People Are Messed Up
I admit, that title needs a little unpacking. Maybe a lot. One of the things that has kept people talking for centuries is this idea of whether or not human being are good, evil, a blank slate, or something else. When we look at people, we often characterise them as good people, bad people, and often just the product of their circumstances. As with many things, they might all be wrong, but they can’t all be right. Let’s look at what we can tell about humanity in light of what we’ve figured out so far. So far we’ve shown that it’s reasonable to believe:
An eternal, non-physical, powerful creator exits.
He is a person rather than an impersonal force.
He is the foundation for morality.
In light of this, the most we can tell for certain is that whatever makes human being good would have to come from God. After all, God created everything (directly or indirectly) and therefore He created human nature. So, did God make us good, bad or a completely blank slate?
I like what Francis Schaeffer (a really bright Christian guy who died a while ago, but he’ll get better) said about human beings. He said that we are both noble and cruel. There’s a good part of humanity, but there is something “off” too. The question that needs to be answered is what worldview best explains this. Before we can, we’ve got to identify just what some of the characteristics are that describe human beings.
What makes human beings so special?
Mankind displays a moral sensitivity. We think in terms of morality, evaluating our actions and those of others against some notion of how things ought to be. It is something that is almost inescapable, even by those that deny moral obligations exist. As soon as they say, “There are no moral obligations,” they typically add that “You’re wrong to impose your morality upon me.” Even if someone denies having any moral obligations at all, they often respond to wrongs committed against them as if such moral obligations at least exist to protect them. While people may be logically inconsistent, they all engage in moral reasoning and debate and seem to have pretty similar ideas, even if they weight them differently or apply them in culturally specific ways. We don’t see that in any other creature on the planet, but it’s pretty universal among us human beings.
Mankind has a rational faculty. I’m not saying people always behave rationally. What I am saying is that human beings have the ability to abstract, connect events and ideas using logic, and reach rational conclusions. They can follow a line of reasoning (sometimes even if they disagree with it) and can see how their own thought processes might have been mistaken or how they were right in their conclusions, even if their reasoning was flawed. Sometimes, they can even see how beliefs they hold are not rational at all (although this is much rarer). The fact that such rational thought is ubiquitous to humans suggests this too is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Aristotle wasn’t wrong to call us rational animals.
Mankind has a creative capacity. This is something else that we see in human beings from early childhood. Every kid who can pick up a crayon creates something they find beautiful (and shows it their very appreciative parents). As soon as they can start making sounds, it’s not long before they start mimicking what they hear and shortly after start inventing sounds. A little girl may start stamping her feet, waving her arms and shaking her booty when she hears music she enjoys. All this is merely the beginning and earliest stages of creativity. Eventually, these are all the precursors to music, dance, and art of all sorts and on a level that is both ubiquitous and unique to humanity. Yes, other animals do some tricks (I’ve seen the artwork chimps and elephants have done – it’s not good). Yes, otters and chimps use rocks and stick as tools, but they don’t create such simple machines. Yes, we hear animals sing or dance, but we don’t see them choreograph or write music or create instruments. Animals don’t even create words, and yet we humans do that sort of things pretty regularly. To put it simply, human creativity is at a level so far above that of other creatures it’s not hard to imagine that there might be something fundamentally different about us human beings.
Mankind desires eternity. Unlike most other creatures, humanity seems to know that we are going to die someday. We know we won’t be around forever, and even though it seems on the one hand so natural (everything dies), we seem to have a much greater awareness of and abhorrence for it than the rest of the natural world. We do everything we can to extend our lives, and, if that is not possible, to ensure that the impact of our lives goes beyond us, through our progeny (kind of expected), but also through the work we do and the things we leave behind. The very idea that our lives end entirely with us is troubling, and we actively seek to make our lives have meaning beyond ourselves. The belief in an afterlife among so many cultures, whether or not such a belief is true, speaks to the deep-seeded desire for eternity.
So, what explains these human characteristics that are so markedly different from the rest of the natural world but so universal among the human race? It could just be a brute fact, the way things are and there is no explanation at all. If you don’t find that intellectually satisfying, I agree with you. We would do well to look for an explanation until we’re convinced there isn’t one. The explanation may be a naturalistic one, but there are a host of problems with that. First, moral sensitivity is problematic on a number of levels, such as origin and normativity, but we’ll address those on a later post. Rational faculties clearly are not necessary for survival and could even prove detrimental in some cases, so their origin and use seem a bit odd as well. Mankind’s creative capacities, while universal and useful, go far beyond ANY survival need (what use is there for origami?) and are far more advanced than seems justifiable under a naturalistic scheme. Of course, a desire for eternity has no possible answer in nature as it seems, all else being considered, all living things die. Eternity seems entirely out of place and unsatisfiable within a naturalistic framework.
What in the world explains this?
However, based on what we already have covered, we can safely say that naturalism is at least unlikely. If God exists, naturalism is false. We have pretty good reasons to think God does exist. So we’ve got good reasons to think that naturalism is false. Additionally, if God exists and we are like him in some way (this is where that whole “made in God’s image” idea comes into play – Genesis 1:27), then perhaps the thing that makes us different from the rest of the natural world is explained in that part of us is not entirely natural in some sense. Perhaps those elements highlighted above are better explained due to an otherworldly aspect that all humans have. As I go over these characteristics, don’t get sidetracked into thinking that, if man is made in God’s image, that God has a body (we already covered that – God’s not physical, and therefore no body) or that men somehow “look like God” (again, God’s not physical, so I have no idea what that even means). Instead, human beings have qualities that are limited versions of characteristics God has.
Since God’s character is the foundation for morality (Psalms 111:3), it is possible that if man is made in God’s image that mankind can appreciate moral qualities as well. We do have a moral sensitivity, not just to guard our own interests, but often we find ourselves repulsed by the immoral actions of others and inspired by the moral heroism of those we resonate with. We think about what we are doing often trying to set aside our personal desires in order to make sure we are doing “the right thing”, whatever that might be. We agonize over the fact that we are not as morally upright as we think we ought to be. It seems we do have moral qualities that seem compatible with those of God. We tend to think rationally about morality, even to the point of calling into question the morality of God’s pronouncements and actions.
However, rationality itself is grounded in God’s nature. If God made the world, then He made it in accordance with His nature and desires. The world we find is one of order, of laws both physical and rational, such that reality and truth can be apprehended by us, finite human beings who can only see part of the picture, but we see it in a depth and precision that seems to have escaped the rest of the animal world. If we are made in the image of God, having some limited version of His rationality, it would seem that we would have the very sorts of thinking that we do, rather than some incomprehensible mish-mash that leaves us unable to understand the world we live in to the depth that we clearly do.
God is the creator of the universe. We’ve talked about that already, although we’ve left a lot of the specifics out (again, we’ll cover that in a later post). However, if we are made in the image of God and God created the universe, it should be no surprise that we have creative capacities as well. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings author, go read it if you haven’t) referred to people as being “sub-creators” in that while we can’t create things out of nothing as God can, we can create a lot of things using the world He’s put us in and the resources we find in it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect God would be impressed with what we’ve done, like a parent who sees work his 4 year old brought home from pre-school. “Look, Dad! I made a wheel!” “Look, Dad, we figured out how the water cycle works!” “Look, Dad! I developed my own theory of quantum mechanics!” (My kid is pretty awesome, but that’s not anecdotal.) We could multiply examples, but simply put, human beings have managed to come up with so much, some out of necessity and a lot out of the sheer joy of playing that our creative capacities cannot be ignored.
God is eternal and it seems that we have an eternal awareness as well. If we are made in His image, that makes sense. It makes even more sense if He intended us to relate to Him. We’ve all read or watched fictional stories in which someone is long lived and has to see their loved ones grow old and die while they live seemingly endlessly. A lot of times, that sort of life becomes one of pain as friends and family die and leave the undying to live a long life of loss and loneliness. No one wants to see anyone die, but it seems even more out of place when the young die. So much potential is lost when we know they ought to have lived a long life and then passed on. Similarly, we worry about death, I think, because deep in our core, we know we were never meant to end that way. Instead, we were meant to live with one another in the presence of an eternal God. When taken that way, our eternal longings make a bit more sense than in a purely naturalistic world which cannot answer such longings with anything but disappointment. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, perhaps the reason we have desires that can’t be met in this world is because we were made for a different world.
So, human beings are moral, rational, creative, eternally-aware creatures that are at least difficult to explain within a naturalistic perspective. That makes them good, right? What could possibly be wrong if they’ve got all these good characteristics? That is in fact the thing that’s kind of weird. While we humans are fully capable of being amazing (and let’s be honest, some are more amazing than others), there is little doubt that there is in fact something wrong with the human race. Most of us would agree that whatever is wrong with the human race at least touches every one of us in some way, making all of us victims and many of us (perhaps all of us) perpetrators as well. What’s wrong?
What’s wrong with us?
While a lot of people may disagree with the cause, there is little doubt that there is in fact something wrong with humanity. There would be no religion if there wasn’t some sort of spiritual problem. There would be no government if there was no national conflict. There would be no police if there was no civil disorder. There would be no doctors or hospitals if there were no diseases or injuries. There would be no attorneys if there were no disagreements. There would be no counselors if there were no family problems. There would be no therapists or psychiatrists if there were no psychological disorders. In other words, a lot of people would be out of work if humanity wasn’t so screwed up. Simply put, there is something wrong with humanity.
That probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. We could even agree in general as to what the problems are. We don’t function the way we are supposed to. Mankind is alienated. Most people will agree that we are alienated from each other. Even when things are right between us, we still often get things wrong. Take any couple that has been married and ask them if they’ve ever had an argument and they’ll agree. Ask them whose fault it was and the agreement will end at some point. Look at Facebook and post your opinion on some topic that is important to you. Someone (perhaps a particularly broken person) will say something that at least diminishes your point, if not outright disagrees with it, or even just call you all sorts of names without justification (assuming they don’t unfriend you without saying anything at all). People simply don’t interact as well with one another as they should.
The alienation doesn’t stop there though. We’re also alienated from ourselves. Often we don’t do things that we think we should (eat right, exercise, etc.) and we do things we know we shouldn’t (watch too much TV, maintain that relationship with that person we know is nothing but trouble, etc.) Just about everyone over the age of 5 that I’ve asked, “Is there anything you’ve ever done you wish you hadn’t or didn’t do that you wish you did?” has answered with either an emphatic or an embarrassed “Yes”. How many times has the thought crossed your mind, “Am I really the kind of person who would do that?” Often we already have done it. We don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We don’t focus on the things we want to and we don’t have command of our wills as fully as we wish we did.
However, the problem is even worse. God is the creator of the universe, and it seems we are alienated from God too. Our moral nature is a clue to God’s desires for us, and every one of us has failed to follow the moral rules we are aware of. If we can’t hold the moral rules that we think are important, what makes us think we’ll keep the stricter moral rules God thinks are important? I don’t like our chances. Not only that, we are not in a great position to talk to Him. Sure, He can hear whatever is said (classical conception of God here), but us hearing Him is a bit different, and that’s probably as much our fault as it is His good judgment. God seems to be hiding from us in some sense. I don’t think it’s because He’s sneaky or trying avoid us, but rather knows most of us don’t want Him making us uncomfortable. Kind of like watching Fifty Shades of Grey with your parents in the room.
Is this how we were meant to be?
So we are alienated from each other, from ourselves, and from God. That sounds bad. However, what if that is the way it was always supposed to be? What if we were meant to be alienated like this? Most naturalists would agree with that since, according to naturalism, the way things are is how they ought to be. There’s no intentionality, no goals for the natural world, so everything ends up being the way it is and that’s all there is to it. If so, there is no problem to fix. However, we still have that nagging that things not only can be different, but that they can be better. Not only can they be better, they ought to be, to the point that if someone can do something to make things better and he doesn’t, he’s doing something morally wrong. Worse still, if someone does something to make things worse, he’s not just wrong, he’s morally wrong. That sort of thought doesn’t fit well in a naturalistic worldview, but it seems a lot more intuitively obvious than that things are just fine regardless of what happens.
But, if this alienation, this separation of us from everything else, is not the way things are supposed to be, then we’ve got a chance. We’ve got a chance at fixing things so that we can be the people we were meant to be, but we’ve got to figure out how things went wrong. What went wrong is not a matter of personal taste or what we prefer. Objectively, there is something wrong and our present condition of alienation can be objectively identified. If we don’t figure out how things went wrong, then at best we are just randomly trying things out to fix things. Honestly, that describes the vast majority of human beings. But if we don’t diagnose the cause of humanity’s problem correctly, we’re not going to figure out the right treatment to cure us either.
What are the options?
First, God could have made an error in making human beings. This would be a design error. Honestly, there are a lot of people who make this argument, but then most of them don’t believe in God either. That seems nonsensical. Since we established that God exists, this is a possibility, but the only way to determine there was a design error is if we know what the designer had in mind. Otherwise, we’re just making assumptions. Let’s set that aside for now (we’ll come back to it in a later post). Another possibility is that something happened to mankind. We are victims of circumstance and there was nothing we could do about it. Like the design problem, this puts the blame on God (He didn’t protect us well enough), and it is pure conjecture. The other possibility is that mankind did something that irrevocably sent us spiraling off from the course we were meant to follow. This is in fact what most religions hold in some sense. Since not all religions have room for a divine creator, this effectively limits the real world possibilities to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
So, how is the problem to be fixed? Since the problem is systemic (all of humanity), humans can’t fix it. We are all broken to the point that we are alienated from ourselves, one another and God. How can any one of us eliminate that alienation in such a way that he is a true person of integrity (an integrated whole rather than the fractured people we are), able to effectively relate to other people and God Himself? All claims to the contrary, it doesn’t seem that we can. Help has got to come from outside of the broken system. We would do well to see if God has any ideas. The universe is His project and we are a part of it. If He had a purpose in mind for us when He made mankind, finding out what He was up to could only help. The question, of course, is would God tell us. If so, how would we know?
Total Depravity – Is it Biblical? – Got Questions
Human Nature and Moral Goodness – Patrick Lee Bioethics