Human Nature is not Human Nature and our Self is a Deception
by Paul Ewing
The term human nature may be a misnomer. It might be more accurate to call it “person nature.” A human being can be a member of the set of homo sapiens but not part of the set that includes “persons.” A person exhibits consciousness or self-awareness, emotional response, the ability to communicate, etc.. Some human beings–say a flat-lined homo sapien on life support –have none of these qualities. They are human beings but not persons. So the actual issue at hand is “person nature” not “human nature,” however awkward the new moniker may seem. By the way, the issue of personhood lynch-pins the debate over abortion. Right-to-lifers see the fetus as a person; pro-choice folks see the fetus as a potential person but not a person.
The fact that we experience so many different mental states following in rapid succession one upon the other proves we don’t have a self! David Hume suggests that the concept of “self” is an essence. Essence implies a sense of consistency, endurance, and permanence. A real “self” would not contradict itself by being capricious, changeable, plastic. An essence must not lack essence! But when we look at our “self” or try to find our “self,” Hume suggests all we discover is an ever-changing stream of consciousness. Just like our cells replenish themselves every ten years or so, we are continually changing, continually new, never the same. We can’t step into the Self Same River twice! Since there is nothing we can point to in our experience that is fixed, static, permanent, there is nothing we could call a consistent “self.” The concept is meaningless and irrelevant to human experience.*
Similarly, if human nature was concrete, then we’d be able to expose it to the light of day, weigh it on a laboratory scale, begin to sketch its shape on our drawing pads. Philosophers have gone around and around on this. Some say human nature exists; others say it’s a figment of our imagination. Both positions have their representatives. Plato would argue that human nature exists and St. Augustine would agree but in the context of a monotheistic, Christian God. It’s human nature to be rational, to choose good over evil, and and to be eternal. On the other hand, B.F. Skinner would say humans are plastic, can be shaped via reward and punishment into whatever the psychologist wants. Classical conditioning can create human monsters or angels. Sartre argues that each of us is an individual project “hurtling itself toward the future.” Since none of our projects are the same, there is no human nature. Or as he said, “existence precedes essence.”
*If you ditch your “self” you can avoid entirely the self-help section of bookstore. You can change the channel when the self-help gurus ask for your money. You can stop buying Self magazine. In other words, if you divest yourself of your self, you can save lots of money!