Can Science Alone Decide the Meaning of “Human?”

Can Science Alone Decide the Meaning of “Human?” May 3, 2017

Can Science Alone Decide the Meaning of “Human?”



Recently here (and elsewhere) a question has arisen and I would like to at least take a “stab” at answering it: Can science alone decide what it means to be “human?” The question could be asked in several different ways and adding some of them here will help “pin down” the issue at stake: Can science (as understood by most people in the modern, Western world) distinguish between “human” being and “non-human” being? and Does it lie within the purview of science (as understood by most people in the modern, Western world) to define “human?” Of course these are slightly different questions, but one issue underlies them: What does it mean ultimately to be a human being? Is it a matter of biology?

First of all—a confession. I address this question and attempt to answer it as a Christian. I do not approach any subject having shed my Christian identity. And second of all—an assertion. I do not think anyone can shed his/her own narrative identity completely; there is no “view from nowhere.” Everyone approaches every subject from some narrative-informed perspective.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

I am a strong believer in and promoter of science; it has produced much that is extremely valuable to humanity and to the natural world. On the other hand, I am somewhat suspicious of “modern science” insofar as it is placed on a pedestal and treated as the be-all and end-all of meaningful thought (“scientism”). And I think science, torn from all metaphysics and ethics (the two can never be entirely separated) is dangerous.

My quarrel is not with science as such but with some scientists and their adoring acolytes who grant to them the authority to decide all important questions—eventually if not right now.

The question before me (and now before you) is whether “human” is a universal definable by science alone or above all. As a Christian I cannot grant that to be the case. Surely science can be helpful in distinguishing “human” from “non-human,” but it alone cannot say whether any particular being is “truly human” or not.

A basic belief of Christianity (in spite of what some revisionists claim) is that the man (human) Jesus Christ was raised from death by God and, while remaining human, was transformed into a bodily existence fit for heaven. Alongside that is the belief of Christianity (in spite of what some revisionists claim) that many human beings who die (and some who don’t die!) will be raised by God to bodily existences fit for heaven. These resurrected “spiritual bodies” (1 Corinthians 15) will be human but do not and will not have biological features such as modern science studies and identifies and names. They are and will be truly “supernatural”—beyond nature as science studies it.

Most Christians have always also believed that human beings have souls or spirits that are part of their true identities and survive bodily death and exist in some form, somewhere (e.g., “Paradise”) as human beings even if not yet “fully clothed” with new bodies in the resurrection to come. This is sometimes called the “intermediate state.” I believe it is part of the biblical-Christian worldview even if some Christians question it.

What does all this mean? Well, for me, and for most Christians throughout the ages, it means that being “human” is a question of metaphysics beyond modern, Western science’s competency exhaustively to define or differentiate.

Some Christians (and possibly others) ignorantly want to grant to modern, Western science the authority to define and differentiate “human” for the purpose of arguing that a fetus, if not an embryo, is human because of its DNA or cellular structure. However, this is a (perhaps) unwitting mistake. If science can define and differentiate “human” biologically in a way that is believed to help the pro-life cause, it can also define and differentiate “human” biologically in a way that undermines that cause. It could decide, for example, that beings with deformations from some biological norm are not authentically human. That has been done many times in modern human history. (E.g., by radical eugenics advocates.)

At most all science can tell us Christians (and hopefully others) is that an embryo and fetus are “potential human beings.” There can be no arguing about that. The metaphysical question of special interest to Christians is when does an embryo or fetus become a “living soul”—a human person with unique dignity and worth above all other biological beings? The pro-life case should not over reach; it should be that a fetus, if not an embryo, is at least a potential human person and therefore should not be destroyed without good reason (e.g., to save the life of the mother).

Whether and to what extent Christians should attempt to manipulate law to protect potential human persons is another question not under consideration here.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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