Saturday, December 07, 2019

Time and Chance (13)

What distinguishes man from other mammals?

Charles Darwin famously argued that the difference in mind between mankind and the higher animals is one of degree and not of kind. In other words, we have all the same basic intellectual material to work with. Humans just have more of it.

Indeed, this can seem like a tricky question if you’re asked it in the middle of watching a YouTube video of an elephant enthusiastically playing piano, or a setter and a pigeon who appear to be best pals. Not all this stuff is staged.

Mimicry is one explanation for the elephant, and it satisfies some. But live with unstressed domesticated animals long enough and you will often see signs of what appear to be near-human qualities in them, things which may appear to support Darwin’s degree-not-kind argument. Time-preference management. Sophisticated emotional displays that cannot be easily accounted for on the basis of instinct or necessity. Darwin made much of these commonly-observed features of the animal kingdom, and in that at least he was not wrong. My cat, for example, is visibly jealous of her relationship with me and prioritizes it over eating. Intrude on that, and you will suffer very predictable consequences.

Not all of these apparent similarities between mankind and the higher mammals can be written off satisfactorily as sentimental projection. The beasts are more like us than we know.

In His Own Image

On the other hand, the book of Genesis tells us God created mankind in his own image, and some of the differences which might be said to follow from that are considered below. God did not say this of any other species, and we are wise to pay attention to this rather important distinction.

God has repeatedly gone on record declaring that he cares about the lives of animals. I find that fact reassuring, endearing and fully consistent with his revealed character. All the same, if it is the case that mankind alone is created in his image, then aborting a human baby is surely on a different moral level from testing perfume on rats, butchering a calf for supper, or clubbing a baby seal — not that I’m necessarily endorsing any of those activities. The image of God — whatever that may mean in all its complexity if we were ever able to fully unpack it — demands that we take the value of human life as seriously as he does.

Abstraction and Self-Consciousness

Contra Darwin, careful observation shows the mental processes of man and beast are indeed different in kind, not just in degree, particularly in the areas of abstraction and self-consciousness.

This is most evident when we look at it negatively. It may or may not be true that elephants never forget, but it is manifestly the case that they do not compose symphonies. For all her emotional sophistication, if my cat had kittens, she would not then write down her memoirs for them. No dolphin is currently recording the history of super pods in the North Atlantic. Chimpanzees may use simple tools, but they do not build machines. The donkey does not do math problems or draw up schematics for a bridge, and that deficiency will not be remedied if we make him an owl, an ocelot or an emu. There is no compelling scientific evidence that an old fox is capable of contemplating her coming death and considering whether there might be some eternal reality beyond it.

Finally, a dog may behave himself because he fears a particular sort of discipline he has previously experienced, or because he wants a treat, or because he loves to be told he is a good boy. But his obedience is purely pragmatic, not moral. No abstract awareness of right and wrong shapes canine choice-making. He does not agonize over his failures of character.

All arguments that the unexplored or undeveloped capacity exists in higher animals to do these things one day will fall on deaf ears until one actually does. The observable fact is that they currently do not.

A Feeble Argument

But the wrongness of Darwin’s degree-not-kind assertion is probably best illustrated by the complete agreement between Christians and even the most rabid environmentalists on the subject of mankind’s obligation to care for and preserve our planet. We find our reasons in scripture. But if Darwin was correct, and the differences between man and the higher animals are only differences of degree, then surely responsibility for the stewardship of our planet ought to be distributed among all its species in proportion to their ability to do the job. After all, evolutionists can rarely resist bludgeoning us over the head with how very intelligent the higher animals are, and how astonishingly similar they are to us.

“But that’s insane,” the environmentalists will respond. “How can you possibly expect chimpanzees and dolphins to care for the planet? Are you off your nut?”

Exactly. The absurdity of the suggestion points out the magnitude of the actual differences — whatever these may be — between even the highest of the higher animals and human beings. We feel this sense of responsibility for the environment not just because it is humans who cause the most damage to it, but because only humanity possesses even the slightest chance of being able to remedy it. Either the differences between humans and other species are not really only differences of degree, or else these differences in degree are of such colossal magnitude that we might as well give up and refer them as differences in kind. We cannot have it both ways.

Whether or not we like to admit it, it is evident to all that human beings possess some unique quality that sets us apart from the rest of creation. Even people who cannot name it or quantify it know the divine spark is there.

Man and Beast

Back in Ecclesiastes 3, the Preacher is also comparing man and beast. Like Darwin’s comparison, it may initially appear that his is not exactly complimentary to mankind:
“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.”
Now, Solomon has already established earlier in this chapter that some of the things God does are designed to keep us humble. We wouldn’t want another Tower of Babel after all, or for anyone to get the idea that one human being could ever be adequate to preside over a global empire.

Thus we come across statements like “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end,” and “God has done it, so that people fear before him.” Both imply a fixed upper limit on human knowledge gained through naturalistic means, and the divine intention to teach man appropriate respect for his betters.

To tell us that we are “but beasts” seems very much along the same lines.

The $64,000 Question

But “beasts” in what respect exactly? That is the $64,000 question. Is the Preacher telling us the Darwinians have been right all along, and that a dolphin or a chimpanzee might easily have replaced human beings at the top of the evolutionary heap if only the dice had once rolled their way? Surely not. The Preacher has adopted a naturalistic perspective throughout the book so far, looking at his world as if divine revelation had never occurred, but at no point to date has he gone down the same road Darwin did in The Descent of Man.

Once again, it becomes evident that when scripture makes what first appears to be a scandalous statement — in this case one that would make a wonderful pullquote for veganism — we ought to be careful to interpret it in context.

So then, in what particular way is a man like a beast? In this way: that both die, and the naturalistic viewpoint cannot tell us what happens to either. For all its apparent virtues, science is deaf and dumb with respect to the spiritual side of things:
“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”
This is beautifully put, and eloquently expresses our desperate need for divine revelation. If indeed all is not truly vanity, then we need God to speak to us. We need real answers.

Eternity in Our Hearts

We have eternity in our hearts. God himself placed it there. We want to know that our lives matter, but we cannot easily demonstrate that to one another, or even convince ourselves of it. The world around us does not make the explanation for universal death easy to intuit. Death seizes us as consistently and as easily as it seizes donkeys, camels and cows. We may be able to think about death, anticipate it, fear it and write endless songs and poems about it, which they cannot, but we surely cannot stop it any more than they can. To know anything about what comes after it with certainty, we would need an authoritative declaration about it from some much more powerful being whose word we have reason to trust.

That is to say, we desperately need the rest of scripture.

A Series of “Alls”

There is a series of “alls” here. But when the Preacher says that “all have the same breath”, “all are from the dust” and “all go to the same place”, he is not waxing metaphysical or theological. He is not suggesting my cat will go to heaven or hell, though my personal preference is indubitably for the former. He is not talking about anything spiritual at all. He is simply noting that mankind and animals both expire. We both go to into the ground. That is what can be observed. In both cases, a body is left behind and a spirit departs. Beyond that, our earthly experience cannot tell us what happens. As he puts it, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”

Apart from revelation, you don’t and I don’t. Science certainly doesn’t, even after all these ensuing centuries. In fact, whatever the truth is about these things, Solomon, for all his mental thrashing about, was probably closer to it 3,000 years ago than many or all atheistic scientists are today.

In Conclusion

The Preacher sums up his case by reverting back to a familiar theme:
“So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
Who indeed. Only God can. And he does:
“As it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
But you won’t find that line in Ecclesiastes. It isn’t there. And it isn’t there so that we will realize we need to look elsewhere for it. Human wisdom, observation and intuition cannot get us to this delightful conclusion.

1 comment :

  1. Hmm, it may be a matter of how far you are willing to belief in the experiences of others. There are plenty of NDE published where it is confirmed that poochy is indeed waiting for you on the other side. There is no way that I can imagine that our departed 50 lbs of pure love (our black poodle, Jody) is not going to come running to us again (pure love makes its home in heaven). Then
    there are the living, who indeed still exist, who are gifted visionaries and have been visited here by their departed pet (an experience which is completely real at least to them).