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Mineral, Plant, Animal–Whatever Happened to Human?

Do you remember the three “kingdoms” of our sciences classes—mineral, plant and animal?  While this elementary science has many facts right, it may have the whole idea wrong.  In fact, limiting the world to these three kingdoms dehumanizes mankind and represents not science but the materialistic philosophy of scientism.

In its contemporary usage, “science” is the systematic study of the material world based upon observation and experimentation.  Science in this sense is a noble discipline that has been of enormous benefit to mankind.

Scientism, however, is not science.  It is the belief that the material world is the only reality.  Based upon this worldview, scientism argues that the methods of the physical sciences are the sole legitimate means for arriving at the truth and consequently that all knowledge of reality is reduced to that which can be measured. By these assertions scientism reveals itself as a belief system.  In fact, it is self-contradictory because its belief that the material world is the only reality cannot be proven by the methods of the physical sciences, which it claims is the only way to arrive at the truth.

This is where the chapter “Levels of Being” in E. F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed makes several crucial scientific and philosophical points.[1]  The four levels of being are:

  • Mineral
  • Plant
  • Animal
  • Human

The mineral kingdom or level encompasses inanimate matter.  Plants are matter + life.  Animals are matter + life + consciousness.  Humans are matter + life + consciousness + self-awareness.

Notice that these are levels of being.  They differ in kind not degree.  There are no links or transitional forms between the four kingdoms.  Either life is present or it isn’t.  Something is either conscious or it isn’t.

A difference in kind rather than degree also means that the higher levels are not just a little more mineral than the minerals.  That doesn’t even make sense. Rather, each higher level does include the lower levels, but they can’t be explained by the lower levels.  For example, life can’t be explained just by the atomic or chemical composition of plants.  Just ask a materialist to explain on his terms what life actually is.

In fact, materialistic scientism actually fails to explain what plants, animals and humans are.  This is because it limits itself to what can be observed and measured by our five senses.  The trouble is that life, consciousness and self-awareness are not materialistic characteristics that are open to direct observation by the five senses.

There are several important implications to Schumacher’s critique of scientism as a philosophy for explaining the world in which we live.  One implication is scientific.  Besides physics and chemistry, there are different legitimate fields of study that yield knowledge.  Psychology, sociology, and even philosophy are legitimate fields of knowledge.

There is also a series of moral implications.  The higher levels can and do legitimately control and use the lower levels of being.  However, to describe all of reality in terms of mere matter degrades the world around us and leads to abuse.  One reason for this is that matter is indestructible by all of the other three levels, but life, consciousness and self-awareness are vulnerable.  Plants are not just matter, but living matter and should be valued as a resource that can be lost.  Animals are not some kind of machine.  Even if one is not a vegetarian, he needs to realize that brutality towards animals is to despise the value of conscious life.  And finally men and women are not machines or mere chemical compounds.  All of our justifiable concerns for just human relations become literally unjustifiable, if there is not something more to the human person than chemical makeup.

Schumacher’s reflections on the human level have an important existential implication as well.  Self-awareness, which he claims defines the human, is a power which makes man aware of his thinking and consciousness and enables him to direct them towards ends or goals.  Self-awareness is different from the other powers (life and consciousness) because it opens up man to growth as a person.  Schumacher quotes a pregnant phrase from the medieval scholastics “Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est,” which he loosely translates, “to be properly human, you must go beyond the merely human.”[2] To be human means that we have the potential to develop beyond what we are.

Finally, Schumacher also contends that the various progressions in the levels of being point to the existence of God.  The progression from passivity to activity indicates the idea of a being that is totally actualized.  The progression from visibility to invisibility in the human person directs us to a totally invisible person.  Man’s ability to bring the universe into his experience leads us to posit a being that has complete knowledge of the universe.

On another note, although I don’t hold to the view that Genesis 1 gives us advanced scientific knowledge of the universe, the biblical account of creation does contain profound philosophical and theological truths.  A case in point is the use in Genesis 1 of the word “bara,” the Hebrew verb for “make” or “create,” which parallels Schumacher’s levels of being.  Verse 1 uses bara for God’s creative act by which the universe passed from non-existence to existence.  In Genesis 1:21 bara describes the creation of animals in a world that consisted of only mineral and plant life.  This is the advance from life to consciousness in Schumacher’s schema. Bara appears next in the creation of man as the image of God in verses 26 and 27.  This parallels the movement from consciousness to self-awareness.  Also, calling man the image of God supports Schumacher’s point that to be truly human is to go beyond the merely human.  Therefore, Genesis 1 appears to employ bara to describe what Schumacher designates differences in kind not just in degree in God’s creation.

I highly recommend Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed.  It is concisely and clearly written and demonstrates the profound relationship between science, theology, philosophy and ethics.  It is also a guide that leads from the perplexity of modern society to wise living.










[1] E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 15-25.  See my post “The Problem of Certainty,” for other points from Schumacher.

[2] Ibid. p. 38.

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