One of the modern narratives is that science has knocked the human person off its pedestal. We are no longer seen as the pinnacle of creation, more important than other animals and meant to rule over the rest of creation. In fact, the idea of our being “made in the image of God” should be set aside since it has been disproved by science.
What does “made in God’s image” mean?
This is the question posed by Dr. Marie George in a talk last year at the Society of Catholic Scientists conference. She quipped that, after all, Copernicus showed us we were not the center of the universe, Darwin proved that we are just one animal among many, and Freud reduced free will to an illusion, thereby claiming that our decisions are conditioned by unconscious experiences and desires.
Dr. George captures this view by quoting a 2007 editorial from the prestigious magazine, Nature:
But the suggestion that any entity capable of creating the Universe has a mind encumbered with the same emotional structures and perceptual framework as that of an upright ape adapted to living in small, intensely social peer-groups on the African savannah seems a priori unlikely.
In order to navigate through the substory of this narrative, Dr. George offers definitions and distinctions. She states that the first problem is a mistaken idea of what it means to be an image and also what the Church teaches about this. Additionally, confusion is created from different senses of the word “mind.”
Using the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Scripture, and quotes from saints, she reflects first on what it means to be an image. Dr. George then takes a look at the science behind the two qualities associated with an immaterial rational soul, the notion of free will and the human intellect.
‘Let us make man in our image’
Dr. George argues that being an image means that one thing is modelled on the other. We bear the closest resemblance to God among other creatures, because we have an intellectual life. Quoting the Compendium of the Catechism, she notes additionally we are capable of knowing and loving our Creator in freedom.
But God is also a trinity of persons. Human interconnectedness is obvious and has been documented by many scientific studies, whether we speak of the family or individuals in their relationships with others. The Church sees this interconnectedness played out particularly in the concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity, pillars upholding her social teachings.
A rational soul
Dr George reminds her audience, however, that it is the immaterial, rational soul, with its powers of intellect and free will, that makes us most like God. It is here that the modern narrative takes a distinct turn away from a Christian view.
What is meant by the word intelligence?
Several meanings come readily to mind. Often it is associated with the ability to learn, to communicate, and to solve problems. (These abilities were discussed in a previous Magis post, “Are Animals Just LIke Us?”) Using concrete examples, Dr. George distinguishes human intelligence from the brightest animal minds—the great apes, dolphins and whales, and some species of birds.
What makes us different?
Human intelligence can generate abstract concepts that are distinct from physical things. Engaging her audience, she asks them to think of a dog. She notes that with the use of your imagination you can imagine a German shepherd for example. If someone else says they chose a chihuahua, you immediately understand that it is also a “dog.” Therefore the two particular examples of dog—even though they remain in your imagination—are distinct from the abstract notion of “dog.” Additionally, we can know universal truths—from the simple idea that a whole is greater than its parts to the chemical and physical laws of the universe. The smartest animals can’t do this.
In an amusing discussion, Dr. George points to the endless questions that very young children ask their parents. Why is water wet? What is a shadow made of? Where does the sky end, and why is it blue?
With some training, other animals can ask a question, but all that is necessary for the question is imagination and associative memory, which we know animals have. To make it clear, the question an animal can be taught is simply a request for food or some other type of reward. They can’t and don’t ask questions that are so frequently asked by the youngest humans.
This ability to generate and understand abstract concepts is the kind of intelligence that the Church teaches comes from the immaterial, immortal, and rational soul given to us by the Creator.
In summary, then, “mind” can name this unique meaning of “intellect,” but it can also name “imagination and memory,” the so-called internal senses. The first is not a physical thing and therefore cannot have evolved. The internal senses are physical, evidence tells us they evolved, and they are shared by other animals.
Dr. George completes her analysis by examining the idea of free will. She starts by considering Freud’s non-falsifiable assertion (hence unscientific) that our decisions are not free. Instead, they are predetermined by previous experiences that forge unconscious desires and motivations. A brief but intriguing discussion of morality follows, which interested readers can listen to here. You can also read a Magis post on the philosophy and science of free will here.
The desire to know and the ability to communicate
The desire to know, as Fr. Spitzer has pointed out in many articles and lectures, is one of the transcendent desires of the human person—markers for the transcendent nature of the soul. This can be seen in our tendency to ask questions, to seek answers, and gain understanding of ourselves, our world, and the Creator of all that is. We also desire to share that knowledge with others. We do this through the highly developed system of communication we call language.
Language itself is an indicator of the kind of intelligence humans have that distinguishes us from other animals. Animals do, of course, communicate, but when the development of human language is examined using evidence from evolution, the appearance of language led to an explosion of culture and transformative “technology.” This event seemed to occur about 100,000 years ago in the Homo sapien populations. This idea was elaborated and explained in another talk from the same SCS conference. The speaker does not connect this invention with a created rational soul, but Dr. George clearly does, as does Fr. Spitzer.
Are we made in God’s image?
The modern scientific narrative would have us believe that humans are not unique nor do they have a special dignity. With a proper philosophical and theological understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image, it is possible to rationally hold the counterclaim. Humans do occupy a unique place both in the world we know and in the world to come.
And there is scientific evidence to back us up.
Armed with a B.A. in Philosophy and a minor in science, Ciskanik landed in a graduate nursing program. With the support of her enthusiastic husband, an interesting career unfolded while the family grew: a seven year stint mostly as a neurology nurse, 15 years as a homeschooling mom of six, and a six year sojourn as curriculum developer and HS science teacher (which included teaching students with cognitive differences). These experiences added fuel to her lifelong interest in all things related to God’s creation and the flourishing of the human spirit—which has found a new home on the Magis blog.