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Over the centuries billions of men and women have tried to answer this question: What makes us human?
All the prophets of God have given us one definitive answer, while others have said it in different terms. Can you guess what it is?
The answer is related to the age-old question, “Who am I?” and has many iterations such as, “What is my purpose?”, “Why am I here?” and so on.
It’s not the brand of clothes we wear, or our background, or our job, or the food we eat, or who we mate with, or even what schools we’ve attended. In a way, it’s not material at all. Yet every day of our lives plays a part in who we are and how we’ve come to be.
As a follower of the Baha’i teachings, I have an answer that I’ve found works well. You may be guessing right now that the answer will be one word: “soul,” to describe what makes us human beings different from the animal—but that would be too simplistic.
Even believing one has a soul doesn’t always help answer the burning questions within us, especially when it comes to our purpose in this world.
That’s why I defer to this quotation from Abdu’l-Baha to help me understand:
The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 17-18.
Genesis Chapter 1 verse 28 also taught us all that:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
As I’ve noted in past posts, one philosopher among many, Frenchman Rene Descartes, famously said a similar thing in the mid 1600’s. He stated “cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am” in his work Discourse on the Method (of thinking) and Principles of Philosophy. Descartes concluded that if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence.
Descartes, among others, gave us the freedom to question ourselves without limit. This helped him disprove the reality of material things and perceptions—such as man’s senses, since they can give us false impressions. He wrote, “And so something that I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.”
Descartes discarded our sensual perceptions as unreliable, just as the Baha’i teachings do:
In Europe I told the philosophers and scientists of materialism that the criterion of the senses is not reliable. For instance, consider a mirror and the images reflected in it. These images have no actual corporeal existence. Yet if you had never seen a mirror, you would firmly insist and believe that they were real. The eye sees a mirage upon the desert as a lake of water, but there is no reality in it. As we stand upon the deck of a steamer, the shore appears to be moving, yet we know the land is stationary and we are moving. The earth was believed to be fixed and the sun revolving about it, but although this appears to be so, the reverse is now known to be true. A whirling torch makes a circle of fire appear before the eye, yet we realize there is but one point of light. We behold a shadow moving upon the ground, but it has no material existence, no substance … In brief, the senses are continually deceived, and we are unable to separate that which is reality from that which is not. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 21.
We are born with powerful brains capable of great deductions and thoughts, ideas, plans and accomplishments. No one would argue that somewhere in our brain is a mind which makes all those things and more possible. The Baha’i teachings call this the Rational Soul:
Like the animal, man possesses the faculties of the senses, is subject to heat, cold, hunger, thirst, etc.; unlike the animal, man has a rational soul, the human intelligence. This intelligence of man is the intermediary between his body and his spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 96.
When speaking of thought, here is more to Abdu’l-Baha’s quotation cited above:
If a man’s thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly: if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal. – Ibid., pp. 17-18
We all know we are more than just mere animals, what with a mind, a rational soul, our thought, intelligence and spirit. But when we center ourselves only on material things and not spiritual and human things, that’s when selfish traits, like “I need to look out for myself” and “I’m too busy to help you” come to the fore, and we know the individual and society suffers.
Using deduction, as Descartes suggested, it makes sense that the path to a peaceful civilization is one of cooperation, sharing and helpfulness. Meanness, cruelty, aggression and subjugation have never been acceptable ways to advance society.