A Truer Humanism

By Leon R. Kass

Science gives us many gifts, but it cannot keep us from losing our souls in the bargain.

Prof. David Heyd’s response to my essay is serious and substantive. It thus deserves a serious and substantive reply, despite the fact that Prof. Heyd is rather careless in representing my stated views and more than careless in attributing to me opinions I neither expressed nor hold. These errors to the side, there is one large issue between us, the central theme of my essay and the one that prompted him to write: how to understand our humanity, especially in an age of science and scientism. Before turning to this question, I must briefly correct a number of errors, lest silence be taken for acquiescence.
My AZURE article was the text of a thirty-minute public lecture, in which I compressed materials and arguments more fully expressed elsewhere.1 Ambitious in scope, it necessarily dealt but lightly with several large themes, offering in outline an argument begging for more expansive treatment. Still, that argument as given was orderly and tight, and I frankly had to reread the essay, so little did I recognize my thought in Prof. Heyd’s (mis-)characterization of it. My essay was, quite explicitly, not about novel biotechnologies or the ethical issues they raise. Neither was it an attack on science or scientists, nor did I even hint at a call to ban any scientific research (I oppose such calls) or even a single technological practice. (Full disclosure: I have elsewhere called for one—and only one—legislative ban, on the cloning of human beings; and I also favor retaining our current laws that prohibit euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. In large cultural matters, I believe in education and persuasion, not in legislation and prohibition.)
My essay was, instead, devoted to a critique not of science but of “scientism,” a quasi-religious faith proclaimed by a growing array of bio-prophets who insist that genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology can offer a complete, purely scientific account of human life (our moral preferences and religious beliefs included), and who explicitly seek to overturn traditional religious and moral teachings and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. I do not “dread” this point of view; I repudiate it as false. While clearly noting my esteem for the findings of these exciting new sciences, I argued that the knowledge they provide must always be partial and incomplete, owing to science’s conceptual limitations. No science of human life can do justice to its subject if it refuses even to inquire into the nature, character, and meaning of our “aliveness,” with its special inwardness, awareness, desires, purposiveness, attachments, and activities of thought, while nonetheless believing that it has “explained” these richnesses of soul by reducing them to the electrochemical events of the brain. I pointed out the moral poverty of scientistic thinking and its failure to speak to the deepest human questions: “What ought I do?” “What may I hope?” Against the shallow teachings of scientism, I pointed to corrective philosophical and biblical teachings about our humanity, constituting an enduring wisdom that neither threatens science nor is undermined by science’s discoveries, if they are rightly regarded.
No friend of scientism himself, Prof. Heyd underestimates—if he does not altogether deny—its rise and its challenges to human self-understanding. Perhaps because he associates with and pays more attention to philosophers rather than molecular biologists and neuroscientists, he chooses to ignore the concrete examples of scientistic thinking I cited in my article (and I could cite many others, including the writings of scientists Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Michael Gazzaniga, Ray Kurzweil, Jacques Monod, Stephen Pinker, Lee Silver, Gregory Stock, James D. Watson, E.O. Wilson, and a wide range of so-called “transhumanists” and “immortalists”). Perhaps because he himself does not appear to share their materialist prejudices or their belief that man does not differ decisively from other animals, Prof. Heyd underestimates the intellectual and cultural challenge that this way of thinking poses for our contemporaries, especially for impressionable and illiberally educated students who have been taught to believe that science offers the whole truth about whatever phenomena it studies. Yet Prof. Heyd offers an equally “soulless” account of human life. Despite his lack of sympathy for reductionism, he appears to join the scientists in their refusal to countenance any notion of “soul” (or anima or psyche) as an explanatory principle in biology. By “soul” (as relevant for biology and psychology) I mean not some immaterial ghost in the animal machine, or some separable entity, infused by God, that leaves the body after death; I mean, rather, the soul as the empowering organization (or “vital form”) of the body’s materials, the integrated capacities and activities it makes possible, and the meaningful “in-formation” that it manifests in its active being and that it receives from and conveys to the outside world.
A notion of “soul” is needed in biology—and not just in human biology—not only to bridge the gap between our science of the objectified body or brain and our subjective experience (what things “feel” like to us). It is needed also for addressing and explaining the nature of vital activity itself. As I pointed out, “the eyeball and the brain are material objects, they take up space and can be held in the hand; but neither the capacities of sight and intellect nor the activities of seeing and thinking take up space or can be held. Although absolutely dependent on material conditions, they are, in their essence, immaterial: they are capacities and activities of soul—hence, they are not objects of knowledge for a materialist science.” All the fundamental features of life—“information,” “development,” “awareness,” “appetite,” “striving,” and “action”—are not truly explicable, not only in their being but also in our coming to know them in terms of the actions of genes or electrochemical brain events. We know them, as we know any idea, only by acts of mind, receiving and grasping the immaterial units of intelligibility that, mirabile dictu, hitch a ride to audible sounds or visible symbols—like those you see when reading (that is, seeing through them) on this page. While our brains are surely involved in the processing of these sounds and symbols, the immaterial meanings are not mere by-products of material events, but, in many cases, their cause. How else to explain that a verbal insult can make the blood boil—if, and only if, its insulting meaning is understood? Even if you believe that the brain resembles a hard-wired computer, you must acknowledge that it is activated and ruled by the meanings of its software.
The human animal is constituted to be at once a source of its self-directed motion, beginning with metabolism and culminating in action; a source of awareness (sensation and intellection); and a source of appetite and aspiration (hunger and eros). What accounts for the unity of these vital and integrated powers of action, awareness, and appetite, and our capacity to (partially) direct them through knowledge and choice? On principle, our molecular genetics and neuroscience have no interest in this question. A more natural science, truer to life as lived, would not be so neglectful. Readers interested in how it might be pursued should have a look at my book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.
Prof. Heyd’s main quarrel with me concerns human nature. He (erroneously) attributes to me a belief in a fixed human nature, based on what he takes to be my (allegedly Aristotelian) commitment to the eternity and immutability of species (I believe in man’s evolution from non-man) or my (allegedly biblical) commitment to the infusion by God of a soul or essence into the human being at creation (this forms no part of my reading of Genesis). Relying on Pico della Mirandola, Prof. Heyd argues instead that man has no fixed nature, that he is a radically free being whose sole enduring characteristic is his ability to (re-)create himself through his own freedom. Prof. Heyd not only asserts this conception of our humanity; he celebrates it. He believes that human dignity consists largely if not wholly in this capacity for making of ourselves whatever it is we please. There are two difficulties with his position, one concerning its truth, the other (and more important) concerning its goodness.
I do not deny that human beings, more than all other animals, have the capacity to change their surroundings and shape their way of life, and even, to some extent, to alter aspects of their bodily and psychic being. Man is by nature the animal that lives by art and culture and therefore to some extent “makes himself.” As Winston Churchill put it, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”2 But this does not mean that all of human nature is alterable, or that the only permanent trait of humanity is its capacity for self-creation. Such a capacity is, first of all, neither primary nor essential. Our ability to alter ourselves rests on certain more fundamental and essential powers of soul: powers of awareness and cognition to discern what can and should be altered; powers of practical reason and technical action, to give effect to what the mind chooses to try to alter; and powers of desire and aspiration, to energize the entire effort in the service of some perceived or imagined “good.” In a word, the power of “self-creation” is in fact but one expression of more fundamental powers of reason, freedom, and appetite or desire (what the Greeks called eros). Our supposedly ever-self-changing human nature depends on certain more permanent powers of the human soul, powers whose meaning is, to say the least, hardly exhausted by their contributions to altering our way of being in the world.
Second, human freedom of self-alteration is hardly unlimited or radical. There are limits to what we can make of ourselves, so long as we have bodies that are perishable, and so long as our choices for self-alteration are made with the necessarily incomplete knowledge and wisdom that ever attaches to merely mortal beings. Prof. Heyd, quoting Pico, seems to embrace the view that man in his essence is neither mortal nor immortal. Yet this power of self-alteration finds its home only in an animal and mortal body. Indeed, the erotic spur to alteration and “improvement” depends absolutely on our being embodied creatures of need and aspiration. Homer’s immortals, for example, are not erotic or aspiring, and they have no incentive to achieve anything at all.
Third, Prof. Heyd, following Pico, speaks of “man’s control over his own development”—a control that he himself admits is limited—as enabling us to become free of the accidents of chance and necessity. But he works with a very limited understanding of “control.” True control requires not just powerful tools, but a knowledge of how to use them well. True control requires not just cleverness in the means, but wisdom about the ends—the kind of wisdom our putative masters of nature neither have nor seek. To borrow an image from a sage observer of the modern scene, we have retail sanity in our means but wholesale madness regarding our ends. This surely does not look to me like “control.”
This leads directly to the biggest difficulty with Prof. Heyd’s view, which emerges when we examine the desirability of human freedom and the powers of self-recreation. Even were we to grant to human beings as much self-transformative power as he (mistakenly) claims we have, Prof. Heyd offers no argument as to why we should stand up and cheer that fact. He denies that man has any pre-given ends or goals to guide his human self-recreation. How, then, will we know whether any alteration we propose for ourselves is, in fact, progress, rather than just “change”? Like all progressives, Prof. Heyd talks cheerfully about “improvements” and “perfections” in our nature that we can perhaps accomplish through enhancement biotechnologies. But how—and by what standard—are we able to judge the change to be an improvement? It is by now a commonplace that much of what we choose in life we choose under the veil of ignorance, that our choices have unintended and undesired consequences, and that, like Midas, we often get what we wished for, only to discover that it is far less than what we really wanted. How, according to Prof. Heyd’s standardless embrace of self-recreation, will we know whether we are humanizing ourselves or dehumanizing ourselves?
Prof. Heyd does not deny that the biological revolution brings with it certain ethical dilemmas, but he mentions only those favorite concerns of progressives—“social justice and equality,” “the distribution of resources,” and the issue of “futility.” He does not even acknowledge the possibility that we can willingly degrade ourselves, both in deed and in self-conception. If some choices can make us “better,” surely others can make us “worse”—however Prof. Heyd chooses to define these terms. Even on Prof. Heyd’s preferred principles, it cannot be true than all acts of self-fashioning are ipso facto humanizing and dignified. What of choices that might attack or undermine what he himself regards as the essence of our humanity: the power and desire for creativity itself? On Prof. Heyd’s own terms, would not a free choice to dampen the power of human freedom degrade our humanity? Is a free choice to live as a buffalo really a manifestation of human dignity and greatness, merely because it is freely chosen? Would not a desire that saps the desire for change be a degradation? Let me generalize the point: Is it wise to embrace perfectibility if one insists in advance that there is no such thing as perfection?

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