Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Humans: Biological Machines

The number one task at the beginning of the new year is finishing off seminary curriculum for the Spring. A secondary goal is to finish the philosophy book in January. I had written two sections of Chapter 9: "What is a Human Being?" but it wasn't working. So here's to starting the chapter over:
9.1 Biological Machines
Christians obviously believe that a human being is much more than a biological machine. But we are nevertheless biological machines. We have bodies that work when they have the appropriate fuels in the appropriate environments. They break down, they need repairs, they cease to function altogether.

Ecclesiastes expresses somewhat pessimistically that humans "can see for themselves that they are no better than animals. For humans and animals both breathe the same air, and both die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! Both go to the same place—the dust from which they came and to which they must return" (3:18-20, NLT). In a different context, Paul contrasts the truly spiritual person from the "natural" person (1 Cor. 2:14), a word notoriously difficult to translate. [1] A really literal translation would be a "soulish" person. A strong argument can be made that Paul here is alluding to the part of the human soul we share with the animal realm, while our spirits are different. [2] So you might say that some people are merely animal, not spiritual--even some Christians!

We need to be very careful not to take this language as God's literal view of the human make-up. The Bible expresses truths about human beings using more than one picture of how we mortals are put together, revealing truth in the categories of those to whom God was speaking at the time. As we will see in this chapter, the Old Testament does not use the word soul the same way that we do. The New Testament comes closer occasionally, but still with slightly different assumptions than we have. Those who try to break down the parts of the human psyche using biblical language inevitably end up with a very strange mixture indeed, made up of ancient language and contemporary psychology, filtered through some seventeenth century philosophy they may never even have heard of! [3]

Nevertheless, as long as we do not take the distinction between our animal part and our spiritual part too literally, the distinction is potentially very helpful. [4] By the end of the chapter, you may conclude that we share a great deal more with the animal world than many of us previously imagined. Certainly we all recognize that we need to eat, sleep, keep warm, and do many other things animals do. Abraham Maslow (1908-70) famously categorized human drives in terms of a "hierarchy of needs" in the form of a pyramid. [5] At the base of the pyramid were basic needs like breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, and excretion. If these things do not take place, you will die.

[insert Maslow's pyramid]

But we share much more with the animal world than these basics. Maslow suggested that when our physiological needs are met, we will focus on higher "needs." On the next level up in his pyramid of needs, he suggested we will strive for safety and security over and above food and basic bodily functions. [6] Then he placed our social needs on the next level up, things like our drive for love, belonging, family, and so forth. Above that level he placed our longing for self-esteem and respect. Finally, on the highest level, he placed something he called "self-actualization," by which he meant reaching your highest potential as an individual, to be all you can be. Maslow thought of self-actualization as something different for each person, something very relative to who you were as an individual.

Subsequent psychology has picked the particulars of Maslow's theory apart, questioning whether we can really speak of such a fixed hierarchy in relation to some of these "needs." His idea of self-actualization also seems dubious, and Christians believe that regardless of what personal peace or fulfillment you might feel, God is the one who has determined the appropriate goals for human life. But what Maslow does for us is get us thinking about some of the basic longings and drives we as humans share with other animals. Certainly we share very similar physiological needs with other animals. Humans regularly show themselves little different from animals in their inability to control their sex drives, often having sex with anyone they can, like a dog or orangutan.

The best known vices and human sins show us to be slaves just as much to our desires as any other animal. For example, it would be hard to find an animal in the wild as prone to obesity as the American homo sapiens. How many humans are able to rise above the herd mentality of so many species to treat groups other than their own fairly or view their own objectively? How many examples of genocide attempts has history left us? How many humans show mercy when they sense weakened prey on which to pounce? We are, in so many instances, little different from other predatory animals.

We share other longings and drives with other animals as well. We have a drive for security, as other animals, and we can become vicious when cornered. On the other hand, anyone who has had a pet recognizes that dogs and cats can have a sense of belonging to a family and usually long for affection, just like humans. Some animals can even demonstrate a kind of selflessness and self-sacrifice that many humans would not offer under the same circumstances.

Most of us humans are easily manipulated and can be trained. We obviously try to train up our children in the way they should go (cf. Prov. 22:6). We "reinforce" positive behavior and often use a "punishment" model to discourage behavior we do not want. When we become adults, we often think we are free and no longer being trained, but most of us continue to be herded and "conditioned" by the media, politicians, and countless cultural forces and trends throughout our lives.

Some of the language of the previous paragraph comes from the work of the atheist B. F. Skinner (1904-90), perhaps the most significant psychologist of the twentieth century. He is best known as the originator of a system of training or "conditioning" others--especially children--called behavior modification. While we strongly disagree with his assumption that humans are only highly evolved animals, it would be difficult to deny that he correctly showed that you can steer the behavior of humans in very similar ways to how we might steer the behavior of other animals like rats and pigeons.

[textbox--behavior modification (use operant conditioning in the definition), positive and negative reinforcement]

Skinner's terminology has made its way into popular language. When we talk about positive reinforcement, we are talking about rewarding a person or animal for an action or choice that we want them to do. Negative reinforcement is thus when one withholds or withdraws reward or something desired to discourage a particular choice or action. [7] Skinner notoriously used this method with success in relation to lower animals, and it usually works with human animals as well, unless one of the more unique features of humanity kicks in, namely, our ability to reflect on ourselves. If one realizes he or she is being manipulated, one will normally stop cooperating with the manipulator. [8]

We will discuss the relationship of the brain to the soul later in the chapter. But it is clear that we share many parts of our brain with the brains of other animals. For example, the brains of lower animals are basically like our brainstem, which keeps us alive by controlling things like our breathing or body temperature without us even thinking about it. The more complex the animal, the more similarity between their brains and ours. Thus reptiles not only have a brainstem, but a cerebellum like ours that helps regulate movement and balance.

[insert diagram of human brain]

Then mammals like ourselves have a neocortex like we do in our cerebrum, the outer part of our brains. Theirs are not as developed as ours are, but they share certain features. At the core of our cerebrum is the limbic system, where basic emotions like fear and aggression seem to originate. We share these basic structures with other mammals--and we would seem to share many of the same basic drives associated with them. Where our brains are unique is in the outer most parts of our brain, the parts that seem to be able to control and moderate our aggression and emotion--in other words, our reasoning parts.

Certainly as Christians we believe that human persons are much more than biological machines. But we clearly are biological machines as well, perhaps far more than most people realize. There are locations in our brain involved in everything from our memory to our personality to our spiritual experiences. Change the structure of our brain and we become different people--fundamentally different! Nevertheless, as Christians we believe that a "spiritual" realm exists in addition to the merely "physical," although we cannot say exactly what these words are literally referring to. Nevertheless, we believe they refer to real things that truly exist and that make us much more than animal, as we will discuss later in the chapter.

[1] KJV: "natural"; NRSV: "unspiritual"; NIV: "man without the Spirit"; NLT: "people who aren't Christians."

[2] Thinking here of the Jewish interpreter/philosopher Philo who thought that the spirit was the "soul's soul" but that the rest of the soul was that which humanity had in common with the animals (Allegorical Laws 1.11; Heir 55).

[3] Namely, Rene Descartes' understanding of the soul.

[4] Many scholars believe that Paul's language in 1 Corinthians 2 is using the language of his opponents at this point. For a brief exploration of this passage in the light of Philo's writings, see my A Brief Guide to Philo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 76-79.

[5] "A Theory of Human Motivation," Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-96.

[6] Including things like security, employment, health, resources, morality, etc.

[7] Not to be confused with punishment. Skinner believed that punishment only trains a person to avoid punishment rather than to avoid a particular choice and he is well known for his opposition to corporal punishment. While it is possible he was more correct than wrong on many of these ideas in theory, many parents will likely conclude there is still a legitimate role for punishment to play as a deterrant to certain behaviors. We will discuss the question of punishment versus formation in chapter 13, "Living Together in Society."

[8] Unless, of course, the manipulator is using reverse psychology, and the goal is actually to get you to do the opposite of what they seem to be trying to get you to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Refreshing to see behaviorism discussed on a theological blog. Back in the stone age when I was a behavioral psychologist, we were routinely castigated for our "god-less" view of the human organism. Despite the fact that behavior modification was making real strides in improving the quality of life of the "developmentally challenged".

Was it/is it a good model of human behavior? Some ways, yes. Some ways, not so much. As the wise have said (and need to keep saying), a paradigm is a way of thinking; not a substitute for it.