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In which John contemplates what it means to be human, and how we define personhood, while also talking a bit about the stuff he's been trying to write the last few years.

The video was inspired by a contest Bill Gates and Big History have organized over at http://bh-p.co/1Jze4sM If you make a video for the Big History contest before July 8th, you could win $5,000 and a contract to make more videos. Entry form, rules, and contest details can be found at: http://bh-p.co/1Jze4sM

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what it means to be a person, because this is clearly something I'm still puzzling through.


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John: Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

So Bill Gates is encouraging people to make videos about what it means to be human. There's actually a contest, you can win money and stuff. Link in the dooblydoo. But as it happens over the last 3 years I've been thinking a lot about this question because I've been trying to write a novel about what it means to be human and how we define personhood and why those definitions matter.

I've also been writing a lot about tortoises, but that's less directly relevant here.

All right, so first off I find all of the, like, biological definitions of humanness completely uninteresting because we all kind of just know that there's something to personhood other than just all being members of the same species. Like, we know this partly because most of us believe that humans have a seemingly unique consciousness or soul or whatever.

But we also know that personhood is more than just a species category because we can constantly see people denying other people's humanity even though we're all members of the same species. This happens at a macro level when governments, for instance, refuse to acknowledge the very existence of certain ethnic minorities. And it happens on a micro level every time I dehumanize someone by imagining them as less complex than myself. Like, it's easy for me to understand that I contain multitudes, but rather than understanding that of other people, too often I imagine them as merely sick or merely poor or merely 'them' to some 'us' that includes me.

Hank, for me at least, the deeper I dig, the harder it becomes to understand what makes people, people. For instance, I often hear that what makes us human is that we can share stories across generations. And I do absolutely believe in the power of narrative, but there are many people who can't hear or tell stories, like people with certain intellectual disabilities, for instance. And yet, they are still people. Or we often associate reading and writing with humanness, but there are many people who can't read or write, and often they're marginalized people, the people whose humanity most needs to be acknowledged.

The same goes for many definitions of humanness: they often exclude the poorest or the sickest or the most oppressed. And those narrow definitions of humanness can be very dangerous. Like one dramatic example is that for many centuries, Europeans and white Americans denied the essential humanity of black people as a justification for chattel slavery. But that's not just a problem of history, like, to be treated as a full human in the world today, you may need not just a human body and a human spirit but also an ID card attesting to a particularly citizenship. And wealth and race and sex and class and many other things can all factor into how human the world treats you.

So what can we say inclusively of humans? Well, we tend to be capable of empathy and collaboration and hope. But in these respects I don't think we're unique among animals. It seems to me that to get even remotely universal and yet specific, we have to be very weirdly careful with our wording, like: when able to access and comprehend the teachings of our ancestors, we tend to value them.

Here's what I really believe Hank: I believe that we confer personhood upon each other through empathy and compassion and trust. Like, stuck inside the prison of my own consciousness, I have no way of independently verifying that other people even are really human. Like, it's possible that everyone else is just a super realistic humanoid robot, and I am the only actual feeling human on earth, but I choose not to believe that. I believe that when we acknowledge each other's consciousness and complexity, we lead better lives and feel less alone in our grief and our joy. Basically I believe that we're human because we believe in each other's humanness, and because we can listen, and we can work together to alleviate each other's suffering. And in that sense, I guess being human is both something that we are and something that we must always aspire to be.

Now of course, I might be wrong. I often am. That's quite human as well I think.

So Hank, nerdfighters, I'm very interested in knowing what you think it means to be human. Let's continue to conversation in comments or via the link below.

Hank, I will see you on Friday.
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