Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Matter & Humanity” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Touchstone.
Matter & Humanity
The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters
reviewed by J. Daryl Charles
Ours is a most intriguing age. It bears the mark of schizophrenia yet stridency, of epistemological uncertainty yet deep-seated incorrigibility, of ethical ambiguity yet stunning intransigence. What consensually has been assumed by both ancients and moderns—namely, that the species Homo sapiens (literally, the knowing, wise, or rational species) is unique among all living forms, capable of dignity and depravity, of moral splendor and moral degeneracy, and that human beings are significantly free (and thus self-responsible) moral agents—is increasingly challenged today. This thoughtful volume, written by a professor of computer science and environmental studies at Middlebury College, responds to the present challenge by investigating the roots and ramifications of a post-consensus "physicalist" understanding of human nature.
What does it mean to be human? And what does it mean to have a human mind? Is the mind, in all its intricacy, only a complex machine, at bottom reducible to a computational model? If, as Matthew Dickerson contends, we as a culture really believe that "spirit" is not real, then "whether we consciously decide to act on this or not, what ultimately becomes important to us is the state of our body" and nothing more (xxi).
The Mind and the Machine explores and contrasts two very different approaches to the question of the human mind. The first half of the book is devoted to the assumptions and implications of a physicalist or strictly naturalist conception of human nature; the second half probes the inferences of a "supernaturalist" understanding of the human person. The result is a philosophical treatise that is at once insightful and accessible.
Three Difficulties of Physicalism
In Part 1 Dickerson underscores what he considers to be inescapable difficulties that issue out of the naturalist's Weltanschauung. Three strike him as worthy of reflection: human creativity, human ecology and our outlook on nature, and the reliability of human reason.
Human creativity—that is, "the ability to bring into being something new, which does not proceed entirely from what has gone before or what already exists" (43)—is causative in nature; because humans bring forth what is original, creativity expresses intention and purpose. The Achilles Heel of the physicalist perspective is that it denies not only "free will" but also "any real possibility of human creativity or human heroism" (46), and thus, self-sacrifice and moral greatness. In the end, this determinist framework—and its negation of free will—simply cannot account for human creativity; rather, "creativity" becomes nothing more than a synonym for randomness. A computer thus cannot legitimately be considered "creative" in any sense of the term.
The physicalist worldview, moreover, carries with it enormous ecological ramifications. Once we have replaced our brains—and recall that these are thought to be mere computers—why would we need our bodies at all? This, Dickerson believes, is no idle question. After all, in "virtual reality," given the premise of humans needing to be free from the limitations of their physical bodies, physical bodies are no longer necessary; in fact, they become hindrances, given their inherent imperfections and restrictions. The devaluing of the body in our time, which Dickerson observes at many levels (both popular and theoretical), has enormous consequences for thinking about the moral life and about caring for others.
It follows, then, that if physicalism is true, reason itself cannot be considered normative or trustworthy or pursuant of "truth"; rather, it is "accidental" (98). Neither can reason be used to truly "know." Hence, the very presuppositions of science, assumed by theists and non-theists alike, would seem to undermine physicalism, since the cosmos, with its material and non-material causes, exists outside the human mind and is consistent and ordered, a reality that human reason can observe. The implications of these "scientific" realities, for Dickerson, are worth further exploration (Part 2).
A More Plausible Explanation
Is there a framework for reality that offers a plausible explanation of these salient considerations? For Dickerson, the Judeo-Christian explanation of cosmic origins, because of its account of human creativity, beauty, and moral-ecological responsibility, provides such an explanation.
At the philosophical level, this explanation satisfies teleologically. If we accept that this telos "comes from accepting that the universe has its origin or cause in something—or, rather, in someone—who is personal and who simultaneously dwells within the cosmos and yet is not a part of it" (147), we acknowledge that the cosmos has a transcendent origin and purpose, giving rise to a sense of stewardship.
Furthermore, because the Judeo-Christian theistic framework affirms a body-and-spirit dualism, a related "ecological" aspect needs recognition, namely, the notion of a bodily resurrection. This doctrinal hope, it should be emphasized, is not that the "soul" (narrowly construed) will go to heaven, but rather that heaven will come to earth—in the form of a new body—which has radical implications for how human beings view the material universe.
In the book's penultimate chapter Dickerson further probes the question of the relationship between reason and science. Can reason and science support the idea of a "spiritual" (which is to say, a non-material) understanding of reality alongside the material? Only a supernaturalist account of what is ultimate, according to Dickerson, can offer any plausible justification for reason's existence, suggesting that "physicalism" is not the "evidence of science" but rather a metaphysical bias.
Far from being "blind," Christian faith presumes the role and necessity of reason as a gift from the Creator. There is no opposition between exhibiting "faith" and employing "reason," since both entities (based on creation and human "nature") operate in the pursuit of what is ultimate. This means that scientific exploration is not merely possible but indeed sanctioned by a comprehensive world-and-life view. And all of this lends support for a theistic account of what it means to be "human" and not a mere "machine."
Assessing the Cultural Climate
Aside from the author's inattention to natural-law theory in the Christian moral tradition, the addition of which would only strengthen his thesis, the reader will be pleasantly surprised at the accessibility of this volume, written by one whose technical training bridges philosophy and science. And indeed this is the strength of the volume. Dickerson is comfortable analyzing the philosophical and theoretical while possessing an uncanny ability to see—and articulate—the immensely practical implications of philosophical materialism.
Current cultural barometers are not encouraging when one considers prevailing social attitudes toward human "nature" and personhood. One of the defining characteristics of the contemporary Zeitgeist is an unwillingness to acknowledge either the reality of human finiteness or any transcending standard of "the good" which possesses the authority to order our lives toward a higher purpose. This intransigence inevitably descends into a denial of basic moral truth intuited via the natural law (cf. Rom. 2:14–15). Alas, that people by "nature" know basic moral reality is borne out by their instinctive reactions to genocide, crimes against humanity, and "inhumane" treatment of other humans.
But this rudimentary intuition, as Dickerson reminds us, also manifests itself on more "humane" occasions—for example, at weddings, at funerals, and at memorials, that is, on occasions that possess deep meaning precisely because of the incarnational reality that stands behind them. All who are present at such commemorations recognize the dualistic (physical and metaphysical) nature of reality bringing them together. These moments are profoundly "spiritual"; as such, they remind us of the insanity of a one-dimensional, "physicalist" view of life.
A Call for Vigilance
The drive to re-cast human "mind" and "nature" in our day needs our watchfulness. With the abolition of the notion of the imago Dei proceeds the "abolition of man"—a devastation that is moral, psychological, and socio-political in its ramifications. In such an environment, wherein transcending moral authority is not permitted, no human invention can be declared objectionable or reprehensible, for therewith we have placed ourselves "beyond good and evil."
Surely, the question of what it means to be human is the issue with which post-consensus Western culture is confronted. And surely it is this issue that will dictate social and public policy for decades, and perhaps generations, to come. Defining our "humanity" demands both critical reflection and an informed response. The present volume can only assist us in that timeless and timely task. •
J. Daryl Charles —a contributing editor of Touchstone—teaches in the Chattanooga Fellows Program and is an affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute. He is author, most recently, of Natural Law and Religious Freedom (forthcoming, Routledge) and co-editor (with Mark David Hall) of America's Wars: A Just War Perspective (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming). He contributed "Regensburg Left Behind: Christians Responding to Muslim Invitations Haven't Been Listening to Benedict XVI" to the September-October 2009 issue of Touchstone.
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