Why Being Human is Such a Secular Problem

Human personality is an enigma for contemporary philosophy and science. In an odd twist of fate, philosophers and scientists are trending towards an adamant renunciation of themselves. It is, by definition, a self-defeating enterprise.

While some might deny human nature in theory, they will never be able to in practice. That’s because the one who denies human nature is still human. We can’t outrun ourselves. Paraphrased differently with equal profundity, “Wherever we go in life—there we are.” Yet, wherever or whoever we are, from a secular perspective, outlining a rational explanation of us seems nigh impossible.

Some philosophers shrug it all off and tell us to embrace the irrational. We can’t explain you, they tell us, just be you, whoever you want you to be. In one breath they tell us to only believe what science can prove, as good materialistic and atheistic thinkers, and in the next they tell us to ignore all the particulars and adopt a purely existential view of ourselves. Which is it? Is it the physical facts we should trust or our wishful thinking?

Then there’s the wave of cognitive scientists who passionately argue against personhood. Just who do they think are they? And just whom do think they are they trying to persuade? If we aren’t persons then what exactly is all this jibber jabber? The whole undertaking seems like an exercise in ignoring common sense.

It’s another example of when the farmer with his pitchfork has a better grasp on reality than the PhD with his clipboard. Should the farmer poke the PhD with said pitchfork, the good professor would likely, and rather quickly, adopt a view of personhood (Hey, I’m a person! Don’t poke me with your pitchfork!) and fling his clipboard in the air in protest, with his scribbled notes denying personhood and human nature flying about in the wind—where they properly belong.

This is well illustrated in the recent article in “Aeon Magazine” by authors Massimo Pigliucci and Skye C Cleary by the title There’s No Philosophy of Life Without a Philosophy of Human Nature. “A strange thing is happening in modern philosophy,” they tell us, “many philosophers don’t seem to believe that there is such a thing as human nature.” It’s not only in philosophy. They point out that many academics argue, “modern science shows that human nature does not exist.”

Yet, after surveying the problem, I’m not sure they offer much perspective. The problem seems to be a unnecessary limitation to methodological naturalism, a sad system that ignores all spiritual explanations. Consider this paragraph from the middle of their piece:

“From Charles Darwin onward, the scientific consensus has been pretty clear: we are but one species among millions on Earth, members of a not particularly numerous branch of the tree of life, endowed with unusually large and structurally complex brains.”

Does the size of our brain really give us a new nature? I’m inclined to agree with the very people they seek to refute, if evolution is the over-arching story of the cosmos, then we aren’t persons. Human nature is merely an illusion.

Their task, as they seem to have defined it, is to situate and explain human nature from the framework of evolution. We are not substantively different than animals, they tell us, yet somehow our human nature is real. “Whatever characteristics our species possesses,” they write, “are the result of a continuous process of evolutionary differentiation.”

I’ll cut to the chase. A denial of the special creation of humanity obliterates the foundation for human nature. Humans are substantively different than animals because God created us in his image and endowed us with an immaterial soul. To be human means to be created in the image of God, body and soul. By definition, our humanity doesn’t make sense without spiritual explanations. If we adopt methodological naturalism we will only lose ourselves in the process.

In short, we can’t know who we are until we know who God is. We can’t know who God is unless he reveals it. And if he reveals to us our identity, to look elsewhere, such as to evolutionary biology, will be self-refuting in every way. If we try to define our identity on own, we will lose it. We won’t find our true nature until we stop pursuing the many paths to define us according to our own terms. God sets the terms. God defines our nature. We ignore this to our own peril.

“There is no single path to a flourishing human life, but there are also many really bad ones,” they write. “The choice is ours, within the limits imposed by human nature.” I’ll respond with a quote from Luke Skywalker, “Almost every word of that is wrong.”

There is only one path to flourishing. It is not limited by our human nature. It is defined by the reality that the Word became flesh. And that is what defines our identity and where we must begin to understand our nature. We can look elsewhere, but only in vain.