The Truth of Human Nature Goes Beyond Our Biology

The Facts of Life: Human Nature

What is “human nature”? Are we merely our bodies? Or, are we our bodies and our minds? Do we have an intangible mind, soul, spirit or are all these merely adjectives with which we describe different functions of our biochemical cortical activity? And, why does it matter?  What is the practical meaning of such esoteric philosophical ideas about the very nature of humanity, human life and living?

Well, how we answer this crucial and compelling question has an almost limitless effect on our understanding of life and its purposes, its immediate and ultimate goals. It also affects our practical lives, our scientific and rational inquiries, and even our mundane morality. It affects the broad sweep of life’s most crucial moral questions and the many minor moral decisions and cultural codes with which we live our daily lives.

How we understand our human nature implicitly shapes our personalities, our relationships, our thinking and our understanding and use of our rational powers. It affects our philosophy of life and living, our moral code and decision making, our perceptions of life’s ultimate and immediate purposes and their many perceptual and practical utilities. How we understand human nature affects almost everything. So, it is important to get the question of human nature right.  

The first fact of human nature, to which almost all agree, is our physical reality. Every single man, woman or child has a body.  For a human being to be a human being, they must have a body, a physical, biological body. That is a given, a fact beyond debate, regardless of that body’s shape, completeness or conformity to the expected and typical ideal. For a person to exist, they must have a body.

But, beyond this self-evident axiom of physical, organic existence, is where the crucial differences about human nature emerge and the true significance of the question of human nature confronts us. For is human nature only bodily? Is human nature just physical, just its physical body, just its tangible biological manifestation? Or, are we a combination of our tangible bodies and our intangible minds? Is our nature just one thing: our body?  Or are we two things: our body and our mind?

Illuminated manuscript depicting Creation from BL Harley 2803, f. 6v.

For many in centuries past, this fundamental question was answered clearly, simply and rationally, with little effort or contention.  It was such a dominant philosophical given that it was handled with a simple sentence, as if it was a rational and cultural given.  Simply put, the belief that all we are is our body was an irrational idea.  The belief that our mind and our consciousness and all they entail are simply biological by-products was a self-refuting assertion. Putting this logical contradiction another way, “If all we are is biochemistry, we have no way of knowing that all we are is biochemistry.”

But many modern men and women in our “advanced” times no longer accept this axiom. They no longer know or understand what human nature is all about.  They only see what can be seen with their eyes.  They only see the tangibility of our bodies and dismiss or distort the realities of our intangible nature.  They are estranged from themselves.  They are adrift in a grindingly material universe, a heartless, soulless, mindless mechanical cosmos, where human consciousness and awareness are mere illusions of cranial neural activity.  For humanity’s many intangible aspects are simply biologically generated sensations, epi-phenomena of neural activity.  

Many moderns have made everything beyond our physical bodies, explicitly and entirely a matter of biochemical activity.  Our intangible human nature now is merely a mundane mental mirage created by our cortical activity, an illusion of mind and personality generated by our neural networks.  We know this view of human nature as philosophic materialism or naturalism.  And this materialist philosophy has infected our modern cultural values and thinking in many ways, both explicitly and implicitly.  

Culturally, though not yet unanimously, we have ignored our intangible essence and reduced our human reality to biological mechanics.  Now our common axiom is that human nature is wholly physical, biological.  Our minds, our emotions, our morals are wholly neural.  We are one thing.  We are biology.  Nothing more.  

As human beings, no longer do we know what we are on even the most basic and obvious levels.  We have become mysteries to ourselves.  Yet oddly, we claim the inherent right of our wholly physical view of human nature to define and decide any and every feature of our intangible personhood, in any manner we see fit.  This materialistic view of human nature is the ideological bedrock of many of our most pernicious practices and beliefs including, abortion, gender and our rampant moral and philosophical relativism.

Because human nature has become a matter of this widely accepted malignant materialism, we are left without an explanation of our many human capacities, such as our mind, our consciousness and our reason.  Our finely tuned sensory abilities, our emotional range including empathy and our moral insights and sensitivities are just a few of the more crucial and common components of our daily human experience also escape explanation. 

Yet, probably the three most ubiquitous and pernicious effects of this materialism are its effects on the reality and power of reason, the alienation and despair it inevitably breeds and the loss of crucial evidence for the existence and nature of God and all that that entails.  These three are certainly not the only crucial effects, but they are foundational to so many other facets of life that they deserve a more specific elaboration.

Let’s begin with reason. If all our intangible mental experiences are only illusions generated by neural events, then reason and logic are just illusions too, by-products of cortical activity in our brains. Within a materialistic view of human mental functioning, reasoning is reduced to neural activity alone. Logic and its laws follow the same relentless reality and become mere products of neural pathways. Reason’s rules, its many mathematical proofs, its utility in conducting scientific research all disappear because all mental activity such as thinking, perceptual observation, analysis, deduction, induction, even intuition are reduced to their neural reality only.

This is why materialism is self-refuting because if everything mental is only biological, we can’t even know that idea is true because every idea is biologically bound and determined. Therefore, in centuries past, materialism was dismissed as erroneous because it contradicts the premise that everything is biological. To admit the possibility that everything is biological, you have to accept this as the only exception to the conclusion of materialism, despite the fact that it contradicts the materialistic contention.  This crucial, core contradiction refutes the very assertion of materialism   

Materialism results in complete human alienation.  Our entire sense of self, our entire consciousness, our mind, our emotions, our decisions, our sense of duty and morality, our love, our affection, our relational commitments lose all their reality, all their beauty, all their nobility, all their joy because of the relentless reduction resulting from this materialistic philosophy. Nothing escapes this onslaught, even if we deny it or try to avoid it.  All is lost.  For all is just and only biochemical activity.  All is biology.  Nothing more.  It leaves nothing but absurdity and despair.  Yet, even those are mere sensations too.

This is why materialism leads to pursuing sensations and sensuality and the dominance of these in the lives of many moderns at the expense of deeper, more moral and relational commitments and a life informed by a well-formed intellect and conscience grounded in reason, moral truth, as well as in true goodness and beauty.  

Finally, yet firstly, materialism needs no god.  All is matter and energy, time and space.  And all that there is operates accidentally.  Our cosmos had no beginning or end, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.  All that we are is biological, the product of mechanistic forces and circumstantial accidents.

But, if human nature is a combination of tangible and intangible aspects, our mind and its faculties have a prominent power beyond its biological structures and functions. While we need these structures, they are not our only reality. For we all have tangible bodies and intangible souls.  And our intangible souls have many facets. For we have minds and hearts, rational and moral, aesthetic and scientific aspects. And all these facets and features, powers and parts are real because we are tangible bodies and intangible beings. Made in God’s image. With a purpose and plan. To know and love God and all of our fellow humans.

For once the grinding mechanistic materialism vanishes in the face of the realities of the human experience, the question of God’s existence is all but certain to even a fair-minded agnostic or an informed atheist. For all these many faculties must be explained as reason and science demands, as love and goodness compel.  

And thus St. Paul tells us we are all “without excuse.” For the evidence of God’s existence and His nature is there for the taking. We just have to rightly use our observational skills and our reason as they are and not reduce them and everything else to matter and energy. We just have to take our conscious minds and even our questions and see the evidence for God in our rationality and our love. For these are only real, if He is real.

This article is the fourth part in an extended series on the “The Facts of Life” by F. X. Cronin. You can start with part one by clicking here and see previous entries by clicking here.

We also recommend Mr. Cronin’s latest book, The World According to God: The Whole Truth About Life and Living. It is available from your favorite bookstore and through Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash


Mr. Cronin has studied on a graduate level in education at Harvard University and at the University of Connecticut, in leadership at Columbia University and in theology at Regent University and Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He also writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and appeared on EWTN’s The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi following his 2007 reversion to the Catholic faith from atheism and evangelical Protestantism.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage