The emotional commitment in some intellectual quarters to human UNexceptionalism continues to alarm me. As does the belief that scientific findings have reduced us to mere meat. We are far more than that.
Part of it may involve a disdain for religion in some quarters that conflates HE with a belief in the soul. But as I use the term, human exceptionalism is not a religious concept. Rather, it describes the crucial understanding that regardless of whether we evolved, were designed, or created–or a combination of the three–human beings have a unique intrinsic nature that distinguishes us morally from flora, fauna, and dirt. Just because carrots and humans are both made of carbon molecules, that doesn’t mean we are the same as carrots.
Some attack HE as a way of undermining religion. But in doing so, they risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater by mutating a beneficial “humanism” into a subversive “anti humanism.” Here is an example from the Independent’s blog. From “Surely by Now, We’ve Outgrown the Soul?” by a neuroscience Ph.D. student named Martha Robinson:
Call it the soul, spirit or transcendent human consciousness – the idea that human ‘minds’ exist outside of and separate from the body has been pervasive throughout history… Much like the security blanket of a small child, our ideas about ‘souls’ and ‘minds’ are old, worn and fraying at the edges. It’s become clear we’ve outgrown them, but we’re having a hard time saying goodbye. Human behaviour is alarmingly complex. So much so that many take exception to the idea that they could be explained by the actions of mere meat. I am often accused of attempting to reduce the ineffable beauty of human experience down to ‘just’ a bunch of chemical reactions.
The ‘just’ here is a real problem. Reductionism in science isn’t about denying complexity, but about looking for the simple rules that underpin it. Unlike the clear-cut (and, dare I say, reductionist) notion of a ‘soul’ for which no more explanation is possible, a scientific approach acknowledges the complexity apparent at every level of brain function and begins the difficult task of understanding it.
Well and good, but that doesn’t undermine HE–unless one says that because science may one day explain the physical mechanisms of consciousness and develop more precise theories of how it evolved, ipso facto that means human life has no inherent meaning or dignity–certainly the strong implication of labeling us all, “mere meat.” One need not lead to the other unless one has an ideological goal in mind.
And indeed, Robinson’s main game seems to be destroying faith or belief in the transcendent, and she’s not afraid of leaping ahead of the current science to get there:
This developing understanding of what we loosely refer to as ‘consciousness’ demands that we face up to the physicality of our existence. The beauty that we once thought must be tied up in a mystical soul is actually something our own bodies create.
That’s far from proved. Besides, even if true, no other “bodies” in the known universe have ever “created” moral agency, reason, philosophy, abstract thinking, art, creativity, historicity, etc. beyond etc–all moral qualities, not just physical (like, say, the hawk’s amazing eyesight).
And here comes the reductionism freight train:
Thinking, feeling meat is not so comforting. In accepting our soulless, embodied selves, we will have to face up to genuinely hard questions about what it means to be human, and why that might matter. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it IS necessary. It’s impossible to build a coherent morality or understanding of the world without first ensuring intellectual honesty. This may sound rather pessimistic, but I’m hopeful. Despite the hard philosophical problems a soulless future promises, I think we’re grown-up enough to cope with it. It’s time to cast aside our childish things and face ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were.
But we already know where that leads because other human UNexceptionalists are already mining that ideological vein. Hence, we see advocacy for:
- “Personhood theory,” that explicitly claims some human beings have greater value than others based on capacities–meaning some humans can be reduced to mere natural resources ripe for the harvest.
- Animal rights–which creates a moral equivalency between human beings and animals.
- Creating whole cloth a “rights of nature” philosophy that may be the most dangerous of all because it turns anti humanism into misanthropic self loathing in which homo sapiens are redefined as the enemy species, mere parasites destroying the grandeur of Gaia.
I am convinced that the more we self perceive as mere meat on the hoof without moral importance per se, the greater the threat to human freedom and the higher potential that we could sacrifice human thriving. Indeed, should the rights of nature movement grow Utopian, it could pose a mortal threat.