Being Personal

Why are there no dolphin scientists?
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We are the species that believes in change. We are the beings that can take nature personally and do something about it. We have personal objections to the limited and precarious character of our biological existence: nature is cruelly indifferent to my personal existence; nature does not care about me as a person; nature is out to replace me. We are the animals who care about me, who think in terms of personal identity, who can orient ourselves around the insight that each member of the species is unique and irreplaceable.

Each of us is an animal who refuses to be wholly reduced to merely a part of a species or a part of some impersonal natural process. When we try to dispense with participation, we are engaged in a mission impossible that might well make us miserable more than anything else. Our personal identity depends upon being relational beings, and even consciousness is knowing with (con = together, sci = knowing). Of course, nature does provide indispensable guidance for knowing who each of us is. But still it is quite wonderful what we can do for ourselves.

Impersonal natural evolution continues gradually to be displaced by conscious and volitional evolution — evolution caused by members of our species with ourselves in mind. All of nature has been altered by our personal willfulness, and it is almost impossible to find anything that is purely nature or merely impersonal on our planet any more. We have engineered whole species, dogs and pigs and cows and chickens, into existence for our personal convenience and even with our personal vanity in mind. Although the human race has not been changed by nature in any fundamental way since it showed up, it has changed the rest of nature with itself in mind. And now we are on the edge of a biotechnological revolution that promises to allow us to fundamentally change our own natures.

Scientists tell us that we are pretty much like dolphins — cute and smart, dependent, rational, social mammals. And we are like dolphins in some ways, of course. But now the very being of the dolphins depends on us, rather than the other way around, for we think they are cute enough and smart enough and entertaining enough to protect, while the tuna are ugly enough and dumb enough (not to mention tasty and nutritious enough!) to die. But we could easily switch things around and take the dolphin out — perhaps as a threat to our species’ self-esteem — and gain a strange Rousseauian or Buddhist appreciation for the noble simplicity of the tuna. The dolphins do not have what it takes to be out to get us, because they do not have what it takes to be in technological rebellion against their natural existence. Our being will never be dependent on them. One reason is that they cannot think personally enough to raise the question of being. Another is that they are not equipped to act freely enough to consciously and willfully change their own nature, or ours. And not only is there no dolphin technology, but there are no dolphin physicists, no dolphin priests or preachers, no dolphin princes or presidents, no dolphin poets or philosophers, and even dolphin parents are not like our parents.

The evolution of nature produces ontological differences — that is, different kinds of beings. Being changed when plant emerged from rock, and biology emerged from physics, bringing the distinctions between life and nonlife, and life and death. How life emerged from inanimate nature remains a mystery to us. Being changed when the animal emerged from the plant — this changed all the capabilities and behavior that turned the distinction from life and death into birth and death. And being changed again when the social, rational, free, or technological animal who can raise the question of being began to take things personally, love personally, be aware of, reflect on, and rebel against personal contingency — and mortality emerged.

The questions that surround the mystery of being, including who we are, what we are, and who or what God is, could not be raised without us. The “what” questions could not be raised by anyone but a “who,” a being with a name who can name. (Certain other animals have names and even know them, but we give them their names to personalize them in our own image.) That “who” cannot be reduced to a “what,” the human person to some impersonal, wholly necessitarian natural process. The “who” is the being open to the “what,” and the mystery of the “who” is much more wonderful than the famous question “why is there being rather than nothing at all?”

Physics cannot explain the physicist. Perhaps physics can explain the correspondence between the physicist’s mind and the invincible laws of nature. But the physicist is not simply a mind; he is a whole human being. The physicist cannot explain the uniqueness of the scientific effort of human beings to deny the uniqueness of our species — and especially particular members of our species — in the cosmos. We do not look to the physicist to explain the experience of the particular human being existing for a moment between two abysses. We can look to penetrating psychologists from Aristophanes to Pascal to Nietzsche to Walker Percy to remind us that the physicist’s attempt to lose himself in an impersonal account of nature is really, in part, an always-partly-failed attempt to divert himself from what he really knows about himself, the “who,” the particular being with a name who can name.

Physicists from Aristotle onward have said that the most wonderful thing in the cosmos is the stars, because of the majestic regularity of their impersonal, inanimate behavior. The Bible says that nothing we can see is more wonderful than the behavior that characterizes the personal destiny of the particular human being. But maybe we can wonder most of all about the behavior of the being who can so easily know what moves the stars but seems to remain an elusive, even impenetrable, mystery to himself. Aristotle, following Socrates, says we are most deeply moved by wonder, and the Bible says we are most deeply wanderers or pilgrims in this world. Surely the truth is that because we wonder we wander, or because we can wander we wonder. It is because of our personal detachment that we are open to the truth and we always fall far short of integrating ourselves into the nature our physicists and biologists so perfectly describe. That does not mean being personal means that we are nothing but absurdly purposeless leftovers or miserable aliens stuck inside our puny particular selves. Sure, we have miseries not given to the other species that flow from our contingency as wonderers, but we are also given joys — such as wonder and deeply personal love — and obligations — such as those that flow from being open to the truth and taking responsibility for the very future of life on our planet — not given to the other species.

Peter Augustine Lawler, “Being Personal,”, April 21, 2010.
Header image by NASA

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