The consequences of this unprecedented evolutionary transition for human religious and spiritual development must be understood on many levels as well. There are reasons to believe that the way language refers to things—symbolic reference— provides the crucial catalyst that initiated the transition from species with no inkling of meaning in life to a species where questions of ultimate meaning have become core organizers of culture and consciousness. Symbolic reference is reference to things and ideas that is mediated by an intervening system of symbol-symbol relationships, as well as conventions of use that allow there to be considerable conceptual “distance” between a sign vehicle and its object of reference. Unlike icons, which refer by means of structural similarities between a sign vehicle and its object, or indices, which refer via their physical contiguity or invariant causal correlation with their object, this conceptual “distance” is an intermediate referential step that allows the form of symbols to be entirely independent of the objects to which they refer.
Symbolic reference is thus both arbitrary and capable of providing considerable displacement and abstraction. Displacement refers to the capacity to refer to things distant in space or time, and abstraction refers to the ability to represent only the more spare and skeletal features of things, including their logical features, such as whether they are even ontologically existent. So it is with the evolution of this symbolic capacity that it first becomes possible to represent the possible future, the impossible past, the act that should or shouldn’t take place, the experience that is unimaginable even though representable. These capacities are ubiquitous for humans and largely taken for granted when it comes to spiritual and ethical realms, but this is precisely where crucial differences in ability mark the boundary that distinguishes humans from other species.
Consider the ethical dimension of humanness. Though the family cat may gleefully torment a small animal causing its terrifying and painful death, few among us would consider this a moral issue concerning the cat, though whether to intervene may be a moral dilemma for us. Even when a large predator, say dog or bear, happens to maul and kill a human being, efforts to destroy the animal are not accompanied by moral outrage, just a desire to prevent further harm. But the situation is very different in cases where humans perform similar actions. It is not merely that we consider non-human predators to be guiltless because it is in their nature to kill. We hold them guiltless because we believe they lack a critical conception of the consequences of their actions on their victim’s experience. This ability to anticipate and to some extent imagine the experience of another are critical ingredients in this moral judgment.
This does not mean that other creatures are merely selfish robots. Selfless behaviors of a sort are not at all uncommon in other species. Caregiving behaviors by parents are nearly ubiquitous in birds and mammals, and what we might call prosocial emotional responses and predispositions that cause individuals to behave in ways conducive to social solidarity are especially widespread among social mammals. However, there need be little or no role played by intersubjective considerations in the generation of these emotions and their associated care-giving, protective, and comforting behaviors. And if that is so, then it may not be appropriate to consider these as moral or ethical, even incipiently.