On human nature

9780691183039_0“There is an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth,” according to “the words of the Quester, David’s son and king in Jerusalem” (Eccles. 3:1, 1:1, MSG). For a reader, there is a right time for reading by whim and another for reading by design. My opportunity to review Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons by Rowan Williams, the Anglican theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, motivated me to follow up with another book on the same topic, On Human Nature by English philosopher Roger Scruton. England is blessed with these contemporary thinkers, who cogently defend, against the hegemonic paradigm of materialism, the human being as a unique animal — different not in degree but in kind because of personhood. “We are animals certainly,” says Scruton, “but we are also incarnate persons, with cognitive capacities that are not shared by other animals and which endow us with an entirely distinctive emotional life — one dependent on self-conscious thought processes that are unique to our kind.” Both Williams and Scruton insist that persons are embedded in relationships. “I am, and I have value, because I am seen by and engaged with love — ideally, the love we experience humanly and socially, but, beyond and behind this, always and unconditionally the love of God. And the service of others’ rights or dignity is, in this perspective, simply the search to echo this permanent attitude of love, attention, respect, which the Creator gives to what is made,” Williams writes.

I will let my review of Being Human speak for itselfFor this blog post, I will share the ingenious analogy that Scruton devises to illustrate how personhood is “an emergent entity, rooted in the human being but belonging to another order of explanation than that explored by biology.”

Mona Lisa

When painters apply paint to canvas they create physical objects by purely physical means. Any such object is composed of areas and lines of paint, arranged on a surface that we can regard, for the sake of argument, as two-dimensional. When we look at the surface of the painting, we see those areas and lines of paint and also the surface that contains them. But that is not all we see. We also see — for example — a face that looks out at us with smiling eyes. In one sense the face is the property of the canvas, over and above the blobs of paint; for you can observe the blobs and not the see the face, and vice versa. And the face is really there: someone who does not see it is not seeing correctly. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the face is not an additional property of the canvas, over and above the lines and blobs. For as soon as the lines and blobs are there, so is the face. Nothing more needs to be added in order to generate the face – and if nothing more needs to be added, the face is surely nothing more. Moreover, every process that produces just these blobs of paint, arranged in just this way, will produce just this face – even if the artist is unaware of the face. (Imagine how you would design a machine for producing Mona Lisas.)

* * *

The personal eludes biology in just the way that the face in the picture eludes the theory of pigments. The personal is not an addition to the biological: it emerges from it, in something like the way the face emerges from the colored patches on a canvas.

As much as I admire the rigor of Scruton’s philosophy on human nature, I must admit, after reading his book, that Williams’ theological philosophy is far more satisfying, as he suggests: “When it comes to personal reality the language of theology is possibly the only way to speak well of our sense of who we are and what our humanity is like — to speak well of ourselves as expecting relationship, as expecting difference, as expecting death. (And, of course, for Christians and people in other faith traditions, expecting rather more than death as well.)”


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