Who Are We? Three views on Human Ontology


Who Are We?
3 Views on Human Ontology

People have wondered about many things, but perhaps one of the more significant and elusive is the internal query framed in the universal question: Who am I? Like trying to catch a shadow, philosophers, scientists and theologians have attempted to answer this question but with scant certainty or cognitive substance. And yet at the core of who we are it is important, if not downright mentally plaguing, that we find ourselves tapping at the door of our conscience hoping there is an ontological[1] pathway that will help us with our need to know- who are we?
     The common, everyday answer to the question Who am I? is often summed up, more simply, in the encounters we have with other people when we invoke our names. Granted, we are not engaging in deep philosophical discussions when we introduce ourselves but it does give us a point of human contact. For instance, I may say that I am Steve, but names are a collection of alphabetical letters used to identify oneself. Besides, many people may share the same first name and possible surname. However, a name will not tell anyone who I am and therefore, doesn’t reveal any true knowledge about me. I may go on to tell someone where I live, who my parents are, and my national origin, but that never really gets at the core of who I am, as opposed to the other six billion human beings in the present world.
     In normal, everyday greetings people who supposedly know me don’t say Who are you? but How are you? Even this type of casual greeting presupposes that we are bio-genetic constructs with both rational and reasonable powers who possess higher intelligence. It only establishes to the other person that we are from a species of organic life classified as human. Yes, someone playing and snuggling her pet dog may ask the animal how it’s doing, however, she would never expect to get an intelligible answer.
     But if we were to answer the question How are you? at face value, we would soon find ourselves embarking on a cognitive hunt like a treasure seeker looking for that illusive chest of gold. After all, “How am I” poses the larger, looming question of trying to explain how I am what I am, or how I came to be or exist, or more specifically, of what essence am I?
     My purpose is not to provide a comprehensive study on human ontology or to definitively explain how we know that we exist. There are a variety of views which further complicate the seemingly endless nuances on the subject. My purpose in this article is to pique enough interest in the matter that we pause long enough to consider the meaning of our own existence; if in fact there is one (I speak objectively, not from my own Christian orientation which I believe gives us the answer to our existence).
     This brief article will examine various answers to our question from three disciplines: philosophy, science, and theology. These three are the only paradigms that put forth an answer to our question- Who Are We?. Your existence and mine will be grounded in one of these three views and shape what we think our life means in the grand scheme of things. So, let’s see where we stand.  

A Philosophical Paradigm
     Whether we look for ontological paradigms from ancient thinkers such as Plato’s (427-347 B.C.E.) ‘immortality of the soul’[2], which he claims was quite separate from our body before and/or after our physical existence, or because “I think , therefore I am”[3] from the medieval french philosopher Renee Descartes (1596-1650), who reasoned that the act of thinking or self-consciousness is what gives human beings real existence, or modern philosopher’s like Jean-Paul Sarte (1905-1980) who put forward the view that human beings become an essence and as such, merely, first exist; we’ll only be scratching the philosophical surface in our quest to know who we are much less how we are.
     The ground becomes very slippery when one walks on the road of existentialism. Especially Sartrean ground which feels more like your standing in mid-air. He postulates that ‘consciousness’ is outside ‘being’ and therefore is impotent to bestow self identity. The IEP says of Sarte’s position on consciousness and the identity of self, “…the unity of the self is a task for the for-itself, a task which amounts to the self’s seeking to ground itself.” [4]
     Sarte’s philosophy leaves human beings existing in a world where we are tasked with observing a subjective reality which in turn attempts to provide a grounding for our own personal reality. So then, are we real? According to Sarte: only because a consciousness which transcends our being interprets an ever becoming world of subjective realities which gives the appearance (an outward reality) that we are in fact a being. Again, do we ever truly know who we ourselves are as individual persons? Simply put, the answer is a resounding No, from a Sartrean point of view.
     Other brands of philosophy go so far as to purport that we may exist, but have no real essence to speak of, only ‘an ever-changing stream of consciousness’[5]. Furthermore, if consciousness resides in the brain, then the mind is nothing more than a concoction of chemicals and stimuli received from impulses transmitted through nerves. And to say that chemicals in any arrangement can create personhood, or identifiable self-awareness is preposterous. On that note, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued the essence of self was only a perception and not a disclosure of anything that can truly be said to be me. In ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ Hume states, “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception…”[6]

A Scientific Paradigm
     Many philosophers may agree that there is a me, but exactly what that me is is as varied as the thinkers who postulate their theories. The scientific perspective on proving the reality of an I is not any less problematic as the positions presented by philosophers. If standing in mid-air is shaky in a philosophical paradigm, then the scientific view is hard pressed to even find air to stand on as made clear in an article ‘Why Life Does Not Really Exist’ by Ferris Jabr, a contributing editor for Scientific American. He writes:
“Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”[7]
     If consciousness resides in the mind and the brain is the container where the mind seats itself, then, according to Jabr we are nothing more than an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. In actuality, we are no more alive than a rock or a toenail clipping.
     Modern evolutionary science advances the view that everything that exists was the result of the Big Bang. And that everything came into being from an explosion that had its genesis from something smaller than a head of a pin, called Singularity [8]. Everything that now is was the product of mass, energy and spacetime without the aid of a mind. The natural question is: Then where did minds come from? If we suggest that evolutionary action had some kind of plan we make the mistake of giving evolution a mind. The problem is, evolution is a process not an intelligent entity. But, by evolutionary magic, human beings became self-aware but with no cosmic parent to ground where our self identity or essence lies. We are nothing more than orphans left on a marooned planet littered among a plethora of other cosmic accidents. It’s like imagining evolution burping and saying Oops! Don’t know how I did that, but I think I just made a human?

A Theological Paradigm
     In order for one to consider a theological paradigm in answering our question Who am I? we must be willing to at least examine the concept it advocates. My purpose is not to prove the existence of God but to assume it, in the same way the other two systems assume their paradigms without empirical evidence: (no one was there when the Big Bang happened nor can science see consciousness under a microscope, nor the philosopher explain cognition as a substance).
     Narrowing the religious field to western religion, and more precisely Christian theism, the glass ceiling of naturalism must be broken in order for the metaphysical world to become a viable option.

     Most of us would agree that we have souls, if we define a soul as Professor Anthony Quinton defines it:
“…the soul, defined as a series of mental states connected by continuity of character and memory, is the essential constituent of personality. The soul, therefore, is not only logically distinct from any particular human body with which it is associated; it is also what a person fundamentally is.”[9]

Professor Quinton’s definition of the soul could easily be applied to animals as well. They have memories and continuity of character like humans, and as such give animals a kind of personality. But Christian theism goes beyond Quinton’s definition of “soulish” personality by presenting a human being as that which possesses a ‘spiritual’ property. In the biblical book of Job it is stated that the Almighty made humankind, not just a corporeal being but a spiritual being as well.

“But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.” Job 32:8

     This theological concept, of mankind having a spirit, dates back to the Hebrew belief system in the book of Genesis where the writer maintains that the constituency of humanness comes by divine fiat when God made man in his image, namely the imago dei (Genesis 1:26-27). Kenneth Samples an editor with Reasons to Believe states, “The New Testament Greek word for image (eikōn) conveys virtually the same meaning as the Hebrew. Both languages indicate that God created humans to be similar to himself, but not identical to himself. Therefore from a biblical perspective, human beings are in some sense both like and unlike the God who made them.”[10]

     The theological paradigm, from a Christian theistic perspective, places human essence squarely in the person of God; quite a jump from a collection of chemicals to a being with divine likeness. It is without a doubt a staggering concept but one that is also fraught with not only the inexplicable but with a cognitive transcendence which some believe to have attained and others scoff at. Nonetheless, at bottom, the biblical position on human essence and unique personality does not reside in the proposition that God is in everything but that everything is in God, including human existence, essence, and being as this Biblical passage states:

“For in him [God] we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28a

copyright © Steve Covarrubias April 2016


1-Ontology: The study of existence.

2-Philosophy Pages. Web.

3-Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.The Second Meditation continues with Descartes asking, “What am I?”

4-IEP. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Jean-Paul Sarte. Web

5-Holt, Jim. “Why Does the World Exist?” (New York-London:Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012)

6- Hume, David Hume. “A Treatise of Human Nature.” (Oxford University Press,1896)

7-Jabr, Ferris. “Why Life Does Not Really Exist.” December 2013, Scientific American.

8-Hawking, Stephen. “The Beginning of Time.” Web.

9-Quinton, Anthony. The Soul: “Philosophy of Religion.” (Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998)

10-Samples, Kenneth. “Imago Dei:What Does It Mean?” Reasons To Believe. Web.