How do we define humanity?

white-page-of-print-on-human-mind1How do we know things?  How is it that humans have the ability to think.  According to some, it is just our big brains.  And if it is, then eventually we too will evolve.  Ray Kurzweil says that the elementary school kids of today will grow up as something altogether different than us.  They will have all sorts of enhancements from the world of science, including micro-machines, enhancements to their brain functions, and ‘biotic’ body parts.  But he also says that artificial intelligence will advance to the point where computers (or intelligent robots, or whatever) will be able to actually think,  create, and feel emotion.  He says you won’t be able to tell whether you’re talking to a human or a man-made device, because they will look and act and interact in exactly the same way.  They’ll have humanity – a soul.  Hmm.

That’s a projection, of course.  It’s based on scientific observation, but it’s also based on the presupposition that the sentient mind is something that is wholly contained in and a function of the human brain.  It assumes that when the brain is dead, so is the person.  But is that true?  Can we know for certain that the assumption we make is the correct one?  Is there any evidence that a person can live on even after the brain is clinically dead?

Turns out there is.   In The President’s Council on Bioethics: White Paper on Brain Death D. Alan Shewmon, Professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA Medical Center provided evidence to the PCBE that showed there was no necessary connection between brain activity and multiple expressions of integrative bodily activity.  He set forth startling examples where the bodies of patients reliably diagnosed with TBF [Total Brain Failure, the PC version of brain-dead] were shown to maintain homeostasis, fight infections and foreign bodies, eliminate, detoxify and recycle cell waste throughout the body, undergo respiration, assimilate nutrients, maintain body temperature, grow proportionately, heal wounds, exhibit cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses to unanesthetized surgical incision, gestate fetuses, and undergo puberty.

There are also documented cases where people who were supposedly brain-dead reported being fully aware, and in some cases experiencing things that they describe in great detail that cannot be explained naturalistically.  Yet the accounts are vivid, sometimes including information that the patient could not have known – indeed that nobody could have known but which was later verified.  So what’s going on?  Is it possible that the human mind has a non-naturalistic element?  

Christians believe in the existence of another realm: one we cannot yet see, but one that is every bit as real as the one we do see.  We pray, and expect that our prayers are heard, partly because we believe in this spiritual realm, and we believe that in that realm there are angels, demons, and other spiritual entities.  We also believe God is there.  Scientists have their quarks, bosons, dark matter, dark energy, and string theories.   These are all things they hypothesize about, and in some cases find evidence to support, but all have in common that they were theories that could explain the reasons for some of the things they were seeing.

In nearly all circumstances, however, they look for explanations that deny the existence of God, saying that anything else would not qualify as scientific inquiry.  Yet many scientists challenge this notion.  One is Paul Davies, a Professor at Arizona State University who has made statements that are critical of the idea that science does not involve faith.  In Taking Science on Faith he  says this”

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

I don’t buy that entirely, but let’s leave it for now…

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

These laws are the ‘given’s’ of the physical sciences.  They are simply there, and to question why is to think unscientifically.  Davies does not agree.  He goes on to say;

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

He discusses the idea of ‘multiverses’, and continues”

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

And the concluding paragraph”

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

‘Nuff said.

So, back to the central question.  How do we define humanity?  Well, we could try to cram it into the naturalistic box, or we could just admit that there’s something about our nature that makes us different than all other living creatures.  Maybe we were made in the image of God after all.


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