Note on what is it to be human

© May 2005, Graham R. Little


(This note was submitted as a letter to TPM Online)

I can think of nothing more apt that the comment by Stephen Burwood that ’we do not always recognise ourselves in scientific descriptions’. With the real, immediate issue of why and what can we do about that?

I offer here some thoughts and hopefully insights that will deal with the issue and carry thinking back toward a scientific position vis-à-vis our humanity and the unique existence of each of us as examples of that humanity.

1.        Let’s begin with the easy and hard problems of consciousness. The easy problem is the construction of an explanation of how consciousness comes to be, the mechanisms of consciousness. The hard problem then the explanation of ‘what it is like to be…’ Now, let us imagine we had solved the easy problem; we had a complete, full and accurate description of how consciousness comes to be. What would that description be like?

2.        I have else where fully described a view of epistemology and scientific knowledge wherein all scientific theory is and can only be a system of variables with relations between those variables. As an example, consider the equation of a pendulum, T equals two pi, square root l over g. We can now ask ‘what is the period of the pendulum in Timbuktu, Paris, or Beirut?’ In each case, we need go, measure length and then we can calculate period. We have proper separation of variables and the values of those variables.

3.        Now, apply these crucial principles to the answer we have to the easy problem of consciousness. It will be a system of variables with relations between (does not in fact matter for this argument what variables or relations). If we now put into that theory all the values of the variables as they pertain to you and me and him and her. What do we get, we can only get the details of how mine, yours, his and her consciousness comes to be. Now perhaps some of our values overlap, especially if we from same cultural background, but there is no need to assume any overlap in values of variables the theory will take care of such differences, remember it is the perfect and accurate theory. And we do know people do tend to be different. By putting the values into the theory we get a full and complete and accurate description of ‘what it is like to be … me, you, him and her’. 

4.        There is no ‘hard’ problem of consciousness. The whole thing was a misleading construction due very poor thinking and analysis. With the root of the problem laying in a serious misunderstanding on the nature of knowledge and what any knowledge can and cannot tell us.

5.        Further, has anyone tried to assess what it is like to be …? Well, try poetry, novels, songs, and art they are all from time to time exploring in some form or another what it is like to be … someone in some circumstances. The so called hard problem is first, not a scientific problem at all, it does not exist, and never did, and second, hundreds of artist and poets and song writers and novelists have and do try and will try to describe for us those moments to which we relate with a profundity in their words capturing the very essence of how we felt at that exact moment. Such word we all know to be so precious, those able to capture those moments so few. No place for science.

6.        The point is with one simple example, using thorough epistemology supported by a solid foundation of tools and insights, we move forward with apt and accurate understanding. Now consider the nonsense of Freud, Jung, Skinner and behaviourism. Even the long struggle to see that consciousness was real. I have always wondered at the struggle in academe to see consciousness as real, and what in fact that implied among academics.

7.        The point is that if we build sound tools and apply them as scientists, with the ethics of real science, then the answer will emerge. Part of the answer being the necessary demands placed on any such theory of the person such as the following.

a.        Knowledge, cause and psychology are bound into one problem situation, elevate any one of these three to the issue, and other two are immediately crucial dimensions of ground. So to solve any one demands all three be solved. They cannot be addressed in isolation, because answer to one will shape the range of answers acceptable and enabled of the other two.

b.       Any theory must draw the lines between what defines the species, culture and the individual, and any such lines can only be defined in the nature of the variables that describe people and the values available to those variables.

c.        Any theory of the person can only be knowledge, and people create all knowledge, therefore any theory of the person must be fully reflective and account totally for its own existence.

d.       In building any theory of the person we can and must only use tools that properly and definitely separate variables from their values in known and understood ways.

e.        All variables must be measurable and have precise and definitive bounds and states. All analysis must use the tools of Ashby for constructing ultimate and immediate effects so that the actual nature of the explanation of the person is precise and fully understood.

f.         Popular psychology is an important set of events to be fully explained by the theory. In effect, the theory must ‘collapse’ (compare to the wave equation) with popular psychology and insights emerging as the ‘collapsed’ approximation of the full theory.

g.       It appears that the universe in the form of physics follows and obeys laws of human mathematics. This is a most improbable circumstance, and any theory must define how and in what way this detail issue emerges.

h.       The theory must draw the apt and accurate line between body and mind.

i.         The theory must link and be fully integrated with a theory of perception that accounts for the emergence of ideas and describe their role within the person.

j.         People are not unified wholes, therefore the theory must account for the segregated, separate and dynamic aspects of people.

k.        The theory must be able to fail or malfunction in ways that explains all of what is currently taken as ‘mental illness’, and psychological disorder’.

l.         The theory must describe and account for soundness and wellness along with illness and un-wellness. And any definition of wellness, or mental health, must be in terms of mental health, not in terms of absence of mental illness.

8.        I do not claim this list as complete, but it is the type of demands I placed on my work when I set out to construct a theory of the person. (

9.        I have created a theory that does define what it is to be human. It does meet these criteria; the issues if addressed properly do fall into place. But if addressed using garbage, garbage is what you get. Too often, too much of academic psychology has used garbage; it drifts into convoluted paths quite divorced from core issues such as those in the list. Many of the issues in the list had to be addressed before work could even begin on construction a general theory of the person, and for most of this work, academe did not even see the issues being addressed as relevant.

10.     We are each unique, and I have proved it. We can and do make choices, and I have proved it. Our environment shapes us and I have proved it. Causality is complex and non-linear and I have proved it.

11.     Above all, we have no soul, but we are shaped by a core I call the human spirit.

12.     Faith and hope for ourselves and future is vital to our very existence. These feed our spirit. The failure alluded to by Stephen Burwood is again (like interpreting modern physics) a function of academe failing to grasp and apply itself to the essence of the process and items able to afford answers.  

13.     Human nature is neither hard to explain nor understand, but you need to right tools leading to the right sorts of models rooted in the right sort of epistemology.