Our time is marked by heated cultural debates over same-sex marriage and transgender rights, abortion and assisted suicide. At the heart of those debates are underlying conceptions of reality, which means that a true engagement with any of them begins only at the level of first principles. Once first principles are in place, determining one’s positions becomes largely a matter of drawing conclusions.
Throughout the year, this column has emphasized that the human person is a contingent being: we are neither self-generating (we all are born and do not bear ourselves) nor self-sustaining (we all die). We are creatures—created beings—not creators, and from that simple proposition flows a perspective of reality that provides coherent, consistent and reasonable answers to the many pressing questions of our day.
That conception of reality has its origins in the timeless wisdom of classical philosophy, especially Aristotle. It understands existence as having an objective structure that is external to the human person and intelligible to the human mind. Within that objective structure, every existing being has a “telos” or purpose, which is understood from the essence or nature of the being. When a being fulfills that purpose, it “perfects” itself or flourishes, just like a flower in full bloom.
The Aristotelian perspective, called “moral realism” for its grounding in reality, has been elaborated over the centuries, particularly by Christian philosophers who have recognized that existence is contingent and sustained by the non-contingent source of reality, whom we call God. The structure and telos of existence reflect the “mind” of God, who sustains all being in existence and by whom and to whom all being is ordered.
The human person participates in the mind of God in a special way by virtue of our capacities to discern reality, to deliberate on matters of truth and to choose accordingly. Indeed, reality is truth; truth is good; and in goodness lies human happiness. When the human person acts in harmony with reality and thus truth, the person becomes more fully human—that is, more fulfilled in his or her universally shared human nature.
The two major competing perspectives of reality that inform public discourse today are posthumanism and transhumanism. Both are materialist philosophies that reject the existence of God, an external moral order, and any objective meaning and dignity to human life. To overcome the inevitable nihilism resulting from the elimination of God, they look ahead toward humanistic utopias of technocracy and autonomy.
Posthumanism has its origins in the deterministic empiricism of John Locke and David Hume and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It envisions a technocratic order where humans will have advanced themselves beyond the natural limitations of the world and the human body—a post-human world, if you will—where science and technology provide the hope of making even death a thing of the past. For posthumanists, life takes on meaning only insofar as it is useful and oriented toward a utilitarian social order.
Transhumanism, in contrast, is a development of the thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and a product of postmodern “critical theory.” Transhumanism seeks to deconstruct and reduce all societies and social structures to narratives of oppression and identity categories, pitting groups against each other through power struggles and victimhood. It furthermore presents as solutions narratives of “progress” achieved through “revolution,” which form “right” and “wrong” sides of history as if history were a coherent narrative oriented toward a progressive paradise.
Posthumanism and transhumanism both purport to outline an “atheistic humanism” but share the same fundamental shortcoming: they do not present a tenable conception of reality. Bentham, Marx and Nietzsche—avowed atheists, yet ironically religious in their hopes of worldly utopias—ignore questions of metaphysical or moral truth. They do not address, much less answer, the questions of how our contingent being originated and is sustained or why we or anything else exists at all.
Atheistic humanism views reality not as ordered but as plastic. No external morality or objectivity exists—only matter—so we are left to design our individual subjective utopias. The atheistic humanist thereby constructs his own “self-identity” and the meaning of his reality, neither of which may be subjected to an external moral assessment. In a literal way, the atheistic humanist makes the self a creator, not a creature.
But man cannot plasticize reality. We receive reality and, although we can work marvelous wonders within its ordering, we do not create it. By arrogating to ourselves the role of creator, we lie, committing the fundamental Edenic error of attempting to define reality—right and wrong—for ourselves. The two major atheistically humanist ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism, show vividly that masquerading as creators results in division, misery and death.
Contemporary debates may seem less extreme, but the ultimate stakes are no less high. What is the reality of a human fetus? The unequivocal fact is that a human zygote from conception is a new and discrete human being with all of the biological and DNA information it will have for the rest of its life. As with all human life, the fetus must be respected, protected, and nourished. Treating the fetus otherwise ignores the underlying reality or rejects the dignity of human life.
What about male and female sexual complementarity? The moral realist recognizes and embraces the self-evident and given reality of that procreative union and places it at the core of family life. The atheistic humanist views sex and gender as conditions that may be modified and expressed according to one’s subjective preferences.
On the level of first principles, positions on life, sexuality, gender identity and many other social issues are thus driven not by “phobias,” “biases” or “bigotry” but rather by one’s conception of the meaning and structure of reality. This column has consistently argued that the human person is made in the image of God, is endowed with inestimable dignity and participates in an ordered reality that has an objective meaning and structure. When we recognize those truths, we also see that Aristotle was correct: happiness flows from realizing our nature, not remaking it.
Wills Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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