What is a human?

I remember having a discussion with David, my housemate and a student of Philosophy, regarding some matter or other that obviously wasn't very important, but what was notable about the conversation as that it became apparent we were talking humans, and his definition of a human was wildly different from mine. I think the topic was modern day man already being a cyborg by virtue of its reliance on technology, but it might as well have been making squirrel pie...

A long and ficticious story short, the interesting part of the conversation lay with human definition. I have not actually given this question any though until then, having focussed mainly on getting a decent definition for what "life" and what "intelligence" would be (the short answer is "less than you would think", the fully motivated long answer would take up a rather long post). David was reasoning about humans from the mental human point of view, while I was reasoning from the physical point of view, and this created quite a clash.

The physical definition of a human is simple, but also (quite possibly too) simplistic. A physical human is one that is born from humans, has human genes and physically stays a human throughout their life right through death untill it decomposes into whatever food a human turns into when it decomposes. This definition of a human seems fine, but it has serious issues when you start to think about complicated things. Things such as human rights. Someone who is completely insane, without any concept of self, concept of others and consequently cannot function in society in any way. Physically they are human, but they are nothing like your typical human. It's like having a rose bush that is genetically a rose bush, but grows dandelion flowers instead, has red dots instead of thorns, oh and it also grows upside down.

The mental human is an entity that behaves "like humans do", and is thus an essentially socially and culturally grounded concept. Someone who is in a braindead coma under this definition is no longer human, because it doesn't do what your typical human does - it does what most dead things do, with the exception of actually being physically dead (and that's not a lot): It is a human body but it is not a human.

This may seem a counter-intuitive thing to say, and a lot of people will actually consider it a politically incorrect statement, but let's not jump to conclusions yet. We hit upon a language barrier when trying to distinguish these two. So let's give them different names. Let's call the physical human "a human" and the mental human "a person", as a start. This will not hold very long, but it's a place from which to start.

A human is something physical, a person is typically someone that interacts and displays personality. The guy that runs the snackbar on the corner is both a human and a person, but the poor child that was swiped by a truck and is lying braindead on IC right now is just a human, she no longer displays any signs of being a person. That part has "shut off" as it were. One question that is expectably raisable is "well what if she's just in coma and wakes up a week later, is she a person again then?"

Yes, she would be. The thing to keep in mind is these are concepts *we* have about things, they do not define the world, the world basically defines them instead. So there is nothing odd about a person not being a person for a while. They don't stop being what they intrinsically are, they just stop conforming to a concept we have formed about them. But this leaves the case of the fruit basket. A person that has a mind so warped that their behaviour is nothing like what we expect from your typical human.

Let's take the case of the insane person who cannot function in society without being made to function by outside help. It's hard to say this not a person, after all they have a personality. But since I just defined a person as a mental human, a personality necessarily means that something displays the traits of the mental human. It no longer means what you normally think a personality means.

So is an insane human still a person? David argued "no". He argued it well. So well in fact, that it made me annoyed at my inability to properly counter what I felt was not just counter-intuitive but an offensive summarisation of the human concept. In retrospect this is a good thing, because it made me question my intuition. But to be honest I haven't figured it out yet. The onotology that language imposes when using terms "physical human" and "mental human" suggest there is a higher "human" that can be split up in physical and mental picture while still describing the same thing and I just no longer think this might be the case. On the other hand, using substitute terms becomes a problem because of overriding: using a word to mean something other than what it usually means is too prone to being misinterpreted, even by the person that picks them.

And as we all know, the third option of just coming up with new terms requires German. Because you can't just come up with new words in any language, it really just has to be German.

So in the end the answer to this post's topic really is "I don't know yet". I'm trying to figure it out, but until I do, a human is just "that which I judge to be human to me".

Worst. Answer. Evar.


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