Humankind and the Power of Abstract Reasoning
What separates humans from the animals we keep in cages? What makes our specific collection of bones classify as human? Over 200,000 years ago, humans evolved into the modern man and since then, brilliant and seemingly impossible feats have been conquered not by animals, but by people. These achievements are the result of individuals who have the mental capabilities to create advanced thoughts. To understand why thought defines humans, we must start from the beginning. A person is defined as an individual who has the mental capabilities to create independent, rational, and most importantly, abstract thoughts, which is proven through the advancements of humankind as a whole.
First, a human is biologically defined as a bipedal primate belonging to the genus Homo Sapiens. While this might represent only a simple concept of who we are, it is far too general. This idea refuses to mention the idea of something beyond. Millions of years ago, humans were simply hunter-gatherers who migrated constantly in order to survive. As we continued to evolve and develop our minds, we became more advanced beings through creating technological advancements in countless areas of importance. As language was created and developed into a proper form of communication, humans were able to surpass other species through collaboration. The next major advancement, agriculture, allowed humans to create a steady flow of food in order to make life easier. Eventually, in most parts of the world, humans stopped worrying about survival and more about abstract ideas. The advancement of humanity itself has been learned in the course of our evolution. Evolution is not a ladder you climb to get to some more advanced level. It means changes over time, not a progression toward something better or more complex. Humans are more intellectually advanced than any other species in many areas, specifically as tool users. Humans are no longer simple organisms and we realize that there is more to us than just 206 bones and a brain. So what is it exactly that makes us human?
Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, known for his contributions to logic and metaphysics, describes the soul as, “an actuality of the first kind of a natural body having life potentially in it. The body so described is a body which is organized. The parts of plants in spite of their extreme simplicity are organs; e.g. the leaf serves to shelter the pericarp, the pericarp to shelter the fruit, while the roots of plants are analogous to the mouth of the animals, both serving for the absorption of food” (Aristotle). Aristotle explains how the simple, biological definition of something is never enough. There is always something far more complex than what we can see with our own two eyes. Plants and other simple forms of life do not have a soul, thus making humans a far more complex species. Furthermore, this connects with the idea of self, which also goes beyond what we can see.
As humans, we have the ability to understand that oneself exists. While one cannot prove the existence of anything else, human consciousness allows us to reach a higher knowledge of our own existence than any other creature in the world. These abstract thoughts and intelligent philosophies are what drive humans’ creativity and technological advancements.
Humans are considered an intelligent species because of the ability to rationally think about complex ideas and theoretical concepts. Traditionally, intelligence is defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. I agree with the 1920’s author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose statement in “The Crack Up,” claims that, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” (Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald is explaining that living and thinking in a state of irresolution demonstrates intelligence because it involves the ability to recognize different perspectives other than your own and remain open minded. It is necessary to look into all the information you are given and analyze it in order to find truth. When the meaning of something is misunderstood, the mind is disturbed. It is due to completely accepting or rejecting an idea that one is unable to see the true nature of things. A truly intelligent individual has the ability to see and understand two contradicting ideas. President Lincoln stood by this belief as he constantly had conflicting political views between the Republicans and Democrats in his cabinet, and often listened to and then acted against his own Republican party because he felt it was the logical thing to do. Rationality is thinking intelligently and being able to hold two contradicting ideas. This level of advanced and extremely rational thought is unobtainable by other organisms, thus proving rationality is what makes someone human.
There is a wide misconception that because animals think to run away from a predator, they must have rational thought. However, this is simply known as fight or flight, an instinctual way of surviving in which all animals are born with, including humans. This is an utterly basic version of rational thought and humans have advanced from these instinctual actions to understand both the pros and cons of a given situation in order to make an intelligent decision that we contemplate rather than acting before really thinking.
Ancient Greek philosopher and teacher, Plato, known for his teachings in ethics, metaphysics, and early psychology, believes that humans are incapable of fully understanding. Throughout his writings “Allegory of the Cave” and “Divided Line,” Plato discusses the difficulty to obtain knowledge and intelligence. Between the ignorance we are born into, similar to the cave, or the struggle to reach intelligence, humans constantly strive for truth and knowledge. Plants and animals do not share this quest. Just as humans’ mission is to advance and understand the world, other species’ mission is to live and survive. Regardless of the faults of humans struggling to see what is true and what is not, less advanced organisms cannot even begin contemplating what the word true means. To further explain, in “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato’s story is a metaphor for life in which we are all prisoners trapped in a cave only able to see what is directly in front of us. When new information is revealed that challenges the status quo, we struggle to comprehend it as the truth. When others attempt to teach us new ideas, we resist them. As Plato puts it, “Ignorance is the root of all evil” (Plato). It is the chain that restricts our head from turning and looking outside of the cave. Ignorance is what holds us prisoners and shields us from the world’s truths. This idea is truly subjective. Some humans are unintelligent compared to others and vice versa. Furthermore, all humans are intelligent compared to animals. The cave metaphor should instead be placed upon species other than humans because they are far more ignorant creatures. Plants and animals lack the ability to think completely rationally and abstractly making them the ones unable to turn their heads and look outside the cave.
This is further proven in Plato’s work, “Divided Line,” in which he explains the difference between illusion and intelligence. Illusion, the lowest part of the divided line, consists of shadows and reflections because they change form, don’t reveal true shape, and are not true objects. On the other end is Plato’s highest section of the divided line, pure ideas. The enlightenment of knowledge and truth can only be achieved through philosophy and pure ideas which lead us to keep an open mind and avoid ignorance. The difference between humans and other species is portrayed by this chart because humans tend to lie somewhere in the upper-middle section of the divided line and can often reach the highest section, especially in today’s modern world filled with new ideas. Every other species in the world lacks the ability to think mathematically and in turn, lies in the bottom half of the divided line. Plato’s chart directly differentiates humans from animals.
Another key separation between humans and other species rests in the idea of stoicism. Created around 300 B.C., stoicism is a Greek philosophy developed by Zeno of Citium in order to teach the development of self-control and overcoming destructive emotions. Stoicism is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, but rather a way of life that for humans, would involve countless years of practice and training to achieve. However, for plants and animals this is innate. Emotion doesn’t affect decision making in the same way that it impacts everything humans do. Countless animals prey on their own kind for meat and often fight to the death with their own family over territory. Although humans still fight each other through wars, it is far more complicated. The wars today are strategically planned and organized in order to control resources that fuel the economy and make life better. Animals fight to survive while Humans fight for a national advancement in some area such as economic gain, national security, valuable resources, or to start a revolution. Humans’ advancement in language allows us to surpass our genetic boundaries and collaborate with other humans to make survival normal and life-spans longer. Additionally, Stoicism is aimed at training one’s attention to remain in the present moment at all times. This phenomenon simply describes the mental attitudes of animals. They cannot comprehend creating goals for their futures. Survival requires animals’ full and complete attention to the present at all times. Animals have always had the virtue of living in harmony with the nature of the universe as a whole while humans have simply outgrown this over the last thousand years that we have destroyed the environment to benefit humankind.
Metamorphosis, a piece written by the 20th-century author, Franz Kafka, explores the direct differences between humans and insects. When protagonist, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up transformed into a large insect, he is unwillingly thrust into the life of a species quite opposite to that of humans. The novel sheds light on the emptiness of the lives of animals. Kafka states the circumstance of Gregor as an exceptionally unfortunate event because species other than humans, specifically insects, are a much simpler being. For Gregor’s family, the transformation was, “a misfortune as none of their relatives and acquaintances had ever been hit” (56). To put in perspective, Gregor is claiming that insects are so underdeveloped as a species that becoming one is the worst thing that anyone he knows could possibly experience. If Gregor was to instead become a much more intelligent and advanced being, everyone would have been pleased rather than emotionally destroyed. Kafka once again proves the advancement of humans through Gregor’s daily life after the transformation in which the most Gregor accomplished in a day was stare out the window, hide under a couch, or climb on the furniture. “He remained in this state of empty and peaceful reflection until the tower clock struck three in the morning. He still saw that outside the window everything was beginning to grow light. Then, without his consent, his head sank down to the floor, and from his nostrils streamed his last weak breath” (71). As an insect, Gregor is just living to die. He no longer has a pursuit of advancing is knowledge. When Gregor loses his appearance and the ability to communicate, he is falsely accused of no longer being human by his peers because he lost his ability to take action. The judgement of Gregor is incorrect because being human is all about thought. A genius is still a genius even if they sit in silence for eternity. Gregor may take the form of an insect, but he is not an insect because insects cannot use abstract reasoning. Similarly, an insect in a human body is still an insect. Kafka is displaying the connection between mind and body as two independent and separate beings. Although they are intertwined by neurons in order to send the brain signals of sensation, the connection ends there; it is nothing more.
In conclusion, a person is defined as an individual who has the mental capabilities to create independent, rational, and most importantly, abstract thoughts, which is proven through the advancements of humankind as a whole. Humans have evolved from bipedal primates into the modern human that exists today. Throughout years of development in language and technology, unimaginable accomplishments have been achieved not by animals but by humans. These countless advancements exist today because of abstract reasoning. We are the only species on Earth that has surpassed the constant struggle of survival and moved forward to seeking advancement and understanding of the world. We are fortunate enough to have the ability of contemplating alternative futures and living in regards to this phenomenon. Creatures without such a capacity do not share our social contract or moral responsibilities because humans are the only species to have obtained foresight capable of deliberately plotting a path of decisions and actions in order to reach the most desirable long-term future. This level of advanced rational thought is unimaginable by other organisms, thus proving rationality and abstract thinking is what makes us human.
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