In An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer proclaims that "instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself." This remark is in relation to human beings' identifying characteristics among other animals, namely the ability to reflect, the capacity to think before responding to external stimuli, rather than being limited to instantaneous, instinctive reactions, such as other animals are. Cassirer stresses the role of the human-symbol systems inherent in religion, art, myth, and so forth, also pointing out that humans have no choice in their condition as reflective, symbol-using beings; this, he remarks, could even prove to be a great disadvantage for the species.
The sense in which Cassirer talks of the distinction between humans and other animals regarding symbolic systems seems clear enough: animals, in a different sense, may be seen to have symbol systems, but they do not invest reflective thought into these systems, which makes me more inclined to call the animals' systems sign systems. Upon facing an external stimulus, an animal will react instinctively; there is no linguistic system whereby the animal will mentally consider it's options of, say, "escape", "fight", or "camouflage". These decisions will be made more or less straight away, as far as observance tells us. Humans, on the other hand, have such complex reflective processes that when faced with an external stimulus, they can be overwhelmed with options, indecision or apprehension. What is this creature attacking me? Why is it attacking me? In what way can I appease it/escape from it?
And so humans are in a "new dimension" of existence to animals. But why is this so? In the evolutionary paradigm, this seems an intereresting and challenging query. What function does our ability to invest complicated symbolic thought into our actions, our thoughts - indeed, our existence - have in a surivival sense? Questions relating to the importance of language and its relationship to human experience and reality arise in abundance from this enquiry. The development of consciousness and all that it entails seems to be a great flaw in the evolution of the species, when we think of humanity's destructive traits as compared to those of other animals. Countering this idea, the potential which symbolic thought has to create communal benefits has proven a great benefit to humans through religion, art, myth, and so on. But does this outweigh the concomitant destruction which humanity's ability to create symbols has brought with it? Without the ability to imaginatively create, to invest meaning into things via words, symbols, etc., human's would be unable to create the destructive forces we see around the world today. The question is an intriguing one, but overwhelming evidence suggests that the human animal is by far the most destructive, leaving a rather contentious hole in evolutionary theory.
And of course, the absurd nature of human existence is yet another byproduct of the development of a reflective mind. The "lower" creatures of the world, whom we say have no intelligence comparable to ours, do not have to face their inevitable end (death, as an existential notion) throughout the span of their lives; this is an endurance reserved for the human animal alone. In themselves, the decision-making processes of animals induce no obvious frustration, anxiety, or fear - this, again, is peculiar only to the human species (even when an animal is hunted, or in fear of being hurt, it presumably does not fear death itself, but rather the imminent danger of pain).
At what point in evolution was it beneficial to know one is going to die, or more importantly, to not know what death is or even, arguably, what life is? Symbolic institutions, in particular religion, function not only to bind the follower to a set of beliefs, but to explain his or her entire existence - and this applies generally to primitive and modern religion alike, as well as the more spiritual traditions. So here we see symbols functioning as explanations for thoughts humans may never have had without symbols; an interesting full circle: development of symbolic form leads to recognition of the absurdity of the human enigma of life, which in turn leads to institutionalised symbolism to explain the absurd (incomprehendable) nature of life. Surely, says the man of faith, only God could orchestrate such an impressive path to enlightenment. Without drawing any outlandish conclusions, nor inclining strictly to either side of a complex dichotomy (integration of thought is my general approach, rather than warring factions, but that is for another article...), I simply ask: what is the evolutionist's rebuttal?
To be sure, the topic is more complicated than my limited knowledge has made it appear; nonetheless, I hope that - despite its being a meagre abstract - the piece has aroused some thought.
Cassirer, E, A Clue to the Nature of Man: the Symbol in An Essay on Man, 1972