Man is the Measure (Book Review)

man-measureCall it my own personal thought experiment.  What might I have turned out to be if I were indoctrinated into humanistic philosophy during my formative teenage years?

When I was 14, my family moved from the place where I had grown up in California to resettle in northern Virginia.  My new school offered to test me into their “gifted and talented” program.  Students who qualified would attend a special class once every couple of weeks to discuss topics that were considered too advanced for the average high schooler.  I didn’t test in.  Oh well.  But I’ve always wondered what would have happened to me if I had.

One of the required texts for that group of students was Dr. Reuben Abel’s Man is the Measure: A Cordial Invitation to the Central Problems of Philosophy.  The title of the book says it all.  There are really only two ways to ultimately measure life and the questions it poses to humanity.  A person can either measure subjectively, which necessarily means making Man the measure, the standard, the ultimate perspective on all things.  In other words, we are human and there is no escaping our humanity.  Thus any subjective measure will necessarily be man-centered because we can’t get out of our own skin.  We are bound by nature.  Or a person can measure ultimate reality objectively, which means we as nature-bound humans measure by a trustworthy standard outside of us.  This necessarily requires an objective revelation from outside humanity, which places this second way of measuring reality squarely in the theistic perspective of philosophy.  Fundamentally, there are only two philosophical worldviews.  Either Man is the measure, or God is.  All worldviews and philosophies that have ever existed fit one of these two perspectives.

After reading and pondering the philosophical problems addressed in Man is the Measure, I’m not sure it’s arguments would have persuaded “high school me” to become a secular humanist.  Abel is an optimistic and pragmatic skeptic.  I’m not sure he would label himself such, but his philosophy seems to pit the academic against the liveable.  If Man is the measure of all things—and this is the literal conclusion of nearly every chapter—then a radical skepticism is absolutely warranted based on humanity’s subjective limitations.  At least that would be the consistent way of thinking.  But Abel seems to be a contented and worldly man unable to live consistently within the bounds of academic skepticism.  The problem, as I see it, is that his inconsistent position is unsatisfying and limited by his atheistic presuppositions.  In Abel’s world, God cannot be the measure therefore Man must be.  But what if there is a God?  A God who has revealed himself as the objective standard of reality.  The measure of all things.  What if the evidence for this God and his revelation were compellingly believable?  Then Man could no longer possibly be the measure!  This is the classical position of Christian philosophy.  As a teenager, I doubt that I would have been able to sort this out.  But I trust that God would have sustained me and helped me find answers why a secular humanistic philosophy of life is unsustainable, unfulfilling, and unwarranted.

So what are some of the central problems of philosophy that Abel engages?  The book seeks to tackle them all.  The table of contents reveals the wide scope of problems addressed:

  1. Metaphysics: What in the World Is There?
  2. The Basis of Knowledge
  3. Our Knowledge of the External World
  4. The Task of Perception
  5. When Do We Attain Certainty?
  6. Logic, Mathematics, and Metaphysics
  7. Meaning and Naming: How Language Bites on to the World
  8. Truth and Belief
  9. Science, Facts, and Hypotheses
  10. Scientific Explanation
  11. The Social Sciences
  12. Space, Time, and Matter
  13. Is There Purpose in Nature? The Evidence of Evolution
  14. “Human Nature” and Scientific Method in Anthropology, Psychology, and Psychoanalysis
  15. The Study of History: What Is the Past?
  16. Probability, Rationality, and Induction
  17. The Person
  18. Mind and Body
  19. Minds, Machines, Meanings, and Language
  20. Intention, Action, and Free Will
  21. Form in Art
  22. Creativity
  23. Man Is the Measure

Such a range of topics makes this book useful as an introduction to the storied tradition of secular humanistic philosophy.  The reader will see that philosophers in this tradition cannot agree on much of anything!  Abel is well-versed in the tradition, able to quote accepted authorities in this tradition who are scientists, philosophers, poets, artists, critics, and prophets.  Yet this is the great weakness of the book.  The author is not at all conversant on any meaningful level with the rich tradition of theist, especially Christian, philosophy and philosophical theology.  When he does allude to the theistic objective alternative, it is without much argumentation or reason, but with assertion and dismissal.  In one sense, this is to be expected because faith-based presuppositions separate the two traditions.  And presuppositions are normally not acknowledged up front, neither are they up for discussion or debate.  Philosophical reason contrary to one’s presuppositions are usually dismissed because they are prejudices.  Minority philosophies in a culture are more likely to engage other traditions for the sake of discussion, persuasion.  But in our secular humanistic age that tends to scoff at Christian philosophy, engagement is unusual.  Why would you want to acknowledge your opponent?  It just legitimizes him!

Even though Man is the Measure is now dated (first published in 1976), nevertheless it still serves as a useful, reverent, and entertaining discussion of the central problems of philosophy from the humanist tradition.  Christians and other theists will likely remain skeptical that Man must be the measure of all things because our presuppositions are drastically different.  If one believes in God who has created the universe, has revealed himself through it, and furthermore has revealed himself by his spoken, written, and incarnated Word, then the central problems of humanistic philosophy find satisfying answers when God is the measure.

For an introduction to the Christian philosophical tradition, see the following books:

Redeeming Philosophy by Vern Poythress

Christian Philosophy by Bartholomew and Goheen

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology by John Frame

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