Meeting 4.2 – Human Exceptionalism

On 23 February the reading group met for the second time.  We discussed human exceptionalism – whether and how humans might be different from other animals.

We began our discussion by talking about concrete questions: Can humans do things other organisms cannot? Should we treat humans differently?

Do humans have any unique faculties? Would we be able to verify them empirically and consistently? In general, we concluded that there is benefit to treating humans as animals in order to study them scientifically, but that this might not be the only way to study humans. As far as biology is concerned, human traits are, at most, complex versions of traits found in other species.

Do humans deserve special treatment? Why treat humans well? Why treat all humans well? Why give humans preference over other things? This has profound implications for the rights and obligations we assign to humans as well as the individuals we consider human.

A third aspect is related to both and has to do with relationships and whether humans faculties and dignities arise from our social interactions and interaction with God.

Human exceptionalism usually goes with ideas of human superiority, but there is no logical reason it must. Note that humans are almost always classed as rational animals historically.

Soul and spirit and their Latin and Greek cognates come from the idea of movement.

Spirit, ruach, pneuma, spiritus, pneumatic, inspiration (breath, geist, ghost)

Soul, nephesh, phsyche, anima, animate, animal, psychology

[“Life” comes from the same Germanic root as “leave” and means to persist.]

[“Mind” comes from the Germanic for intellect – though Descartes used “anima.”]


Human exceptionalism has played a large role in debates over evolution.

1. Non-exceptionalists claim humans are just another animal. What work is done by the word “just”? (TH Huxley, JBS Haldane, SJ Gould)

2. Progressive exceptionalists claim humans developed or emerged (Darwin, AR Wallace, T de Chardin, T Dobzhansky)

3. Eternal exceptionalists claim humans are, by nature, different (Aristotle, Louis Agassiz, possibly C Linnaeus)

4. Inserted exceptionalists claim something was added to humans either once or individually – soul creationism (AH Strong, CS Lewis)

“The wine in the miracle was not water because water had been used in the making of it, nor is man a brute because the brute has made some contributions to its creation.” -AH Strong (Systematic Theology 1885)

An important question must be: exceptional in what regard?

And who was exceptional, exactly? In South Carolina, evolution was unfavorable because it suggested white and black humans were related. In New Zealand, it was favorable because it suggested white humans had outcompeted the Maori.


Murphy, Nancy (2006) Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies. (Cambridge: Current Issues in Theology). pp.1-37. (Chapter 1)

What is a human/person at the most basic level? The formal study of this question in Christian theology is called Theological Anthropology.

The Ontological Question asks how many parts humans have.

1. Monism: Humans have only one part. It could be physicalism (only body) or idealism (only mind or soul).

2. Dualism: Humans have two components that differ in the way they exist. Different people have constructed this differntly and it is important not to conflate their accounts.

Plato: eternal forms are trapped in changeable matter, as prisoners in a jail

Aristotle: all things are informed matter (hylomorphism), containing both parts

Plotinus: perfect forms have become mired in corrupt matter, as animals in a tar pit

Aquinas: spiritual forms and corporeal matter were created separately be God and joined together at conception (and resurrection), as software and hardware (Note that a soul is said to subsist if it can exist independent of the body. Plato thought it good for a soul to subsist. Aquinas thought it possible, but bad. Aristotle arguably thought it impossible.)

Descartes: Minds drive bodies, as a pilot in a ship

3. Trichotism: Humans have three components: Body, Soul, and Spirit (I Thess 5:23)

Christians have debated over the best way to view life after death.

Immortality – the persistence of the soul

Resurrection – the re-incarnation of the soul

The difference most often appears in theories about whether souls can be said to exist and where they reside between death and resurrection. Both purgatory and limbo deal with this question.

Murphy’s thesis: “humans are psychophysical unities.” “Non-reductive physicalism.” Leaning interactionist with an external focus.

What is the difference between internal and external accounts?
For more commentary, see these earlier discussions:


Discussion of human exceptionalism


Discussion of what is intelligence


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