Imago Dei and the Glabrous Ape

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings
—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2

C.S. Lewis declares, “Man’s conquest of Nature [one might say in this context, human nature] turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” What is a human being? We are rational animals and as such exceptional: we seem a species apart, uniquely one not fixed by instinct. At the same time we cannot “cut nature at the joints” after Darwin. Freud famously spoke of the three great humiliations: Copernicus, Darwin, and himself. Let us forsake Copernicus and Freud. After Darwin it seems clear that the only coherent definition of a member of Homo sapiens is as a member of a population group rather than a quasi-Aristotelian essence. It therefore seems perfectly reasonable to speculate about the relation of our purported “nature” to our own evolutionary history. Man bears, as Darwin claims, notwithstanding “all his noble qualities” and “godlike intellect,” in his “bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (Darwin [1871] 1998, 643). A recent article in Nature announced that “murder comes naturally to chimpanzees.” The research was concerned with the question whether the violence had adaptive value or whether it resulted from extraneous factors such as human interference in, or threat to, chimpanzee habitat. Since chimps and bonobos are our closest biological relatives (we are all great apes), can they provide evidence for the emergence of violence among humans? (Notwithstanding circumstances, bonobos, it would seem, do not kill.) Perhaps one can trace this back to the common ancestor of chimps and humans, five million to seven million years ago?

There are, however, two obvious problems. First, does it make sense to speak of murder in relation to creatures that are following their instincts—however brutal those instincts might seem to us? Since a chimp does not possess a language, and certainly not a conceptual language, is not the talk of “murder” an instance of egregious anthropomorphism? Murder is a concept. Consider the definition of this concept in the legal realm and its problems. In most wrangles, it is the relation of the actus reus and the mens rea that is decisive. It is not the act alone but the act with the intention that makes murder “murder” rather than “manslaughter.” Outside common law territories, there is the idea of dolus eventualis, literally, “the cunning of the event,” to encompass the willful exploitation of an unintended effect of a deed. Sometimes acts of intentional killings are deemed manslaughter because of mitigating circumstances such as provocation. Yet if one thinks of cases of “manslaughter,” ranging from instances of crass driving offenses to, say, assisted suicide, these presuppose considerations of responsibility that are startlingly absent in the case of the chimp. The seventeen-year-old driver may genuinely fail to grasp the devastating impact of high speed in an urban area and cause death. Responsibility may be mitigated by youth and inexperience but cannot be entirely exonerated. A caregiver may agonize over the suffering of a relative or patient and may reluctantly (even harboring grave ethical anxieties) assist a suicide. How can such considerations have any force for the chimp?

Second, what does it mean to argue on the basis of analogies with our closest biological relatives? The fallacy is based on imagining chimps, as Jonathan Marks observes, as walking ancestors. There are biological and genetic fallacies here. The biological lineage is not straightforward. Humans are descended from apes unlike chimps in distinct ways. And even if chimps represent the closest analogue to humanity in most respects, in others they do not (Marks 2003). Chimps are intelligent animals, although their brains are much smaller than those of humans. With our large-headed babies, even the birth of humans is a social activity. Whereas chimps kill anyone approaching newborn offspring, humans require immediate help with neonates. The family seems to be the foundation of human social structures. As is often noted, kinship bonds such as aunts, husbands, and grandmothers do not exist among apes. It may be linked to the social structures that humans require for the rearing of their babies, which are born in a comparatively helpless state and in need of years of support and enculturation.

It is a trivial truth that we are animals. But is it more than stating the obvious? Does the claim that humans are animals occlude significant facts about human nature? Yet even if our ape ancestors were sufficiently close to modern Homo sapiens to warrant such analogies, it is not clear what the philosophical import of this is. We are descended from apes but also descended from fish. We do not think of birds as therapod dinosaurs even if their roots in the Mesozoic era are fairly clear. If we are happy to go back six million years in order to explain human behavior, why not even further?

The force of Homo homini lupus est relies on the striking metaphor of man as wolf. Since Darwin claims in The Descent of Man that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties” and the differences are of degree, not of kind, should we be remotely surprised by acts of human savagery? (Darwin [1871] 1998, 67). Indeed there has been burgeoning research on the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, especially in relation to the philosophical and empirical questions about “human nature.” Is it an exploded anachronism or the crux of serious anthropology? The debate tends to be between the essentialist and the constructivist. We can avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of an unbending genetic determinism of the kind that has become so popular since the Human Genome Project at the end of the 1990s or the relativisms of the social constructivists, relativisms that defy the striking kinship and commonality of human beings. I propose a theological-metaphysical alternative. We are forged of the same stuff as all other creatures and, as such, share the similitude of the created order with the author of all things. Here we can rely on the role of the religious imagination. God is a transcendent spiritual being, and humanity can have communion with him.

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) and Jesse Prinz’s Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (2012) reveal the conflict between a universal theory of humanity based on psychology and biology and the opposing claim that cultural diversity defies such universalism or essentialism. Pinker represents a strong form of programmatic naturalism in his evolutionary psychology. The universal and innate “nature” of human nature is constituted by the modular mechanisms, which evolved during the Pleistocene. On this paradigm, the mind is a mechanism forged in the African Pleistocene and history of the cultural effervescence of a hard-wired biology. Human beings respond to features in culturally invariant ways—smells, sights, sounds—and these are the result of evolved psychological mechanisms. These mechanisms are discrete in order to solve particular problems (the famous Swiss army model of the mind). Evolutionary biology is an extension of evolutionary neurobiology: the human mind responds to the environment in patterns determined by the modular adaptations that transcend time and culture (O’Hear 1997). Prinz counters such innatism with arguments about our biocultural nature. We have evidence of tools dating back 2.5 million years, and it would seem that our thumbs coevolved with tools. Hence biological dexterity emerged along with technological developments. Another example is menopause. Other apes are fertile until death. It is puzzling that human females should have decades of life while being infertile. The biocultural can be seen in the grim examples of the Romanian orphanages. Children deprived of proper cultural input fail to develop properly biologically. The orphans of the Ceauşescu era were stunted in their brain development by the cruel destitution of the state orphanages in communist Romania (Nelson, Fox, and Zeanah 2014).

Our ancestors in East Africa one hundred thousand years ago were biologically indistinguishable from us: with chins and foreheads. (The jaws, perhaps, were more powerful.) We have barely changed physiologically in the past hundred thousand years. Since the cranium has not developed meanwhile, it is plausible to assume that the brain has remained constant. Yet for tens of thousands of years nothing very much happened with humanity. Even though anthropologists have been keen to stress the differences between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, the similarities are striking (e.g., brain size and physiognomy). The behavior seems to have been similar, for example, the practice of hunting and the use of hearths. There is some debate about the coloring of bones, but generally there is a marked absence of symbolic activity. The distinctive difference lies in the symbolic rather than the chin or the physique, the invisible rather than the visible, the imagined rather than the perceived. The success of our ancestors, as Jonathan Marks (2012) has argued, was symbolic, not biological.

Programmatic (as opposed to methodological) naturalism assumes continuity with nature, and this is ruptured by the cognitive revolution in 70,000 BC. Up to the emergence of human beings and their rise to preeminence among the animal world, changes were the result of genetic mutation or environmental pressures. From about 70,000 BC, human beings began to impress their collective images and beliefs on the world. Religion, the holy, and the aesthetic are central features of these “imaginings.” The paintings of Chauvet are a striking testimony to prehistoric imaginings, in particular, after the shift from the tribes of hunter-gatherers to a pastoral civilization, out of which cities and empires emerged. Amid the technologies of agriculture, irrigation, and construction, nations, gods, and demons emerged. Anthropologists such as Ian Tattershall note the ubiquity of religion in human society (Tattershall 1998, 200 ff.). Indeed perhaps some inchoate sensus divinitatis precedes the emergence of technology. The remarkable site of the prehistoric Temple Gobekli Tepi (10,000 BC) with its 40- to 60-ton T-shaped stones would seem to predate pastoral civilization. These three- to six-meter-high stones have been interpreted as anthropomorphic, and there are various tieromorphic carvings on the stones that would seem to be the greatest monument of the hunter-gatherer period. What, subsequently, of the majesty and sublimity of the human imagination expressed in the Pyramids, the early Buddhas, the Gothic cathedrals, the Alhambra, or the Taj Mahal?

Imago Dei and the Similarity Thesis?

The history of evolution, as is well known, consists of a process of phylogenetic changes in populations over time. The prehistory of humanity makes the definitional question complex. There have been archaic humans (hominids) for two million years. For millions of years hominids were rather unspectacular animals. Our ancestors had large brains but relatively little brawn and were vulnerable to attack from many more powerful and dangerous animals. Perhaps 400,000 years ago hominids started hunting large animals. About 100,000 years ago it would seem that our ancestors moved from being prey to the greatest predator on earth: Homo sapiens sapiens. The initial signs of Homo sapiens 300,000 to 200,000 years ago in East Africa did not seem initially to herald any great difference. How should we think of the relation between Homo sapiens sapiens and extinct hominids: Neanderthal, Denisovan, Homo erectus, Homo floriensis, Homo habilis (Tattershall 1998)? If Homo sapiens mated with Neanderthals and Denisovans, how does this affect our view of the distinctively human? Homo sapiens developed radically around 70,000 BC and survived while other hominids died out: Java soloensis became extinct 50,000 years ago; Denisovans, 40,000; Neanderthals, 30,000; and Flores, 12,000. Homo sapiens is the uniquely surviving hominid. Yet how far back in the African Pleistocene should one go to find the distinctively human? What about the Australopithecus?

Notwithstanding the indistinctness of the biological category of the species, it seems perplexing to deny the idea of humanity as an exclusive and unique “species.” Quite apart from the ethical dimension, there does seem to be a transhistorical and cross-cultural humanity. This is not the citadel of fastidious humanists, those elevated principles of urbane bearers of reason and dignity, but equally those rough-hewn and rude transcultural features that anthropologists dwell on: habits of food and sex, incest, and cannibalism. In most cultures females have longer and more elaborate hair.

Up to the emergence of human beings and their rise to preeminence among the animal world, changes were due to genetic mutation or environmental pressures. With the emergence of modern human beings this changes. Removed from the normal causal nexus of all other animals, human beings are language users, free agents, and able to contemplate ultimate ends as well as proximate means. We have a traditional language in the West for this: the “image” of God.

Should this be dismissed as archaic mythic language? Or perhaps the relic of a dogmatic theological and philosophical world that is well lost? The language of the “Image and Likeness” is originally a Hebraism. However, this was transformed through the translation of Hebrew into the Hellenic milieu of the New Testament and preserved in the Imperial period into late antiquity. Irenaeus distinguishes between image (εἰκών, eikōn, Latin imago) and likeness (ὁμοίωσις, homóiōsis, Latin similitudo). Humanity always has the image, but individual humans have lost the likeness. Clement and Origen take it over. Frequently St. Paul’s 2 Corinthians 3:18 is employed in discussions of the image: “But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit.” The occidental idea of the imago et particeps Dei was buttressed by the Delphic oracle as interpreted by the philosophers: “Know Thyself ” means “know the Divine element”: reason (see Plato, Timaeus 41cd; Aristotle, De anima 408b 29; Cicero, Tusc. Disput., V.13, §38; Augustine, Enarrationes XLII, 6). The ancient and medieval authors offer substantive accounts. In some metaphysical sense humanity mirrors the divine essence. On this account there is an ontological reason why men and women are in the image of God, for example, as bearers of a rational soul. Thomas Aquinas writes, “ut consideremus de eius imagine, idest de homine, secundum quod et ipse est suorum operum principium, quasi liberum arbitrium habens et potestatem” (Summa theologica, Prima Secundae, Prooemium).

Since the Reformation and the Enlightenment such metaphysical accounts have generally been replaced by more functional models. Van Huyssteen expresses a common sentiment when he writes, “Substantive interpretations of the imago Dei have subsequently been replaced by so-called functional interpretations, precisely because substantive views were seen as too static, and too expressive of mind/body dualism” (van Huyssteen 2006, 134). For some theologians the model of the “image” is merely a fact about humankind’s relation to God (Middleton 2005). Humanity is related to God because of divine fiat or covenant. There may be no essential reason why man is in the image of God except the (possibly inscrutable) divine will or decision. Or the image may just be a function of human dominance over the rest of the created order (McFarland 2005).

Some contemporary theologians opt for a Christocentic notion of human nature. On this view, we understand human nature purely through revelation rather than through the intrinsic qualities of a human being, or what Alan Torrance, for example, calls a “Christian epistemic base” (Torrance 2012). An obvious problem with the theological definition is that it appears positivistic and stipulative. In a culture like modern Europe, where Christianity still exerts enormous influence but very little dogmatic weight, such a position seems somewhat quixotic. It is unsatisfactory because of the “projectivism” challenge: the familiar objection of Xenophon and Feuerbach that human beings are all too apt to project their longings on the universe. Since Xenophon and Feuerbach, Marx and Freud have offered further reason why it may be more economical to view religious beliefs as projections and illusions rather than as deliverances of supernatural truth.

The Darwinian challenge suggests that functionalism is weakened, especially if evolutionary psychology is correct. Why do we think that humans are special? Why do we think that there is a universal human nature? One answer could lie in evolutionary prowess. These glabrous apes have changed from being relatively insignificant creatures to the most powerful animals in the world. Perhaps we are confusing our unique power with a purported universal and distinct human nature. The brain is the most obvious contender for generating human uniqueness, but it is hard to understand why the brain evolved. Its size requires a large skull and that makes childbirth in Homo sapiens especially precarious. Hence the potential benefits of the large brain were combined with some significant disadvantages. Yet there are considerable negative side effects of the upright posture. Childbirth is difficult and dangerous because of the limitation of the birth canal in obligate bipedals. Back pain is ubiquitous since posture is more difficult if not on all fours and spinal problems constitute a common problem for humans (especially in the industrialized world). One can speculate that the centrality of posture in the yoga tradition is linked to this special difficulty posed by bipedalism. Mircea Eliade (2009, 54) considered the emphasis on posture in yoga as the attempt to overcome finitude and imitate eternal stillness: “a sign of transcending the human condition.”

Arnold Gehlen’s concept of humanity as “Mängelwesen,” or deficit creature, in Der Mensch: Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt of 1940 was pointing to this paradox. The lack of powerful teeth or claws to attack foes, the absence of proper body hair to protect from the weather, and even the relative lack of speed for flight from predators made prehistoric humans precarious creatures. Gehlen observed that we should have become extinct! He was arguing for the principle that the fiction of viewing humans as animals serves to emphasize the relevance of the Prometheus dimension of human life. Culture compensates for our weak instincts and feeble bodily powers.

Another distinguished twentieth-century German philosopher, Hans Jonas, presented three distinguishing elements of human culture: tools, images, and graves (Jonas 1996). The tool has existed for 2.5 million years. Our thumbs seem to have coevolved with tools. Other animals can skillfully manipulate the environment: an eagle, for example, can use winds to enhance its speed in flight, but it cannot transform a landscape like a hominid through fire. We can exploit and transform our habitat and environment through tools. The large skull and brain together with upright posture enables the intelligent use of the hands. Yet Jonas thinks that the image is more important than the tool. The human deployment of the image has its source in the “hidden art in the depths of the human soul” to use Kant’s language of imagination (1933, A141–B180– 81). Through this hidden art and mysterious power of the imagination, human beings are set loose from the constraints of the immediate environment and can represent entities and events through the mind’s eye, not least the afterlife. Jonas notes that the most significant distinction is the awareness of death. Man knows death and reflects on its significance and implications. Jonas argued that the possession of tools, images, and awareness of death distinguishes human from other animals. Yet perhaps the sense of the image is primary (Jonas 2001a). Of course, Jonas wanted to claim, quite correctly, that we shape our environment through tools. We are the only animals that know that our lives are finite and can ask questions about whence and whither. As the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote (1742, 186) observed, “It ill becomes us to make our intellectual faculties Gibeonites” (cf. Joshua 9:3–37). It is reasonable for the philosophical pragmatist to claim that human needs may ignite much speculation but that the sense of the eternal is one of the deepest human needs. Our encounter with goodness, truth, and beauty as images of the eternal and felt as divine presence is that which the “poet of Christian Neoplatonism” refers as the human “prima voglia and desidero supremo” (Boyde 1983, 287, 265).

The Cartesian Theater: An Outdated Intellectualism?

Aristotle defines the human being as a rational animal. Modern philosophers have toyed with the idea of reason as the slave to the passions. Yet Hume generates Kant. The thinker is not an addition to experience but its precondition. This is at the core of the transcendental unity of apperception: the unified consciousness that is more than a collection of images. It is a unified field of perception that requires a thinker. In this sense our perception of objects presupposes a thinking “I” that can generate a unified field of vision. Is human consciousness an illusion like “the setting of the sun” or an exploded error like the Renaissance theory of the humors? Daniel Dennett (1989, 346) famously ridicules this with his characteristic rhetorical bluster as the Cartesian Theater: “the illusion that there is a place in our brains where the show goes on, toward which all perceptual ‘input’ streams and whence flow all ‘conscious intentions’ to act and speak. I claim that other species—and human beings when they are newborn—simply aren’t beset by the illusion of the Cartesian Theater.”

What might we ask, pace Dennett, is philosophically illuminating about the notion of the “Cartesian Theater”? In “The Nobility of Sight,” Jonas presents a vindication of sight as “simultaneous unity” rather than “sequential unity” (Jonas 2001b). Within a field of vision the objects are given “at once” rather than determined by a succession of items. Because of this, vision enables detachment. Through vision we encounter a simultaneous image and thus the contrast between Being and Becoming. Consciousness can thus function as an “inner eye.” For humans, the mind does not depend upon the environment. One can think of dreams. The relationship between this inner world and the outer perceived environment constitutes the distinctively human. Jonas (2001b, 54) writes, “Seeing requires no perceptible activity on the part of the object or on that of the subject. Neither invades the sphere of the other.” Given that “the object is not affected by our looking at it,” he observes, “it is present to me without drawing me into its presence.”

There is some recent neurophysiological experimentation that reinforces Jonas’s claim that vision “outdoes” the other senses. An example from neuroscience can be used as an illustration of the priority of sight. The “rubber hand illusion” reveals the superiority of sight (or visual dominance) over other senses. In the experiment, the real hand is hidden from sight by a board and a rubber hand is placed in front of the subject as if it were his or her own. The tester strokes the rubber hand at the same time the real hand is being stroked. Watching the rubber hand being stroked at the same time as the rubber hand is enough to convince the brain that the “hand” in its visual field is its own. Thus visual information can override propriocentric information from the muscles and tendons. The brain adopts the rubber hand. In the rubber hand illusion vision trumps our proprioceptive information (Botvinick and Cohen 1998).

Let us take Jonas’s “image” to mean not just paintings and art, but the freedom to distance ourselves from the immediate environment, to go “off line” to employ a metaphor from computers. There is a fundamental ambivalence here. The nobility of sight according to Jonas is the foundation of the distinctively human capacity to establish a conception of objectivity. Yet as a (properly cantankerous) pupil of Heidegger, Jonas notes that this “nobility of sight” can encourage us to forget the dimension of “being-in-world,” our biological being, our primordial relation to the world that obviously precedes any perception or vision of them. According to Jonas, “The complete neutralization of dynamic content in the visual object, the expurgation of all traces of causal activity from its presentation, is one of the major accomplishments of what we call the image-function of sight.” Humans are spectators that can contemplate reality in “detachment from the actual presence of the original object” (2001b, 246). This provides the possibility of those momentous distinctions between “Being” and “Becoming,” time and eternity, essence and existence at the core of Western philosophy. As Andrew Marvell writes memorably in “The Garden”:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,

Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind

Does straight its own resemblance find,

Yet it creates, transcending these,

Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade (Marvell 1990, 48).

Coleridge (1983, 305) asserts that the “imagination at all events struggles to idealize and to unify.” The decisive contribution of the imagination is in our consciousness of the world as a whole. It is the participation and imaginative engagement with the whole that generates the specifically religious aspect. This image of the world as a whole is closely linked to our emotional reactions, a sense of weal or woe. The mind can turn around upon itself. Humans are self-consciously in the world and thus aware of the world as an arena of free agency: religion and metaphysics are unavoidable. The representation through the image is a feature of the human capacity for choice.

Imago Dei and the Human Imagination

Since the scientific revolution, the transformation of the environment through human ingenuity and mastery has increased mightily. Scientia potestas! Lord Bacon’s pithy adage points to the benefit of knowledge in evolutionary terms. If “knowledge is power,” it seems obvious why our ancestors wished to acquire it. Yet why is imagination so pronounced in Homo sapiens? What, indeed, are the adaptive payoffs? It has often been observed that the protracted period of play in human infants can furnish and develop sophisticated cognitive skills. Perhaps, for example, the logic of inferences in imaginative literature encourages fledgling intellects to contemplate myriad possibilities. Further, it might foster recognition of the difference between a real cause and mere correlation. The child can thus select between random occurrences and genuine regularities. The recognition of a cause as a mere conjunction of events generates powers of prediction and the ability to think of invisible properties and counterfactuals based on properties.

This theory, however, presents an outlandish and implausible view of children. Should we image three- and four-year-olds as embryonic scientists exploring the causal world or inchoate philosophers trying to work out the logic of beliefs? The child’s imagination is populated by many unlikely and improbable events and companions, and its reasoning is heavily shaped by parents and social groups. It has even been suggested that children are more susceptible to errors of judgment because of their need for authority and guidance and their capacity to dwell in the past, present, and future. Thus the experiments of Tetsuro Matsuzawa (2008) that show the superiority of chimps over children in some intellectual tests, especially memory.

The image is a primary and archaic medium of the human imagination. Jonas uses the example of cave paintings:

Our explorers [hypothetically coming from another planet to ascertain the presence of men on earth] enter a cave, and on its walls they discern lines or other configurations that must have been produced artificially, that have no structural function, and that suggest a likeness to one another of the living forms encountered outside. The cry goes up: ‘Here is evidence of man!’ Why? The evidence does not require the perfection of the Altamira paintings. The crudest and most childish drawing would be just as conclusive as the frescoes of Michelangelo. Conclusive for what? For the more-than-animal nature of its creator; and for his being potentially a speaking, thinking, inventing, in short “symbolical” being. And since it is not a matter of degree, as is technology, the evidence must reveal what it has to reveal by its formal quality alone. (Jonas 2001a, 158)

Through painting images such as those in the caves of Chauvet or Lascaux our ancestors could visualize memories and represent imagined states, events, and personae. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen in his Gifford Lectures, Alone in the World?, interprets the imago Dei in terms of the imagination. He presents religion as a decisive part of the lives of our ancestors living in the Upper Paleolithic. Van Huyssteen sees the paintings are the oldest significant products of human imagination and imbued with religious and mythological meaning: “They tell us about who our direct ancestors were, what they thought, and what they could do. They tell us about imagination, about creativity, about consciousness, about the Creator” (2004, 15). In Alone in the World? he writes, “The most spectacular evidence of symbolic behavior in humans—and some of the earliest—can be found in the Paleolithic cave art in southwestern France and the Basque Country in northern Spain. . . . As such, the Upper Paleolithic holds an all-important and intriguing key to the naturalness of the evolution of religion, to the creditability of the earliest forms of religious faith, and to what it means for Homo sapiens to be spiritually embodied beings” (2006: xvii). Van Huyssteen’s proposal has not gone unchallenged. The first problem relates to the interpretation of images tout court. How can one fix the nature of any interpretation of images, especially such ancient ones? Second, the shamanistic hypothesis of David Lewis-Williams, on which Van Huyssteen rests some of his case, has been criticized. Van Huyssteen writes:

More than simple, decorative pictures, these paintings were gateways to the spirit world, panoramas that, in their trance experience, shamans could enter and with which their own projected mental imagery could mingle in three animated dimensions. . . . [T]he rock face was like a veil suspended between this world and the spirit world. . . . [T]he potency filled paint created some sort of bond between the person, the rock veil, and the spirit world that seethed behind it (2006, 209).

Language is an obvious difference between humans and other animals. The beliefs that we form about the world are conceptually grounded or suffused. What about the imagination? How useful are the images in the Paleolithic cave? The evolutionary psychologist claims that psychological patterns or traits are modular adaptations. Yet the capacity to construct such images like those in Chauvet changes neither the agent nor the environment. It is barely conceivable that the cave images were produced for functional reasons, like a scarecrow, for example. The scarecrow is a natural likeness of a potential predator, hence its efficacy (Jonas 2001b, 58). The Paleolithic man entering the cave will encounter a range of images that constitute a distinct realm of representations with intentional content. It is this intentional content that makes the images so enigmatic for we do not share the beliefs and practices of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Artistic activity is one of the earliest defining human characteristics. Is it art? This is projecting false categories into prehistory—or is it? Perhaps we, however, can uniquely reflect on our likeness and through our imaginings we can commune with ultimate reality and mirror its source. The famous line of Meister Eckhart is apposite: “The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me” (Lectura Eckhardi 1998, 30). Humanity has created images of the sacred since prehistoric times. These sublime images and imaginings of the transcendent become an instrument of revelation: the real presence of the eternal in human history and culture.

EDITORIAL NOTE: The author is grateful to the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia for comments and questions, especially Charles Mathewes. He also wishes to thank Agustín Fuentes and Aku Visala. This essay is an excerpted chapter from Verbs, Bones, and Brains: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Human. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Photo by, The Famous Universal Citywalk Gorilla in Los Angeles, California; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.


Douglas Hedley

Douglas Hedley is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Clare College. 

Read more by Douglas Hedley