Apr 23, 2012. Humans and animals clearly differ.
Is the difference merely one of degree, as Darwin believed? Or are humans and animals distinctly different?
The Baha’i Faith embrace the latter view, as do the world’s major religions. It does so in a very interesting and illuminating way:
Humans, the Bahá’i Faith teaches, possess reason and intellect and can control the laws of nature, whereas animals are confined by nature.
Below we considering the human ability to master nature – and some of its implications. We have – according to the Bahá’i perspective – “supernatural” abilities!
First, let’s consider what nature is.
The Nature of Nature
There are several meanings to the noun nature. One meaning, according to Wikipedia, is the physical universe:
Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world, or material world. “Nature” refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. It ranges in scale from the subatomic to the cosmic.
Another two, Wikipedia tells us, are philosophical:
Nature is a concept with two major sets of inter-related meanings, referring on the one hand to the things which are natural, or subject to the normal working of “laws of nature”, or on the other hand to the essential properties and causes of those things to be what they naturally are, or in other words the laws of nature themselves.
Metaphysical naturalism – as opposed to the ordinary naturalism of the physical sciences – holds that everything is a natural phenomena:
… the view that nature is all there is and all basic truths are truths of nature” (Robert Audi, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1984, p. 372)
… the view that everything is natural, i.e. that everything there is belongs to the world of nature, and so can be studied by the methods appropriate for studying that world. (Alan Lacey, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995, p. 604)
This view is overturned if – as the Bahá’i Writings indicate – the human intellect has powers that control and transcend nature.
A Bahá’i Definition of Nature
A Baha’i definition of nature is given in Some Answered Questions, a remarkable book compiled by Laura Dreyfus-Barney (1879-1974), the prominent French-American philanthropist, sculptor, and recipient of chevalier and officier rank of the French Légion d’Honneur. It records Dreyfus-Barney’s talks over several years with `Abdu’l-Bahá – the son of the Bahá’u'lláh, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith.
In the first chapter – entitled Nature is Governed by One Universal Law -`Abdu’l-Bahá defines nature:
Nature is that condition, that reality, which in appearance consists in life and death, or, in other words, in the composition and decomposition of all things. This Nature is subjected to an absolute organization, to determined laws, to a complete order and a finished design, from which it will never depart …
`Abdu’l-Bahá’s definition of nature is the nature of modern science – of modern physics, chemistry, astrophysics, biology. and evolutionary theory. But nature lacks intelligence:
… when you look at Nature itself, you see that it has no intelligence, no will. For instance, the nature of fire is to burn; it burns without will or intelligence. The nature of water is fluidity; it flows without will or intelligence. … Thus it is clear that the natural movements of all things are compelled; there are no voluntary movements except those of animals and, above all, those of man.
We possess intelligence, thus we have a capability that nature lacks:
Man possesses conscious intelligence and reflection; nature does not. … Man can seek out the mysteries latent in nature, whereas nature is not conscious of her own hidden phenomena. … Man is endowed with ideal virtues – for example, intellection, volition, faith, confession and acknowledgment of God – while nature is devoid of all these.
The ideal faculties of man, including the capacity for scientific acquisition, are beyond nature’s ken. These are powers whereby man is differentiated and distinguished from all other forms of life.
The upshot of all of this is that there is a clear distinction between our world and the world of nature. We have the power of intelligence and science, and nature doesn’t. We have the ability to learn in ways that, although prefigured in the animal world, far transcend it.
Edward O. Wilson – no lover of religion – shares this point of view, although he expresses it in a different way. In The Social Conquest of Earth (2012, p. 192) he notes that human nature
“is obvious through its manifestation in everyday life. Its intuitive expression is the substance of the creative arts and the underpinning of the social sciences [although the] very existence of human nature was denied during the last century by most social scientists.”
But, human nature is not
“the genes underlying it. They prescribe the developmental rules of the brain, sensory system, and behavior that produce human nature. Nor can the universals of culture discovered by anthropologists be defined collectively as human nature.”
“[h]uman nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the “epigenetic rules,” which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period of prehistory.”
Wilson’s epigenetic rules, although hardwired in, are the basis for learning, not innate behaviors. In other words, humans are hardwired to learn. And what we can learn allows us unprecedented control over nature.
Nature and the Supernatural
If we have powers that transcend nature – if our intellect gives us the ability to control nature – doesn’t that mean we have abilities that are supernatural? Supernatural – of course – means “above nature” from the Latin “supra” meaning “above”.
`Abdu’l-Bahá tells us that this indeed is the case:
All the powers and attributes of man are human and hereditary in origin — outcomes of nature’s processes — except the intellect, which is supernatural.
Through intellectual and intelligent inquiry science is the discoverer of all things. It unites present and past, reveals the history of bygone nations and events, and confers upon man today the essence of all human knowledge and attainment throughout the ages. By intellectual processes and logical deductions of reason this superpower in man can penetrate the mysteries of the future and anticipate its happenings.
And how should we use these supernatural powers? Speaking at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC in the segregated American South on the 23rd of April in 1912, `Abdu’l-Bahá gave the following answer:
How shall we utilize these gifts and expend these bounties? By directing our efforts toward the unification of the human race. We must use these powers in establishing the oneness of the world of humanity, appreciate these virtues by accomplishing the unity of whites and blacks, devote this divine intelligence to the perfecting of amity and accord among all branches of the human family so that under the protection and providence of God the East and West may hold each other’s hands and become as lovers. Then will mankind be as one nation, one race and kind — as waves of one ocean.
Next week, we will revisit the topic of what it means to be human, addressing issues raised by materialistic interpretations of evolution and science that insist – without any scientific authority – that there are no higher goals than to be an intelligent animal.
This is the 11th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he authored Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.