So during an (as yet unpublished) episode of The Existential Files, we got into a debate about who (or what) is an existential being? I thought I would clarify my thinking. I rule out categorically any non-human on this planet. I love my cat Ziggy, but I don't believe he has an existential being (a being of sorts he does have but he is not a category A existential being that's for sure). And maybe a category system is what is needed. Category A: Full existential being. Well I'm going to say that I am one and you probably are one too. I joked in that episode, that I count anybody who has read or is capable of reading a Dostoevsky novel as an existential being. Obviously I was being a little flippant, on the other hand it does capture something of what I am getting at. You have to be able to understand, not intellectually, but capacity. This is not then a criticism of those who do not have the luxury of reading Russian literature. I am not saying that you have to have read Dostoevsky to be counted amongst an elite. No, no, no. What I am saying is that we hold a metre rule against a spine and we say "This person is above 50 cm tall". If you have read, can read, could read if you had the time or inclination, a Dostoevsky novel, then you are a category A existential being. So we can see that no animal is ever going to be able to do such a thing. Even the most intelligent animal has no conception of things like death and being. So although animals may have a consciousness of sorts, they are not category A (I am not saying their lives are worthless because of this categorisation. Everything is pointless after all...).
But this is not a human vs animal argument. I am going to go out on a limb here. Neanderthals buried their dead. If Neanderthals had not gone extinct, I believe that there would be two species on this planet who would qualify for category A existential being status. Moreover, being genetically human is not enough. Go far enough back into our prehistory and you will encounter individuals who are genetically identical to modern humans, but who do not have language, exhibit only minimal tool use, and who are essentially a type of ape. These beings were animals. And therefore they would not qualify for category A existential being status, even though they are genetically (and thus biologically) identical to us. Again, this is not an animal vs human argument. It is also not a cultured vs uncultured argument. We find the remotest tribes on the planet: Brazil, Papua New Guinea, the Andaman Islands. These humans are far removed from us internet dwellers, and yet I have little doubt that many of them (if not all of them) are category A existential beings. That they love, they fight, they fear, they question, they wonder, they gaze, they live, they die. They may not have access to Russian literature, but they are as capable of grasping the meaning in Crime and Punishment, as any other person. Think Jemmy Button and Darwin.
So perhaps the easier question then is, who are not existential beings? Well, I have already said that our ancestors did not begin as existential beings. So they are the first humans that are not existential beings (Category A). Is volition important? Imagine a hospital ward containing two beds. In one, the patient is in a coma. There is very little brain activity and only autonomic functions are intact. In the other bed, there is a patient in a similar comatose state. However extensive brain imagining reveals that this patient has locked-in syndrome. Whilst they have no ability to move their body and communicate in any way, they nevertheless are experiencing normal cognitive functioning (as normal as one can be, not being able to move and communicate). They hear and see everything, and can think as any person could. I do not believe it is controversial to state whilst the two patients share the same environment, the same physical limitations (somatic) and to most observers are in the same predicament, it seems to me that the coma patient is not an existential being (though they may well have been before entering the coma) whilst the locked-in patient is most definitely still an existential being (Category A).
Somewhat controversially, I would not consider babies to be existential beings. At what point does a developing feotus become an existential being? Well it is certainly outside of the womb, and probably around the time that the infant begins to use language in a reasonably sophisticated manner. This is around the time when the first memories are laid down (before that there is universal childhood amnesia). So about 3 years old. Before that, babies have a developmental potential to be an existential being, but they are not yet one. This is not a criticism, it takes time for the brain to develop and for infants to acquire some of the skills which would allow them to become an existential being.
Most controversially then, must be the discussion around those with a learning disability, genetic problem, or some issue in relation to brain functioning. For example, a person suffering from dementia may well lose their capacity to be an existential being. Or somebody with a severe learning disability or brain injury may not have the capacity to understand and appreciate the existential questions. I am not saying that their lives are worthless or less than any others. Merely commenting on who is, and who is not, an existential being. As this group is formed of a variety of different individuals we cannot say that one is, and one is not an existential being. And here is where the category system may be utilised. One individual may retain aspects of their existential being, whilst another may be totally oblivious to existence. Does a grading categorisation capture these differences? Whatever the answer, here is a place again (like the coma patient vs the locked-in patient) where the line of demarcation will be drawn.
It is not an accolade to be an existential being. Dinosaurs existed for many millions of years, and not one of them ever had an existential thought pass across their walnut sized brains. In some ways it is an added burden, an added dimension of existence that pains and smarts in a way that no other animal has ever felt before. Thank you universe. Just what I always wanted. A new way to be hurt and pained. On the other hand, human being (which is intrinsically linked with our existential being) does make for more variety and a deeper understanding of the universe and our place in it. It is a double edged sword. Do we envy the coma patient, or the locked-in patient? I'm not sure there is a right or wrong answer. Ignorance is bliss, but it is ignorance all the same.Go Top