One sunny day, I stepped into an outhouse. When the door slammed shut behind me, it was so dark that I could not see anything. As my eyes began to adjust, I noticed some colors flickering on the wall. When I leaned forward to investigate, the colors disappeared. As I leaned back, they reappeared. Turning to the opposite wall, I blinked as a beam of light hit my eye.
A hole in the wall was letting in a small amount of light, and this was creating blue, brown and green colors on the opposite wall. I moved closer to the colors—while not obstructing the beam—and saw an upside down image of the forest and sky outside. The trees were even swaying in the breeze. Coincidentally, I had a moment to think about this phenomenon.
A dark chamber that is penetrated by a small amount of light will cause an image of the outside to be created on the inside. It was as if I had stepped into a camera. A camera is a dark box that light enters when the button is pressed. If I had had a big roll of film with me, I could have made a picture of the trees for my photo album.
Also, it was as if I had stepped into an eye. Your eye is a dark chamber that can be penetrated by a small amount of light when you raise your eyelid. The image that is created in your eye travels to your brain, which gives you your sight and a memory of what you have seen.
In a room with two similarly tuned pianos, if you strike a key on one, the other piano will faintly create the same sound without being touched. The vibration of the string that was struck will cause its counterpart in the other piano to begin to vibrate. Something else in the room will begin to move without you touching it—your inner ear.
Your ear has a similar string-like structure that also begins to vibrate. The sound that is created in your ear travels to your brain, which gives you your hearing and a memory of what you have heard.
Within a few days after the excitement of his birth, Johnny and his mother settled into their routine. He would see and hear his mother, and soon was having memories of her. One night she came into his room and spoke without turning on the light, which caused him to recall the image of her face. His brain had stored the sounds she made along with her image, and hearing her voice triggered a memory of her face. This type of memory is called an emotion.
Of course the simplest experience can create many memories. For example, Johnny would wake up hungry, see his mother's face, hear her voice, touch her soft and warm skin, smell and taste her milk, and then fall to sleep satisfied. When little John experienced any one of these sensations in the future, he recalled the others emotionally.
The great benefit of having emotions could be observed when Johnny was experiencing the pain of hunger and saw his mom. He faintly felt the pleasure of being nourished and moved toward his mom for the real thing. This valuable emotional process will help John to seize opportunities and avoid dangers throughout his life.
Before Johnny had reached his second birthday, he could say the name of his favorite toy. When he would make the sound ball, he would emotionally recall the image of his ball. One day his mom brought home a bigger toy ball, and she also called it a ball. Confusion could be seen on the face of the child as he wondered why his mom would call both toys by the same name. This prompted little John to begin a uniquely human action—he started to think.
When he looked at the smaller ball in his hand, he emotionally recalled the sound ball, and the same thing happened when he looked at the bigger ball on the floor. The balls were the same shape and color, and at the right distance from each other, they appeared to be the same size. Also, with the balls alongside each other, Johnny began to focus on the similar shapes of the two balls as compared to his other toys. His mental images of the balls were identical, except for their sizes.
He noticed that if he disregarded the size of each ball, he could understand why his mother called them both ball. Now when he made the sound ball, instead of the image of his favorite toy coming to mind, he recalled this new mental image that he had created of the basic shape of both balls. This new image is called a thought and the sound is called a word.
Then his parents began saying big and little. This prompted our little thinker to take another mental step. He used these words to describe the size difference between the two balls. This valuable thought process will allow John to understand and describe anything he experiences in life.
Johnny had been working hard and had learned hundreds of thoughts like red, white, coat, beard and man. One winter day when he was getting into something that he was not supposed to, his mother said that if he behaved himself, Santa Claus would bring him some toys. "Who is Santa Claus?" was his next question.
As his mother explained, John took the thoughts that he had learned, and created an image of a big man with a white beard, wearing a red coat and carrying a little ball. This image is called a belief. This process is the reverse of thinking. Instead of John creating a thought from what he had seen, he used his thoughts to create an image of what he has not seen.
While this believing process can be valuable, it also can cause John many problems. If he accepts that Santa Claus exists, he emotionally will feel the pleasure of having someone to give him presents like his parents. But when he learns that there is no Santa Claus, he not only will feel the pain of losing Santa Claus, he may lose his confidence in all his mental images. To avoid this problem, Johnny needs only to think about what people say, and never just accept what they believe.
I am a thinking animal. I was sitting at the desk in my Upland, California home around 1980. I was studying Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand. Suddenly, I got it. I got the answer to this question that I had been asking since I was a small boy. It is a simple little question, but it took the first twenty-five years of my life to understand.
One of my first memories is being alone on a moving bulldozer, yelling at my father to hurry and close the gate that we had just passed through. He still had to run, jump up, push the pedal, and pull the lever to save me from falling into the ditch. He always made it just in time with a big laugh at how afraid I was.
My dad could do everything. He went to college on a basketball scholarship; joined the Army and liberated the prisoners that were being held by the National Socialists in the Dachau, Germany concentration camp; taught animal husbandry at the University of Alaska; and built a three stall milking parlor on our dairy farm.
My dad also could answer my little question. He told me that I was created by God. When I asked him who created God, I did not understand his reply. I felt bad for asking because my father became uncomfortable. Years later I realized that my father had created God by believing. My dad wanted someone to save him when he became frightened. While this belief did trigger a pleasant emotion for my father, it would be up to me to discover the real answer to my question.
Charles Darwin, about a century ago, wrote On the Origin of Species. He recorded his observations as the naturalist aboard the Beagle, a commercial ship navigating the waters around South America. He explained that I am an animal who has evolved from a more primitive life form through natural selection. This process has been occurring on the earth for billions of years. While this thought is true based on what I have seen, accepting it also triggers a pleasant emotion. I feel that I am part of the universe, and I do not feel bad for asking questions.
To discover what makes me different from other animals, I had to turn to epistemology. This is the study of how we think. We share emotions with the other animals, but the day we form our first thought, we leave all the other organisms behind.
Sitting at my desk, I had come to the end of a long journey. Just like Johnny grouping his toys, I mentally grouped myself with the other supreme beings called humans, whose distinguishing characteristic is a mind, this wonderful brain capable of understanding the world. A new journey began that day—deciding what to do with my life. But before I could know what to do, I had to answer a simple little question: What am I? I am a thinking animal.