Anthropology, in the Broadest Sense Term Paper

Pages: 13 (4224 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Anthropology

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[. . .] If the human being possesses an immaterial soul, they argue, it is reasonable to place him in a class of his own -- separate from other animals -- based upon this characteristic. However, problems exist even when attempting to identify where an object ends and another begins. Separating the physical world from the mental world requires that the physical world have boundaries, and in particular, that objects end somewhere.

It is possible, for instance, to measure an apple. We can see what its volume and density are and we can say that the apple ends where the air around it begins. Yet, every measurement we make upon this apple is only an approximation; we cannot know exactly how big it is. This limitation is not in place because our instruments are faulty, but because our very definition of the apple is lacking. The definition fails to take into account the billions of molecules that are constantly entering and leaving the apple. Clearly, when "inside" the apple the molecules are part of it, but it is impossible to know where exactly this transition takes place on a molecular scale. Moreover, determining when these molecules are part of the atmosphere and when they are part of the apple is also impossible. Basically, at some point portions of the apple must simultaneously be portions of the atmosphere. This is true of all physical objects: parts of objects are at a single point and time parts of other objects that we generally regard to be separate from them. Essentially, where we draw the line between the apple and the air is completely arbitrary and fails to coincide with any physical truth. Similarly, asserting that there is a difference between a physical apple and a mental image of that apple runs across the same problem of finding where the physical object ends.

This debate takes a more difficult turn when considering the mind and the body in particular. The mind, by the dualists' definition, is explicitly non-physical. So, it should be simple to say that it is separate from the body because we defined it as such; by being non-physical the fact that physical objects fail to have meaningful boundaries should not affect it. Unfortunately, the fact that it experiences some form of interface with the physical world implies that a causal relationship exists, even if we cannot fully understand it. Since a relationship exists and the mind is overtly spiritual, the physical world must have a boundary, or a point where information can be exchanged. But the physical universe fails to exhibit any clear boundaries; in fact, aspects of the universe exist that our senses cannot experience. How can we hope to define the physical universe if we lack the ability to enumerate its parts? Just as with the apple and the air, the line between the mind and the body can only be drawn arbitrarily. Ultimately, any classical definition of the human being upon these grounds must fail as well. Humans cannot all be thrown under this same arbitrary distinction based upon an immaterial mind, which cannot be measured.

Still, if we are to accept that human beings can be defined through their time-fixing attributes, then it is only natural to wonder whether or not it is reasonable to assign this property to man alone. Is it possible that other animals have significant intelligence to weigh their actions of their past to decide what to do in their future? Philosopher Ernst Cassirer categorically rejects such a notion: "Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. . . . As compared with other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality."

Korzybski concurs with this position and takes it one step further: "Human nature, this time-binding power, not only has the peculiar capacity for perpetual progress, but it has, over and above all animal propensities, certain qualities constituting it a distinctive dimension or type of life."

So, the fact that human identity can reach forward and backward in time through consciousness is only part of the story; the other aspect of human existence that warrants any separation from other animals is that this consciousness is afforded a grasp of culture. With culture human beings possess a discernable link to a human past that existed before each individual ever reached awareness. The connection between time and consciousness was present in each human being in history, and their experiences carried through to create cultural settings that influenced the consciousnesses of subsequent humans: time-binding has allowed for culture, and culture is what defines the human being.

This aspect of the human existence, according to many philosophers, is apparent in the many ways we interact and make inferences with respect to each other. Jerry Fodor calls this aspect of human reality "folk psychology." His form of folk psychology takes into account the realization that people in general cannot have a conscious grasp of exactly the kind of psychology they are engaging in because it is ingrained into their own perceptions of themselves and the surrounding culture. In other words, people are capable of understanding each other's behavior without being explicitly familiar with the mechanisms they employ to reach that understanding. This anomaly has its analogy in language: most speakers of the English language are able to speak it fluently and grammatically correct without having any formal understanding of its grammatical laws.

"Chomsky has famously argued that the best explanation of such capacities is that speakers of natural languages have a form of unconscious knowledge of the grammar of the language that they speak. Such unconscious knowledge is known as tacit knowledge and is held to be encoded in the brain."

Recognizing this idea suggests that humans perform a similar sort of computation when making psychological inferences: we understand the causal laws that bind people's intentional states together, and we apply this knowledge without consciously knowing what we are doing.

Clearly, this must be a result of cultural heritage as applied to individual thought processes, because by grasping how others behave in certain situations, we are applying an inherited way of thinking to current circumstances: "We tend not to think about our culture because it is so much a part of us that we take it for granted. . . . We would not realize that our belief in germs [for example] was cultural if we were not aware that people in some societies think that illness is caused by witchcraft and evil spirits."

So, although anthropology is concerned with the behaviors of all human beings at all times, only actions or practices that are common among groups of individuals can be thought of as possessing any cultural significance. Accordingly, lines can be drawn between particular groups of people based upon their practices, and lines can be drawn between people and animals as well. The fact that culture possesses this somewhat subconscious characteristic means that definitions of man do not need to depend upon mind-body divisions; instead, man can simply be through of as an entity that engages in certain activities as inherited by one's culture. It is this observable quality that makes each person's habits both individualistic and holistic.

Essentially, this is the same process of reasoning we use when we are inclined to accept the conclusions made by physics over those made by astrology. Doubtlessly, astrology can accurately predict events, but the fraction of times it accurately predicts events strongly suggests its randomness. Physics, on the other hand, accurately predicts events far more readily, and therefore, is likely to have a more strong correlation with reality. With reference to behavioral characteristics, if we can observe an animal and accurately predict what it will do -- in light of our assumptions regarding the information it has, its desires, and beliefs -- then we should be brought to the conclusion that our understandings of its thought patterns are correct. "A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in many -- but not all -- instances yield a decision about what an agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do."

This is a powerful inferential method, and is in accordance with the notion that deduction lacks the ability to provide us with knowledge that we do not already hold: we are forced to use inductive reasoning to extrapolate any individual conceptions of thought upon another individual.

Similarly, it is necessary to impose an understanding of culture upon the actions of each human agent in order to grasp the meaning of those actions and make predictions for the future; this is a jump of inference. Human beings live their lives within certain -- nearly invisible -- boundaries. They only become visible when measured against other, foreign boundaries. It is only through the implicit lens of culture that folk psychology can be applied to the human being to adequately understand what… [END OF PREVIEW]

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