Tuesday, May 30, 2006

the demystification of the person

From time to time, I come across the idea of demystification. As far as I can tell, it means that there's something everyone thinks is special, and someone explains why it's just ordinary. There's some areas (some conincidences, especially the kind that lie behind conspiracy theories) where I quite like doing it myself.

And then I come across it applied to normal people, and I really don't like it.

Here's the first big example I can remember getting annoyed about:

I was at teacher training college, and due to the government's cunning device to reduce the number of Physics teachers, I was having to teach biology (and specifically sex ed). The head of biology at the school, who was supervising me, told me that the school policy was to teach just the mechanics of what went on, without reference to relationships.

The text book, likewise, only referred to the mechanics of what was going on, though it called the process "making love" instead of "sexual intercourse", which was odd. To my mind, "sexual intercourse" is the closest polite term to meaning a purely physical act without necessarily reproductive consequences. But "making love" implies the context of love, which was not otherwise mentioned. Were they saying that this is all that "love" is?

My problem with the sex ed lessons was that, in removing the relational context from sex, they were implying that it was a merely physical act. They were taking something special, and making it seem normal.

Another example comes in what some medical schools teach about abortion. A not-yet-Christian "pro-choice" medical student told me that they are taught that the fetus is essentially a parasite on the mother's body - it depends totally on the mother for all its sustenance, potentially damaging the mother in doing so.

How is that different from a newborn baby, a disabled child, a seriously ill relative?

Yes, the dependancy relationships might be one way, but people consist of more than just their dependancy relationships. A fetus might be a bundle of cells that draws support from the mother at cost to the mother, but that does not mean that is all it is. Again, they are taking something special, and making it ordinary.

In many respects I agree with them. As far as souls and stuff are concerned, I'm a materialist. I think that I am a complex collection of atoms obeying the laws of Physics. But that is not the only level on which a description is possible. I can relate to other such complex collections of atoms obeying the laws of Physics. And while it might well be possible to reduce my interactions with them to the merely physical, to do so makes the description poorer.

On a physical level, I could say that many of the interactions between such complex collections of atoms are at a very high level of complexity, and to reduce them to simple mechanics is to simplify them too much.

In the same way, to reduce a film to a large number of photons passing through a complex coloured filter and scattering off a screen is a valid description, but in reducing the descrption to that level, it impoverishes it by missing off the detail of complex interactions that is the real point.

I could go further. I might be a complex collection of atoms obeying the laws of Physics, but by his awesome grace, I can interact at a complex level with the God who made the laws of Physics. Yes, it might be possible to describe that in terms of what the ions and molecules in my brain are doing, but such a description would completely miss the awesome glory of God.

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