What Makes Us Human?

What makes us human? What sets us apart from other species? Is it self-awareness or free moral agency, conscience, or the capacity to imagine? All of these characteristics are clearly connected with human consciousness. But what’s not clear is how the human mind operates. What makes us uniquely human? It’s more than you might think.

We know a lot about the physical brain, its structures and functions. But what about the human mind? Are they one and the same? These are some of the questions facing neuroscience. US president George H.W. Bush had declared the years 1990–1999 as “the decade of the brain,” assuring the public that “a new era of discovery is dawning in brain research.” Yet in 2005 Stephen Morse, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, candidly admitted, “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.” And now, more than a decade later, we’re still waiting to find out how the brain enables the mind.

The human brain and the human mind are not the same thing. Some animals have brains of equivalent size to humans’, but they do not have minds capable of human creativity. The human brain must have an additional component that accounts for the vast difference between human and animal mental capability.

Philosopher of mind John Searle has said that in order to further the search for an explanation, he welcomes discussion from all perspectives, including the nonphysical. So it might be helpful to examine some of the wisdom of the past for answers. I don’t mean the conventional Western religious view of the human being—a body and a soul—but rather the largely forgotten wisdom of the ancient Hebrews.

The idea of the soul and the self comes from ancient Greek philosophy, not the Hebrew Bible. According to professors Raymond Martin and John Barresi, “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” (The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity).

They go on to say that these thinkers in turn influenced Plato, then early church fathers such as Augustine, and on down to “the entire mindset of Western civilization, secular as well as religious.” The idea of the soul (which eventually came to be seen as a rational idea, they say) “may have originated in the dark heart of shamanism, with its commitment to magic and the occult.”

So what of the Hebrew account of consciousness, self-awareness and human uniqueness? What does the Bible say? In the account of creation in the second chapter of Genesis, we learn from the Jewish Publication Society’s 1985 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). This differs from the King James Version of the Bible, whose translators rendered the Hebrew word nephesh not as “a living being” but as “a living soul.” The King James translators showed their bias toward the ancient Greek philosophers and the early church fathers, for whom the soul was the essential part of the human being. Unfortunately, according to the Hebrew, the “soul” of any person can never be anything but material.

We have to recognize that the availability of more accurate Bible translations does not necessarily bring in changes in established doctrine or popular belief. Even though it’s a nonbiblical idea, the concept of the immortal soul has not disappeared from theological discourse, from liturgical practice, or from everyday imagination.

Jon D. Levenson is the annotator of Genesis for The Jewish Study Bible. He comments 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” (Genesis 2:7). This thinking is consistent with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Job makes a very clear statement in this regard: “It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32:8, English Standard Version). Here is an obvious connection with Genesis 2:7, but now the cognitive aspect of the human experience is referred to as “the spirit in man.” Its function, originating with God, is to provide the human being with the capacity to understand.

The Bible also makes clear that both parts of the psychophysical unity stop at death. The book of Psalms plainly states that when someone dies, “his spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, New American Standard Bible). In the Hebrew wisdom book of Ecclesiastes we find this, “The living know they will die [that is, by 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” (Ecclesiastes 9:5–6a, Tanakh). Solomon, the likely author of Ecclesiastes, explains that humans and animals meet the same fate: “As the one dies so dies the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:19, Tanakh).

What, then, becomes of this unique spirit in man at death? Solomon again explains, “The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Tanakh). 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 adds this: “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.”

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 is what is called the resurrection.

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). Daniel himself is told that he will “rest [or die] and will arise [or be resurrected] . . . at the end of the days [far in the future]” (Daniel 12:13). But none of these references speak about an immortal soul, only about the raising of previously physical people who have ceased to exist for a period of time.

When you ask the question “What makes us human from a biblical point of view?” it is this God-given “spirit in man.” We are not the same as animals, but neither are we physical bodies inhabited by immortal souls. The spirit in man is a nonphysical component that makes us uniquely human, one that returns to God at death and is not conscious, but awaits resurrection according to God’s plan.