What is it that distinguishes us from other beings?
This question is often answered by statement of the fact that humans have opposable thumbs and that we are thinking and reasoning creatures. While all of that is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are unique animals in any of these respects. From another point of view, a literal creationist would also say that we were made in the image of God and that we also stand out from other animals because we became like God through the consumption of fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil located in the Garden of Eden. I would venture to say that we are unique in that we ask this very question.
It appears that one thing that separates us from other beings is our ability to be intellectually independent from our environment and to define it in terms or symbols of our own creation. We can also create abstract meaning from what we see. Other entities create meaning from forms they sense – such as: ‘this is food’ or ‘this is dangerous’ and many other basic root responses to a particular phenomenon that is encountered. We appear to be unique in our aesthetic sense to a large degree. That doesn’t mean that other animals cannot appreciate beauty or that some animals are not capable of engaging in metaphoric thinking. My guess though, is that it is rare. Even in the realm of people I would venture to say that the aesthetic sense of some individuals is relatively minimal but everyone does engage in metaphoric thinking. It is crucial for a complex language system especially if it is written or read.
How about the capacity to ‘care’? I think this is genetically rooted and is manifested in a large number of creatures. Maternal instinct is obvious but also a number of animals show a refined intellectual capacity to care. Who hasn’t seen the dog greeting his human family when they finally get home? Dogs are so passionate and so many seek to please because they care so passionately. Many mothers of all manner of animals will become surrogates for orphaned young that are not the same species or genus or even family. When we see the caring of a mother bear protecting her cubs, can there be any doubt as to the capacity of a large number of animals to care?
What is it that defines us as individuals?
Obviously there are varying perspectives on the definition of or idea of an individual. Our personal point of view of course, but also the views of other humans, the other sensing organisms around us, and possibly a spiritual perspective from God. Starting with that essential question, let’s try to come to a common understanding of the critical terms: ‘define’ and ‘individual’. Then we will delve into the finer aspects of answering the question relative to the paradigms of self, others (including non-humans) and God.
The term ‘define’ is rooted in providing meaning or comprehension within a particular context. Since the context can vary, so too can the definition. This is to say that there is no singular way of saying what some ‘thing’ is without looking at the circumstances surrounding that thing. For example, if I take something fairly simple like a rock, one would think that it would be fairly easy to define. And on the physical level it is, although it is cumbersome with data. It can be defined by its size, density, hardness, color, luster, shape, texture, brittleness, cleavage, type of formation (igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary), mass, functionality and so on ad nauseum. Each of these characteristics adds to the understanding of what that rock is. Each of these defining characteristics is like a yard stick measuring some point along a range or sliding scale of varying standards. However, if we try to define the rock in terms of its aesthetics, it is a whole other situation. Beauty or emotional response is relative and subjective vs. physical phenomena which are concrete, non-ambiguous and objective. Is beauty inherent in a rock or is it something that is imposed upon it? More on this later.
Let us dig a little deeper on the easier and simple side of defining. Take one word of these physical ‘definers’ of a rock – “hardness” and let’s explore it in more detail. At the surface, the range is from very soft and yielding at one end of the spectrum and very hard and unyielding at the other end. We come to ‘know’ this scale and where it fits along it by a standard known as ‘Moh’s Hardness Scale. It is done by scratching rocks. Scratching one rock on another gives us relative information of one rock compared to others and establishes it along a continuum of hardness. If you have two rocks A and B, and you scratch rock B with rock A and you get a visual scratch, then rock A is harder than B and B will not be able to scratch A. This is real. This is tangible. It is only a small part of a total definition but it is something you can sense and that among a group of people everyone will recognize that it is so. There will be a consensus of knowing.
But let us dig a little deeper on this simple side of defining something. How do we know this or how do we know anything for that matter? Epistemologically speaking how do we recognize the relevance of these circumstances? What allows us to make the cognitive leap of not just seeing a rock scratch another rock but understanding the significance of this phenomena? What distinguishes us from a movie camera simply recording data to a recognizing entity that can form logical and presumptive reasoning and then take relevant action? At its root, we are comparing one thing to another thing. I refer to this as epistemic duality; epistemic as in knowledge and duality as in comparative. In other words, part of what defines us is our ability to define. In the Holy Scriptures we find this sentiment echoed in Genesis. Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. In so doing she became like God. She became a creator and sat outside of creation. She was no longer a part of the creation but apart from the creation. She was evicted if you will from the Garden of Eden because she was now cognitively aware. Literally it was impossible for her to actually be in the Garden. To be immersed in the Garden would be the idea of being one with the Garden. To define it and know it is to be separate and judging or expressed in other words ‘outside the garden’. Gauging what is seen and knowing it from the outside. This was original sin. Not disobeying God but rather becoming like God and becoming a creator.
But let us dig a little deeper into the tools by which we define ‘things’. The most intriguing and powerful tool to this whole issue of definition is the use of metaphor. This idea of using one thing to represent something else in a literal way is a key to understanding how we ‘define’ anything. It is in our ability to transfer ideas, concepts, meaning and even reality to totally unrelated phenomena. That is, in essence, what I think ‘defines’ our sophistication of thinking. Abstract thinking and reasoning allows us to create an epistemic reality by sheer virtue of our will and desire. The whole idea of a rock and what distinguishes it from the rest of the world, that makes it whole and separate, that makes it an object is in the little lines and squiggles we call written words. It is like a placemarker that represents the real rock and allows us to metaphorically carry this rock around in our brains. It allows us to communicate to other people who share our knowledge of the same lines and squiggles. And from an assignment of specific vibrations created by our vocal chords in alignment with these same lines and squiggles it permits us to discuss and dialogue with other people about this thing called rock. In Japan the word for rock is ishi using Romanji and there is another phonetic symbol in hiragana (another Japanese alphabet) and in Chinese the kanji symbol is another placemarker for the idea of rock. Different consensus in terms of lines and squiggles but the same idea. For all intents and purposes I could use the following configuration of lines and squiggles – 4Ie\/ – to represent rock and as long as sufficient people agreed and commonly used these symbols it would mean nothing less than the lines and squiggles of rock or ishi. Where the difference lies is in the influences and impacts of the object we call rock. If rocks were something that caused suffering in the society that was communicating about them, then part of the definition of rock would be emotional in nature. Its meaning would be carried forward as well as all of the other defining characteristics of 4Ie\/. A pre-existing cultural influence could also color how we defined the rock in terms of its aesthetics.
It is how we ‘know’ the world. Through the use of these symbols that represent meaning. The important underlying concept to all of this is that once we ‘know’ something we can affect it. We can change it. We can control it. The better we define something, the more control we can exercise over that thing. Through our using or manipulating our knowledge of something, we gain experience and insight into the cause and effect of our actions giving us an ever increasing understanding of that object. An upward spiraling if you will. More importantly when we control the object we control the ways in which it is defined. But even more importantly we actually ‘define’ the object as opposed to just knowing what the object is. Its definition is changed by us and is in essence created by us. At its most basic level, the raw material is provided in the form of sub-atomic particles but the end product is our creation. If provided with clay, we can mold that clay in a variety of ways that reflect us as creators but by and large we are simply that, creators. Creation is a crucial part of the whole idea of defining and to define is a product of that idea.
Now let’s deal with the more difficult idea of ‘define’ in terms of aesthetics. Although there is a certain democracy of beauty we need to exam how there are parameters that fall outside of a narrow definition. It boils down to a ‘personal’ definition which is largely based on the experiences and the cultural context of the definer. But I would submit that there is also a certain chemical aspect on a genetic level that influences what resonates with the definer. In addition, and to a level that I am unsure of (it may be trivial or it may predominate) is the idea of awareness. I think that awareness comes in different forms or at different levels. Awareness of your surroundings, awareness of hunger, awareness of emotions, awareness of pain, awareness of your body, awareness of danger, awareness of judgment, awareness of ideas and metaphors, awareness of distant objects, awareness of the future, awareness of the unknown, awareness of possibilities and awareness of self. This arena is rife with possibilities for discussion so more on it later.
Enough of the term ‘define’ for now. Let’s look at the term ‘individual’.
An individual is one that is separate from others that are identical or similar. This is fairly straightforward and something that everyone should be able to agree on. What makes it interesting is by trying to understand what we mean by separate. I generally operate my world view under the premise that separation is merely illusion and that it is impossible for any thing to be truly separate from anything else except to a very minor degree.
How we determine and measure separateness is through our sensory systems: what is seen, what is heard, what is felt, what is smelt, what is tasted. Examining each in turn, we find that our capacity to see is severely limited. We can only see within a very narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Our eyes and brains respond to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The longer wavelengths in the infra-red and lower as well as the shorter wavelengths in the ultra-violet and higher spectra are not a part of our visual world. That does not mean that they don’t exist. A whole variety of electromagnetic waves surround us that we cannot detect. If you have ever heard a high pitched whine that slowly went away, you were glimpsing (with your ears) part of the rich fabric of real space you are connected to on a daily basis because of destructive interference that brought the frequency down into our hearing spectrum. In other words, just because you can’t ‘see’ something does not mean that it does not exist. One example would be the so-called dark matter and dark energy. Physicists believe these unseeable and unknowable aspects of the universe constitute over 90% of that universe. Yet, we are not currently capable of sensing them. In fact, dark matter may be the medium that carries electromagnetic waves.
How is that I define myself? This may be a distinctly different question from how do YOU define YOURself but for the purposes of brevity let us presume that the primary construction and maintenance of an ego is grossly similar from individual to individual. While it is, I believe, an amalgam of perspectives interwoven into a functioning entity, there is something else at the core of the individual that is usually well hidden. Which is to say that we are often lying to ourselves even when we are ‘successful’ in ‘defining’ ourselves. The subliminal qualities that are embedded in us come from our deep past and probably influence a lot of our day to day decisions. Our inner selves surface when we are confronted with behavior reminiscent of the selves that we are that can’t be reconciled with who we think we are.
Before getting to any of that though I think it relevant to explore the concept and rationalization of EGO. I think that in many respects the concept of ego is one of a mental frame of reference. It is sort of like a zero point on x, y, z, x1, y1, z1 axis. It is a place to measure everything against. It also becomes a way of reasoning and referencing everything that happens to you as an individual.
One of those perspectives is What You Do. At one time I served in the capacity of director for the Chattanooga Audubon Society. The job was intense. I was involved with thinking about the job and my responsibilities during my waking hours. It wasn’t the sort of job you could just show up for and then go home. You couldn’t turn it off. In many respects the job defined me. When I left, I felt hollow. It was kind of like you are going a hundred miles an hour and then suddenly you are stopped. No gradual slow down, simply stop. Without a transition it was easy to see how you were being defined by what you were doing. The contrast made it stark and blindingly self-evident. I have come to feel that it is not WHAT you do but rather what you DO. In other words, raking leaves versus being an investment banker. Not important. What is important though is your approaching in DOING your job. Are you a contented leaf raker or a malcontent investment banker or vice versa. The relevant state is not the things you are doing but rather the manner in which those things are being done.