Message to The Human Species on The Concept of Life

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Message to The Human Species on The Concept of Life essay assignment

Please answer one (and only one!) of the following four questions.


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1) You are a heptapod. Yes, you’ve learned to read and write in the human language known as English, but no, it hasn’t rewired your brain. Your mode of awareness remains simultaneous. Whereas human beings experience events in an order, sequentially, as a heptapod you experience all events in your lifetime at once. In other words, for you, “now” is the name of your entire life, not a moment that once was future and will be past.

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A human being named Louise has learned your language to some extent and has begun asking you philosophical questions. She wants to know, in particular, whether you consider yourself to be free, or whether your knowledge of the future makes you feel like a prisoner to your own life. From her human point of view, foreknowledge is incompatible with freedom. She wouldn’t be able to think of herself as truly, “metaphysically” free if she saw her whole life already laid out before her.


Though you have learned her human language, you have trouble understanding her point of view. You just don’t think of freedom in those terms. You act to create the future and to enact chronology. Your actions coincide with history’s purposes.


Engage Louise in dialogue or write her a letter in English. Do your best to explain to her why her problem of freedom, from her human point of view with her human mode of awareness, isn’t your problem of freedom. Explain to her why, for you with your mode of awareness, knowledge of the future isn’t incompatible with freedom. Perhaps it might help her if you likened what it is to be a heptapod to performing in a play. [Estimated length = 3-5 double-spaced pages.]



2) You are a marriage counselor. A most interesting couple, Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly, have sought your services. Not only are they interesting for what they are famous for: namely, their work with the aliens. They also are interesting because what is driving them apart from one another is extraordinarily complex.


It turns out that Louise suffered radiation poisoning from her work with the aliens. She learned of her condition shortly after the aliens left. She also learned at that time that, if she conceived a child before she underwent a six-month course of treatment, that child would very likely develop a cancer that would end her life by the age of twenty-five. Nonetheless, when Ian asked Louise, “Do you want to make a baby?” she said yes though she had not yet started the treatment, and their child Hannah was conceived and subsequently born.


Louise eventually disclosed to Ian Hannah’s likely fate. Ian became furious with her, and now their marriage is on the rocks (that is, in trouble). Louise insists, however, both that she did not harm Hannah by bringing her into being and that Ian’s anger over what she has done to Hannah is irrational. Louise keeps talking about what she calls the non-identity problem. (She also occasionally knows in advance what you’re going to say, though thankfully her knowledge of the future—which she ascribes to her knowledge of the aliens’ language—is intermittent rather than comprehensive.)


Sessions with Louise and Ian leave your head swimming. You need to write about their case in order to get clear about it. They just left! Get yourself to the computer. First, summarize their case. Explain in your own words why Ian is angry with Louise. Second, try to explain Louise’s response to Ian (her insistence that she didn’t harm Hannah and that Ian is being irrational). What is this non-identity problem that she keeps talking about? Is her response to Ian right, or is she the one who is in the wrong? (If she did do wrong toward Hannah, how to specify just what it was?) Third and finally, consider the advice you might give to help them salvage their marriage. [Estimated length = 3-5 double-spaced pages.]



3) You are a neurologist. Some years ago, in college, you read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Some of Descartes’ arguments didn’t impress you much (his radical doubt seemed to you excessive), but you had to agree with his answer to the question of what we fundamentally are: “thinking things,” which is to say things that doubt, understand, affirm, deny, want, refuse, and imagine and sense, as Descartes claims in his second meditation. In other words, we are our minds. Once we lose, irreversibly, the potential to be conscious, we no longer are.


But now, well, you wonder. For, over the last seven or so months, you have attended to a woman who is technically “brain dead,” but who also, though with the assistance of various medical machines, carried and bore a living child. And dead bodies don’t give birth. Maybe, then, we are not simply “thinking things” after all; maybe what we are lies deeper than the mind and consciousness. Maybe brain death is just the death of the brain—no insignificant event to be sure, but not the death of us, properly speaking, whatever exactly “we” are.


Or so, again, you’ve been wondering. Write a diary entry to try to come to terms with all these swirling thoughts. Refer to Descartes, but also reflect on a quite recent article you just read by several of your medical colleagues, Franklin Miller, Michael Nair-Collins, and Robert Truog, “It Is Time to Abandon the Dogma That Brain Death Is Biological Death.” [Estimated length = 3-5 double-spaced pages.]



4) You are an affiliate of the SETI Institute, dedicated, as the acronym suggests, to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But your SETI Institute is on a planet in a galaxy far, far away from planet Earth. As it happens, however, Earth is the focus of your research.


There are many peculiarities about the intelligent species on Earth known as homo sapiens. One peculiarity that has lately preoccupied you is the human concept of life. Human beings tend to think of things as either living, or dead. From this point of view, life and death are dichotomous: a thing is either living, or it is dead, and there is no between. But this way of thinking seems to you mistaken. Before an apple has been plucked from a tree, it is clearly living. But what is it once it has been plucked? Is it living, or dead, or is the answer unclear? Perhaps it is between.


How to think about whether apples are living or dead isn’t of much consequence, and so it’s no surprise that most human beings haven’t given the question any thought. But a question they have thought about is when they are dead, for the answer to that question makes a difference for what they think it is appropriate to do to them. For example, they think it is permissible to take vital organs, like hearts, from dead human beings and to transplant the organs to others who need them, but they think it is not permissible to take vital organs when the human beings are still living. And so they have debated among themselves, for several decades, ever since they developed organ transplantation, what counts as the death of a human being. Does death occur when the heart and lungs irreversibly cease functioning, or does death occur with irreversible coma, or in other words death of the brain?


From your point of view, the problem at the heart, so to speak, of this debate is the human concept of life. According to you, the line between life and death is not so strict and clear as human beings would have it. There is a between. Maybe what human beings need to do is to abandon the concept of life. It is preventing them from thinking clearly. Or, so you think. And you want to help. (Your knowledge of human beings generated interest in their well-being and even compassion for them.) Write them a message to be transmitted across the galaxies. To give them a fighting chance of understanding your message, refer in it to a piece of writing by a human being named Carol Cleland. If they can understand her, perhaps they will be able to understand you. [Estimated length = 2-4 double-spaced pages.]