Along with taxes and the Kardashians’ domination of popular culture, there’s no avoiding the end.
I don’t need a syllogism to inform me of my eventual end. Anyone with a grandma or a goldfish knows all mortal beings will die.
You know, I don’t think people are even afraid of death. Or even of dying. I think what scares people most about death is the idea that they no longer exist. The idea that the world will be deprived of our presence. Permanently.
That we won’t be here forever.
But You don’t need to actually die to know what that feels like. To know what the world feels like without you in it.
That feeling is just a computer glitch away.
I couldn’t log onto Facebook.
It wasn’t just me. No one could.
Just “error” messages.
I couldn’t update my status, post or “like” anything. I couldn’t like this funny meme:
These days, to exist in any full sense of the word, EVERYONE knows one must have an online presence. To know anything about or to interact in any meaningful way with the world, one must be on the internet.
I post, therefore I am.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes wanted to determine how can he be sure that he exists. Descartes concludes, since he is able to question his own existence, that he is, at the very least, a thinking being. A being that thinks, Descartes declares, exists. Descartes writes:
And as I observed that in the words I think, hence I am, there is nothing at all which gives me assurance of their truth beyond this, that I see very clearly that in order to think it is necessary to exist…
If existence in the modern world is (necessarily) dependent on one’s ability to post one’s Facebook status, then I, at least for a day, did not exist.
It’s not just John Lennon who knows what it’s like to be dead.
Well, actually, neither do I. I spent the day checking my gmail.
…. and then there’s always tumblr.
Rene Descartes. Discourse On Method. 2004 . NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p. 25.
I have a dog. I care about my dog. I care about my dog’s well being. I want him to be safe from moving cars or tainted dog food. I want others to be nice to my dog and respect my dog’s “right” to live a full, fun-filled dog life. My sentiment is not uncommon or even discouraged among pet owners. If asked, most pet owners would say that they care for their pets. They care about whether their pets have enough food to eat, or whether they are kept warm at night or safe from harm. But why is this so? Why do we value our pets so dearly?
The answer is because we include our pets in our moral sphere, that is, our pets are morally considerable. But, if we say that our pets are morally considerable, what do we mean when we say that something counts morally? What criteria do we use to determine who is in and who is out of our moral universe?
We say that something has “moral status” if that thing ( or being ) counts for us morally. That is, we owe certain moral obligations to certain, other beings. Status is most often defined in terms of moral agents and moral patients. Individuals who possess rational autonomy and are self-legislating are moral agents. Moral patients are those individuals who lack, either by age, physical or mental condition, etc, the ability to self-legislate or rational autonomy are moral patients. For example, a year-old child lacks the ability to engage in rational, self-legislating behavior. The child is a moral patient. The child’s parent, if the parent is autonomous and self-legislating, is the moral agent who must act to the benefit of the child. An individual is in our moral sphere only if we grant the individual moral consider ability.
But, the act of considering an individual’s moral status relies on an important supposition: The act of considering the effects of our actions upon others indicates that those individuals that we take into account are already included in our moral sphere. So, if moral considerability indicates that others are in our moral sphere, then we must ask, how do we include others in our sphere? That is, what are the criteria for the inclusion of other beings?
The West’s traditional view of moral status is grounded in the biblical texts of the Old Testament and Aristotle‘s hierarchy concerning nature and the natural order. The book of Genesis clearly states the relationship between man and animals:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and
let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the
air , and over the cattle, and all over the earth, and over every creeping
thing that creeps upon the earth”. (Genesis 1:26. Emphasis added).
The traditional biblical view holds that man, as a being created in God’s image, is given the earth to rule as he sees fit. The fact that animals are not made in God’s image discharges any human from any moral obligation to the welfare of animals. According to the biblical view, the lack of any ability to morally wrong any animal means that animals are not morally considerable. Aristotle brought the hierarchy to nature (and the natural order of things) which placed humans, more specifically free human males, at the top of the “natural” hierarchy. Aristotle wrote that man’s power of reasoning endowed him with natural superiority (and a soul). The way of nature, in Aristotle’s view, naturally places superior beings in positions of authority over inferior beings. In other words, if a rational soul is a superior trait, then it is the way of nature for animals who possess this trait to rule over animals that do not possess the same superior trait. Aristotle stated that animals, by contrast, are governed by their passions or instincts. Aristotle wrote that man’s rational soul ruled over his passions, and that this trait indicates that man’s natural place is to rule over animals. Aristotle reflects the traditional view in that inferior animals are “natural slaves” that are benefited by serving the interests of superior animals. Aristotle writes,
“…the other animals exist for the sake of man, and tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them for food…”
Descartes continued the traditional view of moral status. Descartes wrote that animals are mere “machines” meant to serve the need of their human masters. Although Descartes maintains the traditional view that man’s intellect confers superior status, Descartes gives an additional criteria for man’s moral superiority to animals. For Descartes, the capacity for speech is indicative of an individual’s intellectual capacity. The fact that animals possess no capacity for speech (at least no speech that humans can understand), animals cannot “… use speech… as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others.”
It is important to stop at this point to clear up an immediate objection to Descartes’ speech criteria. If Descartes means to state that any being that lacks the capacity to express their thoughts in speech also lacks the capacity to think, one might put forth that Descartes is excluding humans who are mentally or physically challenged from the moral sphere. Humans who cannot speak due to physical or mental impairments, if Descartes’ criteria is used to define moral status, may be reduced to the status of “brutes” or animals. Descartes, however, explains that his speech criteria does not exclude the mentally or physically disabled, on the grounds that individuals who lack verbal speech often find other ways to communicate their thoughts to others. For instance, person who is born mute may learn to communicate through sign language. A person who is mentally handicapped may learn to express themselves, despite the fact that they lack the ability to communicate verbally. Descartes states that a disabled individual may have a diminished intellectual capacity, but is not excluded from the moral sphere due to the fact that humans who are intellectually “inferior“ possess some capacity for self expression. An animal, on the other hand, not only lacks a minimal capacity for rational thought, but lacks any capacity for rationality at all.
Although Descartes explains that his speech criteria will not exclude humans (including the mentally and physically disabled) from the moral sphere, Descartes’ explanation fails to recognize the fact the speech criteria may indeed reduce some humans to the status of mere “brutes”. Some humans do lack any capacity for speech, such as profoundly retarded individuals or the comatose. In addition, some animals have acquired the capacity to express their thoughts through non-verbal human languages such as American sign language. And, if the traditional hierarchical view places a rational soul at the top of the natural order, the fact that some animals possess a capacity for rational thought leads us to question whether an animal that possesses the capacity for rational thought may assume a higher position in the natural hierarchy. An animal that possesses a rational soul may disrupt man’s assumed position at the top of the natural hierarchy. A human who lacks the capacity for rational thought, such as the mentally challenged or the comatose, may be relegated to the status of animals and excluded from the moral sphere.
As humans, we feel reluctant (intuitively) to exclude people who we feel not only merit moral consideration, but also fit into the moral sphere. We feel that it is wrong to exclude any human from moral consideration on the basis that a person lacks the capacity to articulate their thoughts. We feel that despite their physical or mental handicap, a human mentally or physically disabled human is still a human, and that their humanness demands moral considerability and inclusion in the moral sphere. But, what about an animal who, despite a mere physical or mental difference from other rational beings, possesses human-like qualities, such as rationality and the ability to articulate its thoughts through language? Is there a criteria for moral status that will allow us to include both rational animals and marginal cases? I believe that the answer is yes. I hold that Kant’s criteria for moral status allows us to include rational animals, but more importantly, Kant’s moral status criteria allows us to preserve marginal cases for moral consideration in the moral sphere.
It is possible that nature may produce a chimpanzee with cognitive abilities that exceed the capacities of the average human. The fact that this “super chimp” ( let’s call him “Arthur Crackpot”), surpasses the intellectual capacity of the average human cannot be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as a mere aberration. It would not be difficult to imagine that Arthur Crackpot or any chimpanzee that possesses a high capacity for rational thought would not hesitate to articulate its thoughts or express what it considered to be its own interests. We can be most certain that Arthur Crackpot and any other “super chimp” would demand immediate inclusion into our moral sphere. The fact that the animal can do so forces us to deal with it in a manner that does not conform to the traditional biblical, natural hierarchy, nor can we treat the animal as a mere machine that is fit to serve man’s needs. So, if the difference between man and animals — primates in particular — is trivial, and a naturally occurring “super chimp’ is not outside the realm of possibility, then the mere fact that man and animal are different species is not a morally relevant difference to account for the exclusion of animals from the moral consideration or the moral sphere.
If we grant moral consideration of smarter animals, and we include Arthur Crackpot and other “super chimps” in our moral sphere because they rank higher on the hierarchical scale, then, if we are to be consistent, we must exclude certain marginal case humans who possess intellectual capacities far below the capacities of other animals. But, as I said before, this sounds intuitively wrong. We should not exclude humans simply because they lack the ability to articulate their thoughts or the capacity for rational thought. So, what perspective allows us to include both “super chimps” and marginal cases? I believe that the Kantian approach to moral agency allows us to not only extend moral consideration and inclusion of animals such as Arthur Crackpot, but the Kantian approach also allows us to keep marginal case humans in the moral sphere.
Kant states that rational beings must be treated as ends in themselves. That is, beings that possess the ability for rational thought cannot be used as a mere means to another person’s ends. Rational beings, according to Kant, are self-legislating and autonomous. The fact that rational beings possess an autonomous and self-legislating will grants them moral agency. Moral agents are not only morally accountable for their own actions, but are also morally obligated to moral patients. For Kant, rationality is not a matter of degree, but a characteristic that is all-or-nothing. Beings are either rational or they are not rational. Although Kant’s criteria seems to push us once again towards the hierarchy, the concept of moral patients pushes us away from excluding rational animals and irrational people.
Kant states that man’s duty to animals is indirect, in that our duties to animals are limited to treating them in a non-abusive manner, but Kant also states that our treatment of animals reflects how we are likely to treat other humans. Although we consider our treatment of animals from the Kantian perspective, we only consider their welfare from our own perspective — we do not want to cultivate abusive personalities in people who might harm their fellow man. This approach gets us away from the hierarchy it seems, but perhaps not very far. But, let us remember, Kant states that his criteria for our moral obligation is rationality. More importantly, Kant does not specify a degree of rationality that qualifies a being for admission in our moral sphere. For Kant, rationality is all or nothing. So, from this perspective, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality is included in the moral sphere. So, one might say this criteria requires that a “super chimp” like Arthur Crackpot, who possesses a level of rationality rival to that of a human must also be regarded as a human moral agent.
If Arthur commit’s a moral transgression, he must be held accountable for his actions. So, for instance, if Arthur kills a human, he could be held accountable for his actions not only morally but legally as well. But this is not correct. For Kant, having moral agency does not necessarily follow from having rationality. There are minimally rational people who cannot be moral agents. These individuals are moral patients. Moral patients are included in the moral sphere insofar as their interests are the subject of moral consideration, but are excluded, in a sense, from a moral obligation to other moral agents. On the other hand, moral agents are morally obligated to moral patients. It is clear that the concept of holding a trial for a chimpanzee is ridiculous (not to mention next to impossible to find a jury of Arthur’s peers). A chimpanzee, no matter how rational it may be, should not be held accountable for his actions in the same way that a human is held accountable for her actions. Like a child, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality may be incapable of comprehending the moral ramifications of his actions. If an animal is like a child or an other moral patient, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that being. Likewise, if a human possesses a minimal degree of rationality, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that person. And, the fact that we have taken these individuals into our moral consideration signifies that both some animals and marginal case humans possess moral status in our moral universe.
The traditional, biblical, and Cartesian perspectives on moral status and moral considerability fail to enable to include animals who should be granted moral status. Even more detrimental to these perspectives is the fact that adherence to these perspectives forces us to remove humans as well. Kant’s rationality criteria allows us to include rational animals like “Arthur Crackpot” in the moral sphere without excluding human marginal cases. The concept of moral patients and moral agency allows us to include individuals that may not be fully rational in the sense that they are capable of moral responsibility, but rational to the degree that they count in the moral sphere. Kant’s approach — though it is not perfect — is the best perspective we have to determine moral considerability, moral status and the inclusion of human marginal cases in the moral sphere.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I adore Oprah. You don’t even have to say her last name, you just have to say “Oprah”, and everyone will know exactly to whom your voice refers. And of those souls around the world who have not yet heard of Oprah, they should — and they will. Earlier this year, Oprah hosted a series of programs called “Best Life Ever!”. An episode that aired January 5, 2009, was about weight. Oprah told us that weight isn’t just a physical issue. Our inability to contro our eating stems from a lack of love (bet you didn’t know that!). We must learn to love ourselves before we can shed the pounds (and as we all know, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all). I remember this quote, “The overweight you doesn’t stand before you craving food. It’s craving love”. The idea behind the episode is that what we think, in particular, what we feel about ourselves, influences how we act. This statement is a no-brainer. Oprah says that the cure for our food-induced self-destruction is this: You have to change your mind before you change your body. This, at first glance, seems like another duh statement. But, look at what she says. Immediately, several questions pop up. 1) what does the statement mean? 2) Does it mean that we must change what we believe about ourselves? 3) Is it possible to change beliefs in the way that Oprah suggests that we should? 4) Is she saying that we can make ourselves believe something? 5) So, for Oprah, is belief an act of will? I thought that, since I had no reason to assume that Oprah was insisting that changing one’s beliefs is an act of will, what she was suggesting was a tactic that is a little milder, like Pascal’s wager. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that we can acquire a belief in God by way of a “wager”. Pascal asks, what have we got to lose by believing in God? Pascal says, if we believe in God, and there is none, then no harm no foul. We don’t lose anything. But, if we believe in God and he does exist, then all the better. We are rewarded with eternal salvation. The idea is that your belief in God is prudential — it is in our best interest to do so. This may be what Oprah means — not as it pertains to God — but in what we believe in/about ourselves. It is precisely ourselves that changing one’s mind is supposed to fix. This is why I suspect that Oprah’s edit is more forceful that Pascal’s wager. Many dieters and addiction specialists know that, to change or end an addiction, compulsive behavior, or bad habit, such as smoking, gambling or overeating, one must change one’s mindset (in addition to changing behavior). This may require throwing out our entire belief system or at least our beliefs that have to do with ourselves. This is the mechanism behind 12-step programs and rehab. As George Clinton famously said, “free your mind and your ass will follow”. Again, a bit of a duh. We can say that this is a rehash of the mind-body issue. Descartes said that the world (reality) appears to him as he perceives it. Which is why Descartes employed his method of doubt to discern what he could accept as true (what he believed) about himself and the world. So, it seems that Oprah is suggesting that I must change what I believe if I want to gain contro of myself and my life. Perfectly Cartesian. But, there’s a problem. It is this: If I believe or say that I think that I believe that I cannot lose weight, this is because I hold that I am helpless against my own lack of willpower. Therefore, I will not lose weight. My behavior confirms my belief. I cannot stop myself, so I will not lose weight. Oprah says that this cycle will continue so long as I do not change my mind. I must stop telling myself that I cannot lose weight. But how do I do that? She says that I must stop accepting that I cannot. This appears to be a true (using the term colloquially) statement. It’s certainly anecdotally true, and may even be psychologically true. It may even be empirically true. But there’s something dubious about Oprah’s claim. When you start looking deeper at many of Oprah’s claims, the stink of dubiosity begins to rise. The problem may be this: Oprah is simply guilty of using a poor choice of words or worse yet, she is guilty of non-specificity. When we say that we’ve changed or are going to change our mind, we’re talking about what we think, believe or feel. We tend to use these words interchangably, but they are not the same (at least not philosophically). I suspect that this is what is going on here. This kind of word-switching is what is creating the problem. On it’s face, Oprah’s sentiment sounds wonderful and better yet, actually practicable. But, when we look at what the statement means, it gives us no means for actually solving our problem. It’s nothing more than flowery self-affirmation claptrap dressed in a nicely tailored, but empty suit. Before we do anything, we have to figure out what we are working with. Figuring out whether we are dealing with thoughts, emotions, or beliefs is crucial to whether we can follow Oprah’s advice at all. Since feelings do us absolutely no good when things philosophically, we must throw that out. Let’s assume that Oprah feels the same way about emotions as philosophers do (it’s not that they don’t have their place — it’s just that they don’t here). Let’s assume that Oprah wants us to change either our beilefs or what we think. If I say that I think something, I realize first off, that I can think of nearly anything. I can think that the sky is orange, or that I am 5’1, or that I will find a unicorn that knows and can sing the entire Donovan songbook, or that I will get a Ph.D in philosophy (hey, it could happen). But my thoughts can be anything that comes to my mind. They need not be true or actualizable. My thoughts need not be “thought through”. Unfortunately, my thoughts can and are often wrong. They are merely whatever I can conceive of in my mind. I could change my mind, but there is no obligation that changing my mind has to changing my body. I think that what Oprah is going for is something stronger — that if I change my mind, it will necessarily lead me to change my body. If that is what she is asking us to do, then what we must change are our beliefs. What I think differs from what I believe in that my beliefs are the thinks (if you will) that I am entitled to. My beliefs are connected (necessarily) to the idea of Truth. My beliefs cannot be any old thing or some willy-nilly notion. I must be justified, or have a good reason, for believing (a think) before I can call any think a belief. Without adequate evidence or unless something is analytically true ( I suspect that some will claim that what Oprah says is), I am not entitled to believe anything. Ok, this is what Oprah wants us to do, but the question that confronts us here is can we actually do what she wants us to do? Maybe not. There is a problem with what she is saying. The problem is two-fold: 1) Oprah is being vague (although one might say that the problem is ambiguity). Because we don’t know what Oprah is saying, we must make alot of assumptions (the only thing that I took away from my logic 300 class is that we don’t assume anything unless we have to). Oprah’s directive lacks clarity and definitude. Even though we might assume the she wants us to change our beliefs (as opposed to changing thoughts), we don’t really know. We’re not clear on what we’re doing because we’re not clear on what we’re doing (this may sound like a confusing duh, but it is really a sailent point to our discussion). 2) it’s impossible. If we are merely changing thoughts, Oprah’s advice is easy. But, if we are changing beliefs, then we might run into a problem. Namely, beliefs are not so easy to change. We cannot force ourselves to believe something, even if believing so will be better for us in the long run. Beliefs cannot be willed. Unlike body movements or thoughts that I can change by deliberate action, I cannot do so with beliefs. Truth is a necessary element to belief. What is true must also reflect what is. I cannot will what is true or what is not true. My beliefs aren’t the product of decision-making. If I accept one belief as true, but I have an opposing belief, I cannot accept both as true (lest I dare contradict of the Law Of Non-Contradiction). If I take both as true, I am guilty of self-deception. Worse yet, if I take contradictory beliefs to be true, I may be delusional or endulging in the worst kind of bullshitting (I could make a pretty good argument that this is exactly what Oprah requires one to do to follow her advice in the first place). The problem is, is that she doesn’t tell us either way. Our solution is to close our eyes, hold our noses, pick one (thought or belief) and hope for the best. While I’m on the subject over whether we should be dealing with what we think or with what we believe, I just thought of the tons of advice out there urging people to “think”. I, myself, own a T-shirt bearing the quote, “Think: It’s not illegal yet” (come to think of it, I think George Clinton said that, too!). I recall that the commedianne Janeane Garofalo used to sport a tattoo bearing the word “Think” on her wrist. After thinking about all this Oprah, I think that our emphasis on thinking is a part of why we’re having so much trouble with what we’re doing. Perhaps the city of Baltimore had the better idea with its billboard campaign that urged the citizens of the city to “Believe”. I think, perhaps, that believing is better than thinking. I wonder what Oprah would say about that?
I was listening to a radio show some time ago. The topic was anything in general, but somehow drifted specifically to the subject of animal rights. The host talked to a caller who is dedicated to preventing the mistreatment of dogs in New york (in New York because that’s where she lived). The host spoke some time about PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Now, I like animals, I own one. He’s cute and I like him. And I generally try to treat (most) of my fellow living beings, human and not-so-human, with some degree of respect, but I CANNOT STAND PETA! I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any organization that seems to like animals more than they like people. I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. There are some animals that are totally more likable than some people. But, whenever I hear one of their non-celebrity spokespeople speaking (speaking would make one a apokesperson, wouldn’t it?), I get the creeps. These people are hiding something. Some really unpleasant agenda that entails breeding more jackrabbits and breeding less people. Which brings me to why I’m writing this in the first place. Despite the fact that I have this blog, I don’t do much in the way of web surfing. Only recently was I made aware that the frontman for my favorite band did some bit for my least favorite animal-crazy organization (that organization being the aformentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). It seems that there is some sort of market for the wearing of animal furs out there. Since wearing the hides of chinchillas or mink or Siberian white tigers is not so PC — as this activity tends to cause animals to go extinct — the fur marketeers, instead of not selling fur, simply moved on to a more available source of fur — namely cats and dogs. I was totally not aware of this. So, I was trolling the web, and Icame upon this very topic (using cats and dogs for fur) when I was looking for info about the latest nine inch nails cd, The Slip (an outstanding cd, I might add). It seems that Trent Reznor did this thing for PETA about the use of cats and dogs for fur. The first thing I thought wasn’t, ‘wow, this guy is really cool and super compassionate. he cares about our furry friends’. No, it wasn’t at all like that. My immediate reaction was something like, ‘et tu Brute?’. I mean really, don’t you just hate it when someone you dig does something so not diggable? I like his band, and I think he’s hot (I am such a girl), but I SIMPLY CANNOT STAND PETA!!! And really, think about it: if there’s any group of animals that, if we should wear fur, it should be cats and dogs. I can say right now that there are approximately four dogs and an infinte number of stray cats currently running around my neighborhood at this time and all would make fine coats. Especially that mottled cat that has taken to shitting all over my front lawn. Now, let me get one thing straight. I don’t think that people, unless you live somewhere near the North or South Poles, should be in the habit of wearing fur. And, I definitely think that animals shouldn’t have to endure what could only be described as “torture” to get their fur off of their bodies so I can look good ( as if that were possible). But, I confess, I eat meat, I think cows are pretty much useless, and I have at least one pair of shoes with genuine leather uppers, so I realize that I’m not entirely off the hook. And I’m not so dumb to not realize that there’s a slight hypocrisy in saying that wearing animal fur is bad, yet enjoying the taste of said animal’s flesh with cheese and thousand island dressing. Worse yet, I’m not immune from “cuddly animals syndrome” — the tendency of humans to not care one lick about animals who aren’t cute and adorable (but then, we treat people the same way, which explains alot about why I am here writing this post, and not out doing something with other people). The way that I feel — about fur, about my dog, about animals in general, has to do with the way that I feel about whether they do or do not fit into our moral sphere. The question of fur simply put is a question of moral status. When we consider moral status, for humans and animals, we are asking , among many questions, who counts morally and why and who should be included and what justifies the inclusion? So, looking at something close to home, when I think of my dog, I think that he is a being that is worthy of my concern and care. I try to make sure that he is well cared for and that he lives his life as pain free as possible. Why? Why do I feel morally obligated to care for him? First off, he’s not human. Second, he is unable to care for me (at least in a way beyond barking whenever he feels that there is a “danger” — which includes barking at the wind, at birds chirping too loudly outside, at the neighbors getting it and out of their cars…). But, I still care for him. I more than care, I feel that if I did not, I would be in the wrong. Somehow, my dog fits in with all of whom I feel morally obligated to care for. He’s in my moral sphere despite the fact that he is not human. The fact that he is a mere dog is not a difference significant enough to count against him. I see what I’m busy doing here: when I think of why my dog is morally includable, I automatically shoot through a list of criteria for inclusion. I see at the top of my list is the question ‘ is it human?’ . For some, this has been and is a deciding factor for inclusion or exclusion in the moral sphere. So, when I consider my dog, I have in my mind a set of criteria that he must meet for moral inclusion. These criteria include his similarity to humans, whether he can speak or reason, etc. These, when considered, make up a list of morally relevant characteristics. These are the characteristics I will consider when I decide whether another being will or will not be included in my moral sphere. Wait, I’m beginning to jumble my words as well as my thoughts. I’m trying to think up too much at one time. Let me try to write this a little more scholarly. When we consider any being, be it animal or human, we look for any morally relevant characteristics that we’ll consider when we determine whether that being will be included in our moral sphere. These characteristics are morally significant — in that they make or break a being’s inclusion. Historically, the fact that other animals were not human was more than enough for moral exclusion. The Bible (well, actually it was God) gives man dominion of all the animals. The book of Genesis states: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds if the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Genesis 1:26). The ancient Greeks pretty much held the same view: In his Politics, Aristotle stated that man’s rationality (as opposed to the biblical view that man’s superiority over animals rested in the fact that he was created in God’s image) placed him above all other creatures. Aristotle states, ” all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man”. Asistotle reasoned that animals were passionate and governed by their urges. An animal that is subject to the whim of his passions cannot, by nature, rule himself and therefore, must be ruled. Since man (and he did mean MAN) was governed by his intellect, he was naturally fit to rule. Aristotle wrote, “the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild… for food and the provision of clothing and various instruments”. Man was supreme, and all other animals (and a fair number of other people) existed merely to serve the needs of Man. The birth of modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, didn’t do much to change the classic attitude. Descartes claimed that animals are (get this) machines. Although animals communicate with people, Descartes wrote, the fact that they lack the capacity for “real speech” indicated that they lacked the intellect that qualified them for inclusion among sentient beings. According to Descartes, the fact that animals lacked the capacity for speech indicated that animals lacked the capacities for “pure thought” and that speech was the only indicator that we could be certain that a creature possesses the capacity for rational thought. Like the ancients, Descartes also believed that animals lack the ability to control of their “natural impulse”. So, for Descartes, the mere machines we call animals were fit for whatever use we saw fit — including nailing them to walls and disecting them. The sounds of their wailing in pain, Descartes claimed, was no different from the twangs and pings made by a clock as one dismantles it. So ignore the shrieking and blood, Rene says. It’s just makes that noise when you unscrew its parts. I’m not kidding. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection challenged the old ideas of man on top ( I could insert a dirty joke here — I just did), and apart from nature, in favor of a view of man as a part of nature. According to Darwin, man’s intellect made him better at some things (better than animals) but in other capacities, say the capacity for flight, non-human beings had the advantage. For Darwin, “better” did not automatically infer superior (at least in the sense that one animal is superior to all others in all capabilities). Better, according to Darwin, was a matter of successful adaptation to one’s environment, rather than an innate superiority to others beings. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin intends to show that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties”. As for the “lower” animals, Darwin states that the they “like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery”. Darwin writes, “Terror acts in the same manner on them as on us, causing the muscles to tremble, the heart to palpitate, the sphincters to be relaxed, and the hair to stand on end”. Darwin, breaking with the traditional view, further states, ” the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not one of kind… the various emotions and faculties… of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient animal, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals”. I suppose this is where someone would say Descartes can shove it. According to the Darwinian view, the fact that man possessed speech or even reason gave us no reason to assume, based on those qualities, that man was naturally superior to all other animals. Our ability to speak may be, in the evolutionary sense, a mere result of homo sapiens adaptation to his environment. The fact that other animals lack speech isn’t a sign of inherent inferiority so much as it reflects the possibility that other species did not need speech to successfully adapt to their environment. Our differences are manifestations of adaptations from which we cannot confer moral biological or moral superiority. This, the Darwinian view, is how we look at many animals — that is, for most of us, mere biological differences bear little or no moral significance when we decide who counts for us morally. Wait, that’s not exactly true. We, as humans, tend to be inpressed by the visual. We tend to cast our moral nets over those who seem most like us. We would be less likely to exclude a gorilla who “speaks” using American sign language from our moral sphere than would exclude a honey badger or a totally un-cute animal like a shrew. We still count what can tell us “ow!’. If I step on my dog’s foot, he yipes in pain. If I slam a 6 foot python around, it doesn’t make a sound. And besides, my dog is cuter than a python. My dog can learn to do tricks and has a bit of a personality. From his body language, I can tell when he is hungry (which is all the time), when he needs to go outside and do his business, when he’s upset, or scared… but the python just lies there. I can’t tell anything about him — even if he’s living or not. So, I find myself applying a bit of Cartesian morality when I think of snakes. The snake, from my point of view, cannot articulate anything to me. It lacks any capacity to communicate at all to me. This is a problem. How do we include something that doesn’t seem to interact with us at all? I think that someone would have to be an absolute weirdo to deny the fact that many humans see themselves as something different or apart from other animals. Even though many of us care about animals, we still hold on to the notion that humans (generally) hold a place apart from other beings, and the fact that other animals are not human plays (whether we like it or not) a part in our moral attitudes and practices. Human are special, and that’s that. Enter moral consideration. Peter Singer suggests that we approach our moral attitudes from the view that we consider the needs of other animals when we behave in a manner that will affect other non-human species. The only thing is that we consider their needs equally. Singer’s approach isn’t a claim for equal rights, but a claim for equal moral consideration. In Animal Liberation Singer writes, ” Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights”. Even if we consider how other animals will be affected by our actions (say, for instance, we’re planning to cut down a section of Brazillian rainforest to raise beef for McDonalds), we might decide that our needs outweigh those of the animal. If we planned to slaughter millions of potentially life-saving tropical plants and animals in order to feed overweight Americans juicy BigMacs, we may, after considering the needs of the rainforest’s flora and fauna, decide that we should get to slashing and burning right away. The point is that we considered the needs of the animals before we killed them and destroyed their home. BigMacs aren’t really all that juicy, come to think of it. Singer says the fact that we (humans) are physically different from other animals gives is no moral justification for simply dismissing the needs and interests of other species. Singer parallels our moral attitudes towards animals to the way that we once thought about race and gender. At one time, one’s gender or race dictated one’s opportunities or treatment. If, for instance, a person were born a woman, she was considered property of her familt and then, if she married, the property of her husband. Her needs and interests were not up for discussion. But, as we’ve become more enlightened, we’ve seen that the lack of a penis does not make one’s status less than an individual who just so happens to have been born with one. And more importantly, it shouldn’t count for unequal moral consideration. Women, like men, feel anger, happiness, fear, pain and suffering equally. And as Darwin (and Bentham) noted, animals also possess the capacity to feel these emotions as well. Bentham says that the capacity to suffer is a vital characteristic for moral consideration. The ability to feel happiness or pain transcends the capacity for language or the ability to perform complex operations like mathematics (thank god for that!). I step on my dog’s foot, and he cries out in pain. Likewise, if I drop Clorox into the eyes of a rabbit, it will probably make some sort of “that hurts” noise. If someone belts me a good one, I’m probably going to tell them that it hurt a little. If someone decides to wrap a guy’s head in towels and pour water on their face to simulate drowning, they’ll probably describe the experience as painful or unpleasant. In all of these situations, each animal, human and non-human experienced pain and indicated it. The fact that If an animal can suffer, Bentham says, means that we cannot ignore the fact that it does. Singer also uses the capacity to suffer as a morally relevant characteristic. Singer states, “if a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that into consideration”. But wait, someone says. If I have to consider whether some animal is going to suffer every time I do anything, I won’t do anything because I’ll be too worried about inflicting pain on some gnat or something. This is a concern especially from those who care about the suffering of animals but still want to eat the occasional chicken sandwich. The fear is that we’ll be so worried about doing anything harmful, that everyone will become a vegan, and no one will ever find the cure for cancer. But Singer himself says that suffering isn’t the same as killing. We should remember that equal consideration doesn’t mean equal treatment. For instance, we understand that children lack the same capacity for reason than adults. Let’s say that a 6 year old child had killed his best friend while playing with his mother’s Ginzu knife set. We know that a child does not operate on the same intellectual level as an adult. We may think that he did not fully understand the possibility that plunging a butcher’s knife into the heart of his BFF would result in his friend’s immediate and irreversable death. The fact that the child lacks the capacity for reason does not mean that we throw the kid out to the wolves. In fact, we feel an even greater moral obligation to him because he does not know what he did. We feel that the child deserves the same fair trial and protection under the law as we would extend to any adult. When we decided to charge the little tyke as an adult, we considered the fact that he’s just six year’s old. But, after w considered that fact, we decided that the demonseed needed to fry anyway. Which is where, I think, Singer was going when he said that inflicting suffering on a being isn’t the same as killing it. If there was no other way to cure a certain disease beyond performing animal research, then, in the interest of saving human lives, we might go ahead and do the research. We know that there are speedy and virtually painless ways to slaughter animals ( that is, unless you consider death itself a harm, but that’s a different issue for another philosopher). There are some situations, Singer admits, that we cannot treat animals equally. I appreciate the fact that this is the way that I’m supposed to feel about animals. And if I were a real philosopher who was concerned about appearing to be enlightened, I would probably feel more inclined to travel along the same lines as Singer. But I’m not. I admit that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot divorce myself from the feeling that being human carries more moral weight than some of us believe it does. I reject the idea the humanness is not a morally relevant characteristic — and that different (in the Darwinian sense) does not mean better. The fact that I cannot say what makes humans different does not mean that there is no thing that does. And, because I totally reject the notion of my being a philosopher, I will leave my opinion at that. I got some music I gotta go listen to.
First off, even though I’m a fan of the band (Rage Against the Machine), I still don’t quite get what the name means. I know that there’s “THE MAN” out there, and that I’m supposed to fight against him and his endeavor to bring on the New World Order, but …. wait, is that it? Anyway… I, being the fan of truly hideous entertainment, purchased season 1 of Knight Rider some weeks ago. It sat on my shelf looking at me looking at it, until I finally had some time to take it down and watch. Now, I used to really dig that show when I was a kid, but somehow all of my childhood memories paint things as being so much better than they really were. This show sucks ass! It’s not for the fact that the whole show is built around some dude who drives a talking car– it’s not for the fact that watching David Hasselfoff’s acting is something like getting kneed to the groin or having to eat your dog’s feces. It’s the wardrobe! Really, so far as the 80s went, clothes-wise, well… you know how when you’re talking to someone and they have this totally huge zit on their forehead and no matter how hard you try to pay attention to what they’re saying, you know it just won’t happen? Well, the clothes are like that. Big pimples. Especially “The Hoff”s” eighties poodle -doo. I was so distracted, unfortunately, that I almost missed the point — that is, a major philosophical point — in the show. Which brings me to the whole idea of machines. Former cop, Michael Knight, oops, Michael Long, is transformed into Michael Knight after being shot and left for dead by some shady underworld types. Because Long took a shot to the kisser, he is given a new face (it seems that the didn’t make sure that the original owner of that face was dead, but then, if they did it wouldn’t have allowed Hasselhoff to play his evil doppleganger Garth Knight), and is persuaded by the Knight Foundation to serve their purposes, which is, good for Long, fighting injustice. And more importantly, he’s given the keys to the sweetest, kick-ass black Trans-Am this side of My Mother the Car , the Knight Industries 2000, better known as KITT. The bitchin’ thing about KITT is the fact that he speaks! Yes, Michael Knight’s new “partner” is a talking car. But KITT is no ordinary car, mind you. He’s super fast, he’s a super computer, and he can jump without even so much as making the slightest skid mark upon landing. He’s a super car. KITT (with the voice of William “Mr. Feeney” Daniels), spares no opportunity to remind Michael that, despite his human-like qualities (his ability to converse rationally, his accidental sense of humor, the fact that he’s a smart-ass), that he’s not human. KITT is a car and he knows it. We know that he is a car. Yet, Michael and we, the audience, care for KITT. We worry when he is in danger, and we enjoy his company. To us and to Michael as well, KITT is more than a mere machine. He’s a trusted friend, a part of the family. But, this attitude seems a little odd. Sure, we have no problem including non-humans into our moral sphere — we do it with our pets and our so-workers and classmates, but we often draw a line when it comes to things that are really not human, like machines. But, we still feel a sense of moral attachment to things like KITT. KITT is no ordinary machine. He interacts with us, he seems to care about us, and in turn, we care about him. On more than one occasion, Michael endangers his own life to save his car. Let me repeat that he endangers his own life to save his car. To some viewers, Michael’s act seems a little, well, strange. Afterall, KITT is a car. If he is destroyed, he can be rebuilt. Michael Knight, however, is not rebuildable. If He dies, he stays dead forever. Which begs (in the colloquial, not philosophic sense) us to ask, is treating a machine like KITT, that is is the inclusion of a machine into our moral sphere (to the extent that we are willing to lay our lives on the line for a machine), extending to inclusion of non-humans into our moral sphere too far? Would we be including machines to our own peril? For most of the history of western philosophy, humans sat squarely at the top of all creation. From the Bible to Aristotle’s hierarchy, mankind’s (and more specifically males) natural place was that of ruler. According to Aristotle, animals were mere tools to serve man’s needs. A donkey was there to pull carts, a dog to keep watch over property, and so on. Man was to administer over the lower animals, and animals were to serve man’s will. According to Aristotle, this was because man (and he did mean man) was endowed with a rational mind. Man’s rational mind enabled him to control his lower, animal inpulses and desires (this is also why Aristotle thought that women were not naturally superior to men. Apparently, women have some sort of wandering uterus problem that makes them all crazy-like and unable in any way to control themselves or anything else. Anyone else have the feeling that Aristotle didn’t date much?). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? Oh, yes, modern philospophy (and I mean modern as in 20th century) challenged the old notions of human superiority and brought in the animals. Starting with Darwin and his tehory of natural selection, modern thinkers rethought the idea that the natural order included mankind at its top. Philosophers such as Peter Singer suggested that we expand our moral sphere to include animals, due to the fact that animals, like humans, possess the capacity for suffering. So, my dog may be a mere machine, in the eyes of Descartes, but it is a machine that has the capacity to suffer. So, according to Singer and all the other animal rights loonies, he’s in. But, that’s it. Descartes saw animals such as dogs and cats as mere machines. They serve us just as any artifact that a man creates with his own hands serves his needs. According to Aristotle, artifacts such as art and technology fall outside of nature and are mere tools meant to serve man’s needs. We can see why modern philosophers include animals — they fear, they feel pain, they bleed and suffer as any human. But, KITT is a machine. He knows that he is a machine. But, we see that KITT has something that other machines do not — an ability to interact with humans on a human level. I was watching an episode of Star Trek: TNG not too long ago. The episode had to do with whether Data was a person. In the episode, Captain Picard argued that the argument that Data was not a person because he is a mere machine falls apart in light of the fact that humans, if you look at ourselves from the biological level, are also mere machines. We are machines, just of a different type, Picard says. Instead of wires, we have veins and arteries. Instead of oil and lubricant, we have blood. But if you lay out the systems side by side, they are more the same than different. What made Data human, Picard argued, was not hois physicality, but his psychology. Data was self aware, intelligent, and (perhaps) possessed consciousness. According to Picard, Data was a sentient being who, despite being a machine, had what we would, in any other circumstance, humanity. I think that, if we look at KITT, we might say the same. KITT, like Data, is self aware. He refers to himself as “I”, and is aware of his place in the environment. He is intelligent (more so than any human). As the show progressed, KITT’s character became even more human-like, expressing complex emotions such as anger, sorrow and compassion. KITT, in some instances, is more human than some humans. It is worth noting here that this is also a point expressed by Singer and others. The idea that animals should not be included in our moral sphere because they lack human qualities such as complex human emotions, includes some animals such as chimpanzees (and some dogs and cats), and excludes some people, such as the mentally handicapped persons. This gets us to a very nagging and really hard question: what makes humans unique? The essence of the question is what makes us human? Back in the day, computers were just mere computing machines. They did exactly as their programmers wanted them to do. Unfortunately for us, many modern computers already perform functions that human brains can do. Computers can solve complex problems, and learn, as when in May 1997, the computer Big Blue formulated a winning chess strategy to beat champion chess player, Gary Kasparov. Anyone who has played a video game knows that the computer can be a formidable enemy — especially when you are aware of the fact that, as you play, the computer is learning from your playing style ( and figuring out how to defeat you). The fear that underlies this fact is what Captain Picard asked Dr. Maddox to consider in that episode of Star Trek, which is the possibility that a computer may become conscious of its own existence. Nevermind mere Datas of even a C-3PO, our fear is Wargames‘ “Joshua” or The Terminator’s Skynet — the computer that becomes self aware, figures out what the problem is (read:us), and immediately sets out a plan for total and permanent human destruction. Ok, let’s not go quite that far, but let’s consider the computer that becomes conscious. If it does, then what is it? I think that we can no longer call it a “mere” machine. We often think of ourselves as evolving, namely because we gain knowledge and wisdom as we grow. This idea is often connected to the idea that our conscious minds possess more than our mere physicality. Our minds, being self-aware, possess something transcendent — a soul. Is it possible for a computer to gain a soul? Still, let’s not go there. We can’t even figure out if humans, let alone any car or android has a soul. Think of this as food for thought. Or at worst, a warning of a grim future. But let’s get back to KITT. KITT, although he insists that he does not, has emotions. And for many, the ability to possess and exhibit emotions is enough for inclusion into our moral sphere ( this is why we often give human qualities to our pets). The ability to express even rudimentary emotions is enough for inclusion. But still, for many people, even those who support animal rights, animals are just that — animals. Not human. Although we don’t want animals to suffer, they aren’t us. That is, they aren’t humans. Many humans feel that there is something unique about humans that (still) place us apart (if even only slightly) from other animals. Perhaps what lurks behind our need to separate ourselves from animals (and I’m assuming talking cars) is some sort of Nietzschean fear of losing ourselves morally. It goes, I think, like this: Nietzsche spoke of the degradation of Man by the overtaking of master morality by slave morality. This takeover upsets the natural order and plunges humanity into the abyss (culturally, morally, etc.). Naturally, man lords over animals and machines ( master morality). Our machines are our slaves. The fear is that, if we elevate machines to our level, we lose our place — our place becomes meaningless. If all is equal, then all loses its value! Men are no more than machines. Lowly, crappy machines to be discarded when they lose their usefulness. Worse to come is the venerated machine that gets to dictate the fates of men. It’s like being bossed around by your dog or wife. Totally unnatural! Which reminds me of a scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s the scene where C-3PO is in the droid factory. He sees the machines making other machines and is disgusted by what he sees. He calls the whole scene “perverse”. 3PO’s attitude reflects the classic philosophical view of the roles of man and machines. Machines are mere tools to be used by me to create, not as devices of creation themselves. A machine who creates, according to this view, would be considered unnatural. If we enter a day when machines have evolved to the point that they are indistinguishable from people, we would have something to worry about — the ursurpation of man’s role. I’m not exactly talking about armies of T-2000s walking around, but there is a fear that, if a machine can do the work faster and more efficiently than any human, then it may be the human who becomes obsolete. As of now, a machine need a human for its creation. Cars may be built by robots in a factory, but if you trace back the line of creation, you’ll run into a human in there somewhere. Many people say that our ability to create is what sets us apart from other animals. A monkey can draw on a canvas or a robot can put a Toyota together at the factory, but real creativity is born in the mind of a human. That’s true right now, but if a machine gains consciousness, we may very well see feeling, creative machines, who create art, not because they downloaded a pattern or calculated what would be aesthetically pleasing, but created a truly inspired piece of art as any human would create. If machines can do everything people do, the real question is what purpose will we serve? This makes me think about that movie Maximum Overdrive. If you haven’t seen this movie, consider yourself lucky. But, long story short, the story involves a machine takeover. The machines literally rise up and turn on their masters. Theres a scene in the movie when this woman is screaming at the big rigs parked outside of a diner “We made You!”. She, I think, expresses the sentiment than many humans would feel towards even the smartest, most human machine. A machine is a product of man. Anything beyond the world of man as creator disturbs the natural order of things. It may “feel” or “create”, it may speak in the very erudite voice of William Daniels, and look like Cherry 2000, but all in all, it’s a machine. It is a tool and should remain so. And this may be fine so long as the most advanced computer still needs a human creator or operator, or if Data or KITT remain anomalies. Throughout the run of Knight Rider, the only other talking car was KARR, the other car that was built by Knight Industries that belonged to that Garth guy that I mentioned earlier. And throughout the run of Star Trek :TNG, there was only Data, his “brother” Lore, his “daughter” Lal (who malfunctioned and had to be dismantled), and Dr. Soong’s ladyfriend who had no idea that she was an android. I forgot her name. Anyway, as Captain Picard said to Maddox, our real problem comes when the smart machine stops being the anomaly. Picard asks Maddox, what if there are a thousand Datas? a million? A million KITTs could be as easily a curse as a blessing. If machines can create, humans may not only end up fighting obsolescence, but also searching for justification. So, in the future, the big question may be answering why we are here. And this may not be too far off. But, perhaps what we should fear isn’t replacement with machines or even searching for justification for the human race. The future may not be one of moral inclusion as merging with machines. Futurist Ray Kurzweil says that there may come a day when computers will surpass us in intelligence and “irrevocably alter what it means to be human” (Rolling Stone issue 1072, “When Man and Machine Merge” by David Kushner). Kurzweil says that superintelligent nanotechnology will eventually merge with people, getting rid of diseases, making us smarter, and storing our memories as well. Kurzweil says that it totally possible that humanity will become obsolete, as people interact and become dependent more and more on machines. If you don’t think we’ve already started, some futurists say, think look at your cell phone, your ipod, pace makers and your dog’s implant meant to identify him if he gets lost. According to some, the merge between man and machine, what they call “The Singularity”, has already begun. However, Kurzweil says that we need not worry about becoming obsolete (although he says it’s not beyond the realm of possibility). Kurzweil says that the future will be ” a human-machine civilization… we’re not obsolescing ourselves — we’re extending ourselves”. There are detractors, however, who believe that “The Singularity” is more science fiction as science probability. Biologist Thomas Ray says that it is unlikely that computers will advance enough to meet the point of “The Singularity”. Philosopher John Searle says (and I love this), “I think the Singularity is demonstrably bullshit… but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s very thrilling”. So what do we think? What does thnking about KITT or Data or my cell phone’s ring tones mean for us morally? What it means it that we, humans will face a future that will call us to alter the way that we think about life and what it means for something to count as a fellow living being, entitled to all the rights that we feel that we and other beings are entitled to. As the human race evolves, so to does our moral sphere. To many of us, KITT is considerable for inclusion, at the very least. For a few more, he is not only considerable, but fully included as we would include any being that we care about or for whom we feel lorally obligated. The Singularity may be a festering pile of bullshit, but then, when has that ever stopped a thought experiment? Possible worlds, anyone?
I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot lately about metaphysics. No really, this is not a set up for some sick joke. I have, really. I’ve been going through my old philosophy books, and reading old notes from my classes… but I have no real idea why.
Funny I should throw in the word “real” since I’ve just mentioned that I’ve been stuck on metaphysics.
I know that some of it has to do with this PBS program about the father of the dude from that group eels. He, the father that is, worked in physics, and his big contribution to the world of physics (and to Star Trek fans everywhere) was the theory of possible worlds. Now, there’s this possible worlds thought experiment that has to do with a cat in a box. You stick the cat in the box, and then you put some radioactive stuff in there with it. You can’t see the cat and you don’t know when the radioactive material is going to be released, and so we don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead.
Soooo…. ( long story short ) in some possible world the cat is both alive and dead.
Yes. I just described Schrodinger’s Cat.
This got me thinking… What does it mean to exist?
I think that most people, myself included, go around asking questions about existence in the “why” form — meaning we ask why is life, why about our own particular life and so on.
To be honest, I haven’t really met anyone outside of a philosophy class ever ask what does it mean to say that something “exists”.
I figure that, for most folks, that, the “what” part — is something we (not philosophers) kind of take for granted. We see things and we say that or this “exists” and that things we don’t see don’t exist.
I may be making a big positivist boo-boo here, but play along for the sake of example.
The problem, it seems — at least the philosophical problem — is that the word “exist” is both loaded and muddy. When we ask “what is existence?”, “what does it mean to ‘exist’?”, our questions and unfortunately our arguments tend to get us bogged down in semantics rather than actually getting to the subject at hand.
This often is the point when some of us throw up our hands and simply stop discussing the issue altogether. But the hassle of agreeing on definitions shouldn’t stop us from finding definitions that we all can agree on.
Believe it or not, it is important that we do.
So, what do we think of when we think about existence?
We tend to think of “exists” in terms of what “is”. For better or for worse, when we speak of the world around us, we tend to speak of existence in human terms, that is, things exist in contrast to us.
Being the semi-curious devil that I am, I looked in the dictionary to see what the experts at Random House had to say about existence. And, no surprise, the definition included the phrase, ” to have life or animation”. That seemed mighty odd to me.
Of course to answer the question “what is existence?” is not something that we’d like to answer too broadly. There is an inclination to think of the answer as more nuanced than we’d like to think that it is. Perhaps the right way of thinking of existence is in terms of us.
We can say that we humans (and some higher animals) “exist” everything else just “is”.
When we use a word “existence”, it seems to shuttle in more than just being here and accounted for. There are social, biological, scientific, psychological, philosophical, and even colloquial meanings to the word “exist”.
I may claim that I politely raised my hand all class, and the professor acted as if I didn’t “exist” or I may say that my existence would be ruined if my guy left me, or I may say that my dog or trees or planets or minds or thoughts “exist”… but once again, I feel that when I say “I exist” that I’ve somehow changed the rules. I’m speaking of more than just flowers and trees. I am more than my here-ness; more than my social position or my capacity to think.
Wow, that sounds a little Tyler Durden. I am more than my khakis.
Ah! There I go again — closing myself up in the humans only box. Worse than that, I’m getting the feeling that I’m casting my net too narrowly. I feel that what I am doing is limiting existence to all that can exist here with us.
I promised myself that I would only mention possible worlds and not possible entities. I don’t want to talk of Pegasus or corpulent men in doorways.
I want to speak of something more concrete. What I am after, ultimately, is to find a meaning that will help us here and now — there are too many problems to consider in the world where we reside than to get away from the issue by talking about Zeus and his brother or round squares.
I was watching Land of the Dead awhile back. While I was sitting, watching Big Daddy and his zombie gang raid Pittsburgh, digging on Asia Argento (and Simon Baker, too), I started thinking about existence. I thought about how, like Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat, these zombies were beings that were both alive and dead.
That led me to the thought: do zombies exist?
Knowing that the answer wasn’t exactly the kind that you’d answer with an immediate yes or no, I realized that to get an answer I required a thought experiment.
So, let’s say that I’m somewhere near Monroesville, PA circa 1978. Hordes of the undead have descended on the local mall. Looking up from my beer I’ve been chugging at the Brown Derby, my philosophical mind starts to think: I know that the recently reanimated are not “alive” (at least not in the medical sense), but do they exist?
Descartes famously said “Cogito, ergo sum” — I think, therefore I am. If Descartes was able to think, he reasons, he is assured of his own existence.Descartes could not even doubt that his own existence, since there was, at the very least some thing that doubted its existence. As long as he possessed the capacity for thought, Descartes says, he was (and we are) assured of his/our own existence.
Well, it’s obvious with a zombie where this Descartes’ idea goes awry. A zombie does not think. There is no “I” to consider or even to deny its own existence.
Funny that the zombie lacks the one thing that Descartes says is necessary for proof that one exists: thought. A zombie, however, possesses all of the other qualities Descartes says are illusory — locomotion, sight, hearing, touch, and an insatiable desire to eat human flesh….
Now, would Descartes suggest that we deny that a zombie exists? Especially if that zombie is busy gnawing on your brain?
Wait, I’m mixing my zombie mythos. So far, I’ve been following George A. Romero’s rules of zombiedom. It’s Dan O’ Bannon’s zombies who eat brains. Sorry for the mix-up.
So, if I take Descartes at all seriously (something that I try to not do), a zombie does not think, it does not “am”. And lacking the capacity for thought, a zombie is not a rational being. The zombie is not different than a dog or any other mere beast that lacks the capacity for rational thought.
The philosophical implication of zombies — and I don’t think that Descartes would disagree, is this:
Zombies do not think. Therefore, a zombie does not “am” in the Cartesian sense of existence.
Because a zombie does not think, it lacks the capacity for rational thought.
And, because a zombie lacks the capacity for rational thought, zombies have no soul (only rational beings have souls).
This means that we are free to do with zombies as we please.
We are not dealing with persons, but with beings who hold no more metaphysical (or moral) significance for us than a machine. So, when in Shaun of the Dead, zombies are being used to push shopping carts or as contestants on game shows, it’s perfectly alright. That’s what they are there for. They’re mere machines — really no different from a clock or a stereo.
Or a cat, if you’re Descartes.
According to this (mis)interpretation of Descartes, zombies are just like a soulless stereo ….that just so happen to stink and rot and turn putrid.
But this didn’t sound quite right to me, so I decided to put Descartes to the side. But, just when I was throwing out Descartes (something I’ve said we should do for years), I had an ah-ha (not the 80s Europop band) moment.
Maybe we shouldn’t confirm the existence of a zombie using Descartes, after all.
And, if you kinda-sorta look at existence sans Descartes, then zombies become the ultimate philosophical conundrum.
I started to think: if a zombie doesn’t “am”, then how does a zombie truly philosophically exists?
I think I have an idea how.
Bear with me, here.
Even though we know that a mere beast lacks the capacity for higher mental function, we don’t discount a mere beast from our moral consideration. A dog may be just a dog, but we still treat it with care. it exists, if only barely enough for us to care about its well being.
The same holds, I think, for zombies.
A zombie may lack the capacity for rational thought, but then, so do many human beings. We would not accept treating humans who lack rational thought in any way that we please. We feel a moral obligation for humans who are not rational, perhaps even because they lack normal mental function.
We certainly wouldn’t claim that a mentally disabled or comatose person is not a Cartesian “am”.
That is to say, a zombie don’t cogito, we can’t completely throw them out of of our consideration.
I concluded that a zombie is a philosophical walking contradiction — it is a being that is alive and dead. But, more importantly zombies exist, in a sort of half-assed, crudely construed, not-Cartesian sense.
So, what purpose did my thought experiment serve? What it did was this: A zombie is an extreme if not impossible example that forces us to think about existence. We need not look to a zombie flick to find and contemplate questions of existence. Any of us may at any point find either ourselves or someone that we care about sustained through artificial means. Sometimes, as in the case of “brain death”, we are unable to determine whether a person is truly alive or dead. A person may be a little bit of both.
Likewise, as artificial intelligence advances, we may have to ask if a being that “exists” in cyberspace is alive or not a living being. Would an artificial intelligence am? To be honest, I really don’t know.
I don’t know if I even asked the right question let alone actually got anywhere near answering it.
In the end, I think that what I’ve done is found a way to rattle on about zombies and got to say that Asia Argento is hot.
I used to think that I was a funny person. Not exactly Saturday Night Live Eddie Murphy funny or Monty Python funny. Or even Chris Farley funny. But funny. I thought that I was the kind of fellow who could rip off a slightly humorous or even mildly witty comment whenever the opportunity would come up to make a slighly humorous or mildly witty comment. But, as of late, I’ve come to this horrible realization: I am not a funny person. Really, I don’t know what went wrong. It’s as if I went to bed looking like Conan the Barbarian and waking up looking like, well… me. The revelation was horrifying. Since I don’t want to take any blame for anything myself (I think it’s generational. A quality inherited by myself and my fellow Gen-Xers), I will blame it on the last place that I was when I began to feel like I was losing my funniness. Those damned philosophy classes. Now, let me get one thing straight: I didn’t initally got to philosophy as a major ( that would have been stupid). I had gone into political science, and since political scientists know everything, I felt no need to join the yammering crowd in philosophy. All talk and no action, they say. If I were inclined to be a bit dirty, I’d call what they did over there in philosophy intellectual masturbation (no need to be more descriptive there). What happened to me, was that I was “recruited”. And like the absolute idiot that I am, I took the bait. It’s not like the political science department was like a night at the Apollo, but there was, at least among the students, a sense of humor that was present and mainfested itself occasionally in comments about stupid liberals (or “communists”, it that term is preferable), or other departments, like philosophy. There was at least some humor that everyone could understand – there was no need to preface a joke with an explanation of “xeno’s paradox” or Russellian definite descriptions. It’s different with philosophers. I’ve heard that there is humor there, and I was even told that some of my professors were actually “funny”, but all the while I was there, I just didn’t see it. (Maybe there was a smartass or two). The more philosophy I read, the more I became convinced that there was a reason why I wasn’t laughing. Philosophers aren’t funny people. I’m not saying that I didn’t laugh because of the occasionally unintentionally funny thing in philosophy, there’s plenty of that. Reading anything on the “problem of evil” is inintentionally hillarious. But, beyond the inintentional humor… well… there just isn’t any. I heard this joke, see if it’s funny:
Descartes walks into a cafe. The waitress asks him if he
wants anything to drink. He says “yes, please”. She asks,
“Whatdaya have?” Descartes says “Coffee”.
She asks, “Ya want sugar with that?”. Descartes says”I think not”,
was that at all funny?
No. it wasn’t. And that’s exactly my point! There is no possible way to get humor out of philosophy (or out of a philosopher for that matter). I have become funny –for a philosopher. The real tragedy is that not only is philosophy not funny, it takes the funny out of you. It turns you into some sort of analytical philosophy-only being (actually being an existentialist is about as unfunny as you can get, so excluding continental philosophy might be a good thing) who looks at someone’s attempt at humor with quizzical eyes (this actually happened to me once) — AND IT’S NOT BECAUSE WHAT I SAID WASN’T FUNNY. It’s because, next to zombies, philosophers are the least funniest people on the face of the earth.