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What Makes Us Human?

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Plagued with being the wiser of species, Homo sapiens are afforded the opportunity to contemplate and hypothesize. Witness the chronology of six members of the wise family debate their purpose and assign meaning to their existence.

The below post seeks to connect the themes of Dr. Abulof’s Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism (HOPE) course, which analyzes existentialism through the lens of a variety of aspects of the human condition. Connecting morality to mortality, freedom to alienation and religion to love, this piece continues the course’s conversation.

The six student authors chose to utilize the Zen Tower format to narrate the discussion, as it enabled the writers to engage in an open dialogue, responding to one another's ideas in a consecutive order. The result showcases the beautiful uniqueness of the wise mind, further proving the complexity and diversity of pondering the essence of humanity.

Stone #1 (Hana):

What makes us human? We have been pondering and exploring this question as a necessity to survive from the time we became self aware.

So, what makes us human?

Can this question be answered? Can we fully understand humans? What is our relationship with other animals? Why do we think of ourselves as the superior species? How has our self image shaped how we imagine the human race? Why do we not see ourselves as other animals? How have we evolved into who we are today? Lastly, why do we bother asking why?

First, let’s begin with a simpler question: what is a human? According to the Oxford dictionary, a human is defined as “a human being, especially a person as distinguished from an animal or an alien” and “pertaining to or characteristic of having the nature of people; sympathetic; humane” (Human).

The definition includes the original word to define itself, suggesting that there is not a concrete definition of the concept of humans. Humans are complex beings and there are many different perspectives that cannot be simplified to one all-encompassing definition. There can be the biological definition, sociopolitical definition, spiritual definition, and many others to explain an aspect of human nature. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the definition does not cover the depth and complexity of what it means to be a human and should not be interpreted as the absolute definition.

Having the understanding that the definition is not absolute and instead is a fluid can help us understand what it means to be human. We can understand that there are not rigid thinkers and beings. That because we have the freedom of will, we are conscious thinkers and can ask why. Since we are aware, we can question and find meaning within ourselves and the world around us.

Stone #2 (Gaby):

So is our freedom of will and consciousness to make choices what makes us superior compared to all other animals? But are we really the only animals that can make these decisions? Studies running experiments such as the mirror test have been done on many primates. Results indicate that “that there was evidence that humans, common chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans consistently pass the test” while there was “strong evidence that a wide range of other primates fail consistently” (Allen et al.). This along with other evidence suggests that other primates also have a certain level of self-awareness and consciousness.

It is possible that humans reach a higher level of consciousness and thus are able to ponder complex questions about life itself. However, we should consider the possibility that religion is what makes us as humans feel superior. Many religions claim that their god created man. As of 2015 Christianity was still the world largest religion with 31% of 7.3 billion people conforming to some branch of the religion (Hackett et al.).

The Bible says “God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:27; 2:7)” and thus many interpret this as “the crowning work of His creation” (“Our Relationship With God”). With so many people subscribing to this religion it is no surprise that many people see themselves as superior, it’s literally what the Bible and its disciples teach. But is something that is quite possibly the creation of our own minds and insecurities the only reason we consider ourselves superior?

Stone #3 (Olivia):

It is a longstanding tradition in both Western and Eastern philosophies that humans are more superior, that they belong to a higher order of living things than animals and plants. Aristotle held that “after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake and the other animals exist for the sake of man” (Politics, chap. 8). There are many different arguments for human superiority: as mentioned above, the Judeo-Christian view that God created us in his image; the Greek anthropocentric view that as rational beings, humans are more superior; and the Cartesian view that since humans have souls, they are of greater worth. For many people, it seems completely obvious to think that human life is more valuable than the life of an animal or plant. The idea of our superiority is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it is hard to think critically about whether or not we are actually superior. But what does it actually mean to be superior? Is it having inherent worth? Are there different degrees of inherent worth? Does our worth come from us perceiving we have it or is it independent?

Stone #4 (Nader):

How do we define if something has inherent worth? For this argument I will be using intrinsic value as a synonym for inherent worth. After reading through several philosophical points of view there seem to be several varied opinions on how intrinsic value can be evaluated, and whether intrinsic value is objective or subjective.

“The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value that a thing has “in itself,” or “for its own sake”(Zimmerman et al.). A Columbia University dissertation believes that intrinsic value stems from the capacity to achieve what Aristotle calls final ends(Libraries). “An end is something we aim to bring about via our actions, be it a product or an activity”(Libraries).

For example one would pick up a pencil with the intention of writing an argument. They write an argument with the intention of writing decent philosophy, and they write decent philosophy for its own sake. In this example philosophy is the final end and the action of picking up a pencil and writing an argument, the local ends, are rationally given direction and purpose by their final end. In this argument the local ends are what is called extrinsic value by the final end which has intrinsic value (Libraries).

Thomas Hobbes believed that Intrinsic value of something was derived from the desire or aversion someone has to it (Zimmerman et al.). This definition can be true in the way economics values human life. Kip Viscusi, an economist at Vanderbilt University, breaks down what economics calls the statistical value of human life. If you told workers that 1 in 25,000 workers will die in a year, and then all of those workers accepts a $400 pay increase to account for the risk, then the value of one statistical life would be $25,000*400 or $10 million dollars. Philosopher David Hume believed that ascriptions of value involved projections of one’s own sentiments onto whatever is said to have value (Gonzalez).

A fundamental Consequentialist view on whether an action is morally right or wrong depends on whether the intrinsic value of the consequences of that action are better than any other action they could take in that situation (Zimmerman et al.).

After reviewing several philosophical perspectives on intrinsic value there seems to be a common theme that intrinsic value is something that is ascribed by a human. Be it morals, risk analysis, or religion, it seems that each of these descriptions of intrinsic value stems from at least one human ideal or concept like pleasure, morals, or goodness. This makes me question whether our understanding of the intrinsic value of humans is objective or subjective, and if there can be an objective intrinsic value outside the bounds of human concepts or ideals?

Stone #5 (Shay):

Does intrinsic value allow for the humanization and demonization of death? How can we compartmentalize, perhaps justify to an extreme, murder in some instances, and grieve it in others? If not for the slaying of the soldier, would we have ever become free? Kneeling on the neck of a nation, we have liberated the Jews, freed the slaves, and ended world wars. Who prescribes the boundaries of honor and immorality when contemplating the sacred elusiveness of life?

“When you go to war against your enemies… do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you… For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:1-4)

The existence of holy war in cultures old and young has long defined our peoplehood. Within the historical-religious ideology that might makes right, where do the dead lay to rest? Was their passing simply a sacrifice for the nations, or a misunderstood royal decree?

When faced with determining right from wrong, the killing of Islam’s third caliph, ‘Uthman, further exemplifies the role of power when deciphering moral action. For those against ‘Uthman’s legitimacy to rule, the murder was justified, yet we continue to debate the quandary.

“By what right had [the murderers] acted?... not over the relative rights of rulers and subjects, but rather over the moral status of ‘Uhtman himself: if ‘Uthman had been a rightly guided imam, the rebels had been wrong to kill him; but if he had forfeited his imamate by his ‘innovations’, as his misdeeds were usually called, then the rebels had been entitled or indeed obliged, to remove him by force, inasmuch as he had refused to abdicate” (Crone, 17-18).

The aforementioned attempts the profession of philosophy, expressing but one example of our hope to place human action within the confines of politics. To advocate for the killing, or to situate against it, one must define the pinnacle of power, and place above it righteousness. If power be the judge of death, make me powerless, for the almighty rest within me the ability to choose.

Stone #6 (Jake):

If this choice to indulge either life or death is divine, why do we concern ourselves with morality? It seems humans cast this idea of morality not only upon ourselves and each other, but also upon our Gods. Can God be evil? Can God be good? Or can humans simply not fathom that divinity is uninterested in morality? It can be argued that morality makes us human, and that morality should be the guide to human life. By looking to be guided by Gods and politics alike, don’t we inherently place ourselves into a brutal paradox? Could the moral-political evolution of humankind ever reach the vision we think God holds for us?

Maybe it should be argued that there is no God. If there is no God, maybe we will see that morality serves as our only guide into the future; that this decision between good and evil will reprimand the corrupt politics of human history. If we deem politics as the struggle for power, then what is morality? The struggle to make the right decisions? It seems impossible to compare power to morals, I think they naturally contradict each other. So to use power is to potentially break a moral code. But now I sound like a pacifist. Instead, I would argue alongside Shay, that it seems we cannot have reached such levels of freedom without being willing to kill, to die, and to morph our own vision of morality. Is God our savior as we break and reshape our own moral codes?

Schweder and his co-writers published a study in Southeast Asia, where they looked to develop the “Big Three” common themes regarding the populations’ moral views and behavior. In class, we have discussed each of these themes and many of the ideas they encompass. For example: autonomy as our ability to choose. They write “the ethics of autonomy are concerned with harm, rights, and justice. The ethics of community are concerned with duty, hierarchy, interdependency, and souls. The ethics of divinity are concerned with sacred order, natural order, sanctity, sin, and pollution” (Schweder et al. 138). For me, their most interesting point was that divinity is purposed to preserve the other components of ethics-- autonomy and community. Furthermore, divinity is meant to preserve the world around us, like the environment. When did our political structures disconnect from these ethics?

Humans, realizing the imminence of death, are allowed the choice to live, to fight for survival. We can argue that all animals, including humans, have a natural desire to survive. Can the ability to choose between life and death be encompassed in morality? The paradox only intensifies as we consider the reality behind our choices. Of course, as we have discussed, humans hold the ability to choose life or death, it can be argued that even in our most thoughtless moments we make the decision to carry on and survive. So when does our struggle to survive, or our willingness to kill or be killed, become evil?

Stone #7 (Shay):

If evil be the absence of good, then place sanctions on morality. In the genesis of benevolence, we gave birth to terror. Does this dichotomous split exist in the cosmos? Have our actions been polarized, idealized, criticized, and reified all within the framework of the gods? Are we simply marionette figurines, hiding in the silhouette of our puppeteer? And if so, who do you choose to twerk the strings of our soul; do you submit to the movements or reign over destiny?

“Because God is a God of love, God desires that the creatures serve God out of love, and they can do this only if they are genuinely free” (Rice, 82).

The scholarship of “the problem of evil” seeks to define God’s role in suffering. Poised between justifying and refuting cosmic existence, I propose the concept of free will when debating the presence of evil on Earth. If we are given the will to choose love over life, we will know our freedom. Yet, we are bound within the confines of human existence, thus we know suffering.

Do our souls thrash in turmoil alongside our bodies as they flail through the rapids of life, or do they simply lay witness to the spectacle? Can you hum tunes of the holy while living encased in your physical being, forced to contemplate and combat the undeniable struggle to thrive and survive on Earth? Or are we separate beings, meshed into one: the soul and the body? Is it instead what grounds us here on Earth that enslaves us to the pain of suffering? The home, the family, material things.

The answer lies within the power struggle of the nations, where socioeconomic status, global relations, disparities amongst nations, confidence in government policy, and much, much more force evilness into action. Sociology’s Strain Theory aims to understand crime through collective, societal strain. This strain ostracizes individuals and creates a frustration that drives actors into criminal behavior. Deviance is born of the disparity between an individual’s ability to achieve his goals according to his means (Agnew 131-153). If our social conditions are ratifying our suffering, then a human response seems just. Such human responses answer only to ourselves, for the concept of free will provides us with this choice. If this is true, why do we choose to involve God in suffering, if suffering is but a theory of the humans?

Stone #8 (Nader):

The bible says that suffering is viewed as a way to develop their character and in turn grow closer to god. The suffering one goes through is so they can experience transformational changes in themselves (Gaultiere).

If this is the case, then why does such great suffering affect entire socioeconomic classes? In instances of extreme social inequality, why does the suffering only affect the disenfranchised? One could argue that their suffering is a sign from god to revolt, or otherwise change their circumstances. But why then, do the oppressors not experience suffering, at least while they are in charge. Are there no changes that they need to make while actively oppressing others? And if not, is god then approving of the oppressor?

I would suggest that incorporating god in suffering helps people find a purpose in it. By connecting your suffering to a divine order it makes it easier to rationalize a clear purpose for your suffering. In some cases this purpose may be what drives people to find ways out of their suffering. Also when faced with immense personal suffering it makes it easier to bear mentally by placing faith in a higher power. This faith allows one to unload the stress of their suffering, find meaning in it, and not feel as alone in their struggles. This belief can help prevent us from being overwhelmed by our circumstances, and carry us through our darker times.

Stone #9 (Gaby):

But even in darker times often faith itself is not enough. Reflection is often turned to during rough patches in people's lives. An important part of life is reflection upon one’s actions as well as the actions of others. Many peoples first thought when it comes to life reflections is the big “mid-life crisis” that typically is seen in adults around their 50s and usually results in impulse buys for big ticket items such as cars, boats, houses, and more. A common reasoning for these purchases is that they have come to the conclusion that they have not “lived” their lives to the fullest for themselves, and thus by buying a sporty car or boat with a big revving engine they are taking risks and “living” again.

However, this is not the kind of reflection that is quite as important. Smaller reflections such as quietly contemplating the day's events before bed are actually done quite often by many people. Be that as it may, they often are able to just fall asleep when they want to stop thinking about whatever they are thinking about. It takes practice and skill to get to a level of contemplation where often scary thoughts can be considered and rationalized after a long and in depth period of thought.

This being said many people simply do not have the willpower to be alone with their own thoughts, and quite frankly might not ever be able to. The article “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind” proclaims that in 11 studies participants normally “did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts” (Wilson et al.).

But why? The irony is that if it is god's gift to man the ability to think and contemplate complex issues and have the freedom of choice, then why do so many people harbor so much hatred for thinking, even to the point of self-harm? Seemingly, for many people, their main goal is to find meaning in life, whether that be happiness, love, or success. But can these goals ever even be achieved if people refuse to even think about their own life and what they need to change or do to reach their goals?

Stone #10 (Hana):

Thinking and reflecting can be understood as both a burden as well as something that grants freedom and meaning. While their minds constantly race from anxious thoughts that they avoided all day or perhaps there are only dull thoughts that cause boredom, many people are not comfortable in their own head simply listening to their own thoughts.

Through my own personal reflection, I have observed that people do not like to be alone with their thoughts because they do not know how. People are not taught how to critically think or to think for themselves. Throughout an American’s daily life, one is fed information through and distracted by social media and is unconsciously influenced (manipulated) by it. Without being aware, people are susceptible to following orders and before they know it, they have lost who they are because they have not been actually listening to themselves. Because they are brainwashed, they cannot realize that their thinking (or lack thereof) is what is giving their life less meaning and is what is leading them to their existential crisis. The crisis arises when someone finally wakes themself up from the hazy dream that was their reality -- just going through the motions of life unconsciously. Perhaps incorporating mindfulness into one’s daily life can help avoid the pricey purchase of a new BMW i8.

In the experiment mentioned above, it demonstrated how thinking is a burden to many. The results showed that men decided to shock themselves two thirds of the time compared to women shocking themselves one quarter of the time (Wilson et al). This difference in gender is interesting because it allows us to reflect on why this might be. Perhaps women are taught how to think or rather it is more socially acceptable for women to listen to them. Women may be more in touch with their emotions and thoughts which is why they may feel more comfortable with themselves. For men, our culture deems emotions as weak and favors physical strength; therefore, it makes sense as to why they would choose a shock rather than to think and feel.

These conclusions may only be a small part of the full explanation of this complex relationship between people and their thoughts. If gender influences the way one understands the world, how do other identities shape our perspective and how we interact with the world around us? Considering that our society and culture influences our thoughts, how can we escape the manipulation from the media so we do not lose ourselves? Would mindfulness prevent the loss of oneself and provide a deeper meaning to life or is there no hope?

Stone #11 (Olivia):

Can we really expect enhanced self-reflection to rescue us from life’s maelstrom? The self-reaction method, mindfulness, has quickly become the new mantra in mental health. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of mindfulness’ most prominent champions, described it as a “way of befriending ourselves and our experiences” (Bearance, 2014). Mindfulness has existed in the Buddhist tradition for over 2500 years. The Buddha taught that, “what we frequently dwell upon and ponder becomes the inclination of our thoughts.” The Buddha encouraged his students to know their emotions, beliefs, motivations and responses and see their effects. And he devised a methodology to take an unsatisfactory experience and turn it into a path where wisdom can be developed and self-awakening can occur. It is no surprise that the practice of mindfulness is commonly used during times of crisis. People need a calmer presence and focused clarity to effectively deal with adversity. Business giant, Bill George, said that a “crisis provides a unique opportunity to create transformative change within one’s self and with others” (2009, p. 75). But does mindfulness actually help during times of crisis? Researchers found that mindfulness can reprogram the brain to be more rational and less emotional.

“When faced with a decision, mediators showed increased activity in the posterior insula of the brain, which has been linked to rational decision making. This allowed them to make decisions based more on facts tham emotion” (Weiss, 2011 as cited in Bearance, 2014)

Mindfulness aids us in using our minds more fully to attend to a situation with focus, clarity and concentration. So why aren’t we all mindfulness practitioners? Don’t we all want to have clarity and self awareness? According to Warren Bennis, a pioneer in Leadership studies, “people who are intent on going in a meaningful direction have a chance of finding their way through the fog of crisis.” This then begs the question: Do we need to experience hardship to find meaning in our life and in ourselves?

Stone #12 (Jake):

I agree with Olivia that mindfulness is one of the most important determinants of a mind at peace. Still, I believe it is a privilege for one to come to peace with their own mind, especially once considering the pain in the world around them. It is hard to overcome the burden of guilt, even when we experience our own hardships. For example, on Father’s Day, one who grew up with an abusive father will experience their own individualized pain, but may still feel grateful to have known their father at all. I realize this may be a crude example, but it was the first that came to my mind. Many people turn to coping mechanisms other than mindfulness, and they may not even be able to imagine themselves as being able to escape. Hana posed the question of whether our identities shape our worldview. I think this is a strong point, and relating it to the question of mindfulness, it seems impossible to completely detangle ourselves from the identities we have grown so used to. Of course, everyone can change. We know we have the power to make choices.

Should we be trying to escape the media? Or should we try and break down the multifaceted social-political history that has led to the media’s current form? If we can better teach identity and mindfulness, that is, if we can better connect our physical selves with our conscious, and thus connect this self to the world, I believe we may stumble upon a new vision of society. A mindful society, who doesn’t care to think only of oneself, because each member feels connected to the people and environment around them. Maybe it’s true that this vision can only be realized through spirituality, or maybe we all must experience something that truly changes us.

Hardship does that, it will change people and will force them into a position where they need to decide. But I cannot believe hardship is the only experience that fosters change. In some instances, it may drive people to change, but create animosity towards the world. Even somebody who is mindful can grow discouraged, and can grow to resent this world and the cruel history it may present. So, maybe it is time to accept death, and teach social mindfulness. Unfortunately, death may need to come first. It seems impossible to envision a better society while we are still at the heel of stained institutions.

Stone #13 (Gaby):

So is death the solution then? Should we seriously consider the death of part of the population as a betterment to society? For decades we have developed technology as a hope to save humanity and the world we live in? But will that even be possible with the rate of destruction we are currently going at? A rate which will probably still increase over the next decades. A strictly logical conclusion would be to kill half the population, like Thanos suggested in Avengers: Endgame (Russo). However, there are many very serious moral and ethical flaws in this argument, as brought up by the Avengers.

To start with ethics one might ask: Who would you choose to kill? Would it be the elderly because they are going to die first anyways? Or maybe the

middle age because they are the largest part of the population in many developing and even developed countries? How does one decide? This leads to the moral arguments.

I think most people would agree that it is morally wrong to go around killing masses of people even if it were done completely fairly and at random. The entire Avengers: Endgame movie is focused around stopping Thanos from snapping his fingers and executing this process on Earth (Russo). Simply stated, killing half the population takes away people’s freedom of choice, which as stated earlier, is something that makes us distinctly human.

So if death by killing isn’t the answer, then should we wait it out until the human population essentially reaches carrying capacity? Would this create a betterment of society? With less people comes less hardships and thus less people who change their mindset and are able to practice mindfulness as a result of some hardship and reflection. So can only those who are privileged enough to have free time and energy on their hands practice mindfulness? Those who practice mindfulness often see the problems in the world and try to offer up solutions and suggestions such as practicing mindfulness. But often the problems they see are the hunger and struggles of others. But if this is so, isn't there an innate sense of irony in telling others who are simply trying to survive day to day they need to learn to practice mindfulness because of the hardships they are going through even though they have neither the time nor the energy to do so? So, in practicing mindfulness, shouldn’t we all just keep to ourselves? Ought we not offer up the “shoulds”, “should nots”, “oughts”, and “ought nots” as suggestions to our peers? Or does this lead to alienation and the consequences that come with?

Stone #14 (Olivia):

I agree with Gaby that we can’t tell people that they should practice mindfulness. Ultimately it is their choice and most often than not, it is a privileged choice. Some people try to practice it but find that it doesn’t present any form of clarity or calmness. Personally, every time I have tried to practice mindfulness I end up feeling more anxious than I did to begin with. But I also don’t practice it everyday and I am nowhere near an expert practitioner.

So, since I, and I am sure many other people, don't practice mindfulness everyday, does that mean I am more irrational? Am I less aware of myself compared to others? I don’t know whether or not I am missing out on truly knowing myself. Ignorance is bliss right? So, I don’t think it matters whether or not you practice mindfulness. What does matter however is how connected you feel with the people and environment around you.

Yes, as mentioned above, mindfulness practicing can lead to more clarity and self awareness. But I also think it can lead to alienation. Jake brought in the notion of a mindful society, a society where the individuals feel connected to one another and the environment around them. I believe that it is through having a mindful society we can have a mindful self. A person can have all the self clarity in the world but what use does that have if they don’t feel connected to the environment around them. Whether that be God, family, friends, neighbors, nature, there is something really powerful in feeling connected to something greater than oneself.

Stone #15 (Hana):

Olivia makes a strong point that mindfulness is privilege. The ability to be mindful comes from having the opportunity to understand and know how to practice it. However, mindfulness is the simplest way to give yourself privilege that no one can take away. With education and mythbusting, mindfulness can empower and grant privilege to any person as long as they only decide to try it. The issue comes with the false understanding of what mindfulness and meditation are but it can be anything that you want it to be, as long as you are in touch with yourself. Additionally, it is one’s mindset that tells them they cannot do it. Because it is common to have a misunderstanding of what mindfulness and meditation is, they have certain expectations that will not be met when they try to practice. By recognizing your mindset, your expectations, and your needs, you have the ability to take control over yourself.

While I agree with Gaby and Olivia that mindfulness should not be forced onto someone, I would like to challenge Olivia’s comment that it does not matter if you practice mindfulness. Let’s first define mindfulness. According to a psychology journal, “Mindfulness describes a state of consciousness in which individuals attend to ongoing events and experiences in a receptive and non-judgmental way” (“APA PsycNet.”).

Mindfulness (and meditation) are simply about belief -- the belief in yourself and self-empowerment through fostering acceptance of oneself. Recognizing that you have control over your mindset and practicing it, you can better understand yourself which gives you consciousness and self awareness. The research study finds that mindfulness can “reduce emotional exhaustion and improve job satisfaction” (“APA PsycNet.”). The clarity and self awareness is crucial to having true meaning and self-value within this universe, even if it causes alienation. Alienation by definition says that it is isolation from a group you should be a part of. If we get rid of the second part: “should be a part of,” alienation is just isolation which does not have to be a bad thing (“Alienation:...”). Alienation can lead you to having a much deeper connection with the world and those around you because by feeling isolated, it gives you time to self reflect and reevaluate your beliefs.

Additionally, I would argue that the mindful self is all that is important, not a mindful society. The notion of alienation from one’s society should not be valued as highly as it is. Society is an idea, an intangible concept that we cannot see or even truly understand yet we put so much pressure and weight on this one word. If instead you replace your thinking of society with your community that you feel close with (whether that be your hometown or even just your family), you can understand that you are loved and therefore may not feel alone in ‘society’. This is important because it grounds you to something you can see and feel and therefore understand rather than leaving it up to an arbitrary idea you have created in your head. By valuing a mindful self, you are taking control and responsibility over yourself which is one of the most empowering things we can do as a human.

Would you agree that society is a made up concept? Is it trivial to be evaluating our self worth on this one word: society? Do different people have different understandings of society, especially if they hold different identities? How can we shape a society that values the self?

Stone #16 (Shay):

Social control theory, social disorganization theory, social ecology theory, social learning theory, social process theory, labeling theory, social structure theory, socialization, socializing in an increasingly antisocial world. Scholars have dedicated a concentration of academia to the purpose of contemplating the existence of society and the forming and conforming factors that influence its inception. Pregnant with debate, sociologists have long desired to adequately determine what makes us who we are, and yet they remain at odds. The scholarship would cease to exist absent the constant and never-ending grouping and allocation of norms, mores, and values, all concepts of life that have been prescribed unto our beings prior to our conception. So I ask, who holds this remarkable power to write our stories, narrate our narratives, and colloquialize our individuality before our lungs even capture the first sweet breath of humanity?

Does an image of the self hold value in shaping a society? What and who is the self? Can we properly define a concept that applies to a singular multiplarity?

"Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.' And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.'…Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?" — "Impermanent, venerable Sir." — "Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?" — "Painful, venerable Sir." — "Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: 'This is mine, this is I, this is my self'"? — "No, venerable sir."

"So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: 'This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'” (Thera).

Buddhism holds that there is no self, for form, feelings, perceptions, determinations, and consciousness can all be proven as factors outside of the self. We cannot own what is not ours, therefore we are not truly any of the concepts that we imagine ourselves to be. Our hair will gray, wither, and abandon us, our thoughts are fleeting and evanescent, our organs are bound to fail. Who are we if not our bodies and minds? Are we facets of our soul, making covert appearances on Earth? If our souls are what guides us, then how can society conform?

Stone #17 (Nader):

When I think of the Self and its role in society the question that comes to mind is how can the self be used to better society. In my opinion someone who has a sense of self that is fully realized is the most beneficial to society. Someone who has a strong moral foundation, clear purpose, and spreads joy or positivity to others among other traits. I think people with these traits are beneficial to society in several ways. Living with these qualities presents yourself as a role model for others who may gravitate towards and adopt these qualities for themselves. This in turn creates a ripple effect whereby several others are eventually benefited by your way of living. I believe that when enough fully realized people are present in a society their ripple effect will eventually impact that society as a whole. I think this belief is well represented in a famous quote by Marianne Williamson

“As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence actually liberates others”(Gurteen).

The self can also pertain to a person's identity. Social identities like ethnicity, political beliefs, age, or gender have long had impacts on how our societies function. These identities can play a large role in how easily people can connect with one another and also what groups of people they chose to interact with. These social identities can make it easier for groups of people to work together, but could also foster misguided beliefs of other groups, or create conflicts.

However, if we are taking the view that the self is separate to all of these things. Meaning the self as a core entity is separate from our consciousness perceptions and determinations etc. In this case I would argue that allowing our “light” to shine is an expression that actually stems from this core soul. One interpretation of the “light” we shine is the act of fully realizing ourselves in our actions. I would argue that our longing to fully realize ourselves is something that comes from our deepest core. Therefore the actions that result from that would be stemming from our soul. And if those actions lead to a change in society, then the core soul has had an impact in shaping society.

Stone 18: (Jake):

The relationship between the self and “the other” has been long debated among philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and scientists alike. In this case, the other refers to the external world—to the environment and people who do not reside within oneself. Michel Foucault would reiterate the Socratic argument, in order “to care of thyself”, one must first know thyself. Foucault, however, takes it a step further. To care for thyself is to care for the other— the self and the other are not opposites, as it is the other that helps shape oneself. So, the individual and the environment in which they reside are complementary of each other, they exist as a pair.

This proposition reminds me of the earlier conversations we held, where we discussed “inner talk”, our conscience, as the potential birthplace for human autonomy. Because of this dialogic thinking, humans are able to grasp a degree of freedom that other animals cannot—we can develop unique identities, relationships with the other, while also being able to formulate rational and emotional thought. So where does love fit into this equation? To piggyback off of Socrates and Foucault; I would argue that the first step to caring for thyself, is to care for the other, which one can only accomplish through inner talk in the language of love. I don’t want to sound all mushy, but it follows that the complementary relationship between the individual and their world—the other, can only survive through such a loving relationship.

What can we do when an individual refuses this love, they do not care for the other and think only of themself? Can we say this person truly loves themself? Or does this individual exist in delusion—sensations of self-satisfaction or happiness that overshadow a dangerous, alienated self? Is that person complete? I’m pointed to believe they survive, operating as one half of a whole. Can ignorance be bliss? Can one feel happy and not care for themself? Does the self, who happens to not care for the other, exist in their fullest potential as human? Are they evil? Are they wrong, misguided, or simply ignorant?

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