The human dilemma

One way to describe the human dilemma is that we are conscious of our situation as subjects in a found world of objects. That world, of which we are a part, is physical and biological. Indeed, even our conceiving it in terms of subject and object reflects our biological nature. To permit our existence, not only must the world be a certain way, but as creatures we must perceive it a certain way, and act within it a certain way. While that may not be a problem for other creatures, it is for us, because we are aware of all this and can ponder it. Whenever anything is put in a limiting context, alternatives appear. Whenever a line is drawn, there is something beyond it. Our reflective minds are confronted with a receding horizon.

We are animals who can conceive being gods. Recognizing the limits imposed by physical reality and by our biological nature, we nevertheless imagine freedom from those constraints and are driven to resist them. Recognizing the limits of the particular, we imagine the general and the abstract. Resistance to limits involves denying them and imagining alternatives. Recognizing the actual, we conceive the ideal. Thus, for example, we resist mortality, disease, gravitation, pain, physical hardship, feelings of powerlessness—in short, everything about being finite biological creatures, hapless minions of nature. We imagine being moral and weightless free spirits— escaping, if not the sway of genes, at least the pull of gravity and confinement to a thin layer of atmosphere.

We find ourselves in a ready-made world we did not ask for. We find ourselves in a body we did not design and which does not endure. As infants, we learn the ropes of how to operate this body and accept it, just like people with prosthetic limbs in later life must learn to operate them and identify with them. At the same time, and throughout life, we are obliged to negotiate the world in terms of the needs of this body and through its eyes. This natural state of affairs must nevertheless seem strange to a consciousness that can imagine other possibilities. It is an unwelcome and disturbing realization for a mind that is trying to settle in to reality as given and make the best of it. The final reward for making these compromises is the insult of death.

A famous author described the horror of this situation as like waking up to find yourself in the body of a cockroach. It is a horror because it is not you, not your “real” body or self. It is someone else’s nightmare story from which you cannot awaken. (Of course, the metaphor presumes a consciousness that can observe itself. Presumably, the cockroach’s life is no horror to it.) But the metaphor implies more. Each type of body evolved in tune with its surrounding world in a way that permits it to survive. The experience of living in that body only makes sense in terms of its relationship to the world in which it finds itself but did not create. The horror of being a mortal human cockroach is simply the despair of being a creature at all, a product of the brutal gauntlet called natural selection. The history of life is the story of mutual cannibalism, of biological organisms tearing each other apart to devour, behaving compulsively according to rules of a vicious and seemingly arbitrary game. The natural cockroach knows nothing of this game and simply follows the rules by definition (for otherwise it would not exist). But for the human cockroach, the world itself is potentially horrifying, of which the cockroach body is but a symptomatic part.

The first line of defense against this dawning realization is denial. We are not mortal animals but eternal spirits! Life is not a tale told by an idiot, but a rational epic written by God. We are not driven by natural selection (or cultural and social forces) but by love and ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity. After all, we do not live in nature at all, but in ordered cities we hew from the wilderness, ultimately dreaming of self-sufficient life in space colonies. We are not obliged to suffer disease and die, but will be able to repair and renew the body indefinitely, even to design it from scratch in ways more to our liking. We are not condemned to live in bags of vulnerable flesh at all, but will be able to download our “selves” into upgraded bodies or upload them into non-material cyberspace. Alternatively, like gods, we may bring into existence whole new forms of artificial life, along principles of our design rather than nature’s trial-and-error whim. Religion conceives and charts the promise of godlike creativity, omniscience, freedom, resurrection and eternal life outside nature, which technology promises to fulfill.

The mind imagines possibilities for technology to tinker with. But just as religion and magic do not offer a realistic escape from natural reality, technology may not either. The idea of living disembodied in cyberspace is fatuous and probably self-contradictory. (The very meaning of consciousness may be so entwined with the body and its priorities that disembodied consciousness is an oxymoron. For, embodiment is not mere physicality, but a dependent relation on the creature’s environment.) Living in artificial environments on other planets may prove too daunting. Extending life expectancy entails dealing with resulting overpopulation, and perhaps genetic stagnation from lack of renewal. Reducing the body’s vulnerability to disease and aging will not make it immune to damage and death inflicted by others, or accidents that occur because we simply can never foresee every eventuality.

At every stage of development, human culture has sought to redefine the body as something outside nature. Scarification, tattooing, body painting and decoration—even knocking out or blackening teeth—have served to deny being an animal. Clothing fashion continues this preoccupation in every age. Even in war—the ultimate laying on the line of the body’s vulnerability—men attempt to redefine themselves as intentional beings, flaunting death with heroic reasons and grand ideals, in contrast to the baseness of groveling brutes who can do no more than passively submit to mortality. In truth, we have changed ourselves cosmetically but not essentially.

That is not cause for despair. We have made progress, even if our notions of progress may be skewed. Despair only makes sense when giving up or accepting failure seems inevitable. It is, however, reason for sober evaluation. In our present planetary situation, nature gives us feedback that our parochial vision of progress is not in tune with natural realities on which we remain dependent. We are in an intermediate state, somewhat like the awkwardness of adolescence: eager, but hardly prepared, to leave the nest, over-confident that we can master spaceship Earth. Progress itself must be redefined, no longer as ad hoc pursuit of goals that turn out—perversely—to be driven by biological imperatives (family, career, ethnicity, nationalism, profit, status, power). We must seek the realistic ways in which we can improve upon nature and transcend its limitations, unclouded by unconscious drives that are ultimately natural but hardly lead where we suppose. For that, we must clearly understand the human dilemma as the ground on which to create a future.

The dilemma is that nature is the ultimate source of our reality, our thinking and our aspirations, which we nevertheless hope to transcend and redefine for ourselves. But, if not this natural inheritance, what can guide us to define our own nature and determine our own destiny? Even in this age, some propose a formula allegedly dictated by God, which others know to be an anachronous human fiction. Some propose an outward-looking science, whose deficiency for this purpose has long been that it does not include the human subject in its view of the supposedly objective world. The dilemma is that neither of these approaches will save us from ourselves.