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Is There Something that Makes Humans Unique?
Do you feel that you have some kind of existence separate from your body? If so, you're not alone. This a virtually universal attribute of human beings. In early cultures around the world, humans were considered to possess spirits. In the West, beginning with the ancient Greeks, the idea of a soul arose—an immaterial, eternal essence that connected humans to divinity. The soul was imprisoned in the body, and freed at the body's death to rejoin the eternal realm. The Greeks associated the soul with Reason—and saw this as the key characteristic that separated humans from other animals, linking them to divinity.
Christianity inherited and elaborated this Greek idea, telling people to overcome their bodily desires for the sake of their immortal soul which would end up in heaven or hell depending on the choices they made. In the 17th. century, Descartes redefined the soul as "mind"—and thus repackaged the split conception of humanity for modern times.
The ancient Taoists of China also saw something in human cognition that differentiated humankind from the rest of nature. But rather than seeing it as linking humans to divinity, they believed the opposite: it was this very attribute that separated humans from the Tao. The rest of nature acted effortlessly ("wu-wei") but humans went against the natural flow.
Modern neuroscientists have identified the prefrontal cortex—more highly developed in humans than other mammals—as the source of uniquely human cognitive attributes. Humans share with other animals an animate consciousness, but we also have a conceptual consciousness that allows us to construct cities, write literature, and imagine different futures.
The mainstream Western worldview, following Descartes, has focused solely on conceptual consciousness as the source of identity, ignoring animate consciousness—and even denying its very existence in humans or other living beings.
Part I of The Web of Meaning explores the complex dynamic existing between conceptual and animate consciousness in humans. It shows how we experience ourselves as split between "I" and "myself"—and how this affects our inner experience. And it investigates the stunning breadth and magnificence of the animate intelligence pervading the entire natural world—including our own embodied existence.