Babies illustrate for us what it means to be fundamentally human. Anthropologists tell us that the first word a baby speaks, ‘mama’, is based on the mother representing food. It’s the sound they make with their mouth when wanting milk. It’s related to the sound we still make as adults when we approve of something we taste – ‘Mmmm.’
After a baby’s survival instincts are met, and they begin to think past their basic needs, things begin to get fascinating. After the words Mama and Dada, and perhaps ‘No!’, the first words that come out of a human being’s mouth are usually ‘What’s this?’ and ‘Why?’ Think about that. What and why. Meaning and purpose. Essence and end. No other animal wants to know what or why about anything. In fact, after physical needs are met for the sake of survival for the individual and the species, there’s not much thinking at all in animals, let alone contemplation of unchanging truth.
Rather, instinct reigns. These rely solely on physical impulses, triggered from perception stimulating the brain, to nervous system movement, to final action. But there’s another movement within man, a deeper hunger and yearning. This is the hunger for understanding, meaning and purpose, only experienced in persons, i.e. creatures that don’t live simply on instinct.
A chimpanzee, for example, can grasp a rock in his hand because he has a physical component (hand) that can grasp a physical object (rock). But a human can grasp not just a rock, but the concept of a rock, as well as other concepts like justice, love, truth, or infinity. This is because concepts are immaterial objects, and only humans have an immaterial component in their being (spiritual soul) that can grasp immaterial objects like concepts, thoughts, and ideas.
The desire to understand and know truth is uniquely human among all earth’s creatures. But that’s not where the mystery ends. The human soul also possesses free will to choose the good over and above one’s instinctual animal desires.
How many animals seek justice or even know what it is? Yet, a toddler who has never been told what fairness or justice is knows it intuitively. A Child’s first articulations of morality, without ever being taught, are expressed in the ever-popular phrase of a child: “That’s not fair!” Yet, how does a small child know what fairness is?
This basic sense of justice is inherent in the human being. Justice is fundamental to morality – giving someone else their due. Mercy and compassion are meaningless without first knowing the concept justice.
These truths point to humans being not simply walking talking animals, but creatures able to transcend the physical dimension of life to seek, understand and choose the transcendent true and good. This spiritual dimension is evident in man’s creativity, found in art, science, music, philosophy, and any creativity at all. Creativity is one major way man images the Creator.
Two other major things detectable in small children an aptitude for symbolic language and a religious sense. Toddlers need not take four years of college English to learn the language. It comes naturally and easily. And every child is born open to God. They are not distracted, as adults are, with the distractions of the world.
The fact that babies and toddlers have an inherent thirst for truth and a basic knowledge of morality should make us take notice of how special we are as a species of persons. We wouldn’t image God who is three eternal divine Persons unless we were persons.
It is important to reflect upon the fact that as we mature our spiritual faculties have the potential to make us be like God, or be worse than the basest of animals. That’s where the gift of free will comes into play. It’s a choice that has repercussions that transcend the physical world into eternity.
Paul is producer and host of Beneath the Surface video and radio podcasts, taught college philosophy & theology, and is a staff writer/producer for St. Michael’s Media. Check out his website at Paulmurano.com, and e-mail Paul at PJDM@aol.com.