Humanism

24 Jan

When I was a sophomore at Converse, I took a class called Ideas and Culture. Every student had to take it, and it was basically a class on Western civilization, thought, politics, religion, etc. The second semester I had a really great professor, and he really got me thinking about the topics we discussed in class. There’s one that I still think about quite a bit.

One of the ideas we talked about on a regular basis, but never really had an answer for, was the question of what separates humans from animals. What are the things that are truly unique about humans that cannot be said about the animal world? Our professor had an answer to negate every idea we came up with in class. He was actually pretty brilliant about it – to this day I still think about what I think he would say in response to my ideas.

Some people would suggest it’s opposable thumbs that separate us from animals. But I don’t think that’s enough. Not even the fact that we use tools, because there are plenty of animals that do that, as well. We can’t be so arrogant enough to think that we’re the only beings capable of using technology for our own benefit. True, we’re the only ones who use the internet, but it’s still considered a tool in my book. Animals don’t really have a use for it, but just the simple fact that we use tools doesn’t really separate us from animals. It’s not special enough.

Other people will tell you that it’s our forms of communication. True, we have more means of communication and media than any animal does, but it’s still not enough to make us special. Plenty of animals use basic forms of communication, such as SONAR and echolocation, not to mention all the different mating and warning sounds they can produce. Just because we’ve developed languages doesn’t mean it’s any different – just a little more advanced.

I think a good way to sum up the difference between humans and animals is this quote:

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” –William Hazlitt

I believe that, more than anything, the thing that separates animals and humans is our ability to imagine something beyond our world. In some cases, we can actually create something bigger than ourselves, beyond tangible, physical reality. I think it’s our capability to create a world other than our own – in movies, books, TV, and art. We can create an alternate universe that, while technically still not true, gives us an escape from reality. I don’t think animals are capable of thinking this way; they cannot conceive of something beyond what is physically and emotionally present at that moment. They have no way to create a world beyond this one.

It’s this incredible imagination that separates us from animals, I think. Animals look at the world and see it for what it is, nothing more. Humans look at the world and see it for what it could be. We’re even able to create better versions of our lives. We build cities, cultivate food, treat animals like property, make products to make life easier, and write down our stories – fiction and non-fiction, for future generations. We’re always looking for the next best thing – something bigger and better – whereas animals are concerned only with making it day to day. There are millions of people, of course, who live a very similar existence. But in the Western world, mostly, we enjoy the luxury of leisure and imagination. We don’t have to worry so much about where to build a temporary shelter for the night or where to find food.

More than any other animal, we leave a lasting impressionon time. We have the ability to recreate history by writing it down, studying it, editing it. Animals have no such capablility. They are bound by the immediacy of their needs – to find food and water, to find a mate, and to raise the next generation. The human capacity goes much further than that. While we share the same basic needs, we also have the capability to change our path. We can do more than just provide for our most basic needs. We can conceive of something out there beyond ourselves. Some call it God, some think of it as aliens, some imagine something completly unique. We are human because we can consider something other than the absolute truth.

The example I can best think of to illustrate the point that we are capable of inventing our own world is the art of movies. I was thinking about this back in November when I saw the new Harry Potter movie. I always think about the incredible, seemingly endless possibilities of the imagination when I read or watch Harry Potter. The whole time I was watching the new movie, I kept thinking about how much I wish magic was real. Mostly because I really want that story to be real, and not a work of fiction. It got me thinking about the real world, and all the things we’ve created for ourselves to make life easier. In my opinion, movies are the closest thing to magic we’ll ever have. Some people would argue that technology or science are better choices, but I don’t think so. Movies, more than anything, give us the chance to escape from everyday life, and create worlds that exist only in the imagination.

This might be a complicated way to communicate, but it is still effective. I think we have a desire to communicate with those around us. Animals, of course, share this same need, but they aren’t able to do it in quite the same ways. Sometimes I think their pure, uncomplicated forms of communication are far more effective and poignant than anything people have dreamed up. But no matter how complicated or simple the communication is, the fact remains that animals cannot bring their imagination and creativity – if in fact they exist – in quite the same way we can.

And that is what makes us human. The ability to bring our imaginations to life, to extend them past our own minds, and share them with others.

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