Philosophy of Human Nature

Discipline: Philosophy and Religious Studies
Instructor: Harmon
Credits: 3
Day: B
Start: 15:40
End: 16:55
Field Work: Day 1 - Dublin - Friday, 20 September | Ireland
Prerequisites: None Download Syllabus

In this lower division class we will consider some crucial questions about human nature.  What is a human being?  Are we entirely physical creatures, or do we have a spiritual component?  What happens to us when we die?  Are human beings essentially good or fundamentally wicked?  What motivates us? Is there such a thing as ‘human nature’ at all, or are we entirely malleable reflections of culturally specific forces? These are just a few of the questions that will be considered.  We will first consider the ontology of the human person, and then move on to examine various (and conflicting) conceptions of human nature (religious, philosophical, psychological and biological).

Field Work

Country: Ireland
Day: 1 - Dublin - Friday, 20 September

Our Field lab will explore Newgrange, a Unesco World Heritage Site in County Meath north of Dublin. Newgrange is a Neolithic archeological site, built around 3200 BCE, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.  It is a large circular mound, with passageways and chambers inside and is aligned with the rising sun, and on the winter solstice, light floods the chamber below. We are going to learn about its construction, its meaning, and its history.  (Tickets for the winter solstice light show must be obtained years in advance, so don’t get your hopes up about that---besides, it is September!)  We will also visit the Bru na Boinne complex, and the smaller tombs of Knowth and Dowth.  On our way back to Dublin, time permitting, we are going to stop at a few other ruins, an abbey and a castle. Suggested topics for your field lab reflective journals: The people who lived in Newgrange  were agriculturalists, raising cattle and some crops, although their tools were not yet metal. If we were in the nineteenth century, we might attach the label “primitive” to them.  However, when you visited Newgrange, what did you see that manifested universal human traits? Or is that claim to universality bogus, e.g., the people of Newgrange had a “nature” that was contingent upon their geological location and time? Where did the blocks come from---and what aspects of human nature enabled this rather complex construction?  What kind of knowledge was needed to line up a building with the sun on its winter solstice?  Does the acquisition of that knowledge have anything to do with human nature?  You will also see some elegant abstract Neolithic rock art.  Were those curvilinear designs merely decorative, or did they symbolize something?  Is symbol-making something unique to human kind?  Again, is this a universal trait of human nature?  Why do people make art?  Is art a necessity or a luxury?  Do, or can, other animals make art?  You will see grave goods for the dead in Newgrange and the other tombs.  Is it peculiarly human to have a concept of an afterlife, or a consciousness about our mortality?   Do all humans bury their dead, or treat the dead body in a sacred way?  Newgrange was always a ceremonial center for the Neolithic people of Ireland.  What role does ritual play in our lives? Why do rituals so often mark the stages of our lives as human beings?  Do other animals need rituals as well?  Newgrange was obviously a large community center as well.  What does it tell us about human nature that one of the world’s earliest archeological sites was communal?  Newgrange also seems to somehow be linked up the spirituality.  Is spirituality a marker of humanhood?  Again, is it a universal trait, and do other animals have spiritual lives?  How connected to the people who lived in Newgrange did you feel?  Why or why not?