“Human” itself is an interesting word. One possible etymology is from the old-Latin rendering of “homo” (man) and “humus” (earth) combined to describe mankind as “earthly beings” distinguishing them from “heavenly beings,” i.e., the gods. Today our challenge is much different: rather than confusing ourselves with gods we have a tendency to confuse ourselves with mere animals. This confusion runs deep especially within the natural sciences. The biologist is often convinced by the physical similarities of humans and animals to render no difference between the two whatsoever. Likewise, the psychologist is often convinced on the basis of psychic similarities combined with a pre-devotion to deterministic-based theories of behavior to make any seriousness differentiation between the two.
It is my conviction that the attempt to use any one specialty within the natural sciences to render judgment on all things is to use the specialty as an “ism” rather than an “ology” – biology becomes “biologism,” psychology “psychologism,” etcetera. For lack of a full-orbed philosophy of existence the scientific specialist simply substitutes his given specialty as his philosophy, pro tempore. This is a widespread problem today as more and more professions turn into specialized fields with no commitment to general philosophy, as in bygone eras.
I have wrestled for a number of years with the problem of human nature as something inherently transcendent of mere animal nature. My “wrestling” is generated by my desire to articulate this conviction without using my religious beliefs (Orthodox Christian) as a staging ground for the argument. That said, I’ve come to some general conclusions and what follows are two arguments that most convince me.
1. Humans require a sense of meaning in order to function. Mere animals have no such hang-up.
In his life work on Logotherapy, Viktor Frankl outlined man’s primary motivational force as the “will to meaning,” as opposed to the Freudian “will to pleasure” and the Nietzschean “will to power.” Frankl’s theory of man was informed not only by his profession as a gifted neurologist and psychiatrist, but from imprisonment in four different Nazi death camps. On a daily basis he endured not only his own torture and constant threat of death, but watched as his fellow prisoners struggled for survival. He observed in prison the remarkable ability of people to survive the most extreme situations with little more than a hope for the future and a belief that life contained meaning. When a prisoner would surrender this hope he faced almost certain death; usually within a week’s time according to Frankl’s account. It was this experience played out time and again over a three year period in the camps that Frankl observed man’s fundamental need for meaning rather than pleasure or power.
But how exactly does this show that man is more than mere animal? It demonstrates it in many ways, but perhaps the most empirical observation is that the lack of meaning encourages a behavioral phenomenon entirely at odds with an animal’s basic instinct for survival, an instinct which claims obedience from every other animal except man – in want of meaning, man kills himself.
2. Human’s cannot resist the notion of good and evil. An alliance with these concepts place humans well beyond mere animal existence, for better or for worse.
In addition to his hang-up with meaning, the human finds it necessary to believe in good and evil. More than anything else, this one facet of human nature places mankind either far above mere animal existence or else far below it.
If one takes at face-value the idea that the human is a mere animal, and does not assault his reasoning with fatal inconsistency, he must also disregard the preposterous belief in the existence of good and evil. The terms should be regarded as wholly metaphoric; signaling mere forces of nature rather than moral realities. In a purely physical and mechanical world where do such ideas fit it? What combination of chemical reactions account for “evil,” which for “good”? What physical elements can be categorized scientifically as good or evil? Either these concepts have a reality of their own, transcending mere physicality, or they are crazy delusions of bewildered apes.
Nietzsche attacked the idea of some who believed they should honor their animal-existence by living “according to nature.” He wrote: “Think of a being such as nature is, prodigal beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without aims or intentions, without mercy or justice … how could you live according to such indifference? To live – is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is living not valuating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? … The truth of it is, however, quite different: while you rapturously pose as deriving the canon of your law from nature, you want something quite the reverse of that, you strange actors and self-deceivers!” It is on this basis that Nietzsche rightly argued that mankind needed to progress “beyond good and evil.” If man is truly all natural – a mere part of nature and nothing more – he must dispense with the self-deception of valuations of good and evil.
Here is the crux of the argument: either the human transcends mere animal existence in his/her inherent tie with the realities (call them what you will) of good and evil, which also transcend mere nature, or nature has planted in human conscience these absurd of notions as some sort of cosmic parlor game. If good and evil are false concepts planted in human thinking by nature then nature has given him a set of phantasmal delusions which do not serve to promote his survival but quite the opposite, they ensure his eventual self-destruction, and not his alone but the destruction of the natural environment as well.
To be sure, some will find my argument lacking scientific sophistication. To that I can only say that I find biologism and psychologism to lack philosophic sophistication. As philosophies they resemble keyhole views of a great room; they are able to see the fine details of a chair here, or a bed there, but totally inept to discover the room in its full reality. The human is the one entity in nature which retains its mystery. A scientific description of the human will inherently limit one’s gaze to a set of specific physical elements, albeit with laser beam focus. A purely philosophical description of the human will inherently limit one’s gaze to the creation of the world according to the philosopher’s own image, so-to-speak. And, of course, a purely religious description of the human will require from the human the most human quality of them all – faith. Thus, even if one disagrees with all sincerity, believing that humans are no more than mere animals, he or she cannot begin to prove it using any of the above means. The need to prove anything is in itself evidence of human transcendence of nature, but that’s another article.