The Journey series
We can’t know anything in isolation. We must relate one thing to another in order to understand it. We find enough uniqueness to establish an identity and compare similarities and differences with other objects to establish a class. We search for patterns, relationships that recur. These patterns often fall naturally into hierarchies, from microscopic; atoms, elements, and compounds; to universal; galaxies, stars, and planets. I will use hierarchies to begin the quest I promised last week. When, why, and to what degree should one of God’s creations impact another?
When my sons were young, one of my favourite ways to keep them entertained on a long journey was to play ‘I spy with my little eye.’ My sons soon learned to begin with our one exception from the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer rule: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?” This turns out to also be an excellent place for us to begin our journey.
Minerals are the lowest level of this hierarchy. They simply stay put as they are until they come in contact with something else that moves it or reacts with it. Next come vegetables, plants. They have life but they do not roam about of their own power. They absorb minerals and light, they grow and bear seeds, eventually they die and decay. Then we find animals. They grow and reproduce. The eat minerals, plants, and other animals. They are free to rove.
There are also hierarchies to be found within animals. I spent several years with chronic pain for which I was prescribed a massive dose of pain killers. During that time I spent many hours watching the fish in my aquarium. I felt more on par with them than with people. I started with a loach, two catfish and a few guppies. Soon I had many guppies. My sons soon tired of the guppies and decided they’d like an angel fish. The clerk at the pet shop told us angel fish prefer company so we bought three. Things went swimmingly until, as the angel fish grew in size, I began to notice a decline in the guppy population. Here was a hierarchy among fish at work.
I was horrified one day to see a brutal attack on my favourite guppy. I tried scolding my angel fish to no avail. Eventually I put them in quarantine while my guppy population recovered. Immediately upon their release, my captives resumed assaulting their smaller tank-mates. Try what I might; the angel fish never relented of their hunt. I didn’t learn much during my drug-addled state, but I did learn that no amount of training or punishment prevents mature angel fish from eating guppies. There’s no should and shouldn’t between fish, there is only bigger and dinner.
After recovering from my condition and discarding the pain-killers I thought about my effort to train those angel fish and discovered another hierarchy. Dogs and rats can be trained. Dolphins and whales can be trained. Their training involves reward and punishment; Power-Point presentations won’t work. Apes can be trained through pictures. Some have even been taught sign language, but they don’t write text books. Man is, somehow, much different.
I also considered migration; birds, whales, caribou, and monarch butterflies. Their journeys are amazing, yet none of these creatures pack suitcases; nor do logon to Expedia or Travelocity and book reservations. Man, again, is on a whole other level. Why? How?
Man learns not only from direct experience but also from recorded experiences of others. Man is aware that things are and he is aware that things need not be. Man remembers his past and imagines his future. This allows him to choose; it gives him free will. He anticipates possible outcomes by recalling past results and then weighs risks and expectations against desires. This is the level where should and shouldn’t are born. It is unique to man. This places him atop the hierarchy of all known things in the universe. But the great honour of being able to choose his future also bestows on man a great responsibility.
Peter T Elliott