Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
The mechanisms. Atlantic code 7 verso a. By Leonardo Da Vinci in the vintage book Leonardo da Vinci by A.L. Volynskiy, St. Petersburg, 1899
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Jacques Maritain on the Human Person

A philosopher on two competing views of human beings: are we mere bodies or embodied souls?

At the end of the day, a lot of the AI enthusiasm among the technological “futurists” like Ray Kurzweil is based on certain assumptions of what a human being fundamentally is. Casey Luskin reported on Kurzweil’s lecture at the recent COSM 2023 conference, noting how he is convinced that AI is humanity’s destiny, and will serve as our functional “God figure,” all-knowing, self-determining, sentient.

Kurzweil sees the human person in purely scientific terms: if we can achieve a certain level of technological advancement, we will transcend our limits and take the next step of human evolution. Technology will be our religion, the means to our immortality.

Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher, shared helpful thoughts about the human person in his essay on education titled “The Aims of Education.” Maritain acknowledges two different ways of seeing people: the scientific or philosophical-religious. He writes,

The purely scientific idea of man tends only to link together measurable and observable data taken as such, and is determined from the very start not to consider anything like being or essence, not to answer any question like: Is there a soul or isn’t there? Does the spirit exist or only matter? Is there freedom or determinism? Purpose or chance? Value or simple fact? For such questions are out of the realm of science. The purely scientific idea of man is, and must be, a phenomenalized idea without reference to ultimate reality.

You probably have seen those “trust the science” billboards and yard signs. What the architects of such vague signage seem to have neglected is that the catchy phrase itself is a value statement, not a scientific one. Confusing science with a philosophy of science is an easy swamp to get mired in, but our country is currently rife with the consequences. Trusting the science often meant, particularly during COVID-19, going along with the current groupthink heralded by technocratic idealogues. Much of the consensus was later subverted by new information.

But that’s sort of a rabbit hole. The real issue here is seeing human beings as purely material beings, devoid of soul, spirit, or intrinsic dignity and meaning. Material creatures need material solutions.

But suppose we are immaterial and material at the same time? Suppose we are souls and not just meat machines? Maritain goes on to illustrate an alternative concept of the human person that allows for such categories. He writes,

Man is a person, who holds himself in hand by his intelligence and his will. He does not merely exist as a physical being. There is in him a richer and nobler existence; he has spiritual superexistence through knowledge and love. He is thus, in some way, a whole, not merely a part; he is a unvierse unto himself, a microcosm in which the great universe in its entirety can be encompassed through knowledge. And through love he can give himself freely to beings who are to him, as it were, other selves; and for this relationship no equivalent can be found in the physical world.

It’s a beautiful, deep picture of what it means to be a person, and indicates a mystery that we can’t ever fully “compute.” We’ve spoken much here at Mind Matters about how we bear certain characteristics that computers will never be able to bear. Creativity, sentience, and love are some of them, to name a few. But even more fundamentally, computers aren’t persons. They aren’t souls. And if you believe that we’re more than just computational brains on meatsticks, we’ll never be replaced by AI.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Jacques Maritain on the Human Person