Science in Christian Perspective
IS MAN ONLY A COMPLEX MACHINE?
Richard H. Bube, Editor
From: JASA 22 (December 1970): 122
Man is a complex machine. His sense detection system is the model and envy of many attempts to reproduce it in simpler machine form Machine-like functions of man can be described in terms of the various scientific disciplines. If a man doesn't know that he is a machine, he's in trouble. If he thinks that he is an immortal and immaterial spirit who is temporarily living in and operating a finite and material body, he doesn't appreciate the Biblical teaching of the body-soul unity and the wholeness of man created in the image of God.
It's the "only" in the question, "Is man only a complex machine?" that causes the trouble. Every "only" is a subjective judgment of men. Science knows no "only's." That man is a complex machine is a scientific conclusion. That man is only a complex machine is a subjective philosophical speculation not derivable from science. It is simply another repetition of the old fallacy: if science shows us that man is a complex machine, and if we can know nothing except what science tells us, then man is only a complex machine.
We should expect that every event in which a human being takes part can be described on each of the levels appropriately associated with the physical sciences, the biological sciences, the psychological and social sciences, and ultimately in terms of that theology which relates the event and the man to Cod. It is never a question of something happening on this level but not on another; it is always a question of something happening on every level simultaneously.
We may expect, therefore, to he able to produce a physical description of every activity of a human being. Although we cannot in fact produce an exhaustive physical description at the present time, there is in principle no reason to believe that something on the physical lead must of necessity elude us in setting forth a physical description. It is not, for example, necessary for the perspective of the Christian faith that Cod be invoked to supply the physical rncchanismn at some point where human understanding of the natural physical mechanisms breaks down. Even if a complete and exhaustive description on the physical level were at hand, it would be a false interpretation to conclude that no other description was valid or necessary for a complete understanding. It is at this point that the common fallacy enters; it is at this point that the true statement, "Man isacomplex machine," becomes the false statement, "Man is only a complex machine."
Consider the most important event in the life of a Christian. Christian conversion is not only a physical event, not only a biological event, not only a psychological event, not only a social event, not only a theological event. Which of these descriptions could be left out without depleting the total understanding of what has happened in conversion? To be sure, the focus of the conversion experience is the relationship on the theological level between a man and Cod, but it could be no experience at all if it did not have its effects on the sub-systems of man, on his sociology and psychology, and even his biology and physical processes. It appears clear that the argument is false that the possibility of exhaustive description on a single level excludes the meaningfulness, validity, or necessity of descriptions on all other levels. Any attempt to understand the human being in terms only of sub-system descriptions will inevitably lead to an impoverishment of life and a dehumanization of man.
Man is a complex machine. But to assert that man is only a complex machine is to equate the whole with the sum of its parts, and to fail to recognize the necessity for a multi-level description in order to do full justice to what kind of creature man is. Even if it should be possible for us to describe in detail the physical mechanisms associated with every action, every thought, every impulse of a man, we would still not have a clue to what it all meant without the recognition that the man is a child of God, made by Him for love and communion.