What Does it Mean to be Human?

Paul Coulter considers whether naturalism can ever, in practice, provide a consistent worldview and a satisfactory answer to the issue of human identity.

Let us return for a moment to the quotation from Francis Crick included in the New Scientist article by Martha Farah:

'You', your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Crick is a renowned scientist, but this is not a purely scientific statement; it is, in fact, a statement of the philosophical worldview we have called naturalism. What makes it a philosophical rather than a scientific statement are the words “no more than”. Had Crick omitted those words we could accept it as a scientific statement and it would be largely uncontroversial. At least it would be a claim open to further scientific testing. The addition of those words, however, takes us outside the possibility of scientific confirmation. Science has not proven that there is nothing more to us than nerve cells and chemicals, and I cannot conceive of any scientific method that could ever do so. Science cannot argue from what it cannot measure and describe, and it is not capable of answering questions of purpose (the “Why?” questions). Crick may not acknowledge that he has made a philosophical statement but he has. He is a naturalist and that worldview has determined his conclusion. According to naturalism, 'higher' levels of existence such as consciousness can be (or eventually will be) explained by the complex interaction of lower level processes. According to naturalism there can be no intent or purpose behind the cosmos. To introduce the idea of purpose is to introduce a concept that cannot be explained by scientific processes – it opens the door to the supernatural.

Naturalists are, by definition, atheists, but it is important to realise that not all atheists embrace the full implications of naturalism. Many atheists are humanists and see dignity and great potential in mankind. They believe that human beings can create a destiny for themselves, that we are capable of determining our own future. John Gray contends that humanism is logically inconsistent. His book Straw Dogs is largely dedicated to exposing the errors (as he perceives them) of the humanistic belief in progress and morality. Gray’s basic contention is that:[1]

Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived… Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.

Gray advocates a view of life that is devoid of purpose and does not hope for progress. He identifies support for this view in several places:

• The 'primordial' animistic religions of mankind.[2] Gray argues that animistic religions view mankind as equal to other animals and in harmony with nature. He does not attempt to substantiate his claim that animism is the 'primordial' religion of mankind, and he neglects to mention other ancient religious concepts that have a more exalted idea of mankind’s place in the cosmos, for example the religious systems of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

• James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which “re-establishes the link between humans and the rest of nature which was affirmed in mankind’s primordial religion, animism”.[3]

• Taoist philosophy in ancient China.[4] In fact the title of his book is taken from a Taoist text. Gray holds the Taoist philosophy of life, with its emphasis on living simply without desire and with no expectation of progress, in high regard. It is interesting, however, that he never acknowledges the degree of influence that other worldviews had in the Chinese mindset – Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions (which are far from animistic) and, above all, Confucianism. More significantly still, he does not mention the fact that the predominant religious system in imperial China before the advent of Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism was centred on ideas of Heaven (Tian) and a deity called Shangdi and had traits suggestive of monotheism. This religious system conceived of a personal but non-corporeal god and involved prayers and sacrifices (led by the emperor who served as a kind of priest) as well as strong ideas of purpose and morality originating from the will of Shangdi.

• The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), according to which our behavior is the result simply of our desires.[5] According to Gray, Schopenhauer is alone amongst European philosophers in recognising the truth about human nature that is consistent with Gray’s own understanding:[6]

Schopenhauer was the first major European thinker to know anything about Indian philosophy, and he remains the only one to have absorbed and accepted its central doctrine – that the free, conscious individual who is the core of Christianity and humanism is an error that conceals from us what we really are.

Schopenhauer believed that, “our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs – by fear, hunger and, above all, sex”.[7]

By contrast, Gray criticises other European philosophers such as:

• German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant was not an atheist, but he was typical of Enlightenment philosophy in seeing human reason as the supreme means of discovery about reality and therefore rejecting the need for divine revelation. Gray criticises Kant for retaining the idea of mankind as uniquely exalted rational beings:[8]

Kant tried to protect our most cherished notions – above all our ideas of personal identity, free will and moral autonomy – from the solvent of skeptical doubt. Putting them to the acid test of experience, Schopenhauer showed that they melt way. In doing so he destroyed Kant’s philosophy, and with it the idea of the human subject that underpins both Christianity and humanism.

• German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who declared that God was dead and predicted nihilism (the absence of purpose and meaning in life) as the inevitable consequence. Nietzsche’s conclusion may appear to support Gray’s own views, but Gray takes issue with him over his constant tendency to react to Christian thinking: “Nietzsche was an inveterately religious thinker, whose incessant attacks on Christian beliefs and values attest to the fact that he could never shake them off”.[9]

• German Martin Heidegger (1889-1976):[10]

Heidegger tells us that by comparison with man, animals are ‘world-poor’. Animals merely exist, reacting to the things they encounter around them; whereas humans are makers of the world they inhabit. Why does Heidegger believe this? Because he cannot rid himself of the prejudice that humans are necessary in the scheme of things, whereas other animals are not.

• Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951):[11]

Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein was a humanist in a venerable European tradition. Philosophers from Plato to Hegel have interpreted the world as if it was a mirror of human thinking. Later philosophers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein went further; and claimed that the world is a construction of human thought. In all these philosophies, the world acquires a significance from the fact that humans have appeared in it. In fact, until humans arrive, there is hardly a world at all.

Gray also critiques the modern trend towards postmodernism, with its rejection of the idea of absolute truth as “just the latest fad in anthropocentrism”.[12] Any view of the world that is anthropocentric, that elevates mankind into a class distinct from other animals or that hopes for progress is, according to Gray, in conflict with what we now know about the world based on evolutionary theory. Effectively, Gray is saying that many people who profess to believe in a naturalistic world are inconsistent with it when they speak about mankind, progress and morality. In this critique Gray finds an unexpected ally in evangelical Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, who lists a number of other thinkers who he claims have been inconsistent in his book Reasonable Faith:[13]

• French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960): “Camus said that we should honestly recognize life’s absurdity and then live in love for one another.”

• French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) argued that the cosmos had no ultimate meaning but that one can create meaning for oneself by freely choosing to follow a certain course of action (for him it was Marxism).

• English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was an atheist but he criticised war and restrictions on sexual freedom. He admitted that he could not live as if ethics were simply a matter of personal taste. He found his own views incredible and said, “I don’t know the solution”.

Craig’s point is that such a concern with morality and ethics is inconsistent with a naturalistic view of the world. According to him, if God does not exist then:[14]

Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitoes or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.

And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race – all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendships – all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless.

To Gray and Craig’s lists we might add one additional name, that of evolutionary biologist and University of Oxford emeritus professor Richard Dawkins (b.1941). Dawkins has said that, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference… We are machines for propagating DNA”[15], yet in his 2006 book The God Delusion he calls compassion and generosity “noble emotions”,[16] condemns child sacrifice by the Incans, abuse of homosexuals, religious indoctrination of children and even proposes his own version of the 10 Commandments.[17] In an earlier book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins argued that we should not give up on morality. He wrote that we should:[18]

try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has aspired to do.

Notice again here language that personalises genes, which is a constant feature in Dawkins’ writings, as even the title The Selfish Gene reveals. How can genes be “up to” anything? Atheistic British psychologist Susan Blackmore (b.1951), author of The Meme Machine, has developed another of Dawkins’ ideas, the theory that ideas evolve and spread like selfish genes. Dawkins coined the term 'meme' to describe these distinct units of ideas, and theories about memes have come to be known as 'memetics', paralleling the term genetics for the study of genes. Blackmore argues that the ultimate implication of memetics, as of genetics, is that self is an illusion (although this conclusion can be disputed and it must be said that in the theory of ideas the conclusions reached are just as dependent on worldview as in theories of human nature). She writes that:[19]

Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with his famous claim that ‘ We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.’ Yet, if we take his idea of memes seriously, and push it to its logical conclusion, we find there is no one left to rebel.

Christian author Phillip Johnson also highlights the illogicality of Dawkins’ idea of rebelling against our genes. He objects not simply because he rejects the idea that genes alone determine all aspects of our existence, but also because he sees Dawkins’ argument as:[20]

both scientifically absurd and morally naïve. How could natural selection favor the development of a capacity to thwart the interests of the ruling genes? Any tendency to pursue goals other than gene copying would be self-extinguishing because by definition it would be less effective at spreading genetic copies.

Gray and Blackmore on one hand and Craig and Johnson on the other disagree fundamentally in their understanding of the world – as to whether there is a Creator and therefore whether or not self, choice and morality are illusions – but they all agree that the logical consequence of a world without a Creator is a world without morality, without purpose, without meaning. Although Gray appears to be ignorant of the fact, this strand of thinking is also found within the literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Listen to these words from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20):

Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

In fact, the author of Ecclesiastes, writing from personal experience and observation of society, repeatedly proclaims the verdict “meaningless” over all of human existence. We must be completely clear, then, what we are choosing between when we choose between a world created by God and a world without God. Although Straw Dogs only briefly touches on the implications of Gray’s view for ethics, a fuller development of ethical ideas at least partly consistent with naturalism is found in the writing of Australian ethicist Peter Singer (b.1946). His ethical system is popular with animal rights movements because he regards animals that are genetically closely akin to mankind as having some rights in common with some human beings:[21]

Our better understanding of our own nature has bridged the gulf that was once thought to lie between ourselves and other species, so why should we believe that the mere fact that a being is a member of the species Homo Sapiens endows its life with some unique, almost infinite value?

Singer sees the abuse of species such as chimpanzees as “speciesism”, a term coined in 1973 by British psychologist Richard Ryder which suggests a link with discrimination against other human beings on the basis of skin colour (racism). He argues for the legitimacy of infanticide (killing of young infants) in some cases and the acceptability of zoophilia (sexual activity with animals) so long as the animal is not hurt. I say that Singer’s ethics are “at least partly” consistent with naturalism because his article in New Scientist referred to earlier speaks about what we “ought to do”, language that Gray would undoubtedly dispute as being inconsistent with naturalism. We may see Singer’s ideas as an indication of what society might be like if naturalism became the sole determining factor in morality and law, but even his ideas do not describe the full extent of the changes that would occur if naturalism was followed to its logical conclusions.

We must be honest about the consequences of a naturalistic worldview. We cannot have our ethical cake and eat it. If we reject God, we reject the basis for universal objective ethical standards. Too many philosophers and scientists have muddied the waters by pretending it is not so. Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) wrote a brilliant critique of Western philosophical thought entitled Escape from Reason (1968). He suggested that philosophers tend to live in a “two storey” world. The lower storey is the level of normal existence, consistent with what they profess to believe to be true. It is a world without ultimate purpose or meaning. Mankind, Schaeffer claims, cannot live happily on this level, and so these philosophers repeatedly leap to the upper storey in which there is meaning, value and purpose. The atheist has no right to make this leap, but he cannot help himself because we have an innate need to find meaning and purpose. Schaeffer suggests that this need is a powerful indicator that our lives have ultimate meaning and that this is because we were created for a purpose by God. Steven Weinberg (b.1933), Nobel Prize winning physicist, also recognises that we have a constant tendency to look for purpose in our existence:[22]

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents… The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

Schaeffer and Weinberg observe the same tendency in human beings to expect purpose in the cosmos and in their lives, but they reach different conclusions as to what it means. For Schaeffer it is evidence of a divine purpose giver; for Weinberg it is only a farce (an illusion). We must emphasise again, however, that these conclusions are not the results of the scientific evidence, but extrapolations from it. Now, it seems to me that the 'evidence' fits with only two explanations – consistent naturalism as described by Gray and theism. Any position in between is logically inconsistent with itself. Which explanation is reached will depend upon our worldview, and again we must consider other types of evidence (lessons from history, revelation and personal experience) before reaching a conclusion about which is true.

Go to 7. Genesis 1 and 2 on mankind


[1] Gray, John 2002, Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals, Granta, p.xiii.
[2] Ibid., pp.17, 33.
[3] Ibid., p.33.
[4] Ibid., pp.34, 112, 114.
[5] Ibid., pp.38-44.
[6] Ibid., p.41.
[7] Ibid., p.43.
[8] Ibid., p.44.
[9] Ibid., p.45.
[10] Ibid., p.48.
[11] Ibid., p.53.
[12] Ibid., p.55.
[13] Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.78 ff.
[14] Ibid., p.73.
[15] Richard Dawkins, quoted in Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.80.
[16] Dawkins, 2006, p.221.
[17] Ibid., p.264.
[18] Dawkins, Richard 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, p.3.
[19] Susan Blackmore, quoted in Johnson, Phillip E. 2000, The Wedge of Truth: splitting the foundations of naturalism, IVP, p.110.
[20] Johnson, Phillip E. 2000, The Wedge of Truth: splitting the foundations of naturalism, IVP, pp.107-8.
[21]Singer, Peter 1983, 'Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,' Pediatrics, 72[1]:128-129.
[22] Steven Weinberg, quoted in Craig, William Lane 2008, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics (3rd edition), Crossway, p.83.

Go to 7. Genesis 1 and 2 on mankind

© 2010 Paul B Coulter
This article is reproduced here by the kind permission of the author.