On Being a Human Being
Adams (E.M.)
Source: The Pluralist, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 1-15
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. In the last term I taught, I was asked by students to … to give the lecture I would give if I knew that it would be my last lecture. ... I shall now try to write what I would want to say in a last lecture. I do this for the discipline it imposes in making me focus on what I count the most important things I have to say to students and others at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the end of my career.
  2. The topic I have chosen, "On Being a Human Being," is one that should be of great interest to everyone of whatever persuasion, especially young people, for we are all first and foremost human beings engaged in living the life of a human being as well as a life that fits our individuality and circumstances. Furthermore, it is a highly controversial topic. We have conflicting images or views about what it is to be a human being, and of course our conception of a human being determines the kind of life that would be appropriate for us. There is the traditional view of the Judeo-Christian religion that human beings are not creatures of nature, but divinely created beings in the image of God, and the Hindu view that human beings are a piece of the divine substance. Perhaps the dominant view in our scientific/technological age is that a human being is simply a complex organization of physio-bio-chemical elements, structures, and processes, a product of natural causal means without benefit of normative laws or an end-directed causality1, like all things in nature; and that in living our lives, we are simply causally interacting with our environment as it would be recorded and accounted for scientifically. This is a conclusion that we must accept or else reject the view of the world as it is defined in our dominant culture, namely, as defined in terms of the categories of modern science, cleansed of all humanistic categories.
  3. Modern science developed its worldview without taking into account the human phenomenon, and then we try to repackage the human phenomenon conceptually in a way that would fit ourselves into the naturalistic worldview and make our existence intelligible. In doing so, we do violence not only to our conception of human beings that is presupposed in living our lives but even to human beings themselves, for we constitute ourselves and form our identity by our conception of ourselves as human beings in much the same way in which police form their identity and define their activities as police by their conception of what a police officer is. That is why nothing is more important than having a correct understanding of what it is to be a human being and what it is to live a life that is worthy as such a being. That is why I have chosen this topic for my "last lecture."
  4. It seems clear that human beings cannot be correctly conceived in terms of the categories of modern scientific thought, for we all think that human beings are by their nature persons. Yet it is clear that the concept of persons has no place in scientific thought. B. F. Skinner, a noted behavioristic psychologist, says that the concept of a person, like the concept of God, is a prescientific, superstitious idea. It is not only persons who would have no place in the scientific worldview; science itself would not be possible in such a world, for science presupposes inherent structures of meaning, namely, the truth-claims that constitute science, the normative laws of logic and rational appraisal, the justifying reasons for the scientific truth-claims, the experiences, thoughts, and rationality of scientists, and so forth, all of which are in the world and in need of explanation. If science cannot account for them, then so much the worse for the scientific worldview.

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