To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail…
(A common saying)
As the New Year begins, one has to thoroughly revaluate some ideas that are held dear… to see where they lead. To take up the very title of this blog series, of “only being human”—where does this really lead? Does it point the way to endless weaving of threadbare ideas or to something that makes an impact on everyday life? Does the phrase carry anything of value, or is it such a sweepingly general idea that one can never really do anything with it? Seen on the surface, upon reading “only being human”, one may well ask “Well, when am I not being human?” So it is not sufficient to throw out this phrase or that phrase as a theme, it is quite important to follow the idea through and through. What can we say definitely and objectively about “being human”? From a vague term like that, what clarity can we obtain?
We have encountered the way in which normal “definitions” start falling away as soon as we encounter living systems, and how their presence demands that we bring forth a different set of ideas to deal with them. In this, it is clear that there is a part of outer reality that does not follow our neatly packaged ideas, but in order to understand the living world, our ideas themselves had to become living. One can calculate and calculate based on the laws of the non-living, and convince oneself that the right combination will be hit upon someday. However, the truth of the matter is that living systems directly jolt us out of mechanical logic, demanding that we think in terms of archetypes, instead of in stereotypes, for example. This is the sort of demand made by what we explore. Keeping that aside, let us look at why we took that direction at all, and if there is anything fruitful in it.
Something that has been won for us in the struggles with scientific research is the value of objectivity. No one has any doubt that one must be objective about dealing with the world, but here we see a possible source of trouble: It is the individual who has created the concept called “objectivity”. Even as scientists, with all instruments at our disposal we can only see “objects” but never “objectivity”. So there we have it, objectivity normally demands that the situation must not depend on the person, but must hold good for all (this meter long stick must appear a meter long stick to everyone, for example). And yet, the very concept is created by some person, and agreed to by others, so it has to be subjective. So, if I demand that objectivity is necessary, does that make it subjective, as the demand is dependent on me? Is it “just my opinion”?
Some may call this ‘splitting hairs’ with objective and subjective, but it is actually very essential to the entire question. If there is any sort of confusion on this point, it will twist the entire story, as we will see later on. We bump into this trouble because at the essence it lies in a very human quality: that of saying “I”. For myself, “I” am both subject AND object, both concept and reality. As far as I am concerned, subject=object, it is an experience. That subtlety is quite tricky to notice, especially with our current education where we are told that we say “I” to ourselves because of some neuronal activity, or some perceptions outside ourselves, e.g. in the mirror. But those explanations miss the underlying theme, that whatever we attribute to neuronal activity or perceptions is once more due to our own decision to apply the concepts “neuronal activity” and “objective reality” together, and hence it once more leads us to the same point via a much longer and tortuous route. And the point is that, with what I call “I”, subject and object become one, throwing the ideas of subjective and objective together. What does it mean, now, to say that something is objective or not?
The only way to address this is to recognize that the individual “I” cannot be separated out in this process, it is hinging on it. The entire process must be felt, even as you are reading this very sentence and making sense of it, by trying to observe just below the surface, of how you are determining something to be correct. Hence, for an idea to be objective, the individual human being must be able to derive it out of himself/herself, and it must clarify the situation being questioned. In other words, an objective idea must originate in an individual (or independent individuals), but can be verified by all others.
So far, the only commonly accepted examples of this have been in mathematics. Once a mathematician, say Euler, figured out the right relation between the sides and vertices of polyhedron, every other mathematician could verify his results, every engineer could build on his results, and every physicist could use the results in explaining the geometry of some material system (e.g. in complex integrated circuits). However, training in understanding the relevant mathematics or physics is essential. In this process, we can observe the full cycle of knowledge: that the idea, once taking its origin in an individual, can then be verified by another individual, with suitable training. It is important to highlight that even though once the theorem is in place, everyone can then understand it as a group if they put the effort, the origin of the idea is not to a group of people simultaneously… it always originates in one or many individuals in their independent thoughts.
So objectivity is more than simply a “consensus reality”… it shows that the idea is “correct”. Hence a consensus is dependent on the individual efforts of the people, and is not a requirement. This effort, or individual training, is where the conversion is made from a subjective whim to an objective reality, both with respect to the individual. Never, in this entire process of understanding a fact, is the individual left out. Even a mathematical proof can be done in infinitely different individual ways, all of which can be correct. The individual is hence resolved with his peers, and the subjective is made objective. This is the nature of the transformation that takes place, and has to take place, in a striving for real understanding.
If one were to illustrate this entire scenario with an example, one can take the idea of measuring a length with the hand. As long as the subjective remains subjective, as we have called it, men can argue forever about whether or not a piece of wood is as long as one’s hand, and that measurement is all “subjective” as it depends on the size of the person’s hand. However, the moment an individual conceives of the idea of a “standard unit quantity”, and explains how this concept can help everyone measure, the matter gets decided as far as the others are able to understand his thoughts, and a quantitative unit can be established. In this scenario, the protagonist has made the subjective into objective, and for those able to understand him/her, has solved a significant difficulty. In addition, this person has also progressed from an anthropomorphic worldview to a humanly objective worldview. And that is the essence of the issue which we can carry forward… that an anthropomorphic worldview looks at the world simply as an extension, an extrapolation, of the person’s nature, keeping the subjective judgment subjective, while a humanly objective worldview is created by an individual who makes it objective, and supplies the stamp of clarity and reality to it. An anthropomorphist demands that perceived reality must fit her thoughts and feelings, while the active individual would demand of herself that her thoughts and feelings must fit reality. Reality does not fit the consensus; the consensus of individuals must fit the reality.
If this connection with the individual is missed, then the twist in the tale is introduced: the individual is made an extrapolation of the theory. The first example is that of Cartesian logic, which recognized the laws of machines and hence said that the whole world, with the human in it, is a machine. While it is true that logical activity is one mode of understanding of an individual, reversing it makes the individual one result of application of logic! When the laws of arithmetic are understood, the entire world becomes a calculation, when the laws of electricity and chemistry are discovered, the world is made of electric charges with the brain made of chemicals, and the human being is seen as a walking and talking piece of circuitry. More recently, the calculator was built, and the human brain was seen as a calculator. With developments in computing, the human brain and even all living forms are seen as computers, with the DNA being the “source code”. The latest version says that the human brain is a quantum computer. In all these extrapolations, one can see the progressive errors of anthropomorphism applied in a reverse way on the individual, showing clear examples of the quote in the beginning of this article: To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail…and we might add, even his own self looks like a nail! And as more and more tools are discovered, a human being would be described in terms of the tool as if it is a new discovery, while in reality it is simply the reflection of primitive anthropomorphism on another scale.
Credit: Asterix comics
It is indeed surprising to see how easily these ideas are accepted, as they show clearly the very extreme side of anthropomorphism and extrapolation. It has even penetrated popular language, with people mentioning phrases such as “I am not wired that way”, as if one was indeed a tangle of wires. This reflection, where we start looking at ourselves as tools, is taken a step further in another reflection, which now says that the tools can become intelligent. A little reflection (pardon the pun) will show that this kind of thinking is akin to walking into a hall of mirrors… where each successive reflection is seen as another development, a new person, while all the while it is simply our incapacity to see our own faces that shows it to us from innumerable reflections. If it is missed that the individual is the creator of his ideas, and hence his tools of thinking, then we see the reflection that the individual is seen as a tool, and further, the tool is seen as a potential individual. It is possible to extend this indefinitely, where the tools become conscious beings (artificial intelligence), who can then create further tools, which become further beings etc. We have lost our way into this hall of mirrors, because we have missed the first part… man creates his thinking, and ideas, and in making those ideas accurate, he transforms them from subjective to objective, because he is first able to do that with respect to his own self. When I think about something or exert any activity, immediately I am not the same person I was a second ago, I have changed… I see myself, yet, I am SURE that I see myself -- in me, subjective and objective become one. This the real direction Descartes was pointing towards with “I think therefore I am”, or in other words “I create and observe myself, through thinking”. It is only because we perceive this process taking place in our own selves, that we now look outside and determine that things must be “objective”. If this connection is missed, as shown above, we do not realize our own features, and desperately seek them in objects in mirrors. In one, we are computers, in other, engines, and yet another, we are chemicals... that is what happens to “objectivity”.
That is one side of things, where we mistake our own selves as being objects. In the second place, lies our resistance to consider some objects as being created by human agency. For example, it is clear that as soon as we spot something handwritten - let us say a scribble on a bathroom wall - there is no doubt in asserting that someone must have written it. There is also no doubt in saying that the wall itself, was made by human hands. So far so good. Now, how about the material of the wall, the clay of which the bricks are made? Here it is asserted that the clay is a result of erosion of stone via “natural laws”. Any assertion to the effect that the substance of clay was made in an intelligent fashion, is called anthropomorphism… a habit that is currently attributed to primitive minds. In other words, since human beings can create physical changes, all physical changes are attributed to some human-like entity.
Let us examine this theme of “primitive man” a bit more. A man throws a stone, it moves. He sees a stone rolling downhill, and asserts that somehow, someone, has thrown it. If no one is visible, this is then attributed to an invisible human-like entity, either higher or lower than a human being, i.e. anthropomorphism. Many currently think that this situation lies at the basis of belief in gods, angels and demons. Just as with respect to measurements with his hand, he sees the world as an extension of his body, in things not within the domain of his activity he sees the world as an extension of a super-human, who moves things around just as man himself moves a pebble. In the previous discussion, it was his own subjective measurement that determined reality, and now, the subjective wish of a human like entity, projected outwards, is seen to determine reality. This is the other side of anthropomorphism.
This is where we must follow the event through its stages… just as the initial attempts to quantify the world using the hand and the foot, later resulted in determining the laws of measurement, and also the standard unit of measurement, making it objectively accessible, in a similar fashion, the attempt to anthropomorphize all the activities around us can only be initial stages of understanding them. Thus, in this form of anthropomorphism, we must be able to see the beginnings of a new understanding, instead of seeing them merely as relics of the past. Even measurement might indeed have become a relic of the past if none had come forward with accurate ideas to make the situation objective.
Re-consider the example of the scribble on the wall in light of this. One could easily have explained the scribble on the wall as being caused due to the mutual force between a pointed object and the wall’s surface. This would be perfectly in line with describing the fall of a stone downhill as being due to the force of gravity. Why don’t we stop there? Why do we presume that a person, who is invisible at the moment, was behind this? It is because we follow through on another thread of anthropomorphism, one which we know from experience to be accurate. If you find something written, you know someone wrote it. There the explanation is clear and objective. The anthropomorphism has been transformed.
This means that all feelings and intuitions which we have, regarding perceiving the world as being made by living beings, sentient or intelligent, are simply beginnings on the road to objective knowledge. This objective knowledge might indeed show the presence of such beings. Just as measuring a stick with the hand and projecting the laws of mathematics from the mind of an individual was the “seed”, as it were, of all measurements, leading to the great fruits of technology today, perceiving living beings and sentient beings around us demands the recognition of different laws, which will bear fruit in the future.
So all in all, we can perceive two ways that one can fall into trouble: in one, the human being is left entirely out of the picture and made subject to the tools, while in the second, everything around is seen as the result of the activity of human-like entities. And it is in between this Charybdis and Scylla that we must navigate in order to find our path to a healthy view of the world. The light is given with one of our foremost successes, that of mathematical and quantitative knowledge. However, if we forget that this knowledge is only the end result of a striving that was entirely subjective to start with, the great error would be made of saying that every other kind of knowledge is “subjective” or a “fantasy”. If we fall prey to Charybdis, we would end up treating human beings more and more like tools or robots, and indeed become more robot-like as a result of that belief. If we fall prey to Scylla, then all knowledge of living beings and soul activities will be relegated to subjective and fictional human-like characters, in innumerable novels, TV shows and movies, being kept separate from real experience. It is in the midst of this turbulence that we can perhaps convert anthropomorphism into its real end… the wisdom of being human.