Chapter 2, “Trouble Defining the Human” pp. 23-38.
Sommerville calls out an important indicator of institutional decline with the thesis statement for this chapter. “If there is one thing that should raise the question of the secular university’s irrelevance, it might especially be in the failure to justify or even make sense of the concept of the human” (Sommerville 2006, 23). Normal observation of human work, accomplishments, and concerns indicates that we are set apart in many ways from the rest of the natural world. Sommerville observes that the limitations scientists place on experimentation shows that they consider humans to deserve a moral dignity (Sommerville 2006, 24). However, secularism erodes any reason behind a special, positive treatment of humans. Therefore, scientists who are naturalists are unable to explain why it might be appropriate to treat one or another species, habitat, or other issue in a different way from others, a behavior which Sommerville observes is engaged in by humans (Sommerville 2006, 25). Although humans are part of nature, it seems clear that we are set aside from the rest of nature. The essential question about us is “about the meanings we can give to the human, what an ideal of humanity might be, or what we could aim at” (Sommerville 2006, 27). The ideals may be classified in philosophical or religious terms, but cannot be reduced to secularity. Sommerville considers the descriptions which are purely secular to fall short (Sommerville 2006, 28). Yet if the answer involves religion, the secularism rejects it out of hand. Sommerville goes on to illustrate this phenomenon in terms of the animal rights debate. The matter of animal rights is predicated on a concept of human moral obligation. That moral obligation does not exist in the other animals (Sommerville 2006, 30).
Because these difficult questions are best answered in terms of a religious formulation, Sommerville suggests it would be helpful to “reopen our universities to a wider philosophical and cultural heritage (Sommerville 2006, 31). The attempts at naturalistic explanation have always failed. An assumption of purpose and probably creation is necessary to our understanding of what it means to be human. This has been removed from the discussion in academia (Sommerville 2006, 32).
Sommerville observes that the topics which are immediately dismissed in academia are those which require religious answers of some sort. He suggests this is “a sign of timidity rather than of assurance” (Sommerville 2006, 33). The questions for which some kind of faith is required for an answer are removed from discussion. Yet those questions underlie nearly everything we do in our lives. Sommerville gives numerous examples of problems involving the actual nature of morality, conscience, truth, and other concepts. None can be discussed with any clarity apart from a religious explanation of some sort.
One of the most telling factors in Sommerville’s discussion is the matter of discussion itself. The material elements may be made up of things which can be analyzed through breaking them into component parts and data points. But moral concepts finally defy such analysis. They are understood through the process of narrative, which in turn cannot be quantified and analyzed so easily (Sommerville 2006, 36-37). Now, with that realization, history and social sciences are using narrative approaches, as has hard science for many generations (Sommerville 2006, 37). Discovery is a process which must be described. This is a moral, philosophical, and religious process at its heart.