Saturday, April 5, 2008

Being Human

We like to differentiate ourselves from our animal brothers. But there really isn't that much difference between us. We share the same chemical composition as all other life on the planet. And we even share much of the same DNA with them as well, sharing more and more as we get closer in the evolutionary chain. Our behaviour is likewise very similar. Many times we accuse one another of "acting like animals". And there is a reason for that.
For we carry within us the baggage of millenia of evolution. The instincts and emotions which enabled our ancestor-creatures to survive are very much a part of us today. But in our modern world we are often held back in our development by what I like to call "evolutionary holdovers'' -- that is, survival instincts which are more of a hindrance than a help to us today.
We want peace and prosperity for ourselves and perhaps for all people. Yet we are constantly held back by strong emotions which rule our lives. And perhaps the strongest of these is fear.
Fear is an emotion and an instinct based on protection from things which may prove to be a threat. Fear responds to things which we know are a threat, things which we believe are a threat, and things which we don't know about. We can be afraid of people, animals, issues... even beliefs! And fear is an emotion that is easy to feed. Once fed, it grows first into anger, then hatred.
And strong fear requires a strong response from us: we can either fight against the thing which frightens us, or we can run away from it: fight or flight. Fear divides us one from another and helps build the world of mistrust and war in which we live.
So often fear is fueled by misunderstanding. We may believe the wrong things about other people, or perhaps we simply do not know anything about them, and so we fear them. As with all evolutionary holdovers fear is often irrational.

Now, we have seen how passions such as fear make us like our animal brothers. But just what is it that distinguishes us from them?
Many people would argue that it is our ability to communicate that makes us human. Yet, as anyone who lives with a pet knows, animals also communicate. Often their communication is through what we call "body language". But many times it may also be verbal. Animals have no trouble making their wishes and moods known!
Some may also argue that it is our ability to make and use tools that is the key to our difference. Yet, animals also use tools. I remember watching a nature special with an ape using a stick to ensnare some delicious locusts in a tree stump. Clearly a tool.
Is it our ability to build communities? We only need to look at the ants for that answer. For they are some of the most auspicious builders in nature.
Finally, we come to the argument that we are sentient. And that I can neither prove nor disprove, for sentience is not a concept we can measure. But there is a thing which I believe is key to the development of our thinking abilities.
It is clear that we think about things. More than think: we wonder. Our animal brothers are content to live life as it is handed to them. They react to the world as it changes around them. They respond to the stimuli of life. They do not make decisions about things as they happen, they simply respond to them.
Yet we act on our world. We do things because we want to, not because circumstances force us to do them.
And I believe the key to all this is our ability to ask questions. For this ability breeds the opportunity to not simply accept things as they are, but to try to understand them. We seek meaning. We seek understanding. And we base our actions on the answers we discover, whether they are correct or not. Questions unlock a whole world of possibilities for us that our animal brothers simply do not have.
Our questions tend to fall into six general categories. I call these the Six Great Questions. They are taught to us as early as grade school. They are: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why. These questions help us to define the world in which we live and our place within it.
And for each Great Question we create a discipline: a method for answering the Question. Disciplines are like tool kits: they contain many tools we use to explore the Great Questions. And when we begin to ask more specific questions, we may change the tools in our tool kits in order to ask those particular questions.
Now, the disciplines for each Great Question fall into general categories of study. And we know these well.
For the "Who" Question, we use the Biography Discipline. We study our family trees; our family histories. We study the lives of our friends and people in our communities. And we learn all we can about the famous people who have shaped our world. For, their lives touch our lives. And they help to define just "who" we are.
The "What" Question is answered through the Discipline of Philosophy. We seek to understand the nature of reality. And many times we get more questions than answers. But the questions help us to define our personal philosophies of life, and help us to explore the nature of being human.
We use Cartography to understand the "Where" Question. We map everything. We map our living room to figure out where to put the sofa. We map our neighborhood to locate the nearest grocery store. We map our cities, our states, our countries, our world. And we map the stars! We need to understand where everything is in relation to where everything else is. And by locating ourselves we know which things will influence our lives.
Likewise, we map events with the answer to the "When" Question. This is the tool we call History or Time. We look at the past and how it influences where we are today and where we are going in the future. And we are swept along in time, just as if it were the currents of a great river. We have some control over where we end up, but the general currents sweep us in certain directions. And we believe by seeing where they've led us before we can control where they will lead us in the future.
The How Question is perhaps the Question we are the best at answering. This is the realm of science. We try to understand how things are put together and how they work. We have created many different toolkits to answer the many different questions we have in this area. We have physics and astronomy. We have chemistry and geology. We have biology and medicine. And we have even created sciences to help us understand things we've created. We have such things as astronautics and computer science for these.
Our final Question is the Why Question. And here is where Religion fits in. Religion is the process of trying to find meaning to the universe around us and our place within it. It is an attempt by us to understand the order of things.
As with any of the Great Questions, the discipline we use to understand it vary. That is to say, there are many approaches to it. And often, these are shaped by our own experiences: by our environment, those we encounter, and the changing circumstances in our changing world.

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