The Progressive Diminishment of Man

by Rebecca Bynum (February 2010)

It may be argued that what man believes himself to be determines not only his conduct, but the substance of what he feels is possible, thus determining the scope of art and culture. The ostensible purpose of science is to serve man through the ever-expanding knowledge of facts, and yet as science has ascended, many scientists have mounted a purposeful attack on the ancient concept of man in order to diminish him in his own estimation. The feeling among scientists seems to be that man does not deserve a privileged place in the universe.

In the space of a few short generations, man has descended from seeing himself as a little less than the angels to king of the beasts to nothing more than a complex machine. The effect this has had on culture, on art and literature, has been devastating. For as the essential importance of man has decreased, so has his ability to portray life in anything other than absurd terms. In literature the concept of tragedy, which once hinged on the idea that the individual loss of freedom was of tragic proportions, has been all but lost. In Shakespearean tragedy, for example, a character flaw often compelled the central character to follow a predictable, tragic fate. But even in Shakespeare the idea of the hero, so prominent in Greek tragedy, was already diminished. Satire remained, of course, and continued from Pope through Byron. Then, in the 19th Century, we witnessed the rise of the psychological novel which then waned as the anti-hero rose to dominance. Today, literature has been reduced to a prolonged and tedious exploration of the aberrant. The hero has long been vanquished, with the exception of children’s comic books, because man no longer sees himself in a great spiritual struggle with eternal stakes. Even that last bastion of heroism, the military, has reduced the description of its mission to nothing more than a “job.” Indeed, the importance of human life has been so reduced that certain philosophers argue, with dead seriousness, that it is actually immoral to prefer human life over than the life of an animal.

The high priests of scientism, from Stephen Hawking to Richard Dawkins, argue that given enough time, science will eventually answer all questions, and implied is the idea that science, and science alone, contains all truth. However, upon examination, we find great areas where science has already abdicated. Science cannot, for example, explain the difference between a living and a dead organism in purely scientific terms. Scientists observe the elliptical movements of the planets and the mathematical precision of the orbits of electrons around the atomic proton, and postulate the existence of forces to explain these motions, but they cannot tell us what these forces actually are. For example, science can describe the effects of electricity, but it cannot tell us what electricity is any more than it can tell us what life is or what gravity is. It can describe the patterns of atoms and molecules, but it can no more predict that one hydrogen and two oxygen atoms combined would create water, any more than it could predict that the proteins in a DNA molecule could control the development of a living creature. As Ludwig Wittgenstein explained,

The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.

Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both were right and both wrong; though the view of the ancients is clearer insofar as they have an acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.[1]

Darwin once famously asked, why thought, “being a secretion of the brain” should be considered “more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter?” Though thought, like gravity, is non-material, both, according to Darwin, can be safely assumed to be the products of matter. The secret of atomic organization and the organization of life, according to scientism, is thought somehow to be contained in the smallest dead particles of mindless material. Yet when we look at reality, we must admit that matter without pattern would remain undifferentiated and therefore it is pattern which is the determining factor, not matter alone. And if pattern does not exist in mind or as mind, then where does it exist?

It is literally true that we live in a world composed of pattern. One does not see the wind, but we see the effect of it; we do not see mind, but we certainly see its effects in the observable patterns of reality. To attribute complex patterns or even simple patterns to mysterious mindless forces only deepens the mystery rather than clarifying it. The fact that mind is non-material does not mean it is not real.

The human genome has now been found to contain a comparable number of genes as any other vertebrate and this is evidence that our bodies are no more complex than that of a dog or an ape. Yet this discovery hasn’t prevented the proliferation of “scientific” theories about the genetic basis of language, art and culture. Language alone, with its well nigh infinite complexity, were it genetically based, would logically require an immense amount of genetic space. And if language cannot be found in our genes, how could art or culture be found there?

On the other hand, if we propose that mind is an element of reality, then we can reasonably assume that language can be found in its patterns. It may also be postulated that if mind exists as a level of reality, that its properties may gradually be discovered by man (as with the discovery of mathematical principles), but it would not be entirely accessible by any one man at any one time. If mind were simply the creation of the brain, it would, like the brain itself, be entirely subject to scientific inspection. On this subject, Noam Chomsky writes:

The greatest defect of classical philosophy, both rationalist and empiricist, seems to me to be the unquestioned assumption that the properties and content of the mind are accessible to introspection; it is surprising to see how rarely this assumption has been challenged, insofar as the organization and function of the intellectual faculties are concerned, even with the Freudian revolution. Correspondingly, the far-reaching studies of language that were carried out under the influence of Cartesian rationalism suffered from a failure to appreciate either the abstractness of those structures that are “present to the mind” when an utterance is produced or understood, or the length and complexity of the chain of operations that relate the mental structures expressing the semantic content of the utterance to the physical realization.

A similar defect mars the study of language and mind in the modern period. It seems to me that the essential weakness in the structuralist and behaviorist approaches to these topics is the faith in the shallowness of explanations, the belief that mind must be simpler in its structure than any known physical organ and that the most primitive of assumptions must be adequate to explain whatever phenomenon can be observed. Thus, it is taken for granted without argument or evidence (or presented as true by definition) that a language is a “habit structure” or a network of associative connections, or the knowledge of language is merely a matter of “knowing how,” a skill expressible as a system of dispositions to respond. Accordingly, knowledge of language must develop slowly through repetition and training, its apparent complexity resulting from the proliferation of very simple elements rather than from deeper principles of mental organization that may be inaccessible to introspection as the mechanisms of digestion or coordinated movement.[2]

And again, when we discuss the “mental structures” of language we are discussing properties and patterns that exist in mind, not in matter. And for those who counter that mind is the result of brain-as-computer, one need only to point to the infinite complexity of language and how deeply and individually creative it is – the focal point of freedom and will. It is exactly that freedom and will that is under assault by the use of concepts like “cognitive systems” as though mind were a dead product of dead matter without the spontaneity or creativity of life. These explanations, for the thinking person, simply will not do, as Chomsky explains:

It is important to bear in mind that the creation of linguistic expressions that are novel but appropriate is the normal mode of language use. If some individual were to restrict himself largely to a definite set of linguistic patterns, to a set of habitual responses to stimulus configurations, or to “analogies” in the sense of modern linguistics, we would regard him as mentally defective, as being less human than animal. He would immediately be set apart from normal humans by his inability to understand normal discourse, or to take part in it in the normal way – the normal way being innovative, free from control by external stimuli, and appropriate to a new and ever changing situations.[3]

One might recall the great glee with which Jane Goodall’s discovery of the tool-making and using of chimpanzees was greeted (wild chimps were observed stripping the leaves from twigs in order to use them to fish for termites). This was due not to the fact that it raised chimpanzees in our estimation, but rather because it lowered man. Louis Leakey exclaimed, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” One more supposedly unique human attribute was knocked off the list, and we could no longer claim to be the only tool making and using animal.

Despite the best efforts of science, however, language has proved a much more stubborn human attribute. Animals can be taught to use language to a limited extent. My African Grey parrot can tell me what he likes and wants, “I like corn. I like peppers. Mommy, give me almonds,” etc., but he can’t enjoy what we would recognize as a normal human conversation. Chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught sign language, but with the same disappointing results and despite all the excitement and promotion of the possibility of language use among dolphins, it has never been found.

Animals can learn cause and effect and therefore ask for things, but human language is not so much about things as the idea of things and normally takes place on a level above; concerning itself with the relationship between the ideas of things. This is what renders meaning.

Mind as it is experienced, can be divided into various levels. The level of mind that concerns itself with perception, the recording of perception, motor control and the involuntary nervous system is undoubtedly connected with the material brain and is shared with animals. Animals are also undoubtedly conscious, but human beings are conscious of being conscious. This implies a level of mind experience above that of animals. Add to that the ability to use language and to explore levels of meaning through the use of language and mathematics and we have yet another level of mind which animals simply do not experience.

Though there is nothing to be gained by denying this obvious reality, it is my contention that even the possibility of exploring the non-material realm of mind has been effectively blocked by the overwhelming consensus of modern science that we live in a meaningless material universe and only the weak-minded would say otherwise. It is because science has progressively diminished man in his own eyes that philosophy has been stunted. We stand dumb in the face of confident Islamic assertions because we long ago abandoned the search for an effective and modern philosophical response to materialism. Islam is, in essence, an extremely materialistic religion with many similarities to secular materialism: both remove human dignity and envision man as a slave. And while our politicians continually exalt the concept of freedom, our philosophers going back through Spinoza to William of Occam and the rise of nominalism deny there is any such thing as true free will.

The reinvigoration of Western culture must include the restoration of man to a place of dignity in a meaningful universe. The first step must be to restore mind to a level of reality, not illusion, otherwise meaning and values cannot be considered to be real. If mind is not real, then all of man’s knowledge and all his finest accomplishments in art and science are as nothing and the Muslim designation of the fruits of our culture as worthless jahiliyya would be justified. Perhaps it is time to revisit the works of Kant, Descartes, Aristotle and Plato and recognize that the banishment of mind from the realm of reality has not necessarily been wise. For without mind, where is will? and without will, where is freedom? Let us restore man to his proper and dignified place in a meaningful and thus mind-filled universe. One may even assert that in mind, we live, move and have our being.

[1] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (1921, translation by C. K. Ogden 1922) 6. 371-2

[2] Chomsky, Noam Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2006) pgs 22-23

[3]Chomsky, Noam Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2006) pg. 88

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


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