A Breath of (needed) Fresh Air

After months of being wary of the air that I breathe, I inhaled a breath of fresh air yesterday.  The rejuvenating experience came in the form of Speaking Peace & Seeking Reconciliation in a Fractured Culture, an online conversation with David Bailey and Marilyn McEntyre, sponsored by The Trinity Forum and Coracle.  David Bailey (12:00 ff) quoted an African proverb that gives a needed perspective in these unsettled and unsettling times:

 When I saw them far away, I thought they were demons

When they got closer, I thought they were animals

When they got close, I saw they were human

When they got face-to-face, I realized they are my brother and sister

That proverb reminded me of something I had read in Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature. There, he wrote of “the kind to which we belong”:    

We are the kind of thing that relates to members of its kind through

interpersonal attitudes and through the self-predication of its own mental

states. . . . To understand your emotions I must understand how you

conceptualize the world.  I cannot simply describe your behavior as though it

were a response to the-world-as-science-would-describe-it.[1]

Scruton pointed out that Milton used Genesis to create an allegory that was not only “a portrait of our kind,” but also “an invitation to kindness.”  That portrait, said Scruton, shows us as humans what we are and what we must aspire to be.  When people are deprived of religion, philosophy, and the “higher aims of art,” however, Scruton saw dire consequences:

Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead.  Biological reductionism nurtures this “living down,” which is why people so readily fall for it.  It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic.  It abolishes our kind—and with it our kindness.[2]


Amidst the divisions evident in our culture in recent days, it seems timely to take the advice offered in yesterday’s online conversation by Marilyn McEntyre.  She talked about how poetry introduces truth in subversive and surprising ways; it plows up the ground or soil of our language.  She recommended that we spend time listening to others, and “call each other’s attention to the very words we are using.”  (14:54 ff)

This is advice worth heeding, and now is not too early to begin.

[1] Roger Scruton, “Human Kind,” in On Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 45.

[2] Scruton, pp. 48-49.

Human nature, health, and human flourishing

The past few days, I have been attending the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity’s 20th annual conference, entitled “Health and Human Flourishing,” and the following ramblings are a result of some good speakers and good conversations with fellow attendees.

Two essential truths: First, there is a “given” or normative human nature, and Jesus Christ is the normative human; second, he is the paradigm for human flourishing. By following him (including into suffering), becoming like him, and taking on the fruits of the Spirit, we become more truly human and discover true satisfaction and human flourishing.

Denying these two essential truths leads directly away from human flourishing. The first truth is that Jesus provides the norm for human nature. But the human enhancement project does not acknowledge a normative human nature, instead seeing it as malleable, thus open to tinkering in attempts to improve it (“take control of our evolution”). This naturally leads to dissatisfaction with our current state because we seek endlessly for the next better thing — a dissatisfaction that is the opposite of flourishing.

The second truth is that Jesus is the paradigm for human flourishing. But in a culture with a materialist world view (i.e., matter is all that is and all that matters), it is natural that “human flourishing” will be identified with “physical health.” Add to this the WHO definition of health as “a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” and the inevitable result of the pursuit of happiness and human flourishing will be the increasing medicalization of all spheres of life. But while health is an important contributor to human flourishing, it is not the same thing as human flourishing, and flourishing can even exist in its absence. In our culture’s rush to turn every event in life into a medical incident we keep pressing the health button in the hope that human flourishing will come out; but the only thing that comes out is more illness, more technology, more dissatisfaction — and less flourishing.

 

“Watson” vs. Humans

Watson supercomputer on Jeopardy.

Watson supercomputer on Jeopardy.Recently the quiz show “Jeopardy” pitted “Watson,” an IBM supercomputer, against the show’s previous top winners including Ken Jennings, the all time record holder for Jeopardy wins. With fascination, I watched “Watson” demolish the humans in a lopsided win. The event got me thinking. I tend to believe, contrary to futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, that machine intelligence will never surpass human intelligence.

On the other hand, “Watson” “sounded” like a human and processed the information with a speed that surpassed the best human effort. Kurzweil, Bostrom and others believe that it is just a matter of time before technology will transform what it means to be human. The assumption is that human nature is malleable, not static. The hope is that technology can intervene to take humans to a higher level of existence and even immortality.

So my question is, what does this imply for human nature? Should Christians feel threatened by these developments?