Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part III) - The Human Mind

Rav Leibowitz

To better understand the unique nature of man and his elevation above all other beings, we must turn to the creation of man.  The creation of man was unique, even in the context of the world’s creation.  Unlike the plants, animals, and all other creatures, man was created in the “image of God (צלם אלקים),” as the Torah states (Genesis 1:27), “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him.”[1]

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?  Certainly, this does not mean that man’s physical body structure was fashioned after a “divine body.”  One of the most elementary principles is that God has no physical body or image.[2]  Clearly, being “created in the image of God” is a reference to a deeper, meta-physical, reality.
In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi (d. 1096) explains (Bereshis 1:26) that the “image of God” is the ability “to understand and to conceptualize (להבין ולהשכיל).”  While animals possess a brain and a certain level of instinctual intelligence, man is unique in that he has special intellectual abilities “to understand and to conceptualize.”  Human intelligence is that which distinguishes man from beast.

What are some of man’s unique intellectual abilities? 

On the most basic level, man is endowed with sophisticated cognitive abilities.  Cognition is the faculty that allows for the processing of information and sensory input, and accounts for the subsequent utilization and application of such data.  By mankind, cognitive capabilities assume a highly developed and sophisticated form.  Most significantly, man was given the ability to consciously and methodically engage his cognitive abilities.  This is not the case with animals.  Problem solving, memory, and association skills – to name a few forms of cognitive activity – are utilized by animals only on the most basic level, and their utilization of their cognitive capabilities is subconscious and instinctual.       

But, conscious highly-sophisticated cognition is not the sole intellectual faculty, or even the most significant intellectual faculty, that distinguishes man from the rest of creation.  Man’s elevated status also stems from another form of intelligence.  Beyond the above mentioned cognitive skills, man is especially blessed with the ability to engage in abstract thinking, which allows his mind to transcend the practical realm.  This is unlike animals, whose intellect is limited to the pragmatic realm such as the avoidance of pain, collection of food, or attraction of a mate.  

Man’s intellect grants him an ability to form abstract thoughts.  Man can operate on a theoretical level and engage in mental imagery.  He can transcend superficial perceptions and identify underlying concepts in the world around him.[3]  In short, man is blessed with an ability to form abstract thoughts and through this “understand” underlying concepts and “conceptualize” theoretic realties.   

Man’s unique conscious and abstract capacity to “understand and conceptualize” manifests itself in various realms.  Let’s explore briefly three primary expressions. 

First and foremost, abstract thinking is expressed in man’s ability to ponder things from a philosophical perspective.  He can seek to understand the significance of events, and grasp deeper meaning in things that he encounters.  Philosophic thought also provides an opportunity to acquire self-awareness.  Philosophic thinking patterns lead man to contemplate the meaning of his life, and gives him the tools to consider the nature of his own existence.  Man is not only able to observe reality, but he can also consider the deeper meaning behind that reality. 

Part of man’s ability to see beyond the superficial surface of things is reflected in his perception and appreciation of excellence, majesty, and beauty.  Man is able to see people, events, and objects in a greater contexts and appreciate their qualitative value.  In response to this capability, man can seek out such experiences, and attempt to create that which will reflect these ideals.  Due to this form of intelligence, man experiences life in a way that is far richer and deeper than that of the animals.  

A second aspect is man’s emotional intelligence.  Although, animals have emotions and passions, they are largely instinctual, as we noted earlier, and not calculated.  That is, animals have the ability to emote, but only mankind is endowed with the ability to understand emotions.  Man can detect others’ feelings and appreciate and relate to complicated emotional experiences.  He can decipher fear, pain, or joy, and respond with words of reassurance, empathy, or shared excitement.  Man can also manage his emotions – at times allowing them to manifest themselves, and at time suppressing their expression.[4]  The emotional realm is especially manifest in the relationships that human beings build with one another.  Unlike the instinctual relationships found between animals, man is able to build emotional relationships that continue to grow and deepen with time.

Man is also endowed with moral intelligence.  This form of intelligence enables man to understand concepts such as justice, kindness, cruelty, and respect.  Moral intelligence facilitates appreciation of noble character and self-control, and contempt for lowly behavior, moral decadence, and excessive indulgences.  Utilizing moral thinking, man is able to learn to identify right from wrong, and is empowered to make moral judgments. 
The above described forms of intelligence are some of the primary expressions of man’s elevated mind.  The ability to utilize the mind to acquire wisdom – be it through sophisticated and conscious cognitive thinking or abstract thought in the philosophic, emotional, and moral realm – is part of what differentiates man from the animals and procures for him an elevated position in the hierarchy of creation. 

The Rambam captures the essence of man’s elevation in one short paragraph in his Introduction to the Mishna,

Wisdom adds to an individual’s inner essence, and elevates him from a lowly level to one of honor… Man before he acquires knowledge is like an animal, for “thought” is what distinguishes mankind from the other species of living beings.

 והחכמה היא אשר תוסיף על כחו הפנימית ותעתיק אותו ממעלת בוז למעלת כבוד... והאדם קודם שישכיל וידע, הוא נחשב כבהמה, לא נבדל משאר מין החיות אלא בהגיון.

[1] In fact, when describing the creation process, the Torah states in regards to both man and animal that they emerged from creation as a “living creature (נפש חיה).”  The only seeming difference in their respective creations processes is that man was created in the “image of God.”   
[2] This is the third “Principle of faith” as they are enumerated by the Rambam (Maimonides, d. 1204) in his commentary on the Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10.
[3] At the turn of 20th century, Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov was able to successful “condition” dogs to salivate in response to sounds that were associated with feedings.  Animals can be trained to respond to external stimuli, but they are unable to grasp the underlying concepts behind their actions.
[4] To clarify: The instinctual expression of many basic emotions exists by animals, and human beings.  However, the ability to relate to these emotions, such as channeling or controlling them is the domain of human emotional intelligence.

No comments:

Post a Comment