanings “at the most primordial bodily level. Things are meaningful by virtue of their relations to other actual or possible qualities, feelings, emotions, images, image schemas and concepts.” We never cease accessing meaning through feeling, even while we communicate using abstract concepts.
3. Understanding and reasoning are embodied. Ideas don’t float over our heads. Our meaning-making capacities are entirely embodied. See here. “Our resources for making sense of our world are based primarily on our sensory motor capacities, which have neural connections to other parts of the brain responsible for planning, deliberating and reasoning.
4. Human beings are metaphorical creatures. Johnson, a co-author of Metaphors We Live By (1980), reminds us that “conceptual metaphor is a nearly omnipresent part of the human capacity for abstract conceptualization and reasoning. As Johnson and George Lakoff have clearly shown, “metaphor shows up in virtually all our abstract thinking.” The fact that we depend on conceptual metaphor must be contrasted with “literalism” causes people to reject the importance of conceptual metaphor. Literalism claims that all our concepts can be spelled out clearly, which is false, misleading and very dangerous [because] literalism lies at the heart of fundamentalism.”
5. There is no absolute truth but there are plenty of human truths. Johnson makes a strong case in this book, and elsewhere, that “human life does not require absolute truths.”
Neither science, nor morality, nor philosophy, nor politics, nor spirituality really need absolute truths, even though most of our traditional theories in these areas assume that they are founded on absolute (disembodied, universal, eternal) truths. Human truth, by contrast, arises in the context of human inquiry, relies on embodied meaning, and is relative to our values and interests.
6. Human freedom. Johnson challenges the idea of the Kantian notion of “radical freedom.” This is Kant’s view that “we are, or possess, a transcendent ego that is the locus of our capacity to negate any bodily, social, or cultural influence, habit or tendency.” Many people believe in this radical freedom because it supports their notion of moral responsibility and religious aspirations. Johnson argues for a “naturalistic idea of the body-mind as [giving us] a modest freedom to contribute to transformations of our situation, and therefore to self-transformations.”
7. The person you are cannot survive the death of your body. Johnson recognizes that this is a “controversial and distressing” idea for many people. To the extent that anything survives your death, Johnson argues that “it could not be the you that we know and love,” because that you is possible only due to the workings of your human brain engaged with its human-related environment. Johnson points out that a brainless soul “would lack your memories, your experience, your emotions and your grasp of the meaning of things.”
8. Embodied spirituality. Johnson rejects “vertical transcendence,” which he describes as the “alleged capacity to rise above and shed our finite human form and to ”plug into the infinite.” Johnson would allow for “horizontal transcendence,” the ability to sometimes “go beyond our present situation in transformative acts that change both our world and ourselves.” Horizontal transcendence relates to our ability to see ourselves
as part of a broader human and more-than-human ongoing process in which change, creativity, and growth of meaning are possible. Faith thus becomes faith in the possibility of genuine, positive transformation that increases richness of meanings, harmony among species, and foraging, not just at the human level, but in the world as an ongoing creative development . . . none of this is grounded in the infinite, but rather in the creative possibilities of finite human experience. It gives each of us more good work to do than we can possibly realize within our lifetime.
In short, we can leave our imprint in this world after we die, but it’s only because of the work we’ve done on earth before our brains die. No hovering. No ghostly meddling post-death.
9. Philosophy as a search for meaning. Johnson recognizes that we are seriously limited as embodied creatures. We delude ourselves to the extent that we search for “absolute truth.” Embodied meaning and mind limit us to reflecting on “the fullest, richest, deepest meaning of experience, as a way of helping us deal with the real problems of human existence that define our existential condition. This is the hallmark of genuine pragmatist philosophy, which is about “discerning the full meaning of experience and transforming experience for the better.”
Johnson concludes that human beings are forced to live in a human-related world and we would be much better off if we could only recognize this. The alternative world that many of us attempt to live in, “the more-than-human world “can only be understood and engaged by us via the structures and processes of human understanding and action. We should be spending our energy to make our world a better place rather than trying to “escape our bodily habitation.”
Where does Johnson’s worldview make a difference? In the heat of almost every major moral dispute. What if all of us fully accepted the idea that there weren’t any unembodied thoughts? In other words, what if people didn’t believe in supernatural (the term I prefer is sub-natural) souls? This foundation would substantially reframe abortion, stem cell and birth control arguments, since the lack of the equipment for thinking in a one-day old embryo would mean there is not yet any thought process. The lack of the brain means (to those of use who understand even the slightest bit of biology and neuroscience) that there is no thought process. The more I study neuroscience, the more a dark thought creeps into my mind. The thought is that those who, after being exposed to the clear findings of the science, nonetheless believe in souls, need some sort of therapy. Consider that many courts define “insanity” as follows:
If a person persistently believes supposed facts, which have no real existence except in his perverted imagination, and against all evidence and probability, and conducts himself, however logically, upon the assumption of their existence, he is, so far as they are concerned, under a morbid delusion; and delusion in that sense is insanity. Such a person is essentially mad or insane on those subjects, though on other subjects he may reason, act, and speak like a sensible man.
Under this definition, how could it be that believing in brainless thoughts is not insane. Nor does it take any elaborate scientific demonstration. If some sort of “soul” does our thinking, then why do person black out when struck hard on their heads? Why do people with brain tumors suffer thought disturbances? Is it because their souls simultaneously suffer parallel ethereal brain tumors? Come on . . .
Johnson’s discussion should also re-frame end of life issues. If Terry Schaivo had no functioning brain, she could not possibly have had any conscious thoughts. To believe that people without brains can nonetheless think is as silly as concluding that a destroyed computer can run software programs in computer heaven.
Philosophy would also be reframed pursuant to Johnson’s analysis. For instance, there is not any such thing as pure thought or pure rationality, contrary to the views of many philosophers. It is thus impossible to set the body aside in order to “think clearly.”
These are merely some of the many ways in which our culture would revamp the way it considered major moral issues, if only we could accept the clear evidence that without functioning brains there are no such things as thoughts.