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Nikos A. Nissiotis

"Secular and Christian Images of Human Person"

Theologia 33, Athens 1962, p. 947- 989; Theologia 34, Athens 1963, p. 90-122.

II. Scientific approaches to the Human Person and their Challenge to Christian Anthropological Visions

1. Determinism-mechanism in Science and Evolutionary Humanism.

The first problem one has to face following the assertion of the relationships between anthropology and cosmology, in other words, the concept of man within the cosmos, is the relationship between «scientific humanism» and a humane science. For many scientists «it is today less urgent that the humanities should become imbued with the values of science than that science should become alert to the values of humanity» (1). After a period of a partial investigation of man, due to the exact, rationalistic method of scientific objectivity, modern science has moved to a more integral vision of the human person, due to this liberation from a deterministic and mechanical conception of reality.

Certainly, science in its new contemporary trends also remains faithful to its fundamental principles of research: immanence, proposition and proof enjoying universal acceptance on the basis of logic and experience. Science looks for interpreting new laws derived from its observation of nature in its immediate grasp. It reflects on the common experience in such a way that it displays recognizable patterns. A simple, first contact with objective reality causes a confusion which might become an order after a scientific system of explanation is proposed. For science, knowledge derives always from definite experience of reality. Alongside scientific precise definitions science produces a series of models of nature, which «act out only the consequences of the limited and partial mechanisms which we have put into them... This is the inductive method, by which we first look for laws and then judge them to be confirmed if their consequences go on fitting the observed facts» (2).

These principles and definitions make out of scientific approach a self-determined field of knowledge and action without necessary reference to debates about essence, substance, feeling, and human aspirations. One can or should be a scientist only by limiting oneself within the boundaries of rationality, facticity and observation of things. It is out of these principles that the mechanistic interpretation of nature is introduced with the corresponding image of the universe as a huge machine. «The giant machine was not only causal and determinate; it was objective in the sense that no human act or intervention qualified its behavior» (3).

The subjective rationalistic operation and the objective mechanistic concept of nature have easily resulted in the mechanization of the whole of life and man. With the presupposition of the Cartesian certainty of human reason against doubt and the proof of rationality as condition for understanding human existence, science, by its consistent objectivity related to this well-structured mental operation in connection with reality, extended its conclusion beyond its limits in the areas of theology and anthropology. Descartes and Newton joined in reverence in front of a Deus ex Machina and of man operating mechanically. Causality and determinism in nature had a reductionism effect in other areas beyond strictly scientific sets of limits which are clearly defined by the strict application of scientific methodology. Perhaps, science itself is not directly responsible because this extension becomes unavoidable as a psychological reaction in the face of persuasive scientific conclusions of reality.

If science operates with such accuracy and by convincing logical and mathematical proofs illustrated by applications in daily life in continuous technical progress, its principles become parts of human consciousness and beliefs, and affect all realms of intellectual and spiritual life. Man and his ontological affirmation is the most evident and immediate area falling under the influence of such scientific approaches. The abstract notion of humanity, though it is no object of scientific research, can also become the object of scientific determinism; if it is true that «all that matters is matter» and that the function of matter can be explained by the law of causality and gravity, this means imposing «a mathematical finality on history and biology and geology and mining and spinning» (4).

The so-called scientific revolution of the 18th century meant that «from the principles of the secular sciences to the foundations of religious revelation, from metaphysics to matters of taste... from the scholastic disputes of theologians to matters of commerce, from natural law to the arbitrary laws of the nations... everything has been discussed, analyzed or at least mentioned»(5). All the notions of reality, including man as part of it are reduced to a well structured motion of particles or molecules and all kinds of emotions and psychical reactions of man are interpreted by quantitative size and the relationship of mechanical laws determined by speed. Arithmetic dominating not only physics, but also psychic reactions, will prove applied psychology to operate like anatomy and physiology in the human body as a complex molecular organism, which explains cognitive, volitional and sentimental operation of consciousness. Floyd Matson appropriately makes the remark: «man had disappeared from the world as subject in order to reappear as object. Mind itself was dissolved into particles in motion by the neutralizing solvent of the new physics» (6) and reminds us of the assertion of La Mettrie: «that man is a machine and that there is only one substance, differently modified, in the whole world. What will all the weak reeds of divinity, metaphysics and nonsense of the schools avail against this firm and solid oak?» (7).

The radically mechanized metaphysics in the philosophy of extreme Cartesian tendencies, married with the descriptive and analytic but absolutely consistent positivist thought in physics have been strangely combined with the Darwinian evolutionary theory in their massive attack against all kinds of substance research in man. Without any appropriate reasonable motif, a generalized anti-humane system of values has been developed perhaps under the psychologically imposed necessity to negate transcendence, metaphysics and any survival of faith in a special intervention of a creating power from outside. When we study this curious alliance and some hasty enthusiastic pronouncements on the entire sufficiency of explanations in physics and biology by some of the adherents of this mechanistic outlook of man and nature, we experience a strange dissatisfaction, especially because we are given such a crippled, one-sided and partial image of creation and man. In the same way as traditional transcendental theistic philosophical anthropology and theology had neglected the natural and material reality of the cosmos in dealing with humanity and spoke of man from an ivory tower, so from another angle science refused to allow space to man to move as a distinctive creature and spoke of him as a particle of a machine and as an organism of developing animal life. The great achievements of science in its first bold steps have betrayed a certain kind of non-scientific inflexibility and a deep intellectual weakness.

The right evolutionary theory mixed up with mechanistic philosophy and physics missed the total vision of humanum and reduced human being to a process from mammalian to psychological organization prescribed strictly by natural physical laws of selection and biological transformation. Man is not only made of the same matter and operated by the same energy as all the rest of the cosmos, but, for all his distinctiveness, he is linked by generic continuity with all the other living inhabitants of his planet. Man is an animal thinking mechanically, with an acquired bigger brain-stuff, automatically reacting to his natural environment and creating fantasies beyond it about himself, his origins, his destiny. Evolutionary scientists still in the 20th century do not hesitate to negate all kinds of transcendence for the sake of this mechanistic explanation. Julian Huxley writes that «evolutionary man can no longer take refuge from his loneliness by creeping for shelter into the arms of a divinized father — a figure whom he has himself created — nor escape from the responsibility of making decisions by sheltering under the umbrella of Divine Authority, nor absolve himself from the hard task of meeting his present problems and planning his future by relying on the will of an omniscient but unfortunately inscrutable Providence» (8).

No one has the right or can dispute a purely scientific biological theory with sufficient proofs, if they exist. But what is questionable is the advance to a totalitarian conclusion that «the only field still remaining outside the range of scientific system is that of the so-called paranormal phenomena like telepathy» thus facilitating the creation of a sole authentic scientific religion based on this mechanistic evolutionary vision of man without reference to any kind of salvation or higher destiny or a Creator. All these constitute «a regrettable dogmatism» (9), which with the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God leads to a frustrating dilemma at the very heart of our approach to reality and introduces an inseparable split into the universe, and prevents us from grasping its real unity. All religious or even questions about the ontological being of man, his destiny, his deeper emotional trends beyond natural and mechanical existence are psychosocial organs of evolving man. There is but a simple revolutionary and evolutionary humanism against all traditional images of man. This humanism is rooted in absolute faith in the self-guided selection towards perfection in nature, by man and for man alone. This evolutionary progress is nourished by the fact that by scientific knowledge, many phenomena which once appeared wholly mysterious can now be described or explained in rationally intelligible or naturalistic terms.

Certainly, even the most radical mechanistic evolutionist is ready to assert that science cannot abolish the mystery of existence in general. Having removed the obscuring veil of mystery, science will persist in questioning and wondering: what is life, what is mind and its relationship with all kinds of images it creates out of the observation of nature? But this self-humbling attitude does not affect the progressive investigation of reality by means of pure observation and research. The hope is that applied scientific knowledge is on the way to achieve more and more clarity. Santayana has come close to the central idea of evolutionary humanism: «there is only one world, the natural world, and only one truth about it; but this world has a spiritual life in it, which looks not to another world but to the beauty and perfection that this world suggests, approaches and misses» (10). From this position a realistic hopeful vision of the future is created. Man is not regarded in his static being, which has been designed once for all by God. He is fully in transformation forward, inspiring confidence in the future. For evolutionary humanists of all kinds here at this point lies the most striking difference with Christian anthropologists. For J. Bronowski this humanism implies that there would one day be different an even better human beings than ourselves (11).


1. Floyd W. Mats on. The Broken Image. Man, Science and Society, New York (Anchor Books - G. Braziller) 1964, p. V.

2. J. Bronowski, Science is human. In «The Humanist Frame» ed. by J. Huxley, London (G. Allen and Unwin Ltd.) 1961, p. 89.

3. S.Robert Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, New York (Simon and Schuster) 1954, p. 13-14 (quoted by F. Maison, ibid, p. 3).

4. J. Bronowski, The Common Sense of Science, Cambridge (Harvard Univ. Press) 1955, p. 46.

5. D' Allembert, Elements de Philosophie, quoted in Cassirer, Philosophy of the Enlightenment, p. 46-47, quoted by F. Matson, ibid., p. 12.

6. Floyd Matson, ibid., p. 13.

7. La Mettrie, L' Homme Machine, quoted in Joseph Needham, in: Science, Religion and Reality, New York (Araziller) 1955, p. 236.

8. Julian Huxley, The Humanist Frame, London (George Allen) 1961 p. 19.

9. Ibid., p. 38-39.

10. Quoted by Julian Huxley, ibid., p. 48.

11. J. Bronowski, Science is human, ibid., p. 93.

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