What makes us human?

This post is in response to the question asked by Frank Polster in his post about the conversation between Stephen Downes and George Siemens.  I found the question via Jenny Mackness’ post. The basic question was What are the core qualities that make us human?


Here’s what my gut says:


Primitive machines were reactionary. They performed functions. We perform functions too (and are often reactionary), but, as a human I have the synthesis of agency, vision, and drive in self-efficacy. Put super-simply: my belief that I can do something. There’s a lot in there.

  • I
  • Believe
  • Do

That encompasses a host of elements around vision, reflection, dreams, desire, having a self at all, and belief. Perhaps for the machine the drive is simply the power source, but I do not think the actions of the machine are to preserve the power source whereas we do take actions to preserve our lives.

To me this also points to perception, consciousness, and the capabilities to communicate about experience with others. There is an element of uniqueness about living: Nobody, nothing has lived my life, has lived this moment, has tasted that sip of drink, that smell of autumn leaves, that warmth of nearly winter sun on my skin, the feeling when I hear a familiar voice. I experience. That, to me, is human.

Like Jenny said about ‘embodied engagement’ and the keen awareness of others, their needs, and I’ll add the idea that we might put others before ourselves.

Do I mean morality? Or values?

(as an aside, at this point I looked up ‘essence of humanity’ to find resources, forgot to look in any specific database, and got great skincare websites 😉 )

What did I find? Articles on creating computers as ‘believe agents’ by crafting a personality revealing emotion through thought processes, the importance of empathy, and then I stumbled upon a definition! (I don’t suggest this as the answer, but it makes a thoughtful point)

In the Oxford Handbook of the Human Essence, at the end of the chapter titled ‘Talking about humanness: Is human essence talk a human essence?’ By Yoshihisa Kashima, p203, (most of the chapter is here) he says:

‘What does it mean to be human?’ requires us to continue to talk about humans. Given our penchant for talking about people, we will probably continue to do so. As we engage in our everyday conversation about people, we construct our mutual understandings about them for the purpose that prevails in the conversational context. As we ground those mutual understandings, we cumulate in our common ground our tentative answers to the question, what it means to be human. We nonetheless act on these tentative answers in our daily activities. These are tentative answers- they can, and are most likely to, be revised, modified, or even radically transformed in light of future developments and contingencies. In this sense, talking about humans is a social activity open to future. This continuous striving to answer the question of what it means to be human and to act on the tentative answers at a given point in time is perhaps itself what it means to be human.

Is this it now? Are we doing human?

The featured image (CC BY-SA by Stuart Richards) made me think of sharing, and putting the other before the self. The image is titled ‘Human Snowman’, which adds an imaginative spin to it.



  1. jennymackness

    The question that is coming to mind when I read your post Laura and your comment Kevin, is whether machines can communicate with each other. I think Matthias’ post at the start of this course contributes to these ideas – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/

    I think the uniqueness of experience that we each have, which we don’t have in common with others, are those experiences that can’t be communicated through the use of language, such as when a piece of music makes us cry or a painting makes the back of your neck tingle (I’m sure you can think of many more examples), but we can’t say why. Language just doesn’t capture it, and since a machine needs to be programmed with some sort of language, then a machine cannot have this experience.

    This is what I understand by your lovely line Laura:

    >> Nobody, nothing has lived my life, has lived this moment, has tasted that sip of drink, that smell of autumn leaves, that warmth of nearly winter sun on my skin, the feeling when I hear a familiar voice. <<

    I can objectively understand what you are saying, but I can never experience it as you have experienced it.

    So even if machines will be able to communicate with each other, they will not be able to experience 'the Other'. Hope this makes sense. I have more work to do on developing my understanding of all this.

    1. Post

      Yes, and I am so very much that dreamer that wants to eternally believe in that uniqueness. Two (practical) experiences that have stumped me and then a thought that sort-of un-stumped me: As a child I thought it was marvellous that I could see red, as in the colour, and was convinced that nobody could appreciate or perceive it like I could. -but eyes work in a way that, yes, it can be quantified, and my red can indeed be shown to be your red. Even if they are different through a discrepancy in our eyes, that can be shown too. Then a musical example – I was observing my boss give a session years ago and he said to the first year students that expression and musicality is just carefully measured and executed articulation. I was furious that someone could take the feeling out of music so easily, but looking into the onset of tones, weighting of voicings, shadings – he’s not wrong that it can indeed be explained. The saving grace is that it may be explainable, may even be replicable, but the fact that we experience it, and for us it is the first time, that gives it and us uniqueness. So even replicating it doesn’t take away the uniqueness of us.

      Language definitely doesn’t capture it. When I first joined Mastodon (the decentralised social platform I’m most at home with) and connected with various people, we likened it to an open restaurant where people came in and sat at the table for a while, and maybe stayed and maybe left. I think it would be an amazing conference if we all turned up and sat at little tables having cups of tea and talking, experiencing people and the connections we can make.

      1. jennymackness

        Hi Laura – my experience suggests that you were correct in both your childhood thoughts about the colour red and your adult sense that music is more than what can be measured.

        Your mention of the colour red has reminded me of ‘the dress’. Do you remember that story. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_dress. Fascinating!

        And what Iain McGilchrist writes about music resonates with me. I quoted him in this post https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/betweenness-a-way-of-being-in-the-world/

        Measurement of course has its place, but breaking things down into parts can never replace the whole.

        And your last paragraph reminded me of the days when the ‘unconference’ was the thing. Whatever happened to those?

  2. dogtrax

    Tackling the big questions … eh?
    You note the distinct qualities of experiences for each of us — I suppose that is true. I hear something different than you. I see it different. I experience it different. True.
    Yet there is also this commonality of experience, too, right? We can hear things together. We can see things together. We can use language to communicate in the overlaps while still finding comfort in our own interpretations of the world.
    Maybe it is the overlapping points where we are most human.

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