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How do we explain humanity?


Jason Waymire
Editorials Editor


Last week I found myself driving home doing something which was typically American: listening to music. I'm a daydreamer who asks lots of gratuitous questions, so I began wondering why it is that we enjoy music so much. It's not just that we enjoy it, though; a collection of sounds can have a profound impact on our moods. "But why?!" I demanded. It's awfully strange that this should be a piece of me.
If a casual intelligent observer from Mars were to drop in on us one day, I suspect that it would find lots of things like this among humans. There are some things about humanity which don't make much sense, things which you wouldn't guess were there by looking at the rest of nature. Francis Schaeffer calls this collection of traits the 'mannishness' of man. Below are a few examples.
There is in humanity an aesthetic sense, a realization that some things are beautiful and some ugly. We often disagree over where the line between attractive and homely lies, but the urge to decorate and a sense of personal style and taste is fundamental to each of us. Coupled with this is the creative impulse. We see it on cave walls, we see it in the finger paintings of children, we see it in the machines which our engineers constantly fabricate. The trait manifests itself along a continuum from the sublime to the vulgar. The way that we dress, the things which adorn our dorm rooms, the ubiquitous, unnecessary web sites—all these are responses to the creative impulse. But why is it there?
We don't attribute moral sensibilities to animals. We often dislike what they do, and we might seek revenge, but when a cobra kills a person we generally don't claim that the cobra did anything good or evil—it simply did what cobras do when threatened. We tend to insist, though, that intellectually capable humans are morally culpable. There are standards of right and wrong which we are held responsible for knowing and acting upon, and when these are violated we assume that a penalty must be imposed. This is the primary philosophical tenet that underlies any legal system which aims at 'justice.'
The faculty of intellect, with which I'll include the capacity for reason, abstraction and foresight, is something which is most developed in mankind. Though every beast is subject to the laws of logic (and in this sense must apply them), humans have come to formally express the laws by which we think. Every legitimate academic discipline, every field of knowledge, is underpinned by the use of the intellect to evaluate, to weigh, to compare and contrast.
An observer from Mars would be baffled by human behavior if it had no understanding of what we call 'love.' This is the stuff which pushes us to do things which are contrary to pure self-interest; it very often makes idiots of men; it breaks down barriers between people which nothing else could have done. Love is absolutely central to human existence. Everyone loves something, even if that something is not always a person. There may be a love for mathematics, or only a love of oneself, but in any case love is one of the primary motivating factors of human behavior. Deprived of the object(s) of love, we experience emotional pain which ranges from nagging to complete debilitation. At the root of loneliness, for instance, is the deprivation of the type of love we call 'friendship.'
Lastly, humans are, for no apparent reason, verbalizers. We not only use language, we think in terms of language. Try to come up with a thought without using words.
There are two basic explanations for the mannishness of man. The first is based in the philosophy I'll call materialism, which states that there is nothing in the universe outside of matter and energy. Any sort of talk about a 'spiritual' reality would be nonsense to a consistent materialist. Any strange thing about man would be explained by the materialist as a result of matter and energy put together in special ways over lots and lots of time.
The modern materialist who is concerned about consistency is necessarily forced between a rock and a hard place. The only things which are real in a purely material universe are matter and energy. It follows that the values which we tend to take most seriously in life—love, integrity and justice, perhaps—are reducible to the mere shufflings of biological chemicals in our heads. If this is the case, it's irrational to place these values or any others on a pedestal. From an objective standpoint, why take love or justice or integrity seriously? But humans can't get rid of their humanity, no matter what their worldviews lead them to conclude about the value of their human-ness.
G.K. Chesterton voices the most persistent criticism of materialism thusly: "As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity—we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. [The materialist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world." That is, it fails on the test of comprehensiveness. It does not explain, for instance, the mannishness of man.
During my first year at Tech, I was rather short on friends. I was acutely aware of the pangs of loneliness, and I couldn't understand why it should be this way. I didn't question the crushing weight of loneliness on my psyche; I questioned why there should be this intense need to enjoy the company of other humans. I could see no reason for it to be there, and I was angry that it should produce this sort of effect on me.
When I read Schaeffer's discussion of mannishness, the mystery was unravelled for me—simply, elegantly, consistently, comprehensively. Schaeffer was a Christian writer, and so he did not feel compelled to explain everything in terms of matter and energy. The mannishness of man, wrote Schaeffer, the unexplainable facets which make us human, make lots of sense if the source of man has these facets too. If man's source (or, more appropriately, Source) is aesthetically sensible, creative, moral, rational, loving, verbalizing—it makes all the sense in the world that man should be too, especially if humans occupy a very special place in the natural order.


Copyright © 1998 by Gregory S. Scherrer, Editor and by the Student Publications Board

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