Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Assumptions and the Human Person

Arguments can be very frustrating. This is especially true when someone disagrees so completely with, what seems like to us, such a logical, rational presentation of ideas. On certain levels, arguments and disagreements are entertaining and intellect-strengthening; but on the other hand, when we are dealing with morally or socially severe topics – abortion, war, etc. – it can be rather frustrating and depressing that someone can rationally maintain a conclusion that, to us, is both logically untenable and morally despicable. Although there are many reasons for this fact of argumentation, I believe a huge issue here is assumptions, presuppositions, or premises. We end at such different conclusions because we begin with such opposing assumptions. I know this is not new news, but I maintain that this is an important matter to keep in mind.

First, let me give an example: Two friends are arguing about the morality of acting on homosexual urges, etc: one is pro-gay, the other not so. Now, these two friends could argue and yell until they are blue in the face – and this is often the case – but they are fated to get nowhere unless they concede their beliefs in different assumptions. The pro-gay friend has most likely accepted the idea that pleasure is good, and sexual pleasure, as long as it is consensual and does not relieve anyone of his or her rights, is always a good. Conversely, the anti-gay friend may have accepted a different, opposing assumption: Sexuality is good – in fact, it is sacred. As with sacred things, sexuality needs to be practiced correctly. Further, there are immoral ways of engaging in sexual activity. Instead of arguing assumptions, these two friends will argue the non-procreative aspect of homosexuality, its positive or negative effect on society, the government’s role in the individual’s life, private versus public, religion versus secularism, etc. Although these arguments have their place, they do not get at the heart of the issue, which is opposing assumptions.

This is all to lead me to say that divergent and warring ideologies concerning almost anything – abortion, war, euthanasia, environmentalism, economics, history, sociology, psychology, etc., etc., etc. – often end at opposing conclusions because of their different assumptions concerning the human person. Here are some questions that I think should be asked of a person, idea, or theory before anything else: According to this person, theory, or idea, does the human person have intrinsic value? Is the human person simply material and matter – or is there something non-material? The questions go on (such as, Can one human person ever have an obligation to another human person?), but I think the first two are perhaps the most important.

Although a certain amount of this is common sense, it is important to return to it often. Also, concerning the human person, I think this should be our preeminent (or at least initial) concern when we judge ideas and theories. Christianity is a religion of personhood, for God is a God of personhood.


  1. [I ran across some stuff I wrote while reading Freud and Marx in grad school. For some reason, Freud and Marx both simultaneously annoyed the hell out of me and interested me. As I was rereading some of my notes, I decided to write a post dedicated simply to assumptions and human person. But these next two responses are dealing with similar issues.]

    Any theory concerning society, religion, human nature, etc, is intrinsically linked to its assumptions concerning the human person. Whatever you decide about the human person will dictate, in one form or another, what your theory is. Of course, it’s not a 1-1 correlation, but specific views of the human person rule out specific theories. What is (sometimes) insidious about this fact is that people usually ignore or obfuscate their assumptions about the human person, making them look not like assumptions, but conclusions. The problem with this is circular: only a specific assumption of the human person allows one to come to the conclusion that is the same as the assumption made at the beginning.
    For example, Marx’ assumptions in the beginning of his theories involve man being solely a product of his economic and material conditions – it is no wonder this is his conclusion. Freud assumes man’s sexual drive is nothing more than a more complicated human need, like the need to eat. It is no wonder his conclusions involve the treatment of sexuality as such.
    The big breakdown in a lot of these thinkers – Darwin, Marx, Freud, etc – is the insistence on seeing man simply as a material being. Of course, they talk often of the two parts of man, the biological and psychological; but they’re both material ways of the looking at man. The firm insistence on seeing man as a-spiritual will always conclude in material theories. Imagine Freud ignoring what he called the ‘psychological’ side to man; the theories of sexuality, etc, would be incomplete. And this incompleteness is exactly what occurs when these theorists view man simply as physical.

  2. Freud opens his 3 Essays on the Theory of Sexuality with the rather lengthy introductory remark:
    The fact of the existence of sexual needs in human beings and animals is expressed in biology by the assumption of a ‘sexual instinct,’ on the analogy of the instinct of nutrition, that is of hunger. Everyday language possesses no counterpart to the word ‘hunger,’ but science makes use of the word ‘libido’ for that purpose. 1
    What is extremely important and telling, in my opinion, is Freud’s analogy of hunger and sexual drive.
    First off, we know that the assumptions we bring into an argument, conversation, discussion, etc are directly related to the conclusions we draw. In most psychological arguments and theories, how the experimenter or psychologist views the human being has direct influence on his conclusions. And what is written above is part of how Freud views the human being; in particular, it is how Freud views human sexuality. Without any preceding argument, he has made an incredible assumption concerning human sexuality; and from this assumption proceeds his ‘theory.’
    What is his assumption? – that the sexual drive in human beings is akin to our nutritional need. This is a definite assumption; it equates sexual need to the need for food; and hence, the product is a study of sexuality alike to the biological study of nutrition. Freud refuses to acknowledge the possibility of sexuality being connected to anything transcendent. He continues in the vein of Darwin, treating sexuality as an instinct, since humans are animals – which we are – but we are so much more.
    What Freud does in two sentences is create a faulty foundation upon which only a faulty theory can rest. If I were to study Shakespeare’s plays simply as products of a monkey who randomly put letters, spaces, and punctuation where they ended up, I would come to a very different conclusion than if I accepted that there was a mind behind the works – a great mind. Following the analogy, Freud studies sexuality without accepting the possibility of purpose and meaning behind it. Studying human sexuality as simply instinctual and non-transcendental is like studying Shakespeare’s plays as random connections of letters, spaces, and punctuation. I may discover certain “theories” concerning the randomness of letters, etc, but I would learn nothing of the plays.
    If Freud chooses to see human sexuality as simply some random or nutritional need to be satiated, he is bound to fail.

  3. Very true!! Bravo, Jonas.
    One of the genius gospel proclamations of the Church came out of the 2nd Vatican Council: Christ reveals Man to himself. Through our Judeo Christian heritage, God has revealed Himself to us, as Love, and through this has revealed the fullness of man, the end (consummation) to which we were created but had only guessed at through reason and science alone. Now I can know myself, in that I am already known.