ABOVE: Scala Naturae from Ĺ’uvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie (1781) by Charles Bonnet, the Swiss naturalist who was one of the foremost champions of the ancient idea of a great chain of being as a continuous hierarchy of created things.

 

“What is man?… You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of
your hands…”

Psalm 8:4-6 (ESV)




Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow
Purpose

Humans are strange and complicated creatures. We share many traits, including cognitive skills and emotions, with many other animals, and increasingly we learn that the borders between "them" and "us" are murky and permeable. But, it is claimed, self-consciousness, and with it language and culture, sets us apart. The purpose of the discussion is to relate new insights from a range of sciences, including evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neurology, genetics, archaeology, and anthropology, to the understanding of who we are, as well as to consider how traditional philosophical and theological understandings of human uniqueness may be affected by these insights. Research has shown not only shared neuroanatomical structures among mammals but also actual affective commonalities such as the ability to feel pain and seek pleasure, emotions like fear, greed, anger, jealousy, and affection, and even a capacity for empathy. To what degree other species have the capability to understand another individual's behavior is a matter of debate. But it is less the question of whether animals can be considered in any sense moral beings that concerns the scholars and scientists gathered at Chicheley Hall, a Georgian country house in North Buckinghamshire, than questions related to the development of linguistic competence, reasoning, and the ability to objectify the world around us in distinction from self.

 

  • If precisely how the human mind achieved its present state of complexity remains a mystery, what can we say at this stage, after several decades of groundbreaking discoveries related to the dynamics of human behavior, about the emergence of our capacities for reflection, rationality, and deliberation, including ethical decision-making and planning for the future?

  • When did introspection become a defining human characteristic?

  • What, if any, is the scientific evidence for the intuitive presumption of a correlation between various forms and levels of consciousness and different degrees and types of freedom and self-determination?

  • Is there any basis for accommodation between the idea that human nature consists of evolved psychological adaptations to recurring problems in the ancestral environment and the theological concept of the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26), that is, of human persons as creatures reflecting the image of their Creator?

  • Do we need to revisit our assumptions about the content of religious belief and the reasons we take it to be reliable in light of a new understanding of the cognitive mechanisms whose side-effects may have produced many features associated with religion?

  • What are the implications of compelling evidence that human identity is forged socially for the possible role of ritual in the development of symbolic thought?

 

The probe for answers brings researchers from anthropology, archaeology, biology, psychology, and neurobiology together for conversation with philosophers and theologians in a beautiful Midlands manor house surrounded by a one-hundred-acre park west of the River Great Ouse.