What Best Explains the Human Puzzle?

In recent months we have been witness to many events which highlight the conundrum of humanity. On one hand, we have seen globally the bold and unapologetic and criminal acts of national invasion, genocide and religious persecution. Locally, we hear endless stories of shootings and civil unrest. On the other hand, we marvel at news of life-saving treatments and vaccines, rescues from disasters, and the development of a new telescope which will enable us to see farther into the universe than ever before. How can humans be so remarkable and at the same time so deplorable?

This is no new quandary. Blaise Pascal (1623-62), the French mathematician, scientist, philosopher and theologian wrote, “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe! (131)”[1]

Pascal surmised that competing philosophies can be weighed out in their ability to account for this disparity. “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.” (149) Pascal made a case for the Christian worldview by using abductive reasoning; utilizing inference to the best explanation to provide an accounting for the human puzzle which exceeds a naturalistic account. The work of science since Pascal’s day bears out his claim.

Abductive reasoning seeks to determine the best explanation for an observation by selecting the one which most broadly accounts for what has been observed and leaves the fewest questions unanswered.

In regards to “man’s greatness”, what lies at the foundation of human exceptionality – what has enabled us to develop our civilization and technology – is our ability to use language. Multiple lines of research have failed to come up with any plausible natural explanation for how we came by this ability – an ability which is believed to have resided with the very earliest humans. I apologize for the length of the following quote, but it drives home both the depth and breadth of our inability to explain this exceptionality in naturalistic terms:

“Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes anytime soon…all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable.

Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses.”[2]

It is not merely the size of the human brain but its unique structure which makes us distinctly different from all other animals.

The aspect which defies a naturalistic explanation is what appears to be the simultaneous appearance of dozens of morphological and physiological differences between humans and the most similar primate. Each of these differences on its own would not confer an advantage, and each would require numerous genetic mutations for it to originate. Evolutionary processes depend on single small mutations which must each be tested and proven to confer an advantage. Evolutionary processes insist on gradualism, but no record of transitional forms exists which lead to all these differences.  

When we observe highly engineered systems which involve interdependent complex parts, it is much more reasonable to appeal to an intelligent agent as an explanation for its existence. In contrast to the failure of naturalism to explain this, the Christian worldview asserts that human exceptionality is derived from a Creator who made us with intention and imbued us with great capacities to create and communicate – we have been conferred with the imago Dei.

In as much as scientists have been unable to provide a naturalistic explanation for the tremendous capabilities and accomplishments which set humans apart from all the rest of nature, they are equally incapable of explaining the wretchedness of humanity. There are no analogs in nature which can help us understand the advent of the wanton behaviors of humans which normally would signal the end of a species. Ostensibly, the objective of natural selection is to preserve genes – either of an individual or of those members within the tribe. This same mechanism cannot simultaneously be used to account for the intentional elimination of members (genes) of our own tribe.  

Bombed apartment buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 2022

The greatness of human exceptionality is oddly found even in our ability to recognize human wickedness. Pascal wrote, “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus, it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is a greatness in knowing one is wretched. (114)” Our conscious awareness of self and the impact our behaviors have on others – for better or for worse – is an undisputed mark of human exceptionality.

Naturalism in its appeal to both determinism and relativism results in a denial of this awareness – it cannot adequately appraise the disparity in human kind because it cannot draw from any objective reference in order to determine what is actually bad or good. For the naturalist, human behavior is seen only as a matter of preference. Yet, the naturalist cannot resist the temptation to identify certain behaviors as “evil”.  The Christian worldview on the other hand does provide us with a frame of reference in the form of divine revelation which enables us to adjudicate the wickedness of our own kind. Because of our fallenness – the result of original sin – we inescapably perpetuate the rebellion against God.

Our puzzlement over the human condition goes deeper than just recognizing this disparity. We are trapped in a malaise of discontent – we suffer knowing that we ought to be better than we are – we are plagued with a sense of loss of what we once were. Pascal argued that this sense of suffering is an indication we as humans are not as we have always been: “[people] retain some feeble instinct from the happiness of their first nature, and are plunged into the wretchedness of their blindness and concupiscence, which has become their second nature.” (149) As Groothuis puts it, “the human condition…is a flawed version of an earlier model.”[3]

People retain some feeble instinct from the happiness of their first nature – the way humans were before the Fall. (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Johann Wenzel Peters, between 1800-1829)

Were we the subjects of nature alone, we should have no such sense – this is simply how we are, and we would continue operating in the status quo without a second thought – what Richard Dawkins would describe as “dancing to our DNA”. Pascal reflects that, “if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are…we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood.”(131) You cannot miss what you have never had – a person would be miserable for the loss of an eye he once had, but not because of a second nose he has never possessed.

The Christian scriptures enable us to both recognize and explain this disparity in human nature – naturalism can do neither. Since naturalism cannot explain this disparity, it is ill equipped to explain our sense of “oughtness”, and even less equipped to offer up a means by which we may resolve this internal conflict. Pascal recognized that “the Christian God is a God who makes the soul aware that He is its sole good; that in Him alone can it find peace; that only in loving Him can it find joy…This God makes the soul aware of this underlying self-love which is destroying it, and which He alone can cure.” (460)

[1] All quotes from Blaise Pascal are from his Pensées translated by A. J. Krailsheimer (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995). The number in parenthesis indicates the passage within this collection of his writings.

[2] Marc Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky and Richard C. Lewontin, “The mystery of language evolution,” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol 5:401 (May 7, 2014)

[3] Groothuis, Douglas. “Deposed Royalty: Pascal’s Anthropological Argument” JETS 41/2 (June 1998), 298. Groothuis provides a much more thoroughgoing analysis of Pascal’s argument in this paper.

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