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.