People are precious?

June 6th, 2022 in clues. Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been reading a little about the abilities of animals to do things that once were thought uniquely human – using tools and language for example (see Are people more than animals?). So are humans nothing more than clever animals?

Intuitively, we believe that human life is precious. Our laws protect human life to a much greater degree than they protect animal life. So how do we resolve this question of the value of humans vs animals?

Two accounts of reality

It seems there are two very different accounts of the reality we all experience.

1. The world is material, nothing more

This is a common view today, especially among physical and biological scientists. On this view, humans are nothing more than the physical, just like everything else. Our bodies and brains follow physical and chemical processes that are generally understood. We appear to be different to animals, but that is just a matter of degree – we may be smarter but we have similar DNA and we aren’t any different in the way we are made and live.

This view has several implications:

How do we think?

If our brain processes are controlled by natural laws, then our thinking is determined by those laws. Our brains, like the rest of us, have evolved via natural selection to help us survive and reproduce. Our thinking will be pragmatic. We can do simple logic, so that a potential threat (e.g. a predator that makes a noise) triggers a reaction to flee. But the ability to think abstractly, consider other alternative hypotheses or consider whether we need be afraid of dying, will only get in the way of survival. So our abilities in these areas are difficult to explain.


The results of our thinking will be determined by these physical and chemical brain processes. There is no “us” standing outside those processes to change them in any way. So while we can make choices, those choices couldn’t have been any different in that situation. We wouldn’t have freewill in the sense of being able to choose differently. Most neuroscientists seem to come to this conclusion, though many admit it is difficult to live without the illusion (as they see it) of freewill.

Right and wrong?

This has implications for ethics. If we were unable to make a different decision, then how can we be held morally responsible? Each of us, from the philanthropist to the pedophile, are acting according to our brain chemistry, which we have no actual control over. This rather frightening conclusion is softened a little, perhaps, by the difficulty of finding an objectively true basis for ethical decisions anyway. So on this view, our ethics are determined by our cultural upbringing, and our choices are determined by our brain chemistry.

Who am I?

We instinctively recoil against these conclusions, for we feel we are more than that. We are conscious of ourselves as rational, moral, responsible beings. But, the materialist neuroscientists tell us, our consciousness is also an illusion, a by-product of evolution that cannot be explained, at least not yet.

All this fits the scientific assumption that materialism is true, but it doesn’t fit our common human experience. It seems to lead to a very debased view of humanity and leave us more open to amoral anti-social beahviour.

2. The material isn’t all there is

This is the common instinctive view in many people. We feel we really are conscious, rational, morally responsible beings, and we are disappointed, perhaps even affronted, when others behave differently. We instinctively believe pedophiles, mass murderers, wife-abusers and lying politicians are truly and deeply wrong. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine really is wrong, evil, unnecessary.

This view struggles for acceptance among scientists and atheists, for they argue there is no evidence for anything other than the material. This argument seems to me to fail for two reasons:

  • Science is materialistic by definition. Its tools all measure the material. If there is something beyond the material, science isn’t capable of measuring or observing it. So it could never come to a dfferent conclusion on its own. Science has pre-judged this question.
  • There is plenty of personal experience in favour of non-materialism. Like I have said, people feel we are rational, morally-responsible beings. We feel we can make chocies and we hold people morally responsible for their choices. Our consciousness, which science cannot yet explain and some scientists say is an illusion, is actually the most fundamental thing we know.

This view can be worked out in several ways (see A challenge to materialism?). Possible the most common conclusion, called dualism, is that human beings are both material and mental beings, some would say material and spiritual beings.

Most religious people would believe this, but slowly a number of secular philosophers are also thinking that materialism doesn’t fit the facts.

Are people precious?

Materialism seems to debase humanity to the level of smart animals. But we seem to be more than that. We instinctively feel we are more than that.

We fall in love, we appreciate beauty, we are capable of great heroism and altruism. At the same time we can abuse, create ugliness and act deeply seflishly. We all experience the highs and the lows of being human.

It is hard to see how we would think the same about cows or fish. It is true that we may see moral and rational qualities in some animals, such as border collies, dolphins and apes. But that is because we intuit that they too may have qualities that are more than merely material.

I can’t help feeling that materialism is an unjustified belief, and allowing it to influence our view of humanity is an enormous social experiment that may lead to unexpected consequences.


Photo: samer daboul on Pexels.

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  1. Hello Eric!
    Good to see you posting again.
    I’m increasingly skeptical to materialism as the ultimate truth of the universe, but wither or not a human is wholly materiel I just don’t know. The problem I have is that I view materialism is an assumption that can’t be falsified. Not to mention we have never really figured out what “Matter” actually is. Another problem is that if there is an immaterial thing, then what is it? How do we detect it? or manipulate it? Is either of those even possible?
    I suspect we will never really know, but our understanding and interpretations of the Universe and the human mind will change, with different philosophical views competing against each other. It does feel like materialism is getting challenged more and more, and that sciantists more often then not don’t really need to think about it whatever the truth. Even if science (Or at least its assumptions) changes it’s mind on materialism, the frustration truth is that there’s not much it can do about it. Material science by definition can only deal with things made of matter as you pointed out. In my studies, I have noticed that there appears to be a debate among the theologians of the Abrahamic faiths as well as scientists and philosophers regarding this. I’m still reading up on this.

    Personally, I certainly hope I’m more then my brain. I hope I don’t live in a purely physical universe. But of course, whatever the ultimate truth is, I don’t get a say in that truth. All I can do is ponder it and the God I hope is there, which I certainly do enjoy.

    Glade to have you back Eric!

  2. There is no “matter” atoms are all just subatomic particles leptons quarks bosons which consist of subatomic electromagnetic energy FIELDs .. ENERGY, not matter.
    “ I THINK therefore I AM” just consciousness.
    Upon the realization that I EXIST there was a BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions. What am I where when how WHY do I know I exist. Since those questions have no answers, “WE CREATED. The god that created us in order to explain our existence.

  3. Hi Aaron, thanks for your “welcome back”. I’m sorry to be so slow in replying. WordPress is supposed to advise me when new comments come in, but it seems to be inconsistent. I have had notification of previous comments by you, and of James’ comment, but not this one of yours (as far as I can find). I do appreciate you reading and commenting.

    I think everyone (except some hard-headed materialists) agress that the material-immaterial interface presents problems that we may never fully solve. Numbers are immaterial, but are minds? How does the mind (if it exists at all) influence the brain? And so on.

    You say “materialism is an assumption that can’t be falsified”, and in a rigorous sense you may be right. We can (apparently) measure the physical repeatedly and demonstrably, but our detection of mind or spirit or consciousness is much less objective, so that some can say these things are illusions. But perhaps indirect measurement may be possible, just like astronomers first detected the presence of the planetoid Pluto by its gravitational effect on Neptune.

    So I think that the information we have, both from science and human experience cannot be fully and satisfactorily explained by science, and this points to something more outside of our materialistic science. It isn’t as tangible evidence as science generally requires, but surely our experience of self and mind are as real and valid to us as the evidence we have for forming relationships or believing the external world isn’t a computer simulation? After all, we only know science through our sense experience, so experience is primary and science is in a sense secondary.

    We could further argue that if any of the major world religions are correct, there may be an afterlife for many or all of us, and the disproof of materialism would then be clear. So who knows?

  4. Hi James, thanks for continuing to read and comment. But unsurprisingly I have a few questions please.

    1. You say “atoms are all just subatomic particles leptons quarks bosons which consist of subatomic electromagnetic energy FIELDs .. ENERGY, not matter.” How do you know this? Particle physics tells us about those particles, and it also says energy and matter are interchangeable. Which is different to saying all is energy. It’s probably a matter of definition, but why do you accept some of the findings of particle physics but disregard others?

    2. You say ” What am I where when how WHY do I know I exist. Since those questions have no answers” There ARE indeed answers to those questions. For example, the christian faith which I believe would answer them. You may not accept those answers, but that is not the same as there being no answers. So why do you not accept the christian answers?

    3. You say “WE CREATED. The god that created us in order to explain our existence.” Anthropologists say that most cultures have gods, and psychologists (e.g. Newberg, Barrett) tell us that belief in gods is quite natural and helpful to our brains. So it seems to be true that people are prone to invent gods. But that doesn’t mean that among all the religious beliefs, there aren’t true beliefs. And there are many arguments to support the truth of God’s existence (e.g. many on this website). So can you explain why you reject those arguments?

    I’d be interested in your answers thanks.

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