We perceive the world of nature through our senses, and we perceive the world of the spirit through our souls—but what about animals?
While human beings are certainly endowed with fine sensory organs, animals possess the faculties of sensory perception to a superlative degree. The Baha’i teachings say that:
… the pathway of nature is the pathway of the animal realm. The animal acts in accordance with the requirements of nature, follows its own instincts and desires. Whatever its impulses and proclivities may be, it has the liberty to gratify them; yet it is a captive of nature. It cannot deviate in the least degree from the road nature has established … it is a captive of the senses and deprived of that which lies beyond them. It is subject to what the eye sees, the ear hears, the nostrils sense, the taste detects and touch reveals. These sensations are acceptable and sufficient for the animal. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 177.
So—are animals entirely informed by their senses, or do they have the ability to perceive anything beyond what their senses tell them? Do animals have the capacity to think abstractly and to know intellectually?
Since animals don’t create civilizations or make art or discover scientific realities, the Baha’i teachings say, they have no ability to employ the logic, abstract reasoning and intellectual powers human beings use every day:
The animal cannot apprehend ideal realities. The animal cannot conceive of the earth as a sphere. The intelligence of an animal located in Europe could never have planned the discovery of the continent of America. The animal kingdom is incapable of discovering the latent mysteries of nature—such as electricity—and bringing them forth from the invisible plane to the plane of visibility. It is evident that the discoveries and inventions transcend the animal intelligence … the bestowals of abstract reason and intellect are absent in its endowment. That is to say, the animal in its creation is a captive of the senses. – Ibid., p. 357.
So does the animal know of the existence of anything beyond the senses? Can an animal perceive the existence of God? No, the Baha’i writings say:
It is utterly lacking spiritual susceptibilities, ignorant of divine religion and without knowledge of the Kingdom of God … that which is beyond the range of the senses, that realm of phenomena through which the conscious pathway to the Kingdom of God leads, the world of spiritual susceptibilities and divine religion–of these the animal is completely unaware, for in its highest station it is a captive of nature … the animal is absolutely ignorant of the realm of spirit and out of touch with the inner world of conscious realization … it is entirely bereft of that which lies beyond, absolutely oblivious of the Kingdom of God and its traces, whereas God has deposited within the human creature an illimitable power by which he can rule the world of nature. – Ibid., p. 177.
Abdu’l-Baha does not claim that all created things can know God, perceive God, or even are aware of the existence of God. This perception, Baha’is believe, only occurs as a peculiar attribute of the human world. Anything mineral, vegetable or animal lacks those powers.
Human beings, then, have the unique ability to transcend the natural world—to comprehend both the natural and the supernatural. With that ability, we can see beyond the obvious or the physical, and understand abstract concepts, intellectual ideas, scientific truths and invisible realities. We can act morally rather than only through instinct or training. We perceive, intuit and grasp the hidden discoveries that only the human mind, heart and soul can fathom.
This unique ability sets us apart from every other living thing.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore what that uniqueness means.