Saturday, March 20, 2010

Exceptionalism and Darwinian thinking

John Derbyshire has an article over at NRO on human exceptionalism.

It includes the usual Darwinian thinking to which I am instinctively repelled:

My meaning there was only to point up the hostility of religious creationists to ordinary biology and the lessons it teaches us — mainly, the lesson that Homo sap. is just one more branch on the tree of life, not gifted with any supernatural attributes.

My problem with Darwinism is that it puts the theory before the data. The question should be: What attributes does human being have, and are evolutionary explanations capable of accounting for them? The way it does work is: Whatever human attributes cannot fit into an evolutionary explanation, are therefore dismissed as unreal. So of course evolution can account for human nature; for whatever evolution cannot account for is excluded from human nature.

I am not talking about human attributes we know about only through divine revelation. I am talking about human attributes directly deducible from common sense and common experience. There is a man over there and a man over here; and I, a man, know them all and myself as such. We therefore share something in common, the form of "man", which allows us all to be known as "men." This form must itself be immaterial and the faculty that knows it - the intellect - must be immaterial. Therefore man has an immaterial component to his nature. It is this intellectual faculty that separates us from other animals - we are the "rational animal" - and is the basis of human exceptionalism. A rational animal is not just another animal.

This is a simplified presentation of the Aristotelian argument for the immaterial intellect, which St. Thomas later extended to prove the immortality of the soul. There is nothing here that depends on supernatural revelation, and the conclusion is "supernatural" only if we make an a priori restriction on nature to include only the material. Or if we make an a priori restriction that human nature can only include those attributes accountable by evolution.

If we don't prejudice our thought in these ways, then it is clear that human beings are exceptional insofar as we possess an immaterial intellect. The true question to then be asked is: Can evolution account for the immaterial human intellect? Evolution may be able to account for other aspects of human nature, but it is this aspect, the intellect, that is crucial. This is what Pope John Paul II was getting at when he said that evolution, while it is more than just an hypothesis, is incompatible with the truth about man if it is used to deny his spirit.


Anonymous said...

Hi there!
Just read an interesting chapter in Keith Ward's book "In defence of the soul" on "the elimination of purpose" which treats exactly what you mentioned in your post.
Best regards.

David T. said...


I'm not familiar with Ward but looked him up after reading your comment. He looks interesting... I think I'll try some of his work. Thanks for the tip!


aletheist said...

JP Moreland came out with an excellent book last year, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. He cites consciousness, free will, rationality, the unified self, intrinsic value, and objective morality as indubitable aspects of human persons for which naturalism/materialism/physicalism has no viable explanation.

David T. said...

Sounds like an interesting book, I'll check it out.

Of course, the materialist will claim that he has explanations for free will, rationality, etc., but what he really means is that he can explain them away (or at least he thinks he can.)