The issue of human nature started many centuries ago, dating back to the age of ancient Greek philosophers. This issue pursued up to modern times when science is said to explain almost everything. However, some of the ancient beliefs are still accepted today. Now, the question still remains to be solved. What is the nature of human being?
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One of the earliest Greek philosophers to answer this is Socrates. Socrates believed that human can be composed of two entities, namely the mind and the body. The body moves and interacts with the physical world but it is the mind that dictates the body on how to interact. The idea of human being as a composition of two entities became the foundation of traditional Western and religious view of human nature. However, unlike Socrates, the next generation of philosophers believed in the dual nature of human being. Their idea is popularly known as Dualism. They believe that the mind and body are two separate entities. This idea can be seen from Plato’s teachings. He argued that the world that we live is just a copy of what he call world of idea (Wild, 7). He said that there is a soul within every man. This soul is immortal and undergoes rebirth until it is purified. After a man died, the soul will remain to exist and will find a new body for shelter. The soul is also divided into three parts. The lowest part is the desires and passions, the second is the higher and nobler emotions and the highest is the reason (Oates, 36).
Aristotle also believes that the nature of man is complex. It is composed of two entities that are in a way opposite or different from one another. By this he means that if one entity will do an action for its pleasure, the other entity will be suffering and will be in pain. Thus, human can not feel true pleasure. That is why he suggested that the human nature is perishable and corruptible. Although a man is good in a way, the other entity will tend to alter this. This other entity will find its own way of having pleasure, which it can find in vices. The only entity that has a single entity is God. This means that He can enjoy only single pleasure (Oates, 303).
However, the most famous of the supporter of dualism is Renee Descartes. He stated that human being is composed of a body and a soul, an idea known as the Descartes dualism. He added that the body empoisons the soul. He described the soul as an indestructible entity, while the body as destructible. He also believes that the function of the material body is different from the soul. The soul functions for intelligence and reason while the body is for life’s function and is mechanical (Beck, 133). Although the soul can reside in all the part of the body, the loss of one part does not mean that a part of the soul will also be loss. It is easy to understand that the body and the soul are of different nature and origin. However, the body and soul do interact with each other in an unexplainable way. The belief of them interacting gave birth to the mind/body theory of interactionism.
This belief was challenged by Thomas Hobbes. He presented a complete challenge to dualism, especially to that of Aristotle. He rejects the idea of Aristotle about the final cause. For him, man does not aim at an end of virtuous living but just a mere life (Barker, 517). From a dualistic view, he presented a purely materialistic view of human nature. This view was influenced by Galileo Galilee’s studies of motion (Barker, 517). He does not believe in an entity other than the body that can interact with it or can control it. For him, the body can be compared to a mechanical machine or system of matters in motion. Just like a machine, it has parts that are in motion and defines the body as a whole. The added that thoughts are images that are created by interaction with an external object, where the image of extension is the space and the image of motion is time. He also claimed that the intellectual capacity can be explained by some computational manipulation of signals. The mind, he said, is just another body in motion.
Religious beliefs, as compared to traditional Western beliefs, also include superior beings that have powers. This being created a human as it is. The largest religion of today, the Roman Catholics, believed that God created humanity with the same image as God. At first, males are created. From the flesh of the male, the female was created so as to save the male from loneliness. As the creator, a human being is obligated to obey His rules and wish. To love and serve Him is humanities purpose. Those who defy His will will be punished.
This idea that a human being is devoted to serving God or that there is already a destiny planned for him was challenged by existentialists. Existentialists believed that human beings are free and not born with purpose. Jean Paul Sarte is a famous philosopher of this movement. He believed that a human being is what he chose to be. Human has no nature. He is free to choose, and so he is the one responsible for himself. The outcome of his actions can only be blamed to him and to nothing else. Sarte further stated that there is no God and that knowing this tends to make a human being anguish because he lacks a guideline in his life.
The view about the human nature based on religion and traditional Western beliefs faced yet another challenge when Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution. The theory of evolution suggested that every organism in this world, including human, came from a common ancestor (Hull and Rose, 217). Human are just advanced and evolved version of that organism and all other organisms in this world. With that, it can be said that the intelligence that a human has is just brought by an improvement from the other animals and not from a supernatural being. However, he believes that the process of evolution will continue to improve the traits and characteristics of human that in the end a perfect individual can be created (Beck, 36).
There theory of evolution believes that the process is brought about by mutation. This mutation is responsible for hereditary variation. This means that an offspring is not entirely the same as the parents. There are traits that are new and unique to the offspring. This mutation may not be very observable for a short line of family tree but will be very prominent for a very long line. The theory also believes that the process of mutation is random and out of the control of the organism; thus, it is beyond the understanding of mechanistic observer.
It is clear that the traditional Western and religious view differs with the Darwinian view of human nature about the presence of a supernatural being. However, both believe in the superiority of a human being to other animals. For the traditional Western and religious group, they believe that a human being is superior because of the presence of a mind or a soul. For the Darwinian view, human are considered superior because of having a sophisticated system of parts that have adapted nature. The Darwinian view and the Platonic view also have some resemblance. Both believe that in the end of the process, human nature will be perfect. Although for Plato, it is the immortal soul that will be perfected.
The origin of man is also a great debate for the two views. For Darwinian view, humans evolve from apes. On the other hand, religion taught that there is a God that created man. Man is created with a soul and mind for him to take over the planet. Darwinian view argued that man underwent a long process of change and adaption before coming into its future status.
One of the challenges to the traditional Western and religious beliefs is the existence of the mind and supernatural being. As Descartes cannot explain the way the soul or the mind interacts with the body, then it is quit reasonable to question the existence of the mind. It cannot be perceived using senses. However, the author believes that something that cannot be proven to exist must not be assumed to not exist. The nature of God cannot be understood by man because of its inferior nature.
Another cahllenge to the nature of God is the gender. Bible uses the term Father to represent God. This caught the attention of feminist groups. Why is it that supreme being is addressed as a man? Although the church would insist that God’s nature is different from human, that He is neither a male nor a female, but still the conotation that God is a male is there. With this, the author accepts the idea that God is neither a male nor a female. Gender means nothing to God. He is an entity that perfected himself. The way He is addressed can be the result of creating a man first. Since it is stated that males are created firsta nd are a physical replica of God, then it may be that the original form of God is almost a male.
The religious view of human nature solves the case of the origin of evrything. Since God is perfect, He can create anything He wanted. Since God is perfect, He could not have been created by another entity. He existed in time and within time, this is what the author believes.
Hobbes and the existentialists challenged the idea of human essence. The Catholic Church also preaches that human has their free will. Some passages in the bible of the Roman Catholics showed that men, although given a task to complete, can also choose to do something. The author stands that mind is not perfect. It needs guidance from a perfect being to choose the right act. Just like when Jesus tried to run away from his sorrowful death. But in just a short time, he accepted it whole-heartedly. Human beings are destined for something that can only be completed through His guidance.
The idea that human nature is like a machine with diffent parts in motion is something that the author does not accept. Truly, the body is composed of different organ system. But within this organ system is not just parts in motion but parts that gives life. Life is within the body. This life is a result of a soul and a material body in harmony. And although life is also manifested by other animals, human mind are created with conscience.
Although the Darwinian view is accepted by many, it faced a great challenge the first time it was presented. The theory almost even got obsolete. One of the challenges to this theory is about the origin of human. Human being is always thought to be superior to animals and so the thought that human’s ancestors are apes cannot be accepted. The supporters of this theory are asked whether they will believe that their grandparents are apes. On this issue, the author stands that although human ancestors are apes, the characteristics that they have are different; however, some may be just the same. Because of the process of mutation, human beings are very less like their ancestors.
The most controversial part of Darwinians view is the true “form” of man’s ancestor. This organism is famously known as the missing link. The author believes that unless this species is discovered, the Darwinian theory will always have a very big loop hole. The only possible explanation with this is that evolution is the way of God for creating human beings. However, this will be commiting the same mistake done by the church in the time they are very powerful and conservative, that is, to explain science using the concept of God. It may be settled for now that the human’s mind cannot comprehend this matter.
The strongest argument that the Darwinian view can have today is the availability of proofs that can be validated by science. At the present, most people believe that what can be proven by science is the real thing, concrete proofs like the bones of “ancestors” is a big plus.
The process of mutation is also supported by science and can be observed by ordinary people. The concept of natural selection, a process very essential for evolution, also has a very concrete proof. However, these proof may not completely be applicable to man. The author believes that everyone can see what they want to see and interprete how they want it to. Although this is not rejected but a carefull judgement must be done first for this.
Overall, the author believes in the traditional Western and religious view but also considers the Darwinian view.
Barker, Ernest, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle. New York: Dover Publication, Inc., 1959.
Beck, William S. Modern Science and the Nature of Life. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, nd.
Hull, David L. and Michael Rose. The Philosophy of Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Oates, Whitney J. Aristotle and the Problem of Value. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Wild, John. Plato’s Theory of Man. New York: Octagon Books, 1974.