“We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” PART I

Puget Sound

Puget Sound

The following blog consists of an on-line discussion between Dave Kopacz and Carl Reisman. Carl is a “holistic” lawyer, cook, and naturalist based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. This on-line discussion follows up on a recent conversation that Carl and Dave had in Seattle, after not seeing each other for several years. This is Part I of two parts.


Carl, when we were talking in Seattle, you said, “We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” This quote is what sparked a great conversation and lead to the idea of posting a blogalogue (blog-dialogue).


I was just thinking of you as I was walking the dogs around the block–just that I enjoyed our visit in Seattle and hoped we would stay in touch.  Nice to see your email pop up.  Connections between us all are subtle and real.

I like your questions and will wing a few answers.


How do you balance standardization in service delivery with supporting human-to-human interaction?


I am not sure if the “you” is referring to me or just people in general.  I can only speak for myself, and write as a solo law practitioner who used to be a professional cook.  As a cook, I can understand the need for customers who order pancakes today to be able to get the same pancakes when they return next week.  If they get lousy pancakes, they won’t cut slack, even if they are told that the cook is out sick and a new cook getting trained.  At least this is the dominant logic in the restaurant business, and it certainly is behind the success of chain restaurants.  No matter where you go on the planet, a Big Mac is a Big Mac.

Implicit in the idea, though, is standardizing quality.  No need to standardize something that sucks.  People want good experiences each time they come to a human exchange, be it with a doctor, lawyer, teacher, musician, or mechanic.  To some degree, this can be standardized, by an individual or organization imagining the experience from the point of view of their patient or customer, and trying to be consistent in delivering what they imagine that person would want.

I see no conflict with providing standardized, quality experiences and providing  human to human interaction–I think people generally prefer dealing with humans to machines, but not always.  If people always preferred humans, self-service gas stations would not have succeeded.  In some situations, people just want efficiency and to move on with their days.  It’s easy to figure out what these situations are by taking a minute to think about what we would want in those circumstances.  But when we are at our most vulnerable, such as when a doctor is telling us that they found cancer, we want the human touch.


What does it mean to be fully human?


This reminds me of my father asking me, after looking at my report card, “Did you do your best?”  I struggled to answer, because I thought it was impossible to do one’s best.  You could always do a little more.

So, too, a human can wake up to compassion, and still find that their heart has lots of room to grow.

It seems limiting to define oneself as being exclusively human, even a fully actualized human.  Biologically, we are a sort of community that includes a variety of organisms living and interacting with our human cells.  Our ancestors were bacteria.  We depend upon plants and other animals for life, not to mention, sun, soil, water, air, and our community.  Truly, we are products of universal processes and dependent upon the universe for our support.  It is a miracle we are alive.

A different question might be, Can we be fully human without awareness of our debt to everything which sustains us ? I think we sometimes are more sensitive and awake to these connections.  When we are, we are called to be humble and more responsible.  That seems like a good start on the long pilgrimage to find our humanity.

These questions bring to mind the word “humane.”  We are born to human parents, and are human.  But we grow in our understanding and compassion, and become more humane.

As biological creatures, we need to be selfish to survive, at least to some degree.  But we also need to learn to share to survive as a species.  You can see this tension play out as babies become toddlers.  It is painful to learn to share.  A baby’s first word may be “mine.”  It takes a great deal of patient supervision and praise to teach a toddler that there can be a benefit to sharing a toy or snack.  This is a primary lesson in our growth.  If we miss this one, we are forever damaged in our ability to relate.

It is painful to share.  We want it all and have to give up some of our claim.  There is a risk to sharing, too.  We hope we may get something in return. Sometimes we are terribly disappointed.

I don’t believe there is a pristine state that we  come from or strive towards–no noble savage, no sainthood, no innocent childhood.  Everybody wrestles with the same problem faced by the toddler–do I play with this toy by myself or give someone else a turn?  If I am hungry, do I eat the cookie by myself or share it?

We are steeped in the myth of progress, both spiritual and material.  We have the story of the pilgrim, toiling on the path to God.  We have the story of civilization, up from savages, building the shining city on the hill.

I like the idea that being human or building a culture is more like making bread–you take disparate elements, and through work, skill, and love  you create something that is entirely different than the sum of its parts, that can be beautiful and sustain life.  There is no final goal of perfection.  There is the need for constant renewal.  Death, rebirth, growth, death, rebirth.  We are participants in a terrible and beautiful cycle.

The Buddhists teach that the self can be transcended.  The heart can melt into compassion.  After it melts into compassion, though, it’s back to the fundamental challenges of sharing toys, needy people, declining health, disappointment.  This is not to discount the joys of life, which can be better appreciated if one isn’t mired in self pity.   Through a spiritual practice, we might gain a small margin of humor as we deal with frustrations and a deeper appreciation of the joys and mysteries of life, but we can’t see a spiritual practice as a journey towards a goal.  The pilgrimage is its own reward.


I’d like to follow-up on a couple of points here.

The first is that you seem to be saying that being “human” entails an awareness of being “more than human,” that is to have an awareness that extends beyond one’s immediate context or ego. Also, in this, there seems to be an element that being human entails connecting to that which is non-human. Your astute mention of the bacteria who were our ancestors as well as continue to allow human life through symbiotic relationships (such as aiding in digestion in the GI tract), illuminates the fact that human being occurs within a larger context of non-human nature.

The second point is somewhat related, you write “the long
pilgrimage to find our humanity,” this implies that being human is not a fixed, given state, but a journey toward some point in the future. There are so many conundrums here. Is being selfish (focused on one’s individual needs) to be less human? Is there a pristine, pure state (childhood, the idea of the “noble savage,” sainthood, or some future state of perfection)? When can one be considered “human enough?” For instance, in your analogy with the exam score, when can one say, “I could have done more, but I did well enough.” I think about this a lot, this interplay between acceptance of one’s self and trying harder (e.g. “overcoming” one’s self, or “becoming more” one’s self through effort). Do you have any thoughts on these points?


Dave, you asked, “What is it to be fully human?”  If we break down your question, let’s start, “What is it to be?”  Before we can worry about whether we are human, let alone fully human, we need to figure out how to be.  One translation of Lao Tzu is, “The way to do is to be.”  So, maybe the way towards being fully human is to be.

What does it mean to be?

Perhaps God is our greatest creation as humans, a projection of ourselves benevolently looking down upon ourselves as if from above.  We are in a particular moment in time, but also have a sense that some part of ourselves is timeless and watches if not tends our lives, even our moments of pain and panic, with a degree of compassion and humor.

To be fully human, to be fully alive, we integrate this awareness into our workaday consciousness, as a guide.

While a sin may be a trespass against our best nature, in being fully human we learn to forgive and appreciate sin as a part of our process of growth.

I don’t believe that we are traveling from a pure state through a corrupted state to a pure state.  There is no goal.  There is the opportunity to bring light to any particular moment, or to enjoy the darkness or shades of grey.  There is the chance to gain understanding, to forgive, to grow in competence and confidence, to accept losing competence and confidence, failure, and death.  It’s a rough road but a fascinating one.

You asked about what it means to be “human enough.”  The world that we share tells us when we aren’t good participants in the natural order of things.  So, humans as a species will be human enough when we figure out how to live without undermining our own existence.  This is something that humans have already accomplished.  We just recently have collectively lost our way, and hopefully, as a species, will find our way back to that place of appreciation and understanding.

(to be continued…)

Gulls Over Puget Sound Through Winter Branches

Gulls Over Puget Sound Through Winter Branches

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