Posted by: gcarkner | April 24, 2014

Who Stole Our Humanity?…5

Restorative Moves to Recover Our Humanity and Dignity

Further on the quest to retrieve our deeper humanitas, we move beyond scientism’s caricature of human existence, towards a whole and healthy picture of persons. We want to recover our lost heritage as Christian humanists (David Lyle Jeffrey, Andy Crouch, Culture Making; Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism; Erasmus). What are we to make of homo sapiens sapiens? Under scientism, influential thinkers like Nietzsche and Skinner have charted a cultural course beyond good and evil, while also relieving us of our freedom and dignity. It is indeed a surprisingly unpleasant road to nihilism. Reductionistic anthropologies have led to much political oppression and abuse as seen under Pinochet, Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Mugabe and Hitler in the twentieth century, where the government became the pirate of the people. They live an atheism rich with a will to power and without human rights. Scientific materialism has morphed into political-economic exploitation, with massive human suffering and extensive violence and loss. We must protest this impoverished and exploitive view of persons and seek an alternative, one that is urgent in our age of global terrorism, economic challenges, shrinking resources and political flash points (see Al Gore, The Future: six drivers of global change. 2013).

Humans must 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 should not settle for views of our identity reduced to our biological origins or biological infrastructure; humans are not only a part of nature, they definitely stand apart from nature in significant ways. They are much more complex and sophisticated than animals or machines despite the similarities. We can do serious damage when we do not recognize these distinctions. Much that is deeply true about us transcends our biology, chemistry and physics. Humans are an order of magnitude different from animals in many capacities: e.g. human altruism goes far beyond genetic altruism. Consider Oscar Shindler, says Francis Collins head the National Institute of Health brain mapping program, who took incredible risks to save those who were not of his tribe or DNA.

Stanford neurobiologist William Newsome agrees that there is much more to us that our neurons. There is something wondrous and mysterious about consciousness; he resists the popular neuroscientist trend toward reducing humans to their neurons. Such networks are necessary but not sufficient to explain the human self or consciousness. 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.”[1]

Warren Brown and Nancey Murphy develop this thought much further in their important book, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? [2] Many of the questions we ask are meta-physical (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. It is instructive that atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos) notes the same issues; he finds naturalism as currently understood an inadequate explanation of consciousness or morality. The most power presentation of this concern is in David Bentley Hart’s most recent book (The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. 2013). Dr. Hart is an upcoming visiting lecturer at UBC in September of 2014.

A human being is not just a “fact” in the world, but an essence, something qualitatively distinct from and superior to things, nuanced and complex, not least including a tremendous cultural diversity. This is the qualitative concern. 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 high primates.

Humans beings are ultimately properly seen as ends in themselves and should never be treated as a mere means to a personal or corporate end or an it. Personhood involves an interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamic.[3] If someone we know treats a human as an object or an animal or kidnaps them against their will, or enslaves them for sexual exploitation, we react viscerally finding it revolting, because it violates a person’s freedom and decency. We take for granted in ourselves rational attributes, free will, rational consistency, openness to evidence, desire for truth, and basic dignity: all non-quantifiable but important qualities we want to preserve both in ourselves and in society.

Whole personhood beckons us to return to spiritual and moral responsibility[4], freedom and dignity, to the welcome of metaphors of grace and gift. The rich Genesis metaphor is that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26, 27). This recognizes human uniqueness among the higher animals, beyond the capacity of merely having the largest primate brain; it entails a spiritual capacity that is unique as far as we know. It may be part of our current cultural enlightenment that we are less afraid to talk about spirituality. Is this also why we are experiencing such an identity crisis in the West? We are put out of touch with our deepest selves through our secular Enlightenment education.

~Gord Carkner

[1] Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 80. Walker Percy in his book, Lost in the Cosmos (Chapter 12)’ makes a convincing case for the distinction from animals based on human language and communication.

[2] Warren Brown and Nancy Murphey, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2007)

[3] Alister McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian theory of the individual in social relationships. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). It would be hard to find a greater advocate for personhood and the personal than Dr James Houston, founder of Regent College in Vancouver, former Head of Hartford College Oxford. See also Paul Ricoeur on the topic of personhood.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas is one late modern thinker who advocates for ‘taking responsibility for the Other’.

Prescient Quotes from Jens Zimmermann’s book, Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church and the world. (IVP 2012).

Understanding the nature of reason is central to our conception of human existence. We have to resist a narrow conception of human rationality that excludes religion as irrational because such a view cripples our ability to analyze correctly the current state of Western culture. As Rodney Stark has argued in his book The Victory of Reason, Christianity’s ability to combine faith and reason with a progressive view of human nature laid the foundation for Western science and technological progress…. Building on Judaism, Christianity also allowed for the concepts of human dignity, personhood and individuality that have decisively shaped Western views of society. (p. 25 & 26)

Neither the best nor the worst features of modernity are comprehensible without the transformative influence of Christianity on Greco-Roman culture.Without religion, the West would not be what it is, and without understanding the religious roots of Western culture and their continuing influence on Western thought, we lack the self-understanding necessary to address our current cultural crisis. (p. 26.)

The reduction of reason to scientific objectivity, combined with an individualistic understanding of the human self as an island of autonomous consciousness and will, has drawn a sharp line between faith and reason, between science and religion, between fact and value. (p. 35)

Living in a postsecular world means that secularism is no longer the standard for reasonable thought. If indeed it is true that Western culture continues to experience a crisis of identity and purpose, the dogmatic exclusion of sources of transcendent purpose (i.e. religion) seems unwise…. Such dogmatism is not secular thinking, if secular is taken at its root meaning of “this worldly”. Rather, the arbitrary exclusion of religion from reasonable discourse is secularist ideology, a fundamentalist rejection of all interpretation of the world, except the materialist one that excludes religion. (p. 41)

When science begins to think, that is, when it moves beyond verification and begins to interpret the meaning of its findings, science takes recourse to philosophy and theology. (p. 42)

Philosopher Thomas Nagel on Consciousness in his recent book, Mind and Cosmos

“My aim is not so much to argue against reductionism as to investigate the consequences of rejecting it— to present the problem rather than to propose a solution. Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical. But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges.” (p. 15)

Nagel focuses on three different aspects of the the amazing world of mind: consciousness, cognition (mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation) and value. In each case, he explains why a reductionist explanation is inadequate. In the chapter on consciousness he writes:

“What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view— a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone.” (p. 44)

“The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world.” (p. 53)

According to the reductionist point of view, every aspect of reality can be explained in terms of physics, chemistry and the initial conditions of the universe. The origin and development of life, consciousness, and the capacity of human beings to understand the universe via science can all be explained in terms of biochemical processes that are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. For an alternative well-informed perspective, see Alister McGrath’s excellent work A Fine-Tuned Universe. Philosophy of mind and Christian theism (to name just two domains of human knowledge) has long held there are problems with this view of reality. From these disciplines the explanation is offered that nearly every aspect of the life of the mind is best explained by appealing to a comparable cause, another mind.

See also John Powell SJ, Fully Human, Fully Alive. “The dimensions and clarity of our vision determines the dimensions of our world.”


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