Magazine article The Spectator

What It Means to Be Human

Magazine article The Spectator

What It Means to Be Human

Article excerpt

Human beings are animals, composed of nerves and sinews, cardiovascular systems and digestive tracts. We hang from the tree of evolution on the same branch as the chimpanzee and the bonobo and not far from those of the elephant, the zebra and the mouse. We are governed by the laws of biology, and even our thoughts and emotions are the result of electrochemical processes in the brain. Such, at any rate, is the conception fostered by popular science and tub-thumped into us by Richard Dawkins. What room is there in this picture for the soul - the divine spark that supposedly distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and which bears within itself the meaning of our life on earth? Can we not give a complete account of the human condition in biological terms, without referring to the elusive soul-stuff within? And if that is possible, what grounds have we for thinking that the soul exists, still less that it is the inner essence, the originating cause and the final end of our existence?

Suppose you were to look at a painting - say Manet's 'Bar at the Folies Bergère' in the Courtauld Gallery - and ask yourself how it is composed. From the point of view of chemical science, it is a canvas on which pigments are distributed. From the point of view of the art-lover, it is an image of a woman on whose face the last pale twilight of innocence is fading. You could draw a graph across the picture, and indicate exactly what pigment is to be found at every pair of co-ordinates. This description would not mention the woman, still less her fading innocence or her blank but haunting gaze. Yet it could be a complete description. Somebody who daubed a canvas in the way mapped by the graph would produce an exact copy of Manet's picture. He would do this even if he had not noticed the woman and even if he was entirely blind to pictorial images. From the scientific point of view, therefore, the woman is nothing over and above the pigments in which she is seen.

But this woman exists in a space of her own. We see the back of her head, reflected in the mirror, some ten feet behind her. Of course, there is no part of this canvas that is ten feet behind any other part. The space within the picture is not mapped by our imaginary graph, even if it will be automatically reconstituted when we follow the graph's instructions. Moreover, no smear of chrome white can possibly have a fading innocence, nor can patches of cerulean and Prussian blue look at us inquiringly or await our interest. But all those things can be seen in the painting, and someone who doesn't see them doesn't understand what he is looking at.

In short, the picture can be described in two contrasting ways, and the descriptions are incommensurable. This resembles the case of the human soul. We can imagine a complete account of the human being as a biological organism from which nothing observable has been left out. Any creature with just this biological constitution will behave as I do, and lead the life that is distinctive of our kind. So why add a further story about the soul? Why not draw the obvious conclusion, that because nothing needs to be added to the biology, the biology is all that there is?

That would be like saying that since no woman is mentioned in the scientific description of Manet's canvas, there is no woman in the picture. We can tell two stories about Manet's canvas, both complete. One explains it, the other tells us what it means. Likewise we can tell two stories about the human organism, one that explains its physical appearance and behaviour, the other which tells us what it means to us. Many concepts that feature in this second story have no application in the first. For example, we describe people as responsible and free. We praise them, blame them and see worth and meaning in the things that they do. We criticise, argue, persuade. A complex language has emerged through which we relate to each other, and this language bypasses reference to the organism in something like the way our description of the woman in Manet's picture bypasses the physical constitution of the canvas. …

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