What Are Human Beings? Perspectives from Science and Scripture

Joel Green

What does it mean to be human? This is not the sort of question that occupies much of our thinking—at least not at an explicit, conscious level. Coffee shop conversations rarely turn to such speculative questions. Nevertheless, we carry out much of our lives with implicit answers to this question. Budget discussions—whether in Washington, D.C., or in our families—often parade different views of what it means to be human. “Feed the Soul or Feed the Hungry?”—this was the headline for a report on budget negotiations in a city council,1 but could just as easily summarize a congregation’s struggle to allocate its mission dollars. Either way, it divulges certain assumptions about humanity. Slogans sometimes capture deeply held views: “I think, therefore I am.” “She’s only human.” Some toss around the language of “unalienable rights” and “equality,” demonstrating that they have strong (even if not fully developed) views about human beings. The criteria by which we measure success or encourage happiness or contemplate health care decisions—these are all grounded in our commitments regarding what it means to be human. We may not think much about what it means to be human, but our thoughts and actions regularly put into play our default assumptions and beliefs about what this entails.

If coffeehouse conversations do not turn regularly to the nature of the human person, the same cannot be said of literature and film. In the nineteenth century, those who encountered Mary Shelley’s monster, that “hideous phantasm of a man,” the creation of Victor Frankenstein, might have wondered if humans were no more than the sum of their body parts, animated by a powerful electrical charge. Readers of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot may recall “the three laws of robotics,” a code of ethics governing robotic behavior. Asimov goes so far as to introduce a robot that claims, “I, myself, exist, because I think,” and practices worship of the creator. The 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, inspired by Asimov, narrates the two-hundred-year-long quest of robot Model NDR114 (a.k.a. “Andrew,” played by Robin Williams) to be recognized as a human. His (Its?) evolutionary stages manifest creativity, curiosity, friendship, emotional responses, financial independence, ownership of property, appreciation of beauty, and finally participation in the human condition of frailty and finitude.

Read more at http://fullermag.com/human-beings-perspectives-science-scripture/


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