What makes us human? What distinguishes homo sapiens sapiens from other primates? In shaping our individual and collective existencem do we human beings have a margin of choice or are we merely pawns on the ladder of evolution, wholly subordinate to the physical laws that govern micro- and macrocosms? In contrast to the more or less fatalistic sciences - the cognitive sciences, for example - that see human nature as an inevitable result of evolutionary adaptation, the author argues that the specificity of the human being depends largely on that great innovation that was symnolic representation, that is, on the idea that everything - a sound, a gesture, an object - can be used to represent anything else. It is precisely on this that the most specifically human qualities depend: imagination, language, conscoiusness, doubt, a certain degree of freedom, a sense of the future, understanding of self and others, beliefs, myths, and religious faiths.
Symbolic representation, however, has also made possible the pursuit of more reliable knowledge, such as science and mathematics. Yet, in the vast literature devoted to human beings, the very existence of science and mathematics is never explained or questioned. It is taken for granted, even though doing science is in fact one of those extraordinary capabilities of human beings that cannot be explained from a genetic or evolutionary point of view.
This book also reflects on the sciences that have human beings as their object, from physics to biology, from neuroscience to anthropology, linguistics and theology. If the nature of men is not deterministically reducible to biology, chemistry and physics, how can we conceive of a new science that accurately describes and explains what it means to be human? Is it feasible? And, if so, what would it be good for? Could it really help make the world a better, more humane, fairer, freer place for all?