Arts & Sciences

by Rebecca Bynum (January 2010)

Throughout the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first, the life sciences have increasingly been devoted to examining the traits and characteristics man shares with other animals. The trend has been toward minimizing man’s unique qualities and magnifying man’s animal nature. The theory of natural selection, coupled with sexual selection is now being stretched to explain all aspects of human behavior and psychology. This has the effect of diluting the concept of will, and ultimately, of denying the non-material aspects of human experience entirely, including the reality of mind itself.

Thoughts are conceived as consisting of nothing more than electro-chemical processes taking place in the brain, and therefore, indistinguishable from it. The mind is said to present an illusion of non-materiality and abstraction which is, in fact, created solely by the material organ. The only way man differs from other animals comes down to the relative amount of grey matter contained within his cranium in comparison with his body mass. The fact that man has a larger and more complex brain is presented as the only difference distinguishing human beings from other animals, a difference which explains all others, including the creation of art, culture and religion.


This emphasis on the corporeal has effectively excluded metaphysical discussion from the public sphere. However, it is doubtful that the problem of “what is man?” can be fully understood without some discussion of the abstract. Certainly man differs from the animals in his ability to self-reflect. Animals may make and use tools, they may cooperate in groups, they may show loving care for each other and may even use language to a limited degree, but they cannot reflect upon their lives, or ponder the meaning of their existence or the reality of death.

The highest forms of human self-expression, art, music and literature are not possible for animals because they do not have the capacity for self-reflection. Nor do they possess the capacity to imaginatively put themselves into another creature’s place. The lion does not reflect upon the plight of the gazelle and indeed the entire animal kingdom is a strictly amoral abode on that account. There is no higher value for an animal than purely selfish survival and reproduction. Therefore, if we attempt to strain the arts through a materialist sieve, we are likely to remove the object of art which lies in the expression of higher meanings and value contained in mind and spirit. Viewing art as an evolutionary adaptation implies a strictly material benefit and while those benefits might be demonstrable, especially upon consideration of sexual selection, the overall effect of such theorizing is the unfortunate cheapening of the arts, even by those who desire to uplift and uphold them.

Coming at the problem of art from a metaphysical perspective throws a different light on its reality. Metaphysics releases man from pure materialism, in which there lies no inherent meaning – survival and reproduction are not meaningful in themselves if they do not relate to something higher. However, if one considers that the patterns to which all matter adheres, stable and yet flexible patterns, from the pattern of atoms, to the patterns of the elements and molecules, to the patterns of cells and life forms up to and including patterns of behavior, all may be considered as mind (not simply as described by mind), then we can begin to discuss the non-material as an element of reality, even as a reality itself. Simply put, natural law is pattern and pattern is mind. Instinct could then be considered a result of the interaction of living organisms with mind which produces discrete patterns of behavior, the seemingly miraculous “knowing” of animals.


If we consider mind a level of reality and that language and mathematics are patterns of mind, not simply “tools” human beings use to describe reality, man is thrown into a different relief with regard to that reality. Unfortunately, however, the prevailing notion that all reality is material, and only material, holds even the finest minds of our generation in its grip. They then seek after material causation for mind and value, which is the ultimate in reductionism. 

In discussing the metaphysical, non-material aspects of existence, we may postulate that man has access to higher realms of mind than animals do, realms containing language and mathematics, which allow him a degree of freedom from the material, even from time itself. We may speculate as to whether man broke through into the higher realms of mind in a purely spontaneous fashion, or whether some event was an antecedent cause, but clearly what we are discussing is not simple animal-level consciousness, but consciousness of consciousness and that is one very real difference between man and animal. It is a difference that cannot be explained on a purely material level. How can matter be conscious of itself without the addition of mind and how can mind be conscious of itself without the addition of something even higher?

For most natural philosophers, the difference between man and animals seems to be purposefully blurred. It is simply assumed that the man is nothing more than an animal, and such differences as there are, are only a matter of degree. When forced to deal with something as basic as the value of art, many of these philosophers simply ignore it. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, explains art a by-product of evolution with no inherent evolutionary value. Denis Dutton takes issue with this in his excellent book, The Art Instinct. Dutton seeks to explain art as an important evolutionary adaptation in itself and succeeds rather well in arguing the case, at least for fiction, although in order to do so, he is forced to argue the point that the purpose of storytelling is to allow entry into the minds and experiences of others, something absolutely impossible for the animal mind to accomplish.

With his deep and wide knowledge art, literature and music, Dutton fully acknowledges the existence of beauty and love in human experience, though not necessarily as values with a separate existence in reality. The argument that man created mind, value and God in general seems quite settled now that the dogma of natural philosophy has come to dominate philosophy as a whole. Yet one must keep coming back to the question of what happened during the Pleistocene to turn a highly intelligent, tool-using animal into a being conscious of his consciousness, with the ability to reflect on his life and deeds and possessed of the added ability to discern truth from falsehood, goodness from evil, and beauty from ugliness? The entire history of man is one of fleeing the “red in tooth and claw” animal world and of protecting himself from its brutality by adding layer upon layer of culture.  Culture is the creation of imagination. Animals cannot create culture because they cannot enter into the same levels of mind human beings do in order to perform feats of imagination.

In this respect, language must certainly be considered essential to the human condition, and again we may speculate that, metaphysically, language exists within that higher realm of mind which impinges on the realm of value (goodness, truth and beauty). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.[1] The power and mystery of language certainly goes far beyond its dull utilitarian purpose of merely describing the material world. And yet, modern linguistics seems doggedly determined to study language on that dead level. And yet, it is undeniable that language (along with mathematics) bestows upon man the ability to be creative himself – to create his own reality, at least in some measure, rather than to simply exist as a part of creation. Language and will as thus indissolubly linked.

The concept of moral will lies at the very heart of human dignity. Yet we are witnessing a systematic attack on language as a moral instrument and an effort to remove all terms of judgment – to wring the life from language, so to speak. Words are powerful things and when employed in the service of higher value, they are very powerful indeed. Many of the same people who would remove value judgment from our language would also have us believe that Jesus (the ultimate teacher of the word) was nothing more than a schizophrenic homosexual in order to try to remove the power of his words from our minds. But what is it that distinguishes man more the power to make moral decisions?

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver argues that it is impossible to remove all tendency from language, that language always tends to one direction or another, and that the effort to scour language of its moral tendency is nothing less than an attack on humanity itself. The modern obsession with genetic causes of behavior is perhaps the most overt of the modern attacks on the human will, but is only a part of the growing movement toward the reduction of man. In this, the modern secular movement is in line with Islam. For both, free will is nothing more than an illusion and morality is entirely arbitrary.

Science does well to purge religion of superstition, but it does not do well when it attempts to prevent humanity from exploring or understanding all non-material aspects of reality completely. Over the last century, secularism, which had originally blessed mankind by limiting the earthly power of religious authority, has gone far beyond that mandate and launched an attack on the reality of all that is non-material – on mind and value. Thus, secularism has evolved into an attack on humanity – on all that distinguishes man from animal. Even the finest minds of our generation have become enslaved by a dogma as strong as any religion, but one that is ultimately much weaker. For although Darwinism may explain from whence we have come, it is powerless to show us where we should go.

[1] The Bible, John 1:1, New International version

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking articles like this one, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read more by Rebecca Bynum, click here.

Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer


Pre-order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

For the literature lover in your life on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold. 

For children of all ages. Order at AmazonAmazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend