Human Beings: Self-Creators, Self-Shapers, or Determined?

The culture war rages over the nature of human persons. Questions concerning when a fetus becomes a person, when or whether a computer can attain something like consciousness, or the nature of human marriage and family daily make headlines. In this post, I want to consider, in broad outline, three views about human nature, argue for one of the three, and consider the implications of that view.[1]

Option #1: Humans as self-creators.

In this view, there is no essence to human nature. Man is completely autonomous and the determiner of his existence and character. This is the view of popular culture. “Be all that you can be.” “Reinvent yourself everyday.” If you want to marry a robot, live in a virtual world, become the next rock star or famous inventor or wealthy mogul, go for it; the only thing stopping you is yourself. Or so we are told. But this view is silly. Man is not completely autonomous. There are limits to our freedom (I am not free to neglect paying taxes), ability (I cannot jump as high as LeBron James), opportunity (I was not born into nobility), and existence (I can’t live to be 1,000 years old, contrary to the transhumanist hope). I do have significant control over my character and destiny but not ultimate control of my nature and existence. Those are givens. I exist as the thing I am through another source.

Option #2: Humans as determined.

In this view, man is not free but is the product of blind nature. Given the initial conditions of the universe and the laws of nature, my life—every detail of it—was determined long ago. There is nothing I can do to change. If the past and the laws of nature are such that I would fall off a cliff while hiking Longs Peak, then so be it. If the past and the laws of nature are such that I would be a famous rock star or a high school janitor, then so be it. But this view is implausible. Universal human experience testifies to the fact that man is significantly free in some meaningful sense. Moreover, the fact that we hold each other morally responsible for our character and actions only makes sense if man is free. Moral responsibility requires freedom. Thus, man is not determined.

Option #3: Humans as self-shapers.

In this view, man is a self-determiner. Man enjoys significant freedom and, to a limited degree, can shape his character, destiny and world. This view best accounts for the fact of moral responsibility and the common experience of genuine human freedom. Man is not so pliable that he can be anything whatsoever. There are limits. Still, man is free to shape that which has been given into something meaningful and significant. I endorse this third option. Moreover, theism best accounts for the fact that humans are self-shapers. As Katherin Rogers puts it, “God has constructed the system so that the rational creature can, in however limited a way, mirror this divine aseity by contributing to its own being. It is a dim reflection of its Creator, but it is a true one in that, through free choice, it participates in its own creation.”[2]

Three implications of this view are as follows.

First, through our deliberation and actions, we shape our intellectual and moral character. We can grow. We can become better. All, in the Christian story, is a gift of God’s grace.

Second, in our role as sub-creators (as J.R.R. Tolkien liked to put it), we are makers of meaning. We are creatures who find meaning by locating our lives within a story. As I’ve argued elsewhere, there is a story that is alive, there is a story that understands you, and it is the Gospel.

Finally, we are to be makers of things (art, literature, music, consumer goods) that embody the good, the true, and the beautiful so that our world will be more inviting, more exhilarating, and more conducive to human flourishing. As we do so, we live out part of God’s cultural mandate (see Genesis 1:26–28) and point others to the Source of all that is good, true and beautiful.

[1] The language of “self-creators” or “self-shapers” is from Kevin Timpe, Free Will in Philosophical Theology (New York, Bloomsbury, 2014), 41.
[2] Katherin Rogers, Anselm on Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 106, as quoted in Kevin Timpe, Free Will in Philosophical Theology, 41.

Paul Gould

Paul Gould

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Gould serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics in the School of Theology. He is married to Ethel and they have four children: Austin, Madeleine, Travis, and Joshua.
Twitter: @paulmgould
Paul Gould