Skip to content

The Peculiar Human Organism

One of the central components of my thesis (which is, mercifully, coming closer to completion) is that the new atheist account of reality is not “deep” enough—it does not provide a rich or satisfying enough account of the phenomenology of being human. Huge swaths of human existential concerns are relegated to the realm of evolutionary peculiarities or “misfirings” in the attempt to squeeze everything into what John Haught has called an “explanatory monism” which assumes that one mode of explanation—the scientific one—is all we need. This reductive approach to human beings is then held alongside (awkwardly and incoherently, in my view) an arrogated moral authority in the attempt to discredit the very religious traditions which it is unwittingly borrowing from.

I couldn’t help but think of this while reading the opening chapter of Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. The book is about language and, among other things, what our ability to use it—to address others and to be addressed as subjects—might say about our uniqueness in the cosmos, but here, at the outset, Percy simply wonders about how an understanding of human beings as nothing but “organisms in environments” can account for the alienation and longing that is so pervasive a feature of human existence—even when our environment is the best (materially speaking) that our species has ever seen:

If beasts can be understood as organisms living in environments which are good or bad and to which the beast responds accordingly as it it has evolved to respond, how is man to be understood if he feels bad in the best environment?…. A theory of man must account for the alienation of man. A theory of organisms in environments cannot account for it, for in fact organisms in environments are not alienated.

Percy, writing in the mid-twentieth century, summarizes a human predicament that I suspect has not changed much since he penned these words:

Man knows he is something more than an organism in an environment, because for one thing he acts like anything but an organism in an environment. Yet he no longer has the means of understanding the traditional Judeo-Christian teaching that the “something more” is a soul somehow locked in the organism like the ghost in the machine. What is he then? He has not the faintest idea. Entered as he is into a new age, he is like a child who sees everything in his new world, names everything, knows everything except himself.

We might behave as “organisms in environments” on the physical level—we have the skills to survive and have proven wondrously adept at bending the natural world to our material purposes—but at the psychological or spiritual level, this is certainly not the case. If the story of cosmic history is about the emergence of species suited to their environments, why do we seem to be such an odd fit? How has nature thrown up a creature that expects so much more from its environment than it could possibly give it? Is it because, for reasons unknown, we’ve evolved prefrontal lobes that are too big (and overactive) for our own good? Or are human beings more than just organisms in environments.

Percy sets forth the metaphor of human beings as “homeless” wayfarers as opposed to organisms adapting to their environment in order to account for the alienation we feel. While the word “homeless” gets my theological antennae up (it seems to connote an escapist eschatology—”this world is not my home, I’m just-a-passin’ through”—which is problematic on a number of different levels), I think Percy powerfully captures the Christian idea that human beings were made for more than our current experience of the world allows.

To say that we are made for “more” does not require the further claim that this world is not a good one, just that it doesn’t seem to be enough for us. This is more of an empirical observation of how human beings, in fact, think and live in the world than it is a theological claim. The relentless human search for purpose and meaning, no matter what exotic paths this might take us on, is evidence that we at least think we are more than just “organisms in environments.” Simply put, we expect more from the world than it seems able to deliver.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways of interpreting this empirical phenomenon: 1) With Richard Dawkins (among others), dismiss it as the “whingeing self-pity of those who think that life owes them something”; or 2) With Percy (among others), consider the possibility that it might just represent a clue to the mystery and meaning of the universe. Either the phenomenon is an evolutionary oddity which makes no contact with what is actually true about the cosmos, or it is a hint of things to come.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Third way of enterpreting this empirical phenomenon:

    Humans evolved sophisticated abilities of cognition. The purpose of this cognition is to compute what we, as organisims, should do next. This empowers us with great predictive capabilities. But in order to be successful, it requires a new kind of motivation.

    At a more primitive level, motivation is simple. Pleasure and pain. There’s not much going on. However, one of the problems with this is that pleasure, on its own, can still get us into trouble. Enter cognition.

    Instead of pleasure and pain, cognition provides the framework for happiness and suffering. Pleasure and pain are tied into the body, when happiness and suffering are more cerebral. So even if our environment is sufficient for our physical wellbeing and comfort, this will be irrelevant to us if our mental environment is in a state such that it encourages suffering over happiness.

    This can all be explained in evolutionary terms, and provides a naturalistic explanation for exactly the kind of ennui you’re talking about.

    Now, you may disagree with this naturalistic worldview – that’s your right. But the simple fact of the matter is that it was misleading to suggest the dichotomy between explanations 1 and 2 when there is this third explanation as well – and probably others.

    May 9, 2008
  2. I think you’ve just provided a more elaborate version of the first option. Even if your account of “ennui” (not the same thing as the alienation Percy is talking about, incidentally) is true, it is an adaptive strategy, nothing more (and a confusing one at that – how would a cognitional state that encourages suffering over happiness have been adaptively useful?).

    At the end of the day, the same two options remain: either there is “something more” which could fulfill human longing or there isn’t.

    May 9, 2008
  3. I think you’ve just provided a more elaborate version of the first option.

    No. I didn’t.

    There’s a big difference between this:

    [D]ismiss it as the “whingeing self-pity of those who think that life owes them something”

    And this:

    This can all be explained in evolutionary terms, and provides a naturalistic explanation for exactly the kind of ennui you’re talking about.

    So my original point still stands – your article tried to construct a misleading dichotomy.

    How about this?

    1) there is “something more” which could fulfill human longing (I presume you mean something supernatural).
    2) There isn’t “something more” which could fulfill human longing (with the implication that we’re doomed to it).
    3) There isn’t “something more” which could fulfill human longing; everything we need to do this is right here in the natural world with with us – if only we could understand it better.

    Finally:

    [H]ow would a cognitional state that encourages suffering over happiness have been adaptively useful?

    An organisim that is suffering during any given present but desires happiness will be more motivated to act to bring that happiness about. It’s not hard to see that an organisim that strives harder than those around it would be selected for genetic fitness.

    Note that I’m by no means saying we should be doomed to suffer – indeed, I’m saying that understanding the roots of suffering can be of huge importance when we apply ourselves to overcoming suffering. It’s all a part of understanding ourselves well enough to work out what really makes us happy.

    May 10, 2008
  4. I’m still not seeing the “misleading dichotomy.” To assert that everything we need for our satisfaction is “right here in the natural world” is not the same thing as providing a third option. It is simply to squeeze human desires for a mode of existence that transcends this one into the first of the two options by either declaring them illegitimate or radically limiting their scope.

    An organism that is suffering during any given present but desires happiness will be more motivated to act to bring that happiness about. It’s not hard to see that an organism that strives harder than those around it would be selected for genetic fitness.

    I didn’t ask how a creature who suffered “during any given present” could be motivated to act to alter its circumstances to produce more happiness. That seems pretty obvious to me. The question I asked was “how would a cognitional state that encourages suffering over happiness have been adaptively useful?”

    The question of why the kind of existential alienation Percy talks about (and which religious responses to the world claim to address) exists in the first place remains unanswered. If anything, many forms of religious belief would seem to be downright maladaptive (believing that your “real” home is some kind of ethereal spirit world doesn’t seem obviously conducive to striving to pass on your genes in this one). What are these impulses doing there? How are they evolutionarily useful? How do they fit into an anthropology which says that human beings are nothing more than organisms adapting to their environment?

    (I’m aware of some of the creative responses to this question – i.e., that some of these human peculiarities are “cultural symbionts,” “mind-viruses” seeking their own replication, or “by-products” of other, more useful adaptations; I just don’t find them to be a compelling explanation for some the features of human life that many have historically considered to be central to our humanity).

    May 10, 2008
  5. I’m still not seeing the “misleading dichotomy.”

    I’m not sure how to explain this better…

    Your original statement was worded very negatively between the naturalistic and the supernaturalistic worldviews.

    You established that there is a ‘longing for something more’. That’s fair enough. You then argued that there was either a supernatural “something” that could fulfill that want, or that there was nothing at all that could fulfill that want and it was only the vocalization of the “whingeing self-pity of those who think that life owes them something”.

    You completely failed to consider the possiblity that there is something that can fulfill the longing for something more and that it can be found in the natural world around us – without recourse to the supernatural.

    To try and summarize this clearly:

    There is longing for “something more”.
    Either:
    1) It can be fulfilled by the supernatural.
    2) It cannot be fulfilled so we should get over it.
    3) It can be fulfilled by the natural.

    Options 2 and 3 are both naturalistic. However, the option 2 that you provided is powerfully pessimistic – the option 3 I provided is powerfully optimistic.

    That was the flaw in the dichotomy you originally presented. By casting the difference between an optimistic supernatural worldview and a pessimistic natural worldview, you were – intentionally or unintentionally – playing on the emotions of the audience to your article in such a way as to lead them down the path of the supernatural worldview all the more willingly.

    That’s my objection to your article.

    May 11, 2008
  6. It’s not the quality or the clarity of your explanation that’s the problem. I understand what you’re saying perfectly well, I just don’t agree with it.

    To take only the most obvious example, substitute “immortality” for “something more” in your summary above. Religious approaches to the world have almost always included some conception of what happens after this life. You might think longings for eternal life are nonsense, but the fact remains that they represent a historically pervasive feature of the human species. How would they be fulfilled by what you’re arguing is a separate third option?

    May 12, 2008
  7. You might think longings for eternal life are nonsense, but the fact remains that they represent a historically pervasive feature of the human species.

    Now we’re on very fine ground, here.

    On a personal note, yes, I do think the idea of immortality is nonsense. However, that is not the basis of my objection.

    How would they be fulfilled by what you’re arguing is a separate third option?

    I’ve alreay tried to cover this. At risk of repeating myself:

    IF it can be established that the phenomenon of human longing which you’re describing is naturalistic in origin, then it would follow that there could very well be a naturalistic means of fulfilling that longing.

    To get my bias out of the way, yes, I do believe this option to be the case. I think that the development of compassion as a innate, natural phenomenon of cognitive evolution is the answer. I think that this is the answer because I have felt this very longing that you’re speaking of, and my commitment to compassion has fulfilled that longing very well.

    But note that I used the word ‘if’. Right now, I’m not trying to argue the case that this is true. After all, my own personal experience is highly subjective, and it would take a lot more effort to establish the objective truth of this idea than I wish to get into here.

    I’m just trying to argue the case that:

    1. This is a valid possibility.
    2. This possibility is distinctly different from:

    With Richard Dawkins (among others), dismiss it as the “whingeing self-pity of those who think that life owes them something”;

    3. You omitted this option from your article (either by intent or by oversight).
    4. As a result of this omission you set up a misleading dillemma for the reader involving a forced descision between two mutually exclusive options when a third option can be demonstrated to exist.
    5. Not only that was a false dichotomy created between two options, but the option of which you were in favor was phrased positively, and the option you were contrasting against was phrased in the most negative and insulting way that was open to you.

    Once again, I object to the idea that this third option is just a re-hashed version of your second option. There is a world of difference between ‘you can fulfill your longing in the here and now’ and ‘dismiss your emotions because life doesn’t owe you anything’.

    May 12, 2008
  8. Forgive me, I’m still not seeing how the religious longing for immortality could be fulfilled by “the natural.” Suppose person x longs for a postmortem mode of existence that is not characterized by transience or decay. This longing will either be validated after death, or will have simply been wishful thinking. What other option do you see?

    Once again, I object to the idea that this third option is just a re-hashed version of your second option. There is a world of difference between ‘you can fulfill your longing in the here and now’ and ‘dismiss your emotions because life doesn’t owe you anything’.

    I don’t recall saying that we ought to “dismiss our emotions” because life doesn’t owe us anything. I included the Dawkins quote that you find so distasteful a) because of its rhetorical punch (it’s a memorable line, after all); and b) because I thought it succinctly reinforced the point of the post: human beings have some very peculiar desires and longings which are difficult to account for on a worldview which sees us as nothing more than organisms adapting to our environment.

    Again, these desires either point to some objectively real metaphysical reality or they are badly misguided delusions. I still don’t see a third option.

    May 12, 2008
  9. Forgive me, I’m still not seeing how the religious longing for immortality could be fulfilled by “the natural.”

    You can’t see it, therefore it can’t be a possible? Now there’s a non sequitur! 😛

    If we may, I would like to move away from calling it ‘the religious longing’ for the immortal, since my whole point is that this very same sense of longing can be fulfilled in a non-religious way.

    Again, these desires either point to some objectively real metaphysical reality or they are badly misguided delusions. I still don’t see a third option.

    How about slightly misguided delusions? 😀

    I don’t want to get into this too deeply. That would take waaaay too long. Essentially, I’m arguing that it’s possible to fulfill the longing for the eternal via the transient. The eternal and the transient… They work together. They fit.

    There’s a profound and deep sense of contentment and satisfaction of the longing for the eternal that can arise through simple awareness of the joy and sanctity of the present, transient moment. You don’t need an appeal to the supernatural for such moments.

    So in essence, I would say that the longing is perfectly natural, and it is a longing for the sanctity of the natural – but due to our discontentment with the natural (which itself arises from our misunderstanding about the natural) we don’t look for the solution which is right in front of our eyes – we strive for something outside the natural, something supernatural, when really the answer has been staring us in the face the whole time. In more philosophical terms, “it’s so clear that it is too hard to see.”

    Once again – I’m not trying to convince you that this is the case. I’m only trying to communicate that this is a possibility that you have overlooked.

    Until now I’ve been insinuating that you’ve been purposefully ignoring this option. I’m starting to think that I was mistaken in that. I withdraw the insinuation, and apologise for it.

    So to go into it again – the options you presented were that there was a longing for the immortal, or to abandon the search for fulfillment. I’m arguing that you can fulfill the longing for the immortal in the transient – that it is from the transient that the longing emerges, and that it is the transient – and only the transient – that can fulfill that longing.

    To put it another way… There is the child’s longing for candy. This may be because the child needs candy. It may be a sign that the child should grow up and stop longing for candy altogether. Or it may be a sign that the child really just needs a healthy meal.

    Note that I don’t mean to insult you or the longing for the eternal by associating them with a child’s longing for candy – I’m just trying to give a metaphor that gets across the concept I’m trying to suggest – that the transient, natural world is not neccesarily as barren of fulfillment for the longing for the eternal as you may have thought.

    And also, once again – I’m not trying to convince you that this is the Truth. Only that it is a possible worldview that you weren’t aware of but that the introduction of it changes the landscape of your original article.

    May 12, 2008
  10. If we may, I would like to move away from calling it ‘the religious longing’ for the immortal, since my whole point is that this very same sense of longing can be fulfilled in a non-religious way.

    Certainly we can move away from calling it the “religious longing for the immortal” – that would more accurately reflect the kind of longing that you’re referring to, and it would reinforce my point that some desires cannot be accounted for and simply must be left behind on a naturalistic worldview. I’m sure that Dawkins (and most other naturalists) would be the first to admit this – all part of “growing up” and learning to prefer the healthy meal to religious candy, no doubt.

    Essentially, I’m arguing that it’s possible to fulfill the longing for the eternal via the transient.

    How, exactly? This is what I’ve been trying to discover all along. You say that this can be done, but this seems to involve a fairly dramatic redefinition of what most religious people consider “the longing for the eternal” to actually mean.

    So in essence, I would say that the longing is perfectly natural, and it is a longing for the sanctity of the natural.

    Of course you’re free to redefine your terms however you like, but “the sanctity of the natural” was not what Percy was referring to in the passages I cited nor is it what I was getting at in the post nor is it what many religious people mean when they express such longing. I realize that you would consider such religious hopes as that the evil of history will be judged and the good validated and rewarded, or that there will be a future not characterized by transience and decay to be pure nonsense. That’s fine – indeed it’s perfectly consistent and to be expected given naturalistic presuppositions.

    But one thing these hopes are not are different ways of expressing a desire for “the sanctity of the natural” or an appreciation “of the joy and sanctity of the present, transient moment” (note that I am not saying that we ought not to appreciate these things, only that they are not synonymous with important features of the Christian hope). This is an example of “radically limiting the scope” of human longing that I referred to several comments ago.

    May 13, 2008
  11. “If anything, many forms of religious belief would seem to be downright maladaptive (believing that your “real” home is some kind of ethereal spirit world doesn’t seem obviously conducive to striving to pass on your genes in this one).”

    Hey Ryan. No point here. Just a quick question. My assumption regarding the universal understanding of the spirit world throughout history is that it is a materially insubstantial place that can never be physically pointed to or drawn on a map, other than for metaphorical purposes. Would you agree or have anything to add or take away?

    May 14, 2008
  12. Jerry,

    I wouldn’t feel confident speaking of a “universal understanding of the spirit world throughout history” (I think there have probably been innumerable different ways of conceiving what is believed to lie on the other side of death), but I would certainly agree that many have considered whatever mode of existence awaits us to be an immaterial one. Why do you ask?

    May 14, 2008

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: