What Makes Us Human?

Material Facts From a Nonmaterialist Perspective

This article constitutes chapter 6 in What Makes Us Human? (2007). Edited by Charles Pasternak, the book features divergent viewpoints on an issue that has intrigued humanity for millennia. This chapter explores the question from the generally overlooked perspective of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures.

Ask “What makes us human?” and a range of responses is guaranteed from materialist and nonmaterialist scientist and religious thinker alike. From self-awareness to free moral agency, from conscience to the capacity to imagine, such traits are put forward as distinguishing us from nonhuman species. There’s also the capacity for spoken language, which some say is the most distinctive difference, even innate. On a more troubling level, some might list the deliberate decision not to reproduce ourselves, and more darkly still, the willing invention of weapons that assure mutual mass destruction, threatening extinction of the species.

That all of these characteristics have a connection with human consciousness is clear. But the definition and operation of human consciousness is not. Despite the fact that a US presidential proclamation declared the 1990s “the decade of the brain,” with the assurance that “a new era of discovery is dawning in brain research,”1 little has been achieved in understanding the brain-mind relationship. Addressing a 2005 neuroscience conference, Stephen Morse, Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, candidly noted, “Here’s a dirty little secret: We have no idea how the brain enables the mind. We know a lot about the localization of function, we know a lot about neurophysiological processes, but how the brain produces mental states—how it produces conscious, rational intentionality—we don’t have a clue. When we do, it will revolutionize the biological sciences.”2

Here’s a dirty little secret: We have no idea how the brain enables the mind.”

Stephen Morse, Professor of Psychology and Law in Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania

While we wait for that moment, it might be opportune to focus on what makes us human from a much overlooked nonmaterialist perspective. Why is this worthy of consideration in an age when the soul and even the secular self are no longer in vogue as explanatory concepts?3 The answer lies in Morse’s admission that the materialist replacement for nonmaterial explanations faces an impasse of its own: human consciousness (and thus its associated self-awareness) remains a mystery. This would come as no surprise to brain researcher Robert L. Kuhn, who wrote almost forty years ago:

The human brain cannot account for the yawn­ing chasm between [the] utterly unique characteristics of humans and the repetitive instincts of animals.

Therefore, a non-physical addition must unite with the human brain, converting it into the human mind.

. . . The human brain cannot explain the human mind—there must be a non-physical ingredient, beyond our microscopes, test tubes, electrodes and computers. To the truly open-minded individual, it is fruitless to physically rationalize the uniqueness of mind. There must be a non-physical essence—a ‘spirit’—in man.

. . . Evolutionary theorists point to the similarity among human and ape brains to corroborate their views. It is ironic that, in reality, they have stumbled on to the most significant scientific observation in history, irrefutably attesting to the non-physical component which converts the output of the human brain into mind. Without this non-physical factor, man could be nothing more than a super-ape, more intelligent than the chimp to the same degree that the chimp is more intelligent than a less complex mammal.”4

Philosopher of mind John Searle has remarked that in the absence of agreement on the subject of consciousness, he welcomes discussion from all perspectives, including the nonmaterialist, to further the search for an explanation.5 Thus, it might be helpful to reexamine some of the wisdom of the past for answers of a different order. By this I do not intend a repetition of what has become the conventional Western religious conceptualization of the human being—body and soul—but rather an examination of the largely forgotten wisdom of the ancient Hebrews. In so doing, we might light upon an alternative explanation that could inform present efforts.

The Body and Soul of Greek Philosophy

Before detailing that early Hebrew perspective, it is helpful to consider the origin of the concept of the soul and the self. In a recent examination of the intellectual history of personal identity, professors Raymond Martin and John Barresi remind us:

What Pythagoras and Empedocles seem to have shared, and what they encouraged in thinkers who would come later, was belief in a soul, or self, that existed prior to the body, that could be induced to leave the body even while the body remained alive, and that would outlast the body.

These ideas were extremely consequential. Directly or indirectly, they seem to have powerfully influenced Plato and, through Plato, various church fathers, including Augustine and, through Augustine, Christian theology and, through Christianity, the entire mindset of Western civilization, secular as well as religious. It is ironic, perhaps, that ideas that eventually acquired such an impressive rational pedigree may have originated in the dark heart of shamanism, with its commitment to magic and the occult.”6

Directly or indirectly, [these ideas] seem to have powerfully influenced Plato and, through Plato, various church fathers, including Augustine and, through Augustine, Christian theology and, through Christianity, the entire mindset of Western civilization, secular as well as religious.” 

Raymond Martin and John Barresi, The Rise and Fall of the Soul and Self

It is a far-reaching proposition that merits serious contemplation—that our entire Western mindset, religious and secular, on the matter of how we have understood ourselves, may have originated not from a rational process but from notions within magic and the occult. More specifically, it is arresting that those regarded as some of the foundational thinkers of Western civilization, religious and secular, could have succumbed to ideas with such dubious origins.

What, then, of the separately originated Hebrew account of consciousness, self-awareness and human uniqueness? The following discussion provides the opportunity to clarify the differences between the Greek and Hebrew mindsets on these issues and to examine the often misunderstood biblical record.

For Dust You Are . . .”

In another resource about origins or beginnings, the book of Genesis, the reader is invited to consider a very different perspective.7 In the second chapter’s account of creation, we learn from the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).8 This differs from the King James Version of the Holy Bible, beloved of English-speaking Christians, whose translators rendered the Hebrew nephesh not as “a living being” but as “a living soul” (from the Latin solus, “sole” or “alone”). A better choice in Latin would have been anima from the Greek anemos (“air” or “breath”).9 But in this verse, the King James Version’s translators betrayed their bias toward the ancient Greek philosophers and their intellectual descendants, the early church fathers, for whom the soul was the essential part of the human being. For example, according to Irenaeus, “. . . the prophetic word declares of the first-formed man, ‘He became a living soul’ [Genesis 2:7], teaching us that by the participation of life the soul became alive; so that the soul, and the life which it possesses, must be understood as being separate existences.”10

While most modern English translations have adopted the term “a living being,” there are some that seem disinclined to let go of the ancient Greek notion of the immortal soul. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language reads, “God formed Man out of dirt from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. The Man came alive—a living soul!”11] Unfortunately, according to the Hebrew, the “soul” of any person (even a translator!) can never be anything but material. But the availability of more accurate translations does not necessarily bring changes in established doctrine or popular belief. The soul as immortal has not disappeared from theological discourse, liturgical practice, or everyday imagination.12

The human being is not an amalgam of perishable body and immortal soul, but a psychophysical unity who depends on God for life itself.” 

Jon D. Levenson on Genesis 2:7, The Jewish Study Bible

One scholar whose view differs is Jon D. Levenson, annotator of Genesis for The Jewish Study Bible. He comments on Genesis 2:7 that “the human being is not an amalgam of perishable body and immortal soul, but a psychophysical unity who depends on God for life itself.”13 What does he intend by a “psychophysical unity” that is not “an amalgam of perishable body and immortal soul”? Further, is this terminology consistent with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, and is it perpetuated in the Apostolic Writings of the early followers of Jesus? By setting this unity against the ancient Greek/traditional Christian conceptualization of the human being as temporary body plus eternal soul, Levenson draws attention to an entity that, although physical, is also mental. And by his definition both aspects are temporary. To repeat, this is a far cry from Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Augustine, various church fathers, traditional Christianity, and the entire mindset of Western civilization, religious and secular.

Tracing this Hebrew conceptualization further, the book of Job, written as early as the patriarchal period (circa 2100–1900 BCE),14 addresses the psychological part of this unity, when one of the suffering man’s counselors explains that “it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32:8).15 Here is an obvious connection with Genesis 2:7, but now the psychological or mental part of the psychophysical unity is termed “the spirit in man.” Its function, originating with God, is to provide the human being with the capacity to understand.

. . . And to Dust You Shall Return”

Thus far we have a nonmaterial, conscious, mentally empowering, physically bounded aspect of the human being that ceases at death. This is confirmed in the book of Psalms, where we learn of man, “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (146:4),16 and in the Hebrew wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, “The living know they will die [self-awareness]. But the dead know nothing [no continuing post-death consciousness]; they have no more recompense, for even the memory of them has died. Their loves, their hates, their jealousies have long since perished” (9:5–6a).17

Solomon, the likely tenth-century-BCE author of Ecclesiastes, explains that humans and animals meet the same fate: “as the one dies so dies the other” (3:19).18 What, then, becomes of this unique spirit in man at death? He writes, “The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it” (12:7).19

Thus, according to this Hebrew perspective, there is no immortal soul and no immortal “spirit in man” either. The body decays and the spirit returns to God.

The Jewish Encyclopedia confirms, “The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.”20

Despite the seeming finality of death for the psychophysical unity, termination of life was nevertheless understood by the ancient Hebrews as temporary and as a kind of sleep. Later there would come a time of awakening when the body would be reconstituted and the spirit revived. This resurrection to life is of two kinds—physical and nonphysical. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of a resurrection of physical people to physical life: “Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!” (Ezekiel 37:5–6).21 The prophet Daniel writes about people who are raised to live or die forever, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).22 Daniel himself is told that he will “rest [die] and will arise [be resurrected] . . . at the end of the days” [far in the future] (Daniel 12:13).23 But none of these references speak about an immortal soul, only about the raising of previously physical people who have ceased to exist for some time.

Continuing in the Spirit of Hebrew Tradition

The concept of the spirit in man and of resurrection to life recurs in the Apostolic Writings, in the first letter to the church at Corinth. Paul, a Hellenistic Jew and self-described “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” writes to people living in a world dominated by Greek philosophy, “What man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11a).24 It is by means of the nonmaterial, uniquely human spirit that human beings gain understanding of the human realm. Eschewing any debt to Greek thinkers, and as a Hebraic scholar, Paul simply reiterates the ancient Hebrew concept of a material-spiritual psychophysical unity.

While we might claim from this alone that, according to Paul, the spirit in man separates humans from the other species, is there any more evidence of human uniqueness in his writings?

Paul was certainly aware of the Genesis account in which each life-form is separated from others by its unique identity—its “kind.” Vegetation is said to be different in kind from fish and birds, which are different from each other and from wild and domestic animals and reptiles. And each in turn differs from humankind. He confirms this understanding when he writes, “Not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish” (1 Corinthians 15:39).25 Thus, for Paul, human uniqueness was evident on at least two levels, mental and physical—Levenson’s psychophysical unity.

What did Paul understand to happen at death? Not surprisingly, the Hebrew scholar hews to the now familiar line. He says that though some of the followers of Jesus “have fallen asleep,” they “will arise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 16).26 In chapter 15 of his first letter to the church at Corinth, he explains that the psychophysical entity ceases (“in Adam all die”), but that there is still a future resurrection to life, through the agency of Jesus Christ (“in Christ all shall be made alive”).27 He appeals to Genesis 2:7 when he writes, “The first man Adam became a living being,” and he expresses the means of resurrection by saying: “The last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit.”28 The Greek for “living being” is psuche, the equivalent of the Hebrew nephesh, while “life-giving spirit” is pneuma, the counterpart of the Hebrew ruach. Again, there is nothing here to suggest that Paul accepted the Platonic notion of an immortal soul.

From this Hebraic perspective, what makes humans unique is the nonphysical component, “the spirit in man.” It is this that must give rise to our notable differences from all other species. While it may be conceded that levels of consciousness may exist in other living systems, from animals to birds to reptiles to insects, etc., it is very difficult to find evidence of humor or ecstasy, of inspiration, of free moral agency or self-sacrificing love in any other species. The only way that the ancient Hebrew tradition could explain the difference between humans and the closest mammals in brain size and complexity is by reference to a nonmaterial spirit that empowers this quantitatively similar brain to produce a huge qualitative difference.

Having referred to the unique spirit in man, Paul writes to the people at Corinth that “no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11).29 In the next verse, he goes on to say that the followers at Corinth have received this same Spirit, “that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” Here, then, is the possibility of an additional nonphysical and unique aspect of the human brain. In a later letter, this time to believers in Rome, he says that the spirit in man can interface with this Spirit of God. He writes, “For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16).30

The Science of Change

As a final comment on contributions to the ongoing debate about what makes us human, it is worth considering an aspect of human behavior rarely mentioned in such discussions. Part of our uniqueness concerns the capacity to show remorse and to change radically for the better. We are not irreversibly programmed by our genes or by our early environment. We can make changes in our existence by conscious, willed thought leading to action. This, too, has a connection with an ancient Hebrew concept, as we will see.

Researchers have thought for years that the brain came prewired—that its development from birth through adolescence was the result of a gradual unfolding of its already existing potential, and that by adulthood it was set. But recent findings show that the brain’s circuitry is wired as the individual develops and can be rewired by the conscious thought of the individual. Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity, we can change our own patterns of thought and behavior by our self-directed will. The evidence of this is observable in physical changes in the neural pathways of the brain. These new circuits can replace previous pathways and become fixed.

The first inklings of this phenomenon came with work on stroke victims and with people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It became clear that certain patients, parts of whose brain circuitry had been compromised by cerebral hemorrhage leaving them unable to perform specific tasks, could be retrained. Their brain circuits would rewire a way around the particular problem. This took intensive training, but it produced positive and permanent changes. Those suffering from OCD (for example, uncontrollable hand-washing resulting from a fear of germs) found relief once they understood that part of their brain circuitry was causing the problem. They were trained in the technique of using self-directed free will to rewire their faulty circuitry.

It goes without saying that such breakthroughs are needed in other mental and behavioral impasses. The new findings have profound implications for improvement in the most difficult and sensitive human problems, from depression to addictions of all kinds and even protracted national and international deadlocks. The severely depressed can be helped by undertaking a program in which they learn to recognize what is happening inside their brains and take appropriate self-directed or self-willed actions. In other findings, there is the possibility of using the self-directed will to shut down the sexual response in those obsessed with pornography.

There is a nonmaterial or spiritual parallel to these new findings. That there are nonphysical principles behind physical change in the brain is clear when we take into consideration the ancient Hebrew verb shub, which means “to (re)turn.” One of its additional meanings is to repent of wrong actions by turning away from evil. The word combines two aspects of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good. This means retracing our steps to find the right way again.

In the case of the ancient Israelites, God wanted them to change their ways by first changing their minds. One theological wordbook explains further about shub that “by turning, a God-given power, a sinner can redirect his destiny.”31 We may define sin very broadly as anything that damages our relationship with God or with human beings (including oneself). When the brain’s circuits are wired incorrectly, either through damage or conscious choice, harm is done. Change, or rewiring, is the only way forward, the way to health both physically and spiritually. In other words, those activities of our minds and bodies that harm us, those around us, and our relationship with God are evil. They need to be changed first at the level of the mind, by the use of the will to do good. Another way of saying it is that sin can be overcome through change at the conscious level of the mind when the will is engaged.

In the Apostolic Writings, the Greek equivalent of shub is metanoeo. It includes the concept of changing one’s mind, or of coming to a new way of thinking. What we have not understood until recently is the role of the physical brain in this process. Once the will to change is engaged and specific actions are taken, new neural pathways are created and new attitudes and new behaviors result. The more we take the new action, the more lasting the behavior becomes. We’ve had clues about rewiring the brain and our behavior before: it’s a common notion that it takes three weeks to break a habit and instill a new one. We know, too, that when we act in harmful or wrong ways regularly, our consciences become hardened and evil gains our acceptance. The way out of human problems as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder, bad habits, racial prejudice, hate crimes, depression, brutality, and exploitation of others remains a fundamental change of mind. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostolic Writings have said that, in principle, all along.

That same tradition speaks of repentance as introspecting and changing our way of doing so that change is lasting. According to brain researcher Jeffrey Schwartz, whose therapeutic technique for treating OCD32 is very much akin to the biblical concept of repentance, “you cannot form trustful relations with others without acknowledging error, without sincerity. And repentance is just, when you get right down to it, a form of sincerity. It’s saying, ‘I realize I made errors. I’m not perfect. There are things I could try to do better.’”33

What makes humans unique? Consider that from the ancient Hebrew perspective, it is the spirit in man, the spirit of God, and the capacity to change for the better that flows from self-directed, conscious, willed action.