In May 2019, over 25 alumni of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship came together to discuss topics they were working on in their own personal or professional fields. Those conversations generated several podcasts, and this one, focusing on “What Does It Mean To Be Human?,” features Adam Pryor, Kendra Holt Moore, and Ian Binns, and was hosted by Zack Jackson.
When we think of “being human,” we think of ourselves as self-contained bodily units. But our “humanity” also extends out to the things we create and use — our phones, our houses, our medications, and even future technologies we can’t even imagine. And it also shrinks down to things we’re not even aware of, like the bacteria in our gut. So if we talk about “human rights,” who or what has actually has those rights? And how do we decide?Read Transcript
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. Sinai and Synapses bridges the worlds of religion and science, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting, and is incubated at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The following podcast is a project of our Sinai and Synapses fellowship, a select interfaith group of clergy, scientists and writers who are committed to elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science. To find out more about the fellowship and our other programs, or to help support our work, please visit us online at SinaiandSynapses.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you very much.
Applications are open for the Sinai and Synapses fellowship through December 4th 2019. If you’re interested in exploring some of the biggest, most challenging, most crucial questions we’re facing in this world and want to learn from experts and peers and colleagues from across the diverse realm of academic and intellectual and political and geographic worlds, then we encourage you to apply. Go to SinaiandSynapses.org, and applications are open until December 4th, 2019.
This particular podcast focuses on the questions: How much of our humanity is us? Should our technology have rights? Should our microbiome have rights? If humans aren’t self-contained units, what’s our responsibility to the other elements that we’re connected to? This conversation features Adam Pryor, Kendra Holt Moore, Ian Binns, and Zack Jackson.
Adam Pryor: OK, so we’re going to talk a little bit today about this idea about homo sapiens and how it is that we identify ourselves as human or not human. And I feel like a number of books that are coming out, more and more and more in the past 10 or 15 years or so, about this idea that we’re maybe evolving past being homo sapiens. And the one that came to mind for me was Harari’s book Homo Deus, which if you haven’t read is, you know, at least worth taking a look at. I think it’s kind of fun, maybe a little questionable at times, but at least kind of fun to read, but the sort of big idea for him is that as human beings today, there are fewer and fewer people dying from disease and from war, and there are more and more people dying from eating too much, from old age, and from suicide, than from what we might say would be eating too little, from infectious disease, or from war. So part of what Harari says is [that] as famine, pestilence and war start to decrease, we keep trying to get happier and happier, and that leads towards this desire for everlasting life. I kid you not, this is sort of the premise of the book.
And that takes us in the sort of directions that seem to go in new ways, that maybe transcend what it means when we talk about being a human being, right. So one of the questions that I’m particularly interested in – and this is kind of for my own research in general – is how it is that we sort of, just on a gut level, how is it that we pick out a person and say yeah, we know they’re a human being, right. We do this all the time, sort of on a daily basis. We can identify human beings instead of dogs, and that sort of thing, but one of the pieces that we really look for, or how is it that we sort of grant that someone is a person, that we care about, that they count for us.
This is as bad as when I speak in class and everyone then will not make eye contact with me after I ask a question. Except Ian.
Zack Jackson: Well, when you start with a big question, it’s always hard to be the first person to answer.
Ian Binns: Yes I think… may I? I don’t know how necessarily to answer the question without going off topic – not off topic, but you talked about what makes us human, is kind of the gist of it, right. And this is not to sound negative – then you talked about what makes us care about people as well. And so I would say that kind of made me think about the question, I think, differently than originally just “What does it mean to be human?” And it’s not implying that I don’t care about some people, it’s more of – I would still consider someone human even if I disagree with them, don’t know them, don’t value what they bring to the table. Does that make sense?
Adam Pryor: Sure, yeah.
Ian Binns: I think when it comes to what makes someone human, I’m trying to go past the whole biology of it. And that’s maybe why I’m struggling with this question. I think it’s a fascinating question.
Adam Pryor: What you mean by like, going past the biology of it?
Ian Binns: Well I mean you have the basic common, you know, characteristics of what it means to be human, you look at our appendages and you just talk about what the make up of a human is, biologically.
Zack Jackson: But I feel like you’re getting at more than that with a question. I think that’s too simple.
Adam Pryor: Well I mean, of course it’s too simple, I’m a good professor, there’s always a trick, right. (laughter) You know, but I think that’s where we start, right. We sort of start with this sort of idea of like “Well you know, we’ve all got two legs and ten fingers and ten toes” – ideally, right yeah.
Ian Binns: There are clearly some who are born without that, and we know that, but biologically, what makes us human when you talk about maybe when you’re getting down to the cellular level, right. But then also too, you get into the discussion about – and I’m not an expert on evolution, so I can’t get into the 23 pairs of chromosomes and all that kind of stuff.
Adam Pryor: Right.
Ian Binns: But then if someone were to say to me, “Well, what makes us human is that we have two legs, two arms, a head, a heart, a brain, all kinds of stuff” – there are plenty of species out there who have the same makeup when you look at us. And so there’s more to being human than that. I think when it comes to our ability, our thinking ability. Is it far superior than other species, or is it just somewhat superior? Those pieces, I think, then you get at – I clearly don’t understand the thinking ability of other species, but I do know that other species have the ability to reason and make tools and those types of things, and do some of the similar things that we can do, but maybe not to the same level, if that makes sense.
Adam Pryor: And that definitely effects our empathy level for them, right. All of the uproar about that there are some dolphins in your tuna fish, because dolphins have emotions, dolphins are one of only three animals who have sex for fun, humans being one of them – on a good day. Bonobos –
Ian Binns: I did not know that.
Adam Pryor: Yeah, that’s actually how they resolve their intertribal conflicts. Chimpanzees will go to war, and bonobos will just have an orgy. (laughter)
Zack Jackson: I like to call them sexy monkeys.
Adam Pryor: Our two closest relatives, and isn’t that so human right there. That’s how we do it too anyway. But nobody ever asked the question about the tuna fish.
Ian Binns: It always comes back to sex or war, right? Not the actual tuna?
Zack Jackson: I already asked him what about to do it to, sex or war, right, we’re all worried about the dolphin not getting stuck in the nets because they have characteristics that we can relate to, like family and communication, and they seem like they’re happy and cute and we put them in TV shows and so they can’t get caught in there, but tuna is is ugly and it’s so foreign, it’s alien. And so we can eat that.
Kendra Moore: And I think in addition to the language and communication, there’s something about humans being storytelling creatures. We love narratives and we use – I mean, of course we can talk about how that is, you know, an emergent feature of our biology, but if we’re just setting aside biology for a minute just to look at how we can look at something that is a fact in the world or something we observe out in nature, and the way that we, like, create narratives to fit the human species in that larger context, like the stories we tell about creation from religious traditions, but even not necessarily from religious traditions.
Yes, I think, story, narrative, meaning-making, are all really important tools for human societies and, I think, beyond stories, even if you look in societies, the rituals that we come up with that are not – like there’s nothing there, rituals look different in different societies, so they’re not something that’s purely biological, but they’re like imposed structures on a human community. And these rituals are meaning-making tools. They mean something. When you shake someone’s hand, there’s nothing that says biologically we have to do that when we live in a human society, but it means something. There’s like some — even if you don’t have to call it a story, it might be weird to say that that’s like a storytelling mechanism, but I think it’s a meaning-making tool that we use to make sense of our relationships with each other.
Ian Binns: With our communication, with oxytocin.
Kendra Moore: Yeah, so I guess there are also – like animals have forms of, well, I guess if we want to call it ritual – they have things like that too.
Zack Jackson: Watch African elephants, when they find one of their own that’s dead, and you watch the way that they will just stop, and run their tusks over the corpse, and over the tusks of theirs. And they’ll do this for a long, long, long, long, long time. And even other packs will come and do the same thing. And we watch that, we watch them put sticks on top of the corpse, and we really –
Ian Binns: Oh yeah, wow.
Zack Jackson: Oh yeah, they are deeply emotional creatures.
Ian Binns: Can I interrupt, because this is somewhat related to that? Do know if they do that, during that time, that they are in danger? So one goes down because it’s hunted, either by us as humans, or by another species, a predator, right. If one’s taken out, does [the “funeral”] happen right away, or is it while they’re in danger, they go away?
Zack Jackson: I have no idea.
Ian Binns: I’m just curious.
Zack Jackson: I do know that dolphins have been seen to protect their recently dead, even when there are threats around, they’ll have 2 or 3 dolphin guards around the body, and the divers can’t get close to it to reclaim the body. And as it’s even decomposing, they’re still protecting it.
And chimps do the same thing. When their babies die, they carry them around with them, they still groom them, they take care of their dead bodies. But, are we then imposing on them our sense of meaning and ritual?
Ian Binns: So we may not know the meaning necessarily of why they’re doing what they’re doing, but you can still talk about that there is some sort of similarity between the actions. Maybe not the reasons for their actions, but like right when you said that. You know, I am a military brat, I was never in the military, but just from my understanding of military history and then of course watching it in cinema and TV, the whole notion of that you never leave a man behind. You never leave one of your fallen soldiers behind. Sorry to say just “man,” but you never leave a fallen soldier behind. And so that makes me think about the same thing. You know, like what you said about with dolphins. And then again, you think about that level of empathy, we start getting back to this whole initial conversation about what makes us human. But we’re seeing similarities between our actions and actions of other species. So again, we need to dig down even deeper.
Adam Pryor: Yeah, so you get into this really tricky piece, right. And this has been my sort of general intuition, that when you ask these questions about what really makes us human, can we find those things that we can identify? It’s really easy to sort of look back and say, like, oh, we see these behaviors in animals too, right, even with something that – because I like storytelling, I think that’s a really interesting idea, but even something that complex, right, we see aspects of that in other animals, right. And so there’s also this question for me, right, and this is why I find somebody like Harari sort of interesting, or other sort of Futurists, which is to say, so, where does that put human beings, as we imagine more complex species than ourselves evolving, in terms of how we want to think about those relationships and the sort of senses of distinctness, and what that does in terms of how we engage, in particular, with the non-human world? I think a lot about microbes, that’s probably a further stretch, right, but I think dolphins and tuna is a good example, right. Do we grant rights to gorillas in zoos, right, which was a recent problem in Spain? So we have these sort of interesting questions about who is deserving of a certain respect that seems to get attached to this idea of being human.
So one of the pieces that I find really interesting about like, the answers that we gave was like – so Kendra had storytelling, had this sort of meaning-making process, right, Ian sort of mentioned intelligence, in a sort of basic sense, right, and Zack sort of mentioned a certain analogy to us, right. If we can sort of analogize, right, then that sort of works for doing this. And I’m curious who gets left out if we use those criteria, right. Here’s our hypothetical world, right, about who gets to have distinctiveness and who gets to really be human, right. If our criteria were intelligence, storytelling and analogy to ourselves, some sort of ideal, right, who suddenly is no longer human when we play the game that way?
Ian Binns: So this makes me think about this story – I didn’t get a chance to read the article, but did you guys hear in the news that a woman who was in a coma for like 20 years, I think it was,
Kendra Moore: –27 years–
Ian Binns: – suddenly woke up. Recently. Like this happened in the last week or two. Did you read it?
Kendra Moore: Yes I did, quickly. But so it makes me think about – do you remember the situation years ago, like if we used the criteria that you just talked about with Terry Schiavo, right, and how she was unable to make the decision, and I don’t want to get into the whole situation with that, but my point is that she was, if I remember correctly, in a vegetative state, had to be fed through a tube, and then her husband, if not ex-husband, I guess it was, he remarried or something like that, he wanted to remove the life-saving measures, the family didn’t, that became a big problem. And so then we had a lot of conversations about, you know, making sure you have a living will, and all those other things lead to those sorts of conversations.
But if we had such a narrow interpretation of what it meant to be human, then people in those types of medical situations, which, first of all, I want to make it clear, I don’t believe we have that narrow interpretation, clearly, because I don’t want someone to hear this and be like “Oh my gosh, what did he just argue?”. But what I’m wondering is if we did have that, then would those individuals in that kind of medical situation be considered human?
Adam Pryor: Well, don’t we already dehumanize them by calling them vegetative?
Ian Binns: That’s a good point.
Kendra Moore: I think in that particular situation, too, it’s interesting that – so this woman who was in a coma for 27 years, when she woke up, in the article it says – I think it’s a doctor who’s being interviewed – says “it’s not like you’re just waking up in the morning.” Like, she had to relearn how to – or not even relearn, but you’re just exercising these muscles that you haven’t used in over two decades. And it’s a slow, painful process of becoming more of who you were before you went into this coma state. And so it’s slow and painful and requires a lot of, like, relearning and adapting.
So I think a couple of things – one, this woman in particular is a good example of someone who, even in her coma state, it wasn’t that she didn’t have this – what could be called human world inside of her, or her being. I think she was still part of the framework, still in a society where she had family members caring for her every day. She was part of the narrative frames of the people who loved her. And I think even though she couldn’t participate actively, I don’t think that means that she’s taken out of it completely. And I think, too, I would tend to maybe want to cheat and reject the premise of the question.
Adam Pryor: Nice. Geez.
Kendra Moore: I know that’s not allowed, I’m going to do it anyway.
Because I just don’t think that it works to draw these really sharp lines of criteria for what counts as this ideal human. And I know that’s like a thought exercise. But I think that it’s just interesting to think about, even like the history of – during the 1800’s, when Charles Darwin first published the Origin of Species, one of the things that created a lot of fear for people, particularly, if we’re talking about the Christian communities, was this shift between, you know, we’re talking about adaptation, evolution, change over time, and Christians were afraid of transitioning from a place where you have this fixed status as God’s special creation, and there is this fixed special relationship between you as a created being and God, the shift from that status to one in which you share a common ancestor with all animals. And so in a sense, you’re kind of demoted from this special created being. So it’s a shift from the Great Chain of Being, where you have a high status, to the Tree of Life, where you’re just like another kind of cog in the machine, if you want to use that metaphor.
But I think something that historical example shows, and I think is interesting, is that people – we’re already changing all the time, but there was imposed meaning on what to make of the change. And so I don’t think that it really matters so much the fact that there are different kinds of humans that look different over generations, and we have different abilities and whatnot. I think that there’s always ways to loop those people in, and sometimes it works for communities, and sometimes it doesn’t, but you just change the story. And our stories change over time. And I think that’s like an inherent part of being human.
So I know that’s, like, cheating, to not really answer the question, but that’s my thought.
Adam Pryor: I don’t think that’s cheating. I mean – so l totally agree. I think that idea that the story is constantly changing, right, and so we have this sort of moving target, right. What’s interesting to me about that, though, is how in wider society, and in almost any time, I would get asked to write something for the public, the idea is that you’re going to write something that draws a hard line – human/not human, alive/not.
Kendra Moore: It’s more digestible.
Adam Pryor: It’s more digestible, right. So how we weave together these sort of more complex narratives with these digestible bits is really interesting to me, since they have real implications about what we do in the world.
Zack Jackson: Well, and knowing you and what you’re about, I can see that overlap happening, that one of the things that we consider human, and then therefore one of the things we give dignity to, and now where is the overflow into the non-human that we also give dignity to, and what does that look like? You think about microbes, which – who gives dignity to microbes, nobody is fighting for microbes, right.
Adam Pryor: I am working on it.
Zack Jackson: Except for you. (laughs) Make the case for a microbe rights.
Adam Pryor: Make the case for microbe rights? Oh, yes!
Ian Binns: Right here, right now.
Kendra Moore: And then we can boo you.
Ian Binns: Your elevator pitch.
Adam Pryor: And then you can boo me, right. My elevator pitch for microbe rights would be: “Microbes are integral to a relational understanding of anything that’s alive. So you don’t live without microbes, and microbes don’t really live without you.” And so the sort of hard-and-fast boundaries between where we want to say, human being/gut microbiome, just for an instance, right, is hard to draw. You’re too entangled, right. So I think that creates some real problems for notions of like, what it means to be a self in any sort of strategic way.
And that is not usually a place we want to undermine, at least in philosophy and theology. That’s a pretty basic category that we employ a lot. So my case for microbes would be to say “If you like to eat, you’d better be in favor of microbe rights, because otherwise you’re going to be real hungry real soon.”
Zack Jackson: What kind of rights do microbes need to thrive? How are we failing our microbial friends?
Adam Pryor: So when I was really in the thick of working on some of these projects, I was teasing these things out with a colleague over dinner, and then I heard my daughter in the bathroom washing her hands and singing “Genocide, genocide, genociiiiide!”
Kendra Moore: Oh my god! (laughs)
Adam Pryor: So she was clearly paying attention. (laughter) Because I had made a joke earlier about every time you commit antibacterial soap, you’re committing genocide, right, like you’ve wiped out a whole bacterial colony, and you didn’t even know that you’re doing it, right.
Zack Jackson: How old is she?
Adam Pryor: She’s six now, she was four then. Oh, what a child. So I think she just liked the sound of the word, but I’m going to stick with that.
Though she does also want to be a space pastor – that’s a different story, we can talk about that later.
Zack Jackson: Like in the Space Force?
Adam Pryor: Well, she might get a job in the Space Station. But yes, so anyway, I think these are sort of the questions, like, the wide use of antibacterial soap. This is a place where we can have a question about “Are there bacterial rights such that in certain circumstances, antibacterial soap should be banned, because it’s actually more harmful to a wider group of people than helpful?”
Ian Binns: But that situation in there is it that you’re defending the bacteria or you’re defending the people?
Adam Pryor: That’s a good question.
Ian Binns: But the way you put that is more of you’re defending the people, not the bacteria.
Adam Pryor: Well, my hope would be that I’m actually defending a microbe, and almost like a small scale ecosystem, right. But I think that’s the thing, right, because we immediately sort of jump back to this idea of self/not-self. So every argument that we set up is either in favor of the human or in favor of the microbe, right. Whatever argument I would want to sort of make for microbe rights is intrinsically going to have something to benefit human beings as well.
Ian Binns: To get further, though, so say, like, you had the chance to speak about this in front of lawmakers. I feel like you would, at least the way things are now –
Adam Pryor: In Kansas, I think, maybe that’s possible one day.
Ian Binns: Yes, exactly, but you would get further along if you can show the connection to humans.
Adam Pryor: Yeah, absolutely.
Ian Binns: Like you actually would be able – and even, let’s say, in the current set of affairs, that’s probably forever. I can’t imagine a time where that wouldn’t be a beneficial part of your argument for anything.
Adam Pryor: So here’s the question: would it not be a beneficial part of my argument if there were a more intelligent species than humans?
Ian Binns: Oh, you got us there. I like this professor.
Adam Pryor: If suddenly there were an AI species, just for instance, like to follow Harari and where he’s going to go with Homo Deus, right, like if there were suddenly an AI species that was more intelligent than human beings…
Kendra Moore: Cylons?
Adam Pryor: It is basically the cylon argument, right. Could you really make a case that because it benefits human beings, would that matter to the cylons?
Kendra Moore: What if you put legal boundaries, like, it’s not about which species we think is more valuable, but we should create rights or, you know, legal boundaries, to just use that phrase, for the organisms that are living in the society we’re talking about, which I understand is still pretty complicated. But you know, are these cylons living with us on Earth? Because if they’re not, then, what are we going to do about them? Unless they’re trying to attack us, which I guess is a different problem, a problem of war, not of legal boundaries.
Adam Pryor: So I think that idea of proximity has something to do with this, right. So even the the bacteria, right, like I’m only talking about the bacteria on your hands when you’re washing them, right, like I’m not dealing with like billions and billions and billions of other bacteria around, I’m not dealing with bacteria in the soil or something like that, right. We tend to make these arguments in terms of some kind of proximity and in terms of some kind of narrative. I think that’s kind of implicitly what we do, right. So I think it would matter if the Cylons are far far away, no big deal, if the Cylon is my neighbor, then –
Zach Jackson: I don’t know, though. I think just knowing that we are not on top, and that we are second or third or fourth in the tier of living creatures, that has to change the way you see everything. Because at that point, your human empathy kicks in, and you start thinking “Well, what if those super-advanced AIs treated me like this? Well, I wouldn’t like that, so therefore I’m going to have to treat this pig in a different way,” because, partially, I don’t want to give them any ideas, but also because I know what it’s like now to be under something. It gives us the sort of empathy that you only have when you’re not on top.
Ian Binns: Could we experience that empathy, though, even if we were to not discover a species that was more intelligent than us? And here’s my point: so we hear about, you know, throughout human history, certain civilizations have been, you know, the military leader of that particular time frame, and then eventually, so far, through all of human history, each time that civilization has faltered and gone down, right – so you think of the Romans, the Egyptians before that, the Greeks, then you even get up to more recent history, especially with the role that the British Empire played for a long time, until you had the might of other empires emerge. And then now you can argue that after World War Two, for a while there it was more the US and USSR, with the fall of the USSR, now it’s the US, and now there are people who are concerned with the rise of Russia because of military authority. Could that – we still have to spend more than the next 10 or 15, however many countries that is, on our military budget, right.
So I feel like part of that is the feeling, as Americans, of being on top when it comes to military might. Does this make sense? So when you look at countries that historically have been powerful military leaders throughout the world – so I think the easiest one to think about the British Empire, right. And that how eventually they lost that authority and now they work in concert a lot with us, but these other countries do rely on us when it comes to military power. Like, that’s the whole idea of NATO and those types of things.
And so I know I’m rambling, but I guess my thought here is that those individuals – and I’m trying to think of it differently, not just as a species thing, but cultural as well. When you talk about military power, we still are on top of that military might. It won’t always be that way – eventually something will change, who knows when, you know, I can’t predict that, but you see the rise of Russia, who was up near the top, and then fell down, and now they’re trying to get back to the superpower status. So I’m just curious, do those societies that used to be in charge militarily have the chance to feel that empathy of, “Well, look, you know, we used to treat people that way, and now I see how they felt, so maybe I should start worrying.” Does make sense?
Kendra Moore: I think the problem with that, though, is that it seems to be operating under the assumption that the empathy will last into subsequent generations.
Ian Binns: OK.
Kendra Moore: And I think empathy has to be re-learned and re-enlivened, I guess, for the people that are present at the time. And so I think that’s why teaching history is really important, but even that has to be done in such a way that it makes makes what you’re talking about feel like there’s something at stake. And so I think that’s one of the downfalls of using that method, I guess, to get empathy out into the world, because I don’t think it can last forever. But you can reinstitute it I guess, it just depends [when].
Ian Binns: Well, I agree with that, I think my point was that idea that could – if there were originally – so maybe even if we could travel throughout history, to me I think would be interesting to see what was it like knowing that you were running-a-country-that-was-on top-and-now-you’re-no-longer-on-top-type deal. What was that immediate aftermath like? But you are right, we know culturally that as new generations emerge after these events happen, to them it doesn’t matter, because they weren’t there to experience it.
Adam Pryor: So part of what makes me curious, right – I mean a lot of this is sort of, I think, different ways of dethroning our sort of anthropocentrism, right, this idea that human beings are either at the top of the great chain of being, or in the center of the universe in various ways. So what’s curious to me about this, right, is that if doing that is supposed to induce empathy, maybe, then why didn’t sort of a widespread notion of Darwinism do that?
We talked a little bit ago that Darwinism took us out of the Great Chain of Being and put us, as you know, on a twig on the bush that happens to be over here – with hyper-intelligence and, you know, terrible knee joints.
Ian Binns: Did it not, though?
Zack Jackson: It depends on where it was taught. I mean in Western society, where we were capitalist and imperialist and colonialist, finding out that we were the descendants, the survivors – we beat the system, we’re the winners, you know, we’re a part of this, we’re all connected in this web. But we’re kings.
Kendra Moore: There’s competition, right –
Zack Jackson: Right, competition. And we won already, it is now our duty to tame the rest of this. You know, if you look at the way that evolutionary biology is looked at in certain other places, I’ve heard of some South American scientists who talk about how it’s much more about cooperation than competition. And you look at ways that, you know, the fig and the wasp have evolved together, all of these co-evolutionary examples of times when animals and plants and everything worked together to have a better world for everyone, as opposed to the way that the Western world took the same facts and saw instead survival of the fittest – “the weak will die, the strong will survive.” And it’s just that a different world view produced a different interpretation of the facts.
Ian Binns: Ah, that is interesting.
Adam Pryor: And if we talk about, you know, what it means to be human, it really relies on these narratives. How we tell those narratives really begins to matter, right. Those are two wildly different sorts of picture of human being that emerge out of those two contacts even with the same sort of set of facts.
So part of what I wonder, right, is how do we – one, I always wonder about how we like adjudicate those differences, like how do we decide which one we’re going to sort of – “I’m put myself here and sort of stand with it,” but I also wonder how the ways in which these stories get told are changing a little bit, are speeding up with the advents of various technologies. And in some ways those sort of differences in narratives are also starting to collapse. They’re becoming, in some ways, more monolithic, and what that sort of does this way we want to think about being human, and that as a process of storytelling.
Kendra Moore: Do you have an example of what you mean when you say that it’s speeding up?
Adam Pryor: Sure, I will have an example… (laughs)
Zack Jackson: I have a lot of people in my congregation who have animal parts inside of them, valves and arteries and whatnot that belong to not-human species. I imagine a different time that would’ve been very taboo, to imagine like you’ve got pig hearts inside of you, you’re some monstrosity, some Frankensteinian monster, but now it’s like, well, you know, you had heart surgery.
Ian Binns: Yeah. Well, and I think that relates back to something that you shared earlier that you and I have discussed about mental health, right. You talked about taboo. So, you know, I struggle with mental health every day. I think you know I’ve discussed this, with depression and stuff, and these are things that I’ve struggled with every single day. And it’s always amazing to me, and I see why it happened, especially coming from a military family, but it’s amazing to me how especially at least in our society, and I’m certain it’s like this around the world in a lot of other places, that men are not supposed to share that, right, because it’s taboo, which to me – sorry to say this – is a load of crap. But that raises the problem of why it’s become such a big problem, or has it always been, and now it’s just even worse, you could argue. I don’t know why I went on this [rant], sorry, but it just made me think about – you mentioned the taboo part. But does that make us, again, about what does it mean to be human? You talk about the different parts, but even when you’re someone on medication because of any kind of ailment, does that mean that, could some say, you’re less human.
Zack Jackson: I’m a much different person when I’m on my meds.
Ian Binns: Yeah, me too. I’m easier to be around, I like myself more when I’m on my medication than when I’m not.
Zack Jackson: Yeah, and which me is the real me, the vanilla natural flavor or –
Ian Binns: And I would argue the real me is the one that’s on medication.
Zack Jackson: The one that’s augmented?
Ian Binns: Because that’s the one that I want to be, so that makes me me. If I’m getting paranoid or anything like that, that makes it so that I can’t function the way I want to be able to function, and that’s not who I am.
Zack Jackson: When I first started taking Zoloft, I stopped being able to write. I was in the middle of writing a novel, and suddenly I could not imagine a world that didn’t exist. I lost my ability to create fictional narratives. And it was really distressing because, you know, that’s a part of me, that was an escape that I had. Especially when I was depressed, I became more creative. And so when I lost my depression, I lost a lot of my creativity. And I wondered is that worth it, and is that important enough a part of me that I want to preserve it while also preserving the downside part of me. And if I do augment my brain like this and increase my serotonin, and I don’t have the low lows anymore, am I still me, or am I now a designer human who has created myself to be what I think I should be – a kind of mental health supermodel of, you know, getting all of this mental health plastic surgery and whatnot to look the way that I think I should look – to really stretch that metaphor.
Ian Binns: So I would say, though, that it just depends on – we’re going off topic, sorry, but –
Adam Pryor: I think this is spot on. I think this is exactly analogous to that same question that we wanted to ask about microbe rights. OK, that is a certain augmentation of what we typically think of as a human self. In a sense, it’s, you know, “natural,” right, but when we talk about various pharmaceuticals and we talk about various medical technologies, we’re talking about those in terms of augmentations, I actually think those are totally parallel arguments.
Zack Jackson: Yeah, and the implants, the brain implants for people with severe mental problems that actually send electrical signals into your brain in order to stop seizures or severe schizophrenia or things like that. I mean, that’s on the cutting edge of technology right now, and there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with that, because you’re basically making cyborgs.
Ian Binns: Well, so when you talk about the whole notion of what makes you you or me me, right, you know, I have high blood pressure, so I have to be on medication for that. I have issues with cholesterol, I have to be on medication for that, I’m an asthmatic, so I need to be on something related to that – so I’ve got these issues that you talk about. None of those are taboo, at least not now, right, but I’m also on an antidepressant and I’m on Adderall. And so some people would say “Oh my gosh, you’re on an antidepressant? What’s wrong with you?” but it’s doing the exact same thing for my body that the other medications are doing for my body. And the person to help me really realize that is you. Even though I’ve never been afraid to share it, was when you used an analogy several months ago of saying that if someone had hurt their arm or something like that, we would just talk about it, or had heart surgery, you just talk about it. Why would we treat mental health differently, because it’s just another health issue. So me being on those medications to help high blood pressure has nothing to with mental health, but it’s still me, still makes me me. And it’s still part of being human.
Adam Pryor: And I think this goes back to Kendra, that it’s a storytelling thing, that we have a story about our common humanity, that we are a human, we are this thing, this consciousness, and the consciousness then lives within a body. And when the body is hurt, when your blood pressure is hurt, then, you know, you take care of that. But your consciousness, anything that affects your consciousness, seems to be affecting the you that is you, instead of just a part of the, you know, the mech suit you have to walk around in. We’re all like – what’s that bad guy from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Crag or whatever, that brain that’s in the body, that’s kind of how we see ourselves, right.
Ian Binns: He is pretty bad too.
Kendra Moore: And yeah, I think even when we do have a more materialist orientation to the world, I still think that in general, people like to treat other people as if we are more than just a body. And I think a good example of this is like, what we do for death rites. If you go to a funeral, you are going to honor and maybe put a body into the ground, maybe cremate a body, whatever, but there’s a person that you knew and that you will remember after they’re gone. And I don’t know, I think for me, it just seems like regardless of where we – if we were asked directly what you think a human is, and we could give an answer that’s very bodily oriented, there is at least this treatment in our relationships and interactions with each other that is something more like a collective – like what you just said, Zack, a collective consciousness, or you know, these imposed narratives that we have. And so I think thinking about that example of what we do when someone is physically gone – death rites – I think that’s a really powerful example to me of how we do that.
Zack Jackson: And you’re talking about the concept of a soul, the thing that is more than the physical thing itself. And I think of that like I think of my favorite painting Starry Night Over the Rhine, Van Gogh. Every time I see, it just – I don’t know what it is about it, it touches something. It is a collection of paint. It is oil on canvas. Take it down to its little pieces, it’s got this color and that color in this place in that place and all of that. But there is something else to it, a certain beauty that carries with it, a beauty born out of madness that is beyond, is bigger than the sum of its oils, but is still just those things. It is not physically something else too. There’s not, like, a secret compartment behind it where the soul of the painting lives. But something about it is more than it, which is hard to explain, and I think that comes back to our brains being really good at making narratives.
Adam Pryor: I do kind of wish paintings had compartments behind them now that contain their souls.
Kendra Moore: I’m going to check next time I go to an art museum.
Zack Jackson: Please don’t touch it.
Ian Binns: I would advise against that. They tend to frown upon that. If you and are I ever at the museum together I’m going to walk away, I have no idea –
Adam Pryor: And then you’re going to get tackled by Isaac, is what’s going to happen.
Ian Binns: Exactly. We need to all go to that particular museum.
Zack Jackson: And just start touching things? (laughter) So give us the closing thought, because we got the sign.
Adam Pryor: But my closing thought’s a downer.
Kendra Moore: That’s ok. Life can be a downer, it’s a good lesson.
Zack Jackson: Right, let’s do the Ecclesiastes and put something in later that’s happy.
Adam Pryor: So here’s my question, right, like I really appreciate this idea, I really like this idea, of how it is that stories affect what it is that we think it means to be human, that what it means to be human includes all of these other non-human things, whether those are bacteria or whether those are various technologies that we use, right. But then we start telling new stories, right. And so this is the sort of fear that starts to creep into me, is– suddenly, people who don’t have access to those technologies that improve our mood, or those technologies that keep us alive, or those technologies that enhance our brains, do somehow they become less than those who do? That’s a story that we could tell, right. It’s not the inclusive story, but it’s a story that can emerge when we look at this sort of wider set of narratives. And so there’s this sort of constant tension for me about how it is that we think about what it means to be human in light of these technologies and relationships that we have with others, that feels like it has to be renegotiated with every generation.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Thanks so much for listening to this podcast, created by the Sinai and Synapses Fellows. Sinai and Synapses bridges the worlds of religion and science, offering people a world view that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. It is fiscally sponsored by and housed at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship is supported by a grant secured by the Issachar Fund and by individual donors.
To learn more about some of the topics that Sinai and Synapses, explores from genetic engineering to astrobiology, from political psychology to existential philosophy, from environmental ethics to artificial intelligence, please visit SinaiandSynapses.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Once again, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, Founding Director, wishing you all good things.
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