Human Nature Term Paper

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Human Nature

Book Summary

Jeeves, Malcolm. (Editor) From Cells to Souls -- and Beyond. New York: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

According to Michael Steel in the book edited Malcolm Jeeves entitled From Cells to Souls -- and Beyond, the most critical moral and ethical debate of our time is the relationship of the human being as a 'self' or 'soul' (depending on one's preferred cultural, psychological or religious term for describing one's understanding of one's status as a human person) and the implications of scientific development upon the conception of what is a person. "When an American President and a British prime minister feel moved to issue almost simultaneously statements on the ethics and regulation of human cloning, there can be little doubt as to the breadth and depth of public interest in the topic." (1)

Cloning and other research done into the nature of human genetics challenges the idea of the integrity of the human person or self as a 'sacred' construct, according to much of popular philosophy. Designer babies, or a monstrous interfering with nature -- whatever one believes, the ability of the human animal to understand or even to craft the human animal using technological innovations and methods first discovered by Crick and Watson continues to perplex us and vex us in the public debate. Would a cloned entity be a human person? (1-2) What does it mean when a stroke victim loses his or her ability to function as he or she customarily did -- is the victim still the same person in the eyes of society, loved ones, or even the victim's own self?

Steel attempts to offer, in his introductory essay to this volume, some sober caveats as to the biological limitations of full human cloning and the ability to understand the human person through the rubrics of science. He and his fellow authors also remind the reader that there are therapeutic benefits for living human persons through cloning and other scientific areas of research that cannot be easily dismissed although they may frighten us. (4-5) For example, reproductive vs. therapeutic cloning is thus one key issue in the cloning debate. And also, not all scientific aims necessarily rob us of our sense of selfhood. Some of the other essays in Jeeves' book even argue that the development of persons in general is a relatively recent notion. For example, D. Gareth Jones states that the idea of an integral or individualistic soul, only emerged fairly recently in human history, that is a person distinct from either religious or state constructions of individuality. (13)

For even these scientists, such as in the study of Alzheimer's, the notions of personhood conveyed by science serve both to unsettle the sense of a core, stable personhood or self but also provide greater understanding. (77) This is where the resistance to technology arises -- out of fears that we may lose ourselves through science, even while science possesses the ability to give us greater understanding about our biology and thus 'ourselves' as well as philosophy or religion. Thus, the book, although it is a collection of essays, thus has a strong organizational logic. First, it introduces the reader to the core, scientific basis of controversial technology that challenge the stable sense of self. Then it provides a history of the conceptualization of the human person in religion and science. This follows by several essays about how neuroscientist can trouble readers with newly biological definition of human persons and minds, despite human emotional and political resistance to the topic. And finally, the book contains more reflective essays, such as about the inevitable mental decline experienced, not because of human-orchestrated science, but through dementia or strokes, and current philosophical debates about the human person within that discipline.

Part II

Philosophy and Human Nature meets Neuroscience

The book aims to example notions of personhood in science and philosophy in non-reductive, and composite fashion, dealing with the "reality" and its nuisances, namely the nuisances it poses to scientists and philosophers alike. Philosophers must contend with the vexed problems posed by human biology. Scientists must contend with the nuisance of the apparent human need for a deeper and more satisfying explanation of the self than biology alone can provide. (233) Although academic in tone, the book is written with an audience in mind of humanitarian, philosophical, scientific, and bioethical students and interested and informed laypersons alike, as it attempts to stretch the occasionally narrow limits of all the disciplines encompassed in the experiences of the authors.

Ultimately, there is no "simple and obvious answer," as to where human biology and the nature of human personality and the soul may meet. (234) For example, neuroscience may tell us that memory is a cerebral location in the a brain hemisphere. But memory, in human psychology and perceived experience is also something we human beings experience in ways beyond the purely concrete and we do not physically sense our own cortex's functions in our daily life. Also, as human beings existing amongst other human being in society, and societal influences and perspectives shape the ways we see one another, concludes Jeeves. (235)

Diogenes Allen, the one pure philosopher of the collection, writes of proposing actions and events as key to the human sense of personhood. This idea may at first be seen as something of an anomaly, however, amidst the more biologically and neurologically oriented contributors, who take a more deterministic view of human involvement in the world. Allen's action-based theory or justification of the human person through agency in English-speaking analytic philosophy, has apparently long been a popular way of validating the human presence as a physical entity without negating the soul or metaphysical aspects of the self. I act therefore I am, suggests Allen, to paraphrase Descartes. But unlike Descartes, modern philosophy to the discomfort of theologians and popular believers alike usually sets aide religious experiences on the grounds that they are not necessarily the effects of a supernatural sources. (171-175)

Although none of the contributors adhere to conventional religious doctrines, all ask what is a person, over and over again. All offers a slightly different answer -- although all the essayists attempt to strike some balance between the physical and the spiritual to varying degrees, without either being reductively physical or purely mental in their emphasis. The contributors grapple with the fact that before neuroscience began its pervasive and unintentional shearing of commonly accepted theories of personality and the self, some shared endorsement of a self or individual person was common to Western culture, although not defined in the stridently individualistic sense that personhood is today.

But neurological advances in understanding the functions of the brain today suggest some other philosophy of the human person is necessary. (203) One could call the approach of the book kind of non-reductive physicalism, where physical limits of humanity and the ability of science to manipulate human bodies thorough genes are accepted, without viewing this as negating the unique nature of different person's individual soul or spirit. But this is unlikely to satisfy popular claims and demands for faith. For many, religion alone "supplies the fundamental ontological categories with which to approach theological anthropology" and believers "cannot leave it to science, psychology, or philosophy to provide these," answers. "To refuse to operate in this manner amounts to a de facto denial either that God has no existence," an unacceptable conclusion to a believer in either a faith schema or even simply his or her existence as a unique self or soul (211)

The authors' collective vision of the human person emerges an inclusive one that attempts to understand human nature both as a biological series of functions as well as a unique conglomeration of abilities and needs for transcendence, without necessarily accepting the self or soul…

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