A naturalist sense of being human differs in important ways from traditional images in Western culture and religion.
A central part of this is a sense of ourselves as a particular kind of primate. Tracing back further through evolution, we can also see ourselves as sharing wants, needs, and some types of feelings with a wider range of creatures. But, with well-developed brains, we also have something more.
At some point, a line was crossed in the nature of the human mind – to distinctly human types of intelligence and awareness. Due largely to shared genetics, people in cultures around the world act in similar ways.
With a naturalist view, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, mental abilities, and behaviors all originate in the brain. No homunculus, spirit, or intangible “ghost in the machine” animates our bodies. No immortal soul will live on after we die.
This is less glorified than seeing ourselves as being created in the image of a perfect God. But it also avoids some views that may contribute to unease, such as being told we are innately sinful and may potentially burn in hell.
Far more than is generally acknowledged, mental activity and actions are unconscious and automatic. And, in contrast to view of free will with decisions guided by rational thought, emotional and intuitive processes drive much of what we want and what we do.
A naturalist view prompts questions that go to the heart of a sense of ourselves.
If all in a human is biochemistry, then who or what am “I”?
If all in our brains occurs with rules of chemistry and physics, was the “choice” I made the only choice that could have been made?
This view has bearing on morals. As we try to encourage our better selves, naturalist views begin with human nature, not a standard of godly ideals, as we consider when to embrace or repress “animal” impulses. In deciding when to punish and when to forgive, we increasingly recognize mental illness as part of the basis for violence and other problems.
A modern sense of human nature can also expand ways of looking at religion. As we recognize aspects of brain activity and ways of interpreting what we see that contribute to religious perceptions, those who are baffled by or critical of implausible beliefs may come to see these not as “delusion”, but based in patterns of perception that they themselves, in varying levels, share.
What does it mean to be human? (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)
Hall of human origins (American Museum of Natural History)
How do humans differ from other animals?
Bonobo apes – Our closest relatives (PBS/NOVA video)
Does evolution explain human nature?
Human universals (traits seen in all cultures)
Human nature and morals (Frans de Waal – “Good Natured”)