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An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Human Being, Humanity, and Human Society (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/02/15


Richard Sheen is a young independent artist, philosopher, photographer and theologian based in New Zealand. He has studied at Tsinghua University of China and The University of Auckland in New Zealand, and holds degrees in Philosophy and Theological Studies. Originally raised atheist but later came to Christianity, Richard is dedicated to the efforts of human rights and equality, nature conservation, mental health, and to bridge the gap of understanding between the secular and the religious. Richard’s research efforts primarily focus on the epistemic and doxastic frameworks of theism and atheism, the foundations of rational theism and reasonable faith in God, the moral and practical implications of these frameworks of understanding, and the rebuttal of biased and irrational understandings and worship of God. He seeks to reconcile the apparent conflict between science and religion, and to find solutions to problems facing our environmental, societal and existential circumstances as human beings with love and integrity. Richard is also a proponent for healthy, sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyles, and was a frequent participant in competitive sports, fitness training, and strategy gaming. Richard holds publications and awards from Mensa New Zealand and The University of Auckland, and has pending publications for the United Sigma Intelligence Association and CATHOLIQ Society. He discusses: the human being, animals, and the human being in philosophical/metaphysical considerations; abstracting from the human being to humanity, and this connection to faith and the rationalist form of ethics; and a society that makes sense to him, and a thought experiment.

Keywords: CATHOLIQ, faith, God, metaphysics, New Zealand, philosophy, religion, Richard Sheen, science, theism, Tsinghua University.

An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Human Being, Humanity, and Human Society (Part Three)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is a human being? What makes a human being part of the animal kingdom in the fundamental sense and, perhaps, not in some other senses (unlike other members of other species)?

Sheen: I think this question can be answered from two different perspectives: the scientific, and the philosophical/metaphysical. I will focus on the philosophical/metaphysical as I do not consider myself well-versed enough in biology to provide an interesting enough answer that one cannot easily find on Google.

A human being is, first of all, a person. While the nature of personhood is highly debated, it is generally accepted that a person is fundamentally distinguished from non-persons in the sense that they are able to experience and interact with the world in a self-conscious way, and are able to make decisions or take action based on this subjective, self-conscious experience of reality. In other words, a person possesses free will, and hence, is a free agent – their decisions and actions (hypothetically)originate from their very own free will, rather than as a necessary reaction or consequence locked within a deterministic chain of causal interactions external to the person him/herself.

Free will is a widely misunderstood concept in modern society. People often attribute free will, or what is loosely interpreted as “freedom”, as the ability to do whatever they wish to do. This cannot be further from the truth. Consider this simple hypothetical example:

A man, low in spirit and tired of the boredom that his empty and unexciting life offers, decides to “break free” of the chains that he believes is holding his life back from passion and enjoyment. He goes on a spending spree, and celebrates his decision with vast amounts of expensive food and alcohol. In this process, he is acquainted with a number of “friends” – a prostitute, a drug dealer, and a shady businessman. He became very intimate with the prostitute and distanced himself from his wife, and became increasingly addicted to the pleasure that the various sorts of recreational drugs his drug dealer friend offered. He later quit his job and lied to his wife and children during his absence from home, and proceeded to enjoy the next few months on his private savings. By the time he realized his pockets have been drained empty, he realized the mistakes he has made, but his former employer will no longer accept him, and he had no luck finding other means of income. In the depth of his despair, his businessman friend offered him a job that promises a fortune – to distribute parcels of “products” to various clients, none of whom provided any form of identifiable information. He was often told to meet individuals of particular descriptions at various reclusive locations to deliver the parcels, and was never allowed to open the parcels nor ask for the identity of the recipient. Later, an accident resulted in one of the parcels breaking apart, and he was horrified to discover that the contents were, in fact, human organs. The thought of justice flashed across his mind, but in spite of the call of decency, he insisted to keep the contents of the parcels secret and continued to deliver them in cooperation as long as his friend paid him handsomely. Months down the road, his friend’s illegal human organ trade was busted by the police, and he was sentenced to trail along with other accused.

In this hypothetical example, this man destroyed both his own life and his family’s future by quitting his job, abandoning his responsibilities, and pursued a form of so-called “freedom” in hopes of re-igniting passion and excitement for his life. He believed that he was following his free will, and chose what he believed would best provide him with passion and excitement that would add value to his boring, ordinary life. But in reality, instead of truly choosing for himself, his actions were simply the result of him gradually falling for the powers of lust, greed, and opportunistic thinking, as he failed to resist the lure of these lower desires that led to his moral corruption and eventual life downfall. While he had the choice and possibility in every single phase of this gradual downfall to resist further temptation and come back to his senses and moral responsibiltiy for his family and himself, he failed in every single circumstance, and for this reason, he is fully responsible for the harm that he has caused to himself and others, and is hence, deemed immoral and unethical and worthy of punishment.

This is an example of how in the pursuit of this so-called “freedom”, one, in reality, forfeits the actual essence of free will and instead submits oneself to the caprice of nature and chance by yielding to one’s lower desires and submitting to their corresponding external stimuli. In this sense, those who choose to follow this illusory “freedom” are precisely the most deprived of free will, for every aspect of their will and existence are chained or controlled by these negative external influences so that their life and existence become severely limited by these external factors (this does not mean all external influences are bad). Free will is hence decisively not “the freedom to do whatever you want”, but rather, the choice and possibility to overcome one’s own limitations and transcend the immediate, to rise up to the virtue and dignity of the gift of free agency by resisting the influence of negative external influences (such as the lust for immediate pleasure and power upon the slightest of temptation, often at the cost of others or one’s own future) to preserve that which is good and noble in spite of the risks, difficulties, or even at the threat of death (such as a civilian refusing to give away the hiding locations of Jewish refugees despite being forced at gunpoint by German soldiers during WWII). Free will is the possibility to resist the influences of evil in the pursuit of a higher purpose, to be able to resist and transcend the amoral desires(note: “amoral” rather than “immoral”, as natural desires by themselves are neither moral or immoral, they are only given moral or ethical qualities under relational context) that nature has hard-coded into us, and to be able to actualize this higher purpose for the realization of the ultimate good. The essence of free will, and hence, of humanity, is the ability or possibility to reject the temptations of evil, in spite of the dangers and potential costs. It is distinct from evolutionarily-wired natural desires and reflexes such as hunger, fear, jealousy, greed etc. which are irrational in nature.

The keen reader would have noticed that my answer has a superficial resemblance to Kantian metaphysics. However, to me, human beings share far more similarities with other members of the animal kingdom than Kant believed. As the Chinese philosopher Xunzi remarked, there is only a very thin line between humanity and bestiality. While the aforementioned possibility of free will opens the road for us to a higher dimension of virtue, meaning, and moral goodness, human beings are also very prone to the same limitations from our lower desires, no different from that of a wild beast. Human greed has resulted in centuries of devastation and massacre, while arrogance and envy provides fuel for all sorts of moral conflicts that often result in horrible tragedies. The Nanking Massacre demonstrated to the world the full capabilities of human malice and bestiality, and when pushed to extreme enough conditions, such horrors are bound to repeat themselves throughout the course of history. This reminded me of an unrelated quote by Joseph Conrad I have come across many years ago: “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness”. Perhaps just as written in Ecclesiastes of the Bible, metaphorically speaking, there truly won’t be anything new under the sun.

2. Jacobsen: How does one abstract from the individual human person to humanity (or, perhaps, the human species) as an extension of the concept? In other words, what justifies the idea of humanity as a real one? What are the characteristics of humanity? How does this idea of humanity, and the concept of the human person, relate to the ideas laid out on faith and a rationalist form of ethics?

Sheen: I think there are two ways to make this abstraction, but both ways share the same path, which is through genuine relation between human individuals. By genuine, I refer to any sort of relation, whether direct or indirect, that results in at least some degree of perceivable impact on any of its members within this relation, whether willingly or unwillingly.

The first path is formal, or contractual, and is best represented by the Social Contract Theory. This path was primarily explored by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and focuses on the formal contract or agreement between members of a particular group or society that involve certain ethical obligations for each individual member or group. The Social Contract Theory has important influences in modern democratic political systems, and can be said to be the philosophical foundation of modern civilization. It is a rational process based on the evaluation of the individual existential circumstance, the collective existential circumstance, and the optimal relation between these two, hence it is calculative in nature.

The second path is, what I believe, transcendental. Purely formal, rational deductions in ethical issues can easily lead one into types of morally-detached self-interest theories, such as the subjective moral laws adopted by the type of individual that I have mentioned in the previous interview session, who regulates their behaviour and conforms to ethics not out of understanding and respect for the good, but rather to deceive others and gain an upper hand in social interactions, such as pretending to be honest and gain others’ trust before secretly betraying them and making it look like an accident. As such, for society to be truly humane (rather than simply the result of rational calculation), one must also account for the possibility of individual free will to transcend our natural weaknesses such as greed, envy, and arrogance etc.. This process, or “act” of transcending one’s inherent limitations and rising above purely self-interested calculations is only made possible through the understanding and realization of the purpose of the highest good, which as I see requires at least a minimal belief in the objective truth and value of the good in itself.

The second path of the abstraction from individual to humanity is what holds the determining element for the idea of humanity to qualify as a “real” one, for purely logical algorithms can equally come to a rational “contract” from a perspective of pure self-interest (we can, of course, program these algorithms to interact on the basis of the acceptance of some sort of absolute, collective good premise, but it would not be possible to say that these algorithms would thus have “faith” in this highest good, for deterministic processes are not individual agents, hence do not “believe”, less revere or worship, in any meaningful sense as they do not have free will, but can only mimic it — they are neither persons nor agents).

As the second path necessarily involves the aspect of free will, of possibility and transcendence, it naturally follows down the road of belief and faith – for free will is ultimately a metaphysical concept, we have no physical proof of its existence, nor do we have any evidence for its non-existence. We do nonetheless require faith in free will for our actions to truly possess any moral significance, as St. Augustine remarked, if Adam and Eve did not have the freedom or possibility to resist the temptation to consume the forbidden fruit, that their actions were fully predetermined and inevitable, then God would have no justification to punish them, for they cannot be held responsible for something they have no choice over. Moreover, “they” would not even “exist” from the perspective of personhood, as there is no free agent in which we can attribute these decisions to. In conclusion, the idea or concept of humanity is real in the sense that it has real impacts or implications on the human individual(s), while the nature of free will is what links humanity to faith and God, as a minimalist concept of God is that of the ‘ultimate first cause’, and as free agents, our own decisions are also the ‘first cause’ of our actions.

This, of course, begs the question that free will is real and that we do possess it to some extent, but then, this is what faith is. Unless any logical reasons are given to definitively reject its reality, the reasonable position is to maintain an agnostic believe in its reality. Since free will is an a priori concept, science and any other form of empirical arguments are entirely irrelevant and powerless in its verification, despite some ill-informed attempts as of recent. But if we were to take free will out of the equation of humanity, we might as well define humanity as a cluster of purely functional objects not much different from a collection of smartphones, computers, and roombas that are forever locked within a deterministic cage of causal cycle and repetition.

3. Jacobsen: What forms of society make most sense to you? In that, if you existed as some benevolent alien super-intelligence, given the forms of rationalist ethics, definitions of the individual human person and humanity, what form of societal organization for these organic creatures makes sense for them? Of course, this implies a targeted objective or end, even a moving target “end,” as the metric for success or failure of the societal organization for these human creatures. I leave the definition of this end or targeted objective as the metric based on the definitions of human person and humanity to you. 

Sheen: Well, suppose that if I were a benevolent alien super-intelligence and am tasked to create an ideal society that “makes the most sense” for each individual according to the type of rationalist ethics I have laid out, I would probably focus on two aspects: the intellectual, and the emotional (assuming that this benevolent species possesses the capacity for reason and emotion just like humans, albeit at a far superior level in terms of sophistication).

The intellectual aspect must centre on understanding and communication. Understanding is first of all the most important aspect of social relations. We cannot engage in any meaningful relation with any sentient being if we cannot in some way understand each other, which means we must be able to communicate with each other effectively. Given the limited capacities of our understanding and means of communication (yes, even if we were a species of super-intelligent aliens with >200 IQ!), there are bound to be conflict and disagreement between individuals. Given my belief in the objectivity of human reason, any sufficiently intelligent and benevolent being ought to be able find ways to seek mutual understanding with other beings to the greatest possible extent in order to avoid conflict. If we assume that the power of the intellect in such beings are close to infinite, communication would be the only barrier that we face, as when given equal amounts of information, different individuals will likely arrive at the same objectively correct solution regarding most problems. Hence, some form of optimal communication must be achieved.

Emotional responses can often cloud our rational judgement, and may create obstacles in activities or pursuits that would otherwise not be of much challenge. Fear causes us to hesitate, while distrust can lead us to close off towards others. A super-intelligent alien species – suppose that they are truly super-intelligent in a way conceivable to us – ought to possess the ability to minimize the negative impact of emotions that often restrict our very own potential as human beings. This also requires extremely effective communication, particularly so since emotions are fundamentally distinct from logic, they are often descriptive rather than deductive, and are subjectively qualitative rather than objectively quantitative. They cannot be easily formulated and transferred as objective information, hence, require an even more “integrated”, or perhaps “personal” or even “spiritual” means of communication to optimally express. In some ways, we humans possess this form of communication through empathy, but our ability to truly link our mind and heart with others is very limited, and only rarely blossoms with the occasional “soul mate”, be it a friend or a spouse that only very fortunate individuals may come across once in their lifetime.

Communication is hence the most important element in the establishment of this ideal society. A conceivable, but technologically impossible (from our current understanding of science and reality) method is through some form of “mutual nexus” or “stream of thought” in which every aspect of the mind and heart of every participating individual is always perfectly linked together, which allows for absolute understanding without misconception between each and every individual, as everyone would be able to perfectly express their thoughts and emotions and lead others to reason and experience the exact same way as themselves. In some sense, this leads all subjective perspectives, emotions, and experiences to become objective, and “omnipresent” to every experiencer. Suppose that such beings possess incredibly superior intelligence, they would theoretically be able to process the thoughts and emotions of all other members simultaneously by accessing this nexus of thoughts, and in some ways, achieve some form of “spiritual union” with all other members, or even “Oneness with the Universe” in some sense. It would superficially resemble a hive-mind, but simply with every individual in consensus over every thought and decision, based on the full and complete understanding between each other and the universal pursuit of the highest good. The ultimate purpose of this society would be thus defined as the pursuit of the greatest possible degree of unity and communion through compassion, understanding, intimacy, and a universal goal to strive for the highest good.

Now that I think of it, in some ways this hypothetical society would resemble “heaven”, as in this society, there will be no conflict nor dissolution, only genuine union achieved through true and intimate understanding and empathy. “Heaven” is often understood by Christian philosophers as a place where we are “at One with God”. This “Oneness” entails an absolutely perfect form of union through love (which requires understanding and empathy, for we cannot love nor care for that which we do not know), and in this union, we find ultimate peace and eternal rest. This reminded me of something the Chinese philosopher Ye XiuShan expressed in his introduction for Professor Huang YuSheng’s Truth and Freedom (Beijing, 2002): “The refined soul may often catch a glimpse of heaven through the harmony of those which we often perceive as dichotomies, such as the divide between reason and emotion, or between idea and reality. As we transcend the limitation and conflict between our dualistic reality through the realization of this harmonious Unity through the gradual refinement of our soul, we are brought to an image of the Kingdom of God. As understood in Christian philosophy, our world is but a shadow of eternity, as it is merely a creation of God.” The ultimate goal or purpose of heaven would be unity and communion with the entirety of reality, and ultimately, to be “at One with God”. Similarly, if we understand things from this perspective, that which resembles “hell” would be a world of conflict, of separation, dissolution, exclusivity, antagonism and of deceit(which is fundamentally antithetical to mutual understanding and harmonious communion). In this sense, traces, or elements of both the highest good and of the greatest evil can be found within our limited world, where a semblance of the ideal world(heaven) is found in the coming together of a unity, such as friendship, community, marriage and family, and the image of evil(hell) is seen in the casting apart of such communions, such as the breaking of trust, dissolution of community, and divorce of marriage and family.

I would, however, say that such a society is impossible to achieve in this world. Even if all properties of such a super-intelligent species suffice for the establishment of such a “nexus”, there will always be external risks and limitations such as that of the physical constraints of our universe, and perhaps influence from other species or the caprice of nature alone. If we were to apply this principle to us humans, who are far more limited in every aspect of our capabilities, the only semi-realistic framework would be a completely decentralized social system where AI and blockchain technology are combined to create a platform for pure democratic voting for legislation, proposals and regulations for the collective good. This system would have no central government nor any other centralized forces such as corporate beneficiaries to make decisions for the rest(often unjustly), only a public executive agency that carries out the changes desired by most members of the community. Of course, I cannot even begin to fathom the degree of bloodshed and destruction that would follow if something like this were ever to be pushed for or implemented, for humanity will forever be enslaved by our lust for wealth and power, and those at the top will never allow power to be shared by the majority at the cost of their own pleasure and luxury.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Independent Artist, Philosopher, Photographer, and Theologian.

[2] Individual Publication Date: February 15, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: Image Credit: Richard Sheen.

*High range testing (HRT) should be taken with honest skepticism grounded in the limited empirical development of the field at present, even in spite of honest and sincere efforts. If a higher general intelligence score, then the greater the variability in, and margin of error in, the general intelligence scores because of the greater rarity in the population.


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