Category Archives: Human Nature

Where Is Suicide the Most Common?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Most people get this wrong, really wrong. Malcolm Gladwell, in his latest book called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, shares a bit of knowledge that is well worth pondering. Speaking of human feelings of sadness, happiness, and deprivation, Gladwell writes the following:

Our sense of how deprived we are is relative. This is one of those observations that is both obvious and (upon exploration) deeply profound, and it explains all kinds of otherwise puzzling observations.

Which do you think, for example, has a higher suicide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Canada? or countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, whose citizens describe themselves as not very happy at all?

Answer: the so-called happy countries. . . . If you are depressed in a place where most people are pretty unhappy, you compare yourself to those around you and you don’t feel all that bad. But can you imagine how difficult it must be to be depressed in a country where everyone else has a big smile on their face?

We compare ourselves to the people who immediately surround us. Our feelings of sadness and happiness are relative to our locale.

This is why we should believe people who are desperately poor compared to modern, western standards, but who claim to be happy. They aren’t lying; they really are happy. Likewise, we should believe people who are fabulously wealthy, but who say they are miserable. They aren’t lying; they really are miserable.

This observation proves that there is no magical standard of living or standard of material wealth that guarantees happiness. Once a person has basic food and shelter, his feelings of happiness are more dominated by the people around him than the absolute value of his biweekly paycheck.

What Is the Human Species?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

What is the essence of being human? What makes a human a human? What is the human species?

Philosopher David Oderberg argues that the true essence of being human is captured in two words: rational animal. This is, of course, the classical definition of the human species given to us by Aristotle, but Oderberg thinks it is still the best definition.

There is little disagreement on what an animal is, but what about rationality? Oderberg offers a succinct analysis of what it means to be rational, and therefore what it means to be human:

Being rational, the rational animal has the capacity for such things as: abstract thought, that is, the ability to abstract from particulars to reach general judgments involving concepts; language; knowledge of why it does many of the things it does, what Aristotelians call knowledge of finality; the conscious ordering of ends or objectives; development of and adherence to a life plan; reflection, meditation, puzzlement over, attempts to understand and resolve, matters concerning its own life, the lives of others (be they rational or not), the state of the world, the connections between things and events; and a moral life, with all that is entailed by a grasp of morality as a system of norms for living. We can easily add to the list, of course: humor, irony, aesthetic sensibility, the creation and maintenance of families and political societies . . . we all know the sorts of things we rational animals are capable of.

Oderberg zooms in further to be clear about what rationality entails:

All I claim here is that rationality as the capacity for abstract conceptual thought is explanatorily basic relative to a large number of the sorts of characteristic listed here. Language is the most important case in point.

Abstraction from particulars and ascent to the level of conceptual thought necessarily involves some kind of representational system because it essentially involves the composition and division of concepts: mental elements are put together or divided in order to make judgments, and judgments are put together to make inferences. The elements have to have some kind of meaningful structure, by which I mean a structure involving at least the basic operations of reference, predication, logical operation, and the like, put together in a certain way, such that other ways of combination are excluded. A creature that can do all of this must have language; in fact, language is what I have just described.

And this is what has fascinated every thinking person since the dawn of mankind. Of all the millions of animal species, why is there only one that is rational? Why did human beings win the rationality lottery, going away? Why was there only one winner instead of dozens or even hundreds or thousands? Of course, this question is answered in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. Check it out if you haven’t read it recently.

Can a Fetus Gestate In a Box?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

As someone who greatly respects the traditions and wisdom handed down from antiquity, I find myself constantly amazed at the way modern man wants to deny inconvenient bits of reality.  Bits such as:

  • Boys and girls are biologically different in significant ways.
  • Children can only be produced when a man and a woman unite in sexual reproduction.
  • When a small group of people is given a tremendous amount of power over a larger group of people, the small group will inevitably oppress the larger group.
  • No amount of education will ever eradicate human sin.
  • If you tell men that they don’t have to commit to women in order to have sex with them, marriages will decrease and divorces will increase.
  • As the traditional nuclear family goes, so goes civilization.
  • Human institutions that rely on centralized command and control inevitably fail as they grow larger.
  • The wisdom given us by our ancestors has been repeatedly tested and proved to work, so we ignore it at great peril.

I’m sure my conservative friends could add numerous bits of reality to this list, but I think you get the point. Those of us who find any of these bits of reality to be inconvenient are struggling in vain. This is the way the world is and has always been, and we have to adapt ourselves to it.

Obviously there are other parts of reality that we can change and should change, but oddly enough, we usually only know that our current reality needs to change because the wisdom of our ancestors tells us what is wrong with our current reality.

For example, I know that abortion on demand is wrong because life is sacred and an innocent life should never be taken without proper justification. I know these things from the highest traditions that have been passed down to us.

I also know that we should be constantly fighting against poverty, disease, and any form of human enslavement, as all of these bits of reality degrade sacred human life, life that is made in the image of God.

Do conservatives fight against the status quo? Absolutely. The difference is that conservatives fight against those things which actually can be changed about reality, while non-conservatives often fight against those bits of reality which cannot be changed. What’s even worse about this second approach is that these folks will force the rest of us, through legislative or judicial fiat, into hopeless social experiments that inevitably backfire and do far more damage than any good they might have achieved.

I was watching the Monty Python comedy, The Life of Brian, recently, and was reminded in a humorous way how silly those people are who want to change unchangeable realities. To set the scene, there are 3 men (Reg, Rogers, and Stan) and a woman (Judith), who are part of a radical Jewish political group, discussing and debating their political demands. During their discussion, one of the men, Stan, announces that he wants to become a woman. We pick it up there:

Reg: Why don’t you shut up about women, Stan? You’re putting us off.

Stan: Women have a perfect right to play a part in our movement, Reg.

Rogers: Why are you always on about women, Stan?

Stan: I want to be one.

Reg: What?

Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta.

Reg: What?

Loretta (Stan): It’s my right as a man.

Judith: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?

Loretta (Stan): I want to have babies.

Reg: You want to have babies?!

Loretta (Stan): It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

Reg: But…you can’t have babies!

Loretta (Stan): Don’t you oppress me!

Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb. Where is the fetus going to gestate? You’re going to keep it in a box?

Loretta (Stan): Sniff.

Judith: Here, I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans, but that he can have the right to have babies.

Rogers: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister! Sorry.

Reg: What’s the point?

Rogers: What?

Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?

Rogers: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.

Reg: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.


Is the History of Man Simply the History of Economics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Karl Marx certainly thought so.  Even today, the idea of economics being the only important driving  force behind all human activities is still fashionable in some circles.  Although economics certainly plays a part in many human decisions, I hardly think it is the primary motive  for human behavior.  I would point to religion, morality, knowledge, power, and other factors as being more important.

Sticking with our G. K. Chesterton theme, below is a quote where he decries Marx’s theory in typical Chesterton-esque style:

The [Marxist] theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed.  It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing.  It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings.

Man cannot live without the two props of food and drink, which support him like two legs; but to suggest that they have been the motives of all his movements in history is like saying that the goal of all his military marches or religious pilgrimages must have been the Golden Leg of Miss Kilmansegg or the ideal and perfect leg of Sir Willoughby Patterne.

But it is such movements that make up the story of mankind and without them there would practically be no story at all. Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.

Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration; and even the more active quadruped has not inspired a book for boys called Golden Deeds of Gallant Goats or any similar title.

But so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off.  It will be hard to maintain that the Crusaders went from their homes into a howling wilderness because cows go from a wilderness to a more comfortable grazing-grounds.  It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south.

And if you leave things like all the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all. The outline of history is made of these decisive curves and angles determined by the will of man. Economic history would not even be history.

How Is Man Exceptional?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

G. K. Chesterton, in one of his masterpieces, The Everlasting Man, writes a powerful defense of something which should not need a defender.  That man is truly exceptional seems exceptionally obvious to all but the most unexceptional.  Here is Chesterton summing up his case in a way that only he can:

It will be well in this place, however, to sum up once and for all what is meant by saying that man is at once the exception to everything and the mirror and the measure of all things.  But to see man as he is, it is necessary once more to keep close to that simplicity that can clear itself of accumulated clouds of sophistry.  The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth.  In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. 

He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage.  He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts.  He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple.  He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture.  His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations.  Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.  Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. 

Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique. . . . It is not natural to see man as a natural product.  It is not common sense to call man a common object of the country or the seashore.  It is not seeing straight to see him as an animal.  It is not sane.  It sins against the light; against that broad daylight of proportion which is the principle of all reality.

I agree with Chesterton.  To see man as a purely natural product of blind nature is insanity.

Why Is Man Unique?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the chief answers that Christianity provides is the answer to the question: “Why is man unique?”  The Bible answers this question right at the start in the Book of Genesis.  Man is unique because man is the only earthly creature made in the image of the Creator himself.  No other creature can make this claim, or make any claim at all.

Among most anti-theists, there is the notion that the appearance of  man in history was merely a fluke of random mutation and natural selection, and that man is not actually that unique.  He is just slightly further along the evolutionary expressway than the rest of the animal kingdom.  Give the other animals time and they will catch up or even surpass man.  In fact, if we roll back the process of evolution and try it again, the results would have been quite different.  We can imagine other animals taking man’s place in the hierarchy of life. 

G. K. Chesterton, in his book Everlasting Man, runs the thought experiment of what it might have been like for other animals to ascend.

If there was ever a moment when man was only an animal, we can, if we choose, make a fancy picture of his career transferred to some other animal.  An entertaining fantasia might be made in which elephants built in elephantine architecture, with towers and turrets like tusks and trunks, cities beyond the scale of any colossus.  A pleasant fable might be conceived in which a cow had developed a costume, and put on four boots and two pairs of trousers.  We could imagine a Supermonkey more marvellous than any Superman, a quadrumanous creature carving and painting with his hands and cooking and carpentering with his feet.

We can certainly imagine a great many diverse evolutionary paths, but what actually happened is far more fascinating.  Chesterton reminds us:

Anyone thinking of what might have happened may conceive a sort of evolutionary equality; but anyone facing what did happen must face an exception and a prodigy. . . . [If] we are considering what did happen, we shall certainly decide that man has distanced everything else with a distance like that of the astronomical spaces and a speed like that of the still thunderbolt of the light.

The arrival of man on the scene is surely one of the greatest mysteries that faces us.  Most everyone, according to Chesterton, grants that there is a great mystery in the origin of the universe and another great mystery in the origin of life.  But Chesterton points to a third mystery:

Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself.  In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will.  Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.  That he has a backbone or other parts upon a similar pattern to birds and fishes is an obvious fact, whatever be the meaning of the fact.  But if we attempt to regard him, as it were, as a quadruped standing on his hind legs, we shall find what follows far more fantastic and subversive than if he were standing on his head.

Was Hitler a Christian? – #9 Post of 2011

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Because of some public statements Hitler made about Christianity, some have argued that he was a Christian himself, notwithstanding the fact that all of the the atrocities he committed were blatantly contrary to everything Jesus and his apostles ever taught.  Nevertheless, these people maintain that he considered himself a Christian.

David Robertson, in his book The Dawkins Letters, explains that “if we really want to know what Hitler thought, his actions and above all his private words are the most compelling evidence.”  Roberston, who has studied Nazi Germany extensively, quotes Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge, speaking about conversations they had concerning Christianity.

Sometimes we also had interesting conversations about the church and the development of the human race.  Perhaps it’s going too far to call them discussions, because he would begin explaining his ideas when some question or remark from one of us had set them off, and we just listened.  He was not a member of any church, and thought the Christian religions were outdated, hypocritical institutions that lured people into them.  The laws of nature were his religion.  He could reconcile his dogma of violence better with nature than with the Christian doctrine of loving your neighbour and your enemy.  ‘Science isn’t yet clear about the origins of humanity,’ he once said.  ‘We are probably the highest stage of development of some mammal which developed from reptiles and moved on to human beings, perhaps by way of the apes.  We are a part of creation and children of nature, and the same laws apply to us as to all living creatures.  And in nature the law of the struggle for survival has reigned from the first.  Everything incapable of life, everything weak is eliminated.  Only mankind and above all the church have made it their aim to keep alive the weak, those unfit to live, and people of an inferior kind.’

As Robertson aptly comments after this quote, “That just about says it all.””

Why Are We So Divided?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A couple of years ago, I asked one of my good atheist friends what he thought the biggest problem facing mankind was.  His answer: our propensity to form exclusionary groups.  He explained that everywhere he looked, people were grouping themselves and casting everyone not in their group as “the enemy.”  He especially felt this to be a problem with religious people, as he was excluded from these communities because he was an atheist.

I’ve often thought about his assessment of the human tendency to exclude and to label outsiders as enemies.  Recently I encountered some thoughts on this human predisposition, captured by Tim Keller in The Reason for God.  Keller’s answer is drawn from the great theologian Jonathan Edwards.

In The Nature of True Virtue, one of the most profound treatises on social ethics ever written, Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love.

How so?  Can’t we dedicate our lives to our family, to our nation, to our own interests?  Keller continues:

If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic [Bill’s note: the Nazis dedicated their highest love to national Germany]. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others.

So how does making God our highest love solve the problem?

Edwards concludes that only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.

Since God created each of us in his image, since we are all equally valuable in his eyes, since he desires that every one of us spend eternity with him, it is easy to see how the proper Christian response to every man, woman, and child, regardless of race, nation, or creed, is love, not exclusion.

Maybe you’re not convinced that setting our sights on other things cannot bring unity and break down divisions among people.  Can’t politics or ethnicity or socioeconomic status or tolerance or morality fit the bill?  Aren’t these worthy objects of our highest love?

If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots. If you are a very moral person, you will feel very superior to people you think are licentious. And so on.

There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race, or our religion, the harder it is to not feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.

I think Keller and Edwards are right.  The solution to my friend’s problem is to make God our highest love; everything other answer is a dead end.  I hope that some day he will agree with me.

Can Man Save Himself?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If there is no benevolent and omnipotent God, then man seems to be the only viable solution to solving man’s problems.  We have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps because there is nobody to help us.

Nowadays it seems laughable to think, after all we’ve been through in the last hundred years as a race, that we will create a paradise on earth by ourselves.  In the early 20th century, however, there were those who thought that mankind was on the brink of something wonderful, that we could solve all our problems.

Take the famous author, H. G. Wells.  Here is an excerpt from his book, A Short History of the World, written in 1937.

Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement? What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state…form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do.

As Christians, this viewpoint is ruled out by Scripture.  Man cannot pull himself out of the quicksand he is in – we need a divine hand to reach down and pull us out.  The sin nature that resides in each person renders Wells’ assessment of the abilities of man hopelessly naive.  Man has boundless capacity for evil when given the power to do so, and there is nothing we as a race can do to completely eradicate this propensity.

After Wells witnessed the atrocities of WWII, he came to understand how far he had misjudged mankind:

The cold-blooded massacres of the defenseless, the return of deliberate and organized torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which such things had seemed well nigh banished—has come near to breaking my spirit altogether…“Homo Sapiens,” as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out. — A Mind at the End of Its Tether (1946)

If you are a Christian, you not only know that we need a divine hand, you know that we are getting it.  Victory over sin is certain.  Rather than placing our hope in the violent heart of man, we place our hope in the Prince of Peace.


The Distance Between Man and Everything Else

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most striking evidences for the Christian God is the uniqueness of man among all of the animals.  God exalts in The Book of Genesis, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  The Bible dramatically lifts man over the remainder of creation.

G. K. Chesterton, in his book  The Everlasting Man, wonders what the world would be like if other animals reached the heights of man in this passage:

If there was ever a moment when man was only an animal, we can if we choose make a fancy picture of his career transferred to some other animal. An entertaining fantasia might be made in which elephants built in elephantine architecture, with towers and turrets like tusks and trunks, cities beyond the scale of any colossus. A pleasant fable might be conceived in which a cow had developed a costume, and put on four boots and two pairs of trousers. We could imagine a Supermonkey more marvellous than any Superman, a quadrumanous creature carving and painting with his hands and cooking and carpentering with his feet. But if we are considering what did happen, we shall certainly decide that man has distanced everything else with a distance like that of the astronomical spaces and a speed like that of the still thunderbolt of the light.

Nobody says things quite like Chesterton does.