Posted by: gcarkner | October 26, 2012

Critical Alternatives to Scientism…Point 3

Recovery of a Thick View of Humans

In our next move, we want to transcend scientism’s caricature (reductionism) of human existence, towards a more whole and rich perspective. What are we to make of homo sapiens sapiens?  Beyond the initial exhilaration, nihilistic materialism offers a very empty paradigm for how we are to live together. It starts in nothingness and offers naked choice. When we accept a view of other humans that takes them as nothing special, we head down a very treacherous road. Reductionistic anthropologies have led to much political oppression and abuse in the twentieth century, where the government became the pirate of the people. History cannot deny that scientific materialism has morphed into political-economic exploitation, with massive human suffering. We strongly resist this impoverished, thin model of persons in search of an alternative–a thick view. This is not merely academic, but an urgent quest in our age of global terrorism, corrupt business leaders, shrinking resources, global warming and political flash points.

We believe that it is critical that humans be distinguished from nature. Certainly, a person is continuous with nature biologically; this is one of the reasons that human biology has been so successful. But we dare not settle for views which lower our identity to our biological origins or biological infrastructure; humans are not only a part of nature, they stand apart from nature in significant ways. They are much more complex and sophisticated than animals or machines despite the similarities. I once spoke with a student from Asia who claimed in the most matter-of-fact way “I am a computer.” We do them serious damage (violate their dignity) when we do not recognize these distinctions, and when we deny the mystery of the human condition. Human beings are much more than sophisticated matter in motion.

Much that is true about us transcends our biology, chemistry or physics. Humans are an order of magnitude different from animals in many capacities: e.g. human altruism goes far beyond genetic altruism or preservation of one’s genes. Consider Oscar Shindler who took incredible risks to save those who were not of his tribe or DNA in Hitler’s German Reich. Many of us have been gripped by the power of the movie Shindler’s List.

Stanford neurobiologist William Newsome agrees that there is much more to us that our neurons (~100 Billion); he resists the popular neuroscientist trend toward reducing humans to their neuronal matrix. Such networks are necessary but not sufficient to explain a human self. Neurologist Wilder Penfield contests that mind cannot fully be explained in terms of brain. “

I am forced to choose the proposition that our being is to be explained on the basis of two fundamental elements, material and immaterial, physical and metaphysical.”

Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy develop this thought much further in their important book on science and morality, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Many of the questions we ask are meta-questions (about more than mere physics): Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose and destiny? What and who do I love? Why do I suffer? What is my quest for the good? As far as we know, animals, cars, trees and computers do not pose these kinds of questions sui generis.

A human being is not just another “fact” in the world, but an essence, something qualitatively distinct from and superior to things or other animals, nuanced and complex, not least including a tremendous cultural diversity. Jewish writer Martin Buber noted that it is the I-you and the I-Thou aspect of humans (the cosmic and human relational dimensions) that distinguishes us from nature. It is both the profound capacity for relationship with other humans and with the divine, and the complexity of those relations that sets homo sapiens sapiens apart from other higher primates. This article is far too short to go into the extensive detail.

Humans beings, we contend, should be seen as ultimately ends in themselves and should never be treated as a mere means to an end or an it (mere stuff). Personhood involves an interpersonal dynamic. Charles Taylor notes that if someone we know treats another person as an object, a thing or an animal, denies their basic rights, we find it revolting, because it violates a person’s freedom and decency–their very personhood. He holds strongly to the idea that we all are defined partly by the moral good or goods to which we aspire and which we embrace. I am developing this in the series called Quality of the Will. We take for granted in ourselves rational attributes, free will, rational consistency, openness to evidence, desire for truth, and basic dignity. These are all non-quantifiable but important qualities we want to preserve both in ourselves and in others.

A thick view of personhood beckons us to dig deeper, to return to spiritual and moral responsibility, to freedom and dignity, to wisdom, to recover metaphors of grace and gift. The rich biblical metaphor is that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26, 27). This recognizes human uniqueness among the higher animals, beyond merely having the largest primate brain and a opposable thumb; it entails a spiritual capacity that is completely unique as far as we know. It defines us in terms of the higher rather than the lower.

It may be part of our current ‘cultural enlightenment’ that we are unafraid to talk and debate about spirituality in late modernity. The worth of persons is much more than their social or economic capacity. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition; or University of Chicago’s Jean Bethke Elshtain in Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities: Politics and Ethical Discourse may be a good place to start. Both are weighty thinkers.

Gord Carkner

See also Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Chapter 5.

Homo sapiens wikipedicus

Homo sapiens wikipedicus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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