Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Gen Eds P7: What is a person?

This is my sixth philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) to be considered a generally educated person (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first six philosophy posts were:
1. From a Christian standpoint, the key answer to the question, "What is a human person?" is that we are the image of God. At the very beginning of the biblical narrative, God creates humanity in his image (Gen. 1:27), male and female. In Genesis, the key feature of God's image is humanity's place as the pinnacle of the creation, the ruler of the earth just as God rules the universe. God instructs humanity to be fruitful and multiply, and to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the land (Gen. 1:28).

The New Testament adds another dimension to humanity as the image of God--a moral responsibility. When we become a part of Christ, we take of our old clothes, clothes of a sinful life, and we clothe ourselves with a new self, which is being "renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator" (Col. 3:10). Similarly, we are not to use our tongues to curse others, since they are also "made in the likeness of God" (Jas. 3:9).

The bottom line is that Christians are to love both neighbors (Matt. 22:39) and our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48) because they are all made in the image of God. All human life is sacred because all human beings are a reflection of God. We treat our enemies with dignity because they are a reflection of God. Even when they are thoroughly evil, there is a sense in which they are a reflection of God. All human life is thus intrinsically valuable and meaningful.

2. Christians also believe that all humanity has an eternal future. Certainly this is the case for those who are reconciled to God through Jesus the Christ. Those who had faith in God in the time before Christ and those who have faith in God through Christ in the time since are "in Christ" and will participate in a resurrection to eternal life. While Christians have some varying senses of those who are not in Christ, the classic Christian belief is that they also will experience an eternity of eternal alienation from God.

The classic way to conceptualize this eternity involves a belief that all human beings possess an immortal soul that will survive death, a kind of detachable escape pod from our body. However, classic Christianity--and more important biblical Christianity--has always believed in a bodily resurrection as well. That is to say, we will not spend eternity as bodiless spirits but with glorified bodies we will take on at an even known as the resurrection, an event which has not yet taken place.

As mentioned in the previous post, there are Christians who would argue that the Bible knows nothing of a spirit or soul that can be separated from an embodied existence of some kind. [1] They would say that we must always have a body of some sort to have individual existence, even in the time between our deaths and our resurrection. Perhaps they might suggest that language of spirit and soul, when it occurs, is a figurative way of talking about aspects of our embodied existence.

3. There are of course other perspectives on human existence. A behaviorist in psychology might see us more or less as only highly evolved animals. A naturalist, who believes that nature is all that exists, might more or less see a human being as road kill waiting to happen. The existentialists of the twentieth century tried to turn this nihilism, this sense of ultimate meaningless to our existence, into something positive--we can make our lives mean whatever we want.

In the first post on the philosophy of religion, I mentioned Albert Camus, who posed the question, "Why not suicide?" [2] The existentialist answer is to choose a meaning for your life, to define who you are by choice. Jean Paul Sartre said that we are condemned to be free--having been thrown in the world we are responsible for who we are. Our physical existence is a given. What our essence might be is up to us (who we are): "Existence precedes essence."

These are of course not Christian perspectives. We have a meaning--we are the creation of God in the image of God. There is a best essence for us to choose--to make a choice for God, to become a new creation in him.

4. The question of human freedom is also one that has been debated both by Christian and non-Christian alike. The ancient Greeks and indeed most people in most times and places have tended to see human life as fated. One might make some choices but they ultimately led to a predetermined destination.

This model of human existence fit a world where the vast majority of people seemed almost completely out of control of their lives and destinies. The ancient Stoics suggested that a person would only be at peace if he or she "loved their fate." The Hindus had a sense of karma, that our circumstances in this life were a direct result of choices we had made in the previous one. While we thus had some freedom to determine our future fate, we were also beholden to what we had fated for ourselves from the past.

In the ancient fated view of human identity, you did not look for formative childhood experiences to explain who a person was today. Our current sense that you can explain who a person is today by what happened to him or her as a child is a paradigm shift that took place as a result of the psychology of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). In ancient times, there was more a sense that a person was born a certain type of person. If a person became great later, we would expect that there were clear signs of that greatness as a child. If a person turned out to be evil, we would expect that there were indications of a latent evilness as a child. People looked for omens that were portents of destiny.

Conceptions of human freedom among thinkers have often been a reflection of cultural trends and movements. It is surely no coincidence that both John Calvin (1509-1564) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived in the same general period and were strong determinists who believed that everything that happened was destined to happen. For Calvin God was the one who determined everything. But the rise of science in the 1600s also reflected a certain determinism. In a famous quote Pierre-Simon Laplace suggested that the laws of cause and effect dictated not only everything that would happen for all the future but also for all the past.

At the same time, there was a movement toward a sense of human freedom that rose at this time as well. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) pushed back against Calvin's determinism and claimed that the Bible taught that humans had a choice whether they were saved from hell or not. John Wesley (1703-91) suggested that God's grace empowered humans to make this choice. He thus accepted Calvin's sense that humans could not choose God in their own power but believed that God himself had made a solution possible by way of his Holy Spirit.

We can thus distinguish at least three views of human freedom. Hard determinism suggests that we are not free at all. Everything we do is dictated either by God or by the laws of cause and effect. On the opposite end of the spectrum is libertarianism, which believes that we have some degree of free will, whether innately or empowered by God. In the middle is a position sometimes called soft determinism or compatibilism. This perspective amounts to a sense that, while we are really fully determined, we perceive ourselves to act freely.

So a determinist like John Piper can say that we have free will, because we perceive ourselves to be making choices freely, but really God has dictated every choice we will make. John Wesley, by contrast, would suggest that God's power has actually made it possible for us to make certain free choices, especially those relating to our salvation. You might say that free will, in this sense, becomes a miracle of God's grace. [3]

4. Before we leave this subject, it is worth anticipating a topic we will revisit when we look at sociology. One of the most significant paradigm shifts of the last five hundred years has been the rise of individualism. That is to say, modern Western individuals tend to see themselves as self-directed individuals rather than as people whose identity is more a function of the groups to which they belong.

Human beings are herd animals, so to speak. The human default is for us to identify ourselves by the groups in which we are embedded. We see this dynamic especially in the teen pack mentality, with its accompanying peer pressure. We see it most strongly at the moment in political party affiliation. Especially among older Americans, a Republican votes Republican and a Democrat votes Democrat and to break party lines is to be a traitor.

We see it with religion, where everyone in a different religion is obviously evil or a terrorist. We see it in nationalism, where America is the nation of God's chosen people. We are wired as humans to identify ourselves by group. Men are this way; women are another. Jews are this way, Irish are another.

One of the great strengths of the Enlightenment of the 1700s (which also entails certain weaknesses in excess) is a sense that we stand before the law and before God as individuals. It should not matter whether your father was a Mexican or a Mid-western farmer when you stand before the law. Justice should be blind. I do not have to marry someone my parents arranged me to marry. I do not have to be an insurance adjuster because my father was. You can "be all you can be" without your group setting artificial limits. There is no absolute caste system in the West.

Culture tends to set the paradigm for whether we think more in corporate, "collectivist" terms or in more individualist terms. There are strengths and limitations to each. But you could argue that there was a certain tendency toward individual identity in earliest Christianity in the sense that being in Christ is linked to individual faith in Paul's writings. There was a culturally subversive dimension to this perspective. No longer is there Jew or Greek (ethnicity as determiner of identity), slave or free (social status as a determiner of identity), male or female (gender as a determiner of identity). Rather, faith in Christ and the presence of the Spirit come to define who you are.

Next week: Philosophy 8: How should we live?

Classic Reading
  • Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
  • Sigmund Freud, On the Interpretation of Dreams
  • John Wesley, "Free Grace"
[1] The idea of an immaterial soul in particular comes from Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and fit with the paradigm shift in his day to a division of existence into natural and supernatural. Whereas before this time the soul might have been thought to be thinly material in some way, he now conceptualized it as "other," non-material or immaterial.

[2] In The Myth of Sisyphus

[3] See the previous post for the current sense of indeterminism in quantum physics. The possibility that God might influence the flow of history on a quantum level opens up the door for both determinism to reassert itself (for Calvinists), as well as for God to empower human freedom in some way (for Arminians).

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Another good one. Thanks!