I have yet to see an animal other than human that can treat its immediate experience, its entire life, as inherently false, decadent, and only worthy of contempt. Perhaps that is why we think we are special. We can contemplate our role in the world. Who we are, what we do, why, how, and what should be changed, if anything. Human justifies this capacity as hinting at a higher end, or some greater scheme about us compared to the rest of the world. There is a role we have to fulfil, a destiny that is ultimately linked to our very being as humans. And so, one thinks that there is a sense of higher purpose to their presence which is not limited to their life. And somewhere along those lines, the theologian—or however we call people who talk about god[s] and neighbouring concepts without ever furnishing any kind of objectively verifiable proof—will insert their system of unfounded claims about what the intentions of god[s] are.
We are special. Such is the basis of our reasoning. Only humans can do philosophy, for instance. Only we possess the mental capacity to grasp the higher order realities that are not susceptible to the faculties of sense. We are unique among the animals, for we can escape the narrow confines imposed by biological necessity. Or so the thinking goes. We can fathom a state of affairs where we are detached from the world. Aloof from the fray of material needs and bodily experiences, we can tap into an ultimate reality. Strip away all the phenomenalities. We consider these deceitful, lies that beguile our senses. The true reality, or the ultimate destination we should strive for, has no place for them. That is the end goal: to connect to the essence of the world. The choice we believe we have is, therefore, quite simple in its basic formulation: live as a beast by succumbing to your natural inclinations, or actively suppress them in order to ascend to an intellectual being. The spiritual self is the true self, the immutable and eternal. Harness it to fulfil your role in this world.
Such is the value we can attach to ourselves. We say we are rational animals, conveniently downplaying the whole host of behaviours that do not conform with that rigid ideal. We think we are calculative and operate on the “margin of rationality”, as the economist would put it, always optimising our choices. There is imperfection and irrationality, biases, uncontrollable emotions, decisions that are adopted without complete knowledge of things—for is there a single domain where we claim complete knowledge of? These do not change the narrative of our exceptional status. We can overcome them, so long as we keep sight of this narrow subset of human experience that we consider so important.
But there is disagreement amount the proponents of human exceptionalism as to what the differentiating factor is. Those who do not place disproportionate value on human reason find something else to venerate. It goes by various names, such as the “soul”, the “spirit”. These can be cultivated in a variety of ways other than what we associate with rationality, in order to attain the same objective of ascendance.
That is a distinction between rationalists and spiritualists, whose midpoint is the thesis of human beings as the chosen ones. Human as an entity sui generis.
The first issue I see with such exceptionalism is ontological dualism. The mind, the soul, the spirit, or whatever it is that is responsible for reasonableness and/or spirituality is treated as a distinct entity from the rest of the body. The latter is the domain of the bestial. Our ephemeral self. The instincts, the emotions, the irrationality. Whereas our true self is detachable from the body. It can be freed from it.
The specifics of the narrative vary, depending on the tradition concerned. Is it not bizarre though, that whatever the details we have no indication whatsoever of some other ‘essence’ that is somehow intertwined with our base being? Our capacity to think clearly is a function of our body’s inner processes and of its health. If you do not nourish yourself properly over an extended period of time, you will not be able to think correctly. If you feel pain, that is all you care about. Are you delirious in fear? Forget about plotting the most precise course of action. If you get knocked on the head you might stop thinking the same way you could before. An injury is the definition of being affected by this world. You can claim that rocks are somehow fake and not worthy of ‘real’ experience. Fair enough, note though that a phenomenality that smacks you on the forehead can still send you to the hospital.
In the same vein, we have no indication of the soul as a distinct domain of agency, let alone a separate ‘essence’. Whatever the particularities of the narrative, it builds on the presumption of a transcendent soul, simply working backwards from a conclusion. Which is to say that it is dogmatic. So, you claim that the soul transcends the rules of this world and that it is eternal? And yet, here it is, ‘trapped’ as it were inside a human body, which is to say that it is, after all, bound by a subset of the rules of this world. For the body is a natural system, a subsystem within the broader ecosystem.
You want to emancipate your soul by performing all those rituals or live life in a certain way. There may be benefits to that mode of living, such as mental health. Do it! But the very claim that the transcendent is at once above this world and yet decisively confined to the secular or the cosmic is absurd. If it is transcendent, how do you measure it? How can you possibly claim it is ‘there’. For if it is somewhere, then by definition it occurs within space. If, on the other hand, it is just a thought of ours, then how can we even insist on the notion that it is bound to the body?
The more you delve into the inner contradictions the more likely it is to encounter mysticism.
As a first line of defence comes the tactic of belittling us compared to some exalted being, which itself is unverifiable. We are too foolish to understand the grand design. Throw in some allusion to our ape minds for good measure. It is hubris to use our logic and our faculties of sense as means of debunking those views of the world. Just believe and you will see the way. At which point you single out the double standard whereby their claims are not to be questioned but the sceptic’s argument must always be refuted by the very inability of human beings to grasp the ‘truth’. Then, when the mystics are pressed on their epistemological inconsistencies they resort to propositions of the sort “god works in mysterious ways”. Looks aporetic on the surface, but actually clings on to a well defined set of beliefs. Perhaps the very antithesis of inquisitiveness.
As a second issue with the schools of thought that propound notions of human exceptionalism, I would suggest that perhaps our claims about the soul, the true self, immortality, all trace their roots to biology. They are perhaps rendering lucid a base instinct. Now this is rampant speculation from my side and no more that a hypothesis that would need to be tested, but here it is: what if our survival instinct is in fact taking over our thinking processes, trying to make sure that we survive no matter what? And what if, by extension, the idea that we can live forever in some shape or form is but the impression of rationality/spirituality derived from instinct? Again, this is speculation that would need to be backed up or dismissed by a fully fledged research programme. So I continue: if we are hard wired to survive, and if this drive is perceived in a different form as pure reasonableness or spiritual enlightenment, then perhaps the very notion of rationality/spirituality and of the true self is but a heap of misunderstandings or illusions.
Everything in this world is subject to probabilistic cause and effect. Our bodies—mind included—are dynamically influenced and determined by their internal processes as well as stimuli external to them. This complex interplay produces thoughts and triggers for action, which among others lead to new learned experiences and patterns of adaptation, and so on. Maybe—just maybe—we are led by our instincts to think of ourselves as operating free from biological impulses, in the same way the dog impulsively gives chase to the ball thinking it is desirable to run after the ‘prey’ even after it knows that the ball is, in fact, a toy. Perhaps then, the notion of finding our true self is an exercise in futility.
We can only be our nature—there is no choice involved. Choice concerns what we could consider as second order items. The ‘essence’, what we are made of, remains outside our reach. We cannot choose to be non-human or to pick and choose the part of humanity we want, such as beings humans but forgoing the need to eat and sleep.
My point is that we need to gather findings, results that are reproducible in a manner that is objective. Else we add to the echo chamber, perpetuate a tradition just because we find solace in its teachings.
Speaking of solace, is not fear a byproduct, or somehow linked to the survival instinct? Why are we afraid of things, if not because they might threaten our existence either fatally or partially by exposing us to a potential injury? Fear is a manifestation of the struggle for survival. Again, this should be put to the test, such as to see if plants feel fear and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
If all my speculation would translate into a fully fledged research project, I would suggest that we delve into this notion of consoling our soul, of ataraxia, or whatnot. Is it emancipation from whatever temptation or power holds us hostage to our base instincts? Or are we just desperately seeking answers as a means of alleviating our existential fear? Anything will do, regardless of its correspondence to the actuality of things. Just give a plausible answer, which all too often delivers us the nostrums of mysticism.
The third issue with human exceptionalism is its propensity for nihilism. Everything in this world is framed as an illusion of sorts. And people are, by default, mere animals that have yet to ascend. They might have the potential to see the light, though they are nowhere near it in their natural state. It follows that all that happens in this world, our politics, the economy, culture and sport, are lesser activities. They do not, in and of themselves, take us to this supposed next level. They are distractions or, at best, activities with secondary values. No wonder many of those harbouring contempt for the world argue for withdrawing from society in pursuit of enlightenment.
Nihilism is the dark side, if you will, of idealism. Or rather of the conflation between the ideal and the actual. Idealists of this sort have a very stylised view of how the world ought to be. It is not corresponding to things as they are. It is a product of their prior exceptionalism. The domain of the god[s], the eternal soul, human’s capacity to ascend, the falsehoods of phenomenality. If you only want ideal beauty, then everyone out there is ugly. The ideal is an abstraction, derived by tracing the common in the multitude of phenomena. Abstractions are products of thought. And products of thought can be shared between humans because we have the same biology. Just as the design of our hearts, or lungs, or limbs is the same, so are the basic functions of the mind. There are differences. Differences of degree, not category.
The misguided idealist of the sort here considered will insist on attaining the abstract. They believe their obstinacy will reify their imaginary state of affairs. Eventually, a tension arises between expectation and results. Rather than recognising the original confusion between the ideal and the real as the source of the problem, it is the world that has to bear the brunt of the blame. This world which is fake, hypocritical, decadent… This world that only keeps the soul/spirit/mind/whatever chained to an inferior reality. Thus comes nihilism. There is nothing real or worthy in anything human does: pleasures of the body are bad, because the body is the soul’s prison, the source of base instincts, etc. Interest in politics is inherently misguided because “all politicians are the same” and the world is corrupt and evil. Besides, why bother changing your immediate life when it is a “false life” after all? And so the nihilist will expound on their ideals and insist that what they care about is a true reality. In the meantime, they become the most reflexive type of ultra-conservative, reverse apologists of the established order and of anti-research. “Reverse apologists” in the sense that their intention is not that of justifying the status quo, but that their behaviour contributes to that end regardless.
If life in this world is a lie, why bother with a fairer distribution of resources, peace within the family, mutual understanding between cultures, or whatnot. Why care about the ecosystem if, ultimately, it too is an idol; at best a fake representation of reality? There can be no qualitative difference between annihilating all the species and fighting to preserve the ecosystem’s balance if there is nothing worthy in this world. And the same can be said about all normative issues that humans have to deal with in their collective life. In politics, that is.
The nihilists commit the error of using the ideal as the enemy, rather than the guide, of the good, of the realisable. Maybe they are not as crude. They might become selective nihilists, misanthropes for instance where they blame humanity for everything that is bad while exalting “mother nature” for all that is good. And where does humanity come from, if not nature? The answer to this is predictably theological. In the Western tradition evil is attributed to “free will”, which is another one of those baseless assertions like dualism and the transcendent soul, afterlife, etc.
Free will, in its purest form, is the claim that there is at least a kernel of human self—this notorious “true self”—that is not bound by anything and only operates in accordance with its own devices. What we do is out our own volition. There are no biological underpinnings, no environmental stimuli, no social, cultural, historical artefacts that inform our judgement. This is the myth of the decontextualised human, a being in itself, self contained, detached from the world, yet somehow strictly confined to it. Again, one can trace hints of dualism.
I am very much sceptical of this mumbo jumbo. No doubt, it is a powerful belief. See, here I type this. I just did it because I decided to. My will, my rules. Ha! But what if what we conceive as freedom is but the expression—and inward impression—of a dynamic probabilistic function of the interplay between internal processes and external stimuli? What if typing this is something that the complex underlying processes of my being seeks and gets feedback from to reinvigorate the cycle? That would not be the kind of transcendent free will of Western mythos, but another common phenomenon—or concatenation thereof—of this world.
Probabilistic cause and effect. There is nothing transcendental, truer, or special about it.