can’t see the forest

Well-adjusted Atheism and the Dialog with Theism Reconsidered

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Richard Dawkins (BBC)Prof. Richard Dawkins is a biologist, science popularizer, and advocate of atheism whose positions I tend to support and whose passion I deeply admire. His books, such as The God Delusion, sell quite well, and he can be seen in auditoriums and television studios the world over, patiently and persistently explaining—with more than a touch of righteousness, one feels—the truth of evolutionary theory and the perils of religious belief. I happen to share the Professor’s point of view that religious dogmas and mentalities have in practice been at least as aggregately destructive and divisive as benevolently useful, but there are some things about Dawkins’ approach, or at least what I take to be the most common interpretations of it, that I have always found troublesome. These points, I should stress, are not specific to Dawkins’ thought only, and are not meant as personal criticism. I bring them up because I think they are critical to understanding the nature of atheism and its relationships to science and religion, and I don’t believe they’re adequately developed in the work of Dr. Dawkins and others like him. My goals here are to help clear things up and for us all to get along peacefully, and that takes work. :-)

I know it hurts in a punch-to-the-gut way for some of us to subject ourselves to the voice of Bill O’Reilly for any reason, but take a look at this 5-minute interview with Richard Dawkins that happened on the O’Reilly Factor a couple of years ago. I’d like to use it as a starting point:

Notice Dawkins’ statement near the beginning of the interview that science keeps “piling on the understanding.” The implication here is that an individual adopts an atheist worldview as a result of scientific enlightenment leading to metaphysical revelation—almost invoking the idea of scientist as evangelist.

Now, it is certainly true that a systematic and rigorous understanding of nature, and of ourselves as part of it, does not support theism as fact and indeed presents copious factual evidence against a lot of the basic tenets of theist, creationist systems of metaphysics. But it does not follow that all the scientific knowledge in the world could necessarily compel a person to abandon his or her faith. Many prominent religious figures from various traditions, as Dawkins is always quick to point out, accept the theory of evolution in one version or another, even though it might speak unambiguously against certain aspects of the dogmas they represent.

The Tortoise and AchillesFor me, Dawkins is tilting at windmills in his quest to deconvert the faithful through an overwhelming preponderance of scientific data, and potentially alienating those who might benefit most from his message. First of all, you can’t confront real obstinacy with logic and language. Language just isn’t that powerful. Consider Lewis Carroll’s familiar dialog, ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,’ in which he demonstrates the futility of using reason to truly force a conclusion. If C is logically supposed to follow from A and B, a person who accepts both A and B as true can find, literally, infinitely many ways of casting into doubt the logical necessity of C. You can lead the mind to logic, but you can’t make it think, if you’ll excuse the poor humor.

The same point is delightfully demonstrated in this anecdote from atheistwiki:

Many years ago, when I was a Psychology student, we had a lecturer who told stories of his own early life as a young clinical psychologist. One story he told was of a psychotic patient who was under his care. This man was quite normal in other ways, but he believed that he (the patient) was dead. So one day my lecturer decided to try some cognitive therapy on him:

Lecturer: You think you’re dead, yes? Well, do dead people bleed?
Patient: No, of course not. How could they?
Lecturer: (Sticking a pin in him) Well, how about that?
Patient: Good God! That’s amazing! I was totally wrong! Dead people do bleed!

In the television interview above, O’Reilly doesn’t really “throw in with Jesus” because he is uncomfortable with the lack of the extent to which science has “figured it all out.” That is pretense, an attempt to take away Dawkins’ intellectual leverage, leverage which I think is probably misplaced to begin with. O’Reilly chooses the Cross at Calvary over the Hubble Space Telescope, so to speak, because of the former’s symbolic power and its central nature to the cognitive guidelines along which so many of his neurons are so steadfastly organized, regardless of the intellectual paradoxes and contradictions endemic to his faith. This subtext no doubt resonated powerfully among his viewership. Expressed in modified terms, it would have resonated powerfully among aboriginal Australians, whirling dervishes, or the tribes of the Amazon, and for much the same reasons.

People aren’t religious because they’re uneducated, inherently illogical, or don’t know anything about astrophysics. Isaac Newton was, after all, a deeply Christian man, and J.S. Bach is only one titanic example among numerous composers and artists whose emotionally compelling and intellectually formidable works were dedicated to the glory of God. No, people are religious because religious belief fills certain psychological—some would even say biological—needs, and serves social purposes deeply entrenched in human interactions with one another and the environment on a pan-cultural basis. This is why, even though I enthusiastically agree with Dawkins in many respects, I take issue with his pointed portrayal of religion as an illness or delusion which must be scientifically educated into oblivion.  I think such a goal is neither clearly profitable nor definitively wholesome. If anything, it seems only to fuel misconceptions, ill will, and defensiveness among believers.

As Joseph Campbell eloquently observes at the outset of Primitive Mythology, the first volume of his epic essay The Masks of God:

Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to its heroes and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs—variously selected, organized, interpreted, and ritualized, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.

A fascinating psychological, as well as historical, problem is thus presented. Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of his rational thought but of his local mythology.

NGC 6543 - Hubble imageAnother of my intellectual heroes, the astronomer and author Carl Sagan, once wrote hopefully of a coming time in which the joy of using science and reason to approach the wonders of nature might someday unify nations and cultures in contrast to the various ways in which myth-based approaches have helped to divide them throughout history. This is a noble aspiration, and one full of possibility—for science is at least as capable of building partnerships and enriching humanity as it is of constructing atomic bombs. But science cannot merely take the place of religion any more than one could suddenly impose the Qur’an on heartland America, and, in fact, the latter might be the more feasible possibility. This is because there is something about religious symbolism, ritual, and mystery that is fundamental to the human psyche, and this is, I believe, the main reason that well-meaning free thinkers such as Dawkins and Sagan have sometimes missed the mark in an important sense. As marvelously productive and existentially liberating as the Enlightenment might have been, European philosophers would be ill at ease in a primitive environment where the mystic wisdom of the shaman holds the keys to survival. It was probably not in search of a more rigorous understanding of the cosmos that the Great Pyramids were built, or the Mass in B minor composed.

Ernest Becker, the late anthropologist and psychologist whose writings continue to gain prominence in academia, wrote in The Birth and Death of Meaning an accurate and insightful account of the psycho-social machinery, some of it quite dark, served by religious belief. For example:

No religion gives any easy resolution to its central myth, by which I mean that ideal religion is not for compulsive believers. As psychoanalysis has taught us, religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive. … To believe that one has a higher reason to take human life, to feel that torture and murder are in the service of a divine cause is the kind of mandate that has always given sadists everywhere the purest fulfillment: they are free to remain on the level of the body, to pillage real flesh and blood creatures, to transact in lives in the service of the highest power. What a delight. … Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions …

Intellectual duality and contradiction lie at the heart of religion, and this has been understood since long before Galileo or Darwin. In Christian apologetics, the problem of theodicy—the existence of evil in the universe of a benevolent and omnipotent creator—has been a central problem for almost as long as Christianity has existed, and there were direct precedents and indirect analogs even before that. This fundamental basis in contradiction and resistance to an objective, rational reality is the crucial strength of religion, not its weakness, as many atheist proselytizers seem to believe. Through the embrace of contradiction, man lives an existence which is defined by his own terms and values, and is able to resolutely justify his actions amid the bloody, pulsating chaos of life, Tennyson’s “Nature red in tooth and claw,” according to an immutable and permanent scheme, which he can conveniently take to be the mandate of the highest and most perfect possible authority. If such a modus operandi is delusional in nature, it is also so deeply central to human cognition that even well-seasoned atheists can be caught invoking the name of God Almighty in moments of real trial or terror.

Celtic tree of lifeThe paradigm of learning via evidence-based thought is immensely powerful and has been astoundingly productive. Like Sagan and many others, I think there is real hope that it can transform humanity and bring people together to solve problems in which we all have a stake. In fact, it already has: consider the ways in which modern medicine is creating new possibilities in spite of the greed of corporations, and how the Internet is creating intercultural exchange on an unprecedented scale despite its role in porncasting. There is, I must profess, no sense in waiting on Jehovah to end hunger, disease, and divinely foster the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence that humankind needs in order to make good on its present situation, and viewing all the ills of the world as divine will to be bravely and humbly accepted is not an attractive solution to the miseries of real organisms, human or otherwise.

But well-adjusted atheists cannot expect to share their viewpoints as long as the strategy is to supplant religion and to bash ages-old and psychologically central beliefs with a club made of scientific theory, because religious belief is not a question of insufficient evidence to the contrary, and is far from a symptom of a faulty mind. Atheism is arrived at not through an understanding of facts, figures, and logical constructions. It arises from one’s consideration that religion may be a cultural phenomenon, the most basic kind of literature, one whose purpose is not entertainment or even instruction so much as the definition of who people are as individuals and as groups in ways that are fundamental to conscious organisms. The historical record combined with the illuminating discoveries of comparative mythology and psychoanalysis provide, for most, ample support of this conception.

For me, being an atheist is a profoundly empowering experience: it represents the ability to construct one’s worldview in the most pure, honest, vulnerable, and nobly independent sense, and the realization that man has always created his gods, by the hundreds and thousands, in man’s own image. It is empowering precisely because I arrived at it through my own volition. People can be either receptive or hostile to the suggestion, but in no case can they be won over to it. To subscribe to atheism is, I maintain, a process of exchanging one manmade contradiction—that of a perfect, divinely ordained order rife with brutality and strife—for another more constructive and intellectually challenging contradiction, that of rational, organizing man amid such beautiful probabilistic chaos. Such an exchange is the result of volition, not of compulsion, and should be treated accordingly. If atheists expect theists to listen with well-adjusted, open minds, we had better lead by a better example.

Perhaps Sir Francis Bacon said it best when he wrote: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Scientific thought and achievement certainly conflict with the dogmatic nature of myth-based belief and ritual, but science is not a cure for religion and should not be treated as such. The two are sides of the same coin. Given sufficient time and room and even decently favorable conditions, man’s notion of spirituality will develop in its own way according to his experience of the world around him, just as it always has. And so, atheists and theists alike should move forward in conversation and not in aggravated opposition—a tall order to which we must rise if we are to survive long enough to see our development through.

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Schizophrenia: An Unpleasant Side Effect of Natural Selection?

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bluebrain Recent studies indicate that schizophrenic conditions may stem from a genetically-triggered maladaptation involving the gene DISC1, which, according to research, has been selected for in evolution even though it contributes to schizophrenia. Compare this with sickle-cell anemia: it is caused by having two mutated copies of a certain gene, while those with just one copy of the mutation are naturally protected against malaria.

Discover Online reports:

One of the key tenets of Darwinism is that adaptations that work against the survival of a species are destined to disappear. So why does schizophrenia continue to linger on? Could it be that it confers some advantage?

For years, scientists struggled to identify an adaptive advantage that might explain schizophrenia’s persistence. Researchers from various disciplines volleyed ideas back and forth. Some argued that the genes implicated in the disease promoted creativity; others believed that schizophrenics were frustrated cult leaders—unorthodox thinkers constitutionally “engineered” to lead segments of humanity to break off from the herd, but who lacked the charisma to effect much change. None of the theories gained much traction.

New research is pointing to a different possibility: There may be no adaptive advantage provided by schizophrenia in and of itself, but rather from some genes that contribute to the disease. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, there is evidence that some of the gene variants associated with schizophrenia—especially a mutation in a gene called disrupted-in-schizophrenia 1 (DISC1)—have been selected for by evolution. This supports the idea that the disease may be a maladaptive combination of mutations that individually have the potential to enhance fitness. It could be a more complicated version of the familiar case of sickle cell anemia: having two mutant copies of a certain gene causes the disease, whereas having only one mutant copy provides protection against malaria.

A recent study headed up by Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists may have found what kind of process goes awry in schizophrenic brains. Researchers found that DISC1 regulates the migration of new neurons in the adult brain. When the levels of DISC1 were reduced in mice during adult neurogenesis, the newborn neurons sped up and overshot their intended targets within the hippocampus, says Xin Duan, a study collaborator. When the neurons finally reached their destinations, they forged an unusual number of connections with neighboring cells, a series of events that might give rise to the abnormal—and quite crippling—brain functions associated with schizophrenia, according to Hongjun Song, a Johns Hopkins neurologist who also worked on the study. It is possible, Song says, that further research will lead to a drug that treats schizophrenia by restoring normal neurogenesis.

So what evolutionary advantage could schizophrenia-related genes bring to people who have some of the genes but not the disease? For now, this remains one of the many open questions about this puzzling condition.

The Chutzpah of Intelligent Design

Posted in evolution, faith, intelligent design, Propaganda, Religion, Science by Curtis on 11/22/07

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From the lively Jewcy comes mathematics professor Jason Rosenhouse’s response to an exchange between writer Neal Pollak and Discovery Institute senior fellow David Klinghoffer:

I do not know what you do for a living, but I suspect you are pretty good at it. You probably trained for years to learn the basic elements of your craft, and then honed those skills through more years of on-the-job experience. Now imagine that someone without that training and experience presumes to discourse on your profession. Worse, they make assertions and arguments that are obvious nonsense to anyone versed in the subject. Not an altogether uncommon experience for you, I suspect, but one that is no less annoying for that. . .

. . .

Creationists of all stripes, be they the old-school Bible thumpers or the slightly more sophisticated ID proponents, do very well in public debates and scripted presentations. Any venue, in fact, in which flash and performance art are the main features. But place them in an environment where evidence and logic reign, such as a scientific conference or a courtroom trial, and suddenly they are far less impressive. Why do you suppose that is?

Let us be blunt. The specific scientific claims of ID proponents have been decisively refuted over and over again. Their sleazy use of rhetoric and propaganda has shown they have little interest in open and honest debate. They take quotations out of context, distort evidence, misrepresent whole scientific disciplines, oversimplify difficult ideas, and impugn the integrity of scientists. All the while they claim God’s blessing for their project and invoke conspiracy theories against those who disagree. And when they are done with all that, then they turn around and accuse scientists of being arrogant.

Where I come from we call that chutzpah.

Yes, that certainly just about sums it up.

Following Rules is for Squares

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Over ten years ago, Mitchel Resnick and Brian Silverman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with an interesting software demonstration of the phenomenon of emergence. Emergence is loosely defined as the appearance of complex architecture or behavior that follows from simple rules, and is a cornerstone of most conceptions of biological evolution. Evolutionists believe that the preponderance of evidence suggests the sufficiency of emergence as a driver for adaptation, that no appeal to a ‘watchmaker’ of super-humanesque intelligence is necessary.

In their demonstration, Resnick and Silverman work with a black, two-dimensional plane composed of small squares which can ‘turn on’ (turn white) according to the action of a very few simple rules upon some initial state. In one example, ‘Seed’ rules are applied: a square turns off if it is on, and a square turns on if exactly two of its eight neighbors are on. One can begin with a very simple pattern, start the engine, and end up with a dizzying array of gliders, blinkers, and asymmetric noise. A slightly more complex set of rules, called ‘Life’ and invented by John Conway in 1970, produces more intricate and unstable patterns.

As the researchers point out, one very interesting aspect of these simulations is that the strange patterns and shapes created through these rudimentary interactions exist only in the mind of the observer—in reality, it’s just a bunch of intermingling black and white squares. The suggestion is that much of what we perceive as reality may be a secondary, artificial construct.

If your browser is Java-capable, you should be able to walk through the site in just a few minutes. Be forewarned, though: it’s hip to be square, and awfully addictive.

To Adnan, With Love

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Scientists of the world (and, most particularly, of Turkey) unite!

Chimp Guevara

Biology and Morality

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An interesting article from the New York Times by Nicholas Wade, mirrored from RichardDawkins.net. Here’s a peek:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are. . .

. . .Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies.

Dr. de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser. But he was waylaid in battles with psychologists over imputing emotional states to animals, and it took him 20 years to come back to the subject.

He found that consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys — among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality.

So . . .there was some form of morality before the New Testament. How very novel!! If only we enlightened human beings could learn to extend the ‘golden rule’ to other species . . .perhaps that’s the next stage in the evolution of mind?

On Vegetarianism

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For as long as men slaughter animals, they will kill one another. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
—Pythagoras, ca. 520 BC

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth—beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals—would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?
—George Bernard Shaw

To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.
—Mohandas K. Gandhi

Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Albert Einstein

Fruits and VegetablesI am a struggling vegetarian. As I get older the issue seems to weigh a bit heavier in my mind. I feel that vegetarianism is a noble and critical lifestyle choice, and it is the reasoning behind this that I wish to discuss here.

The ease with which I am parted from this conviction is due to a number of factors—chiefly convenience, since I do not do very much of the grocery shopping within my household; or sometimes social conformity, if I am dining with a group in a milieu that is not conducive to vegetarianism, as is often the case here in my home of the American ‘Deep South.’ Not infrequently it is self-deception that steers me from the course. The animal has already died; if you do not eat it, it is wasted. I simply wish to illustrate, before I begin, that I am not writing about vegetarianism from the standpoint of someone who (as yet) fastidiously practices that which he preaches.

However, I can offer that I have decided that, beginning next month, I will vigorously and resolutely pursue a vegetarian diet—eggs and dairy products, yes; red and white meat, furs and skins, no. For now, I hope you will allow me to explain my philosophical position on vegetarianism, and I hope that you will feel free to share your thoughts or arguments.

As a young man, I often asked myself the same question posed by Shaw in the quotation above. In fact, I did not know that Shaw had asked that question until a few moments before I began writing these words—which leads me to believe it is a question that must persist in the minds of a reasonable number of people.

Surely we would object if a superintelligent race of alien beings—against whose assault we, with our primitive intelligence, were quite defenseless—descended upon Earth and began to systematically consume us as food. Even if these hypothetical homovores were willing to allow us to make a case for ourselves, there would not be much we could say in our own defense given our own carnivorous history. It seems apparent, then, even with very little introspection, that killing living beings for their meat is grossly hypocritical, unless we ourselves are gladly willing to lie upon the butcher’s block.

What does require serious thought is the extrapolation of how the prevalent rationalizations of killing for food—and with that practice, I mean also to implicitly associate killing for hide—might manifest themselves elsewhere within the ethics of society, and this is the chief reason I wish to observe vegetarianism and hope that others will consider doing so. While Shaw’s hypothetical construction serves adequately to demonstrate the hypocrisy of carnivorousness, the application is less than practical (and hopefully will remain so!)

Cave Art - HuntingScience has taught us that, at one point in human history, our ability to eat the flesh of other creatures was crucial to our evolutionary and cultural development. Meat is a source of concentrated protein, and the ability to eat it safely through cooking was likely instrumental in developing the larger, more complex brain that is the hallmark of homo sapiens. Had we not been hunters and gatherers, it is unlikely that we could have become builders and thinkers. It is likewise clear that killing animals for inedible products such as bone and hide produced invaluable benefits unattainable through other means.

In the present, however—apparently at least as early as Pythagoras, anyway—it becomes more relevant to assess the psychology and the philosophy of willingly engaging in an unsymbiotic relationship with a fellow creature, a relationship which is clearly unnecessary for our survival and is as such ecologically excessive. The industry of agriculture now makes it possible to obtain more than sufficient nutrition from sources which do not bleed and have no nervous system. Why, then, must we continue to kill to live? I do not believe there is suitable justification which can withstand the scrutiny of logic.

A distinction based on outmoded metaphysics and silly theologies and on little, if anything, of empirical substance is widely drawn between the perceived ‘value’ of a human life and the value of nonhuman life. Few are they who would categorically state that it is ethically acceptable to take the life of a human, and yet the vast majority of those who would so attest would be willing to state that it is ethically acceptable to take the life of a nonhuman. What, then, makes a cow more worthy of murder than a human?

For some, the answer is a matter of theological doctrine. The Creator, in his wisdom, created animals so that humans might eat. The sensibilities of those who believe such fairy tales, I am afraid, must be perturbed on a plane more profound than ours here before they are fit to openly consider these arguments—for, believing that one thing is in a ‘divine plan,’ a person can so justify virtually anything of base immorality, and this is borne out by much of human history. Of course, there is no need to provide justification for that which is not prosecuted, and the gnashing of teeth upon the tissues of certain classes of living beings is hardly considered an offense in any culture I can call to mind.

Even those who do not espouse this brand of anthropocentric creationism, though, might conceivably argue that carnivorism is part of an evolutionary paradigm. The fittest survive, and by so doing, somehow have the right to inflict death upon the less fit. It is plausible that a lion has the right to eat a hyena, but it is more accurate to say that the lion has the instinct to eat a hyena. No human being living in even a marginally developed culture has an instinct to eat meat that can be conclusively isolated from learned behavior—and, for that matter, it would be difficult to prove that the lion’s supposed instinct is hardwired rather than learned from its parents.

But to invoke the idea of natural rights with respect to vegetarianism is absurd simply because a system of natural rights, if equitable, must be equally applicable to all who exist underneath its framework. The lion in the savanna does not recognize the common origin and the common value of all life on Earth, nor can he place himself in the place of his prey for purposes of empathy. Humans do not have this luxury, although we are adept at behaving as if we do. In truth, I think we must stand behind something like the philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ to view the situation rationally. If we believe that evolution has granted us the right to kill animals, how can we classify ourselves as super-animal with respect to the right to life? Put another way, how is it that only humans among all creatures are able to indulge in this right to life? Taken to its logical extreme, such an evolutionary answer to vegetarianism produces some rather startling consequences: a system in which it is logically permissible for one human to kill another in the name of evolutionary advantage!

I have yet to find, and am possessed of a great deal of certainty that I will not find, a justification for carnivorism that cannot be ultimately reduced to the hideous and all-too-human belief that it is perfectly all right for a human to engage in any activity from which he cannot be prevented and will not be prosecuted. This is the basis for killing for food in modern man, and it is the point of Shaw’s question.

Having achieved the status of sentience, it would appear that humankind has little need for natural selection unless it is for one sort of human over another; but, as a consequence of sentience, humankind is also explicitly imbued with the choice of complex cooperation over bloody predation.

StriploinVegetarianism I view as an invaluable discipline of human rationality. If we kill for food when it is unnecessary for us to do so, we allow ourselves a license that our rational cunning can and will ingeniously translate to our relationships with one another and with our planet at large. The ethic of vegetarianism is the ethic of preservation and of compassion, of cohabitation and cooperation. No one can argue that these are not admirable, invaluable qualities.

We can extend this reasoning beyond the realm of eats and into the area of animal servitude. Among this kind of servitude we might include keeping animals for their labor, wool, eggs, or milk. However, in most of these applications, I would posit that it is reasonable to understand the relationship between humans and nonhumans as symbiotic, provided that the animals in question are well cared for (which is certainly far from always the case.) That is why I do not necessarily subscribe to the vegan ideal—because, treated properly, I believe that a dairy cow or a wool-bearing sheep benefits from its servitude. When one’s only feasible sources of these kinds of animal products or services are ‘factory farms’ or other institutions which practice cruelty to their stock, the abstinence from consumption of these products is certainly noble and defensible—and it is granted as self-evident that participation in the economics of animal cruelty is tantamount to complicity. Animal servitude, though, does not necessarily involve the kind of barbarism which is part and parcel of carnivorism.

Now, should Shaw’s aliens wish to create this kind of relationship with humankind, then we might agree to their terms should they provide for the elevation of our quality of life. Then again, we might not. To each, we would hope, would be afforded the right of choice. The ethical issue might then become whether or not we were serving against our will, and this is not a criterion in man’s relationship with other animals which cannot communicate such notions. So the use of animals for those purposes which do not necessarily result in their slaughter, then, is ethically arguable, I think, in a way that carnivorism is not.

My conclusion is this: the human vegetarian displays a respect of his own faculties and of the natural order that is absent in the human carnivore, and the psychological and sociological implications of the absence of this respect certainly are not restricted to the dinner table. To those willing to grasp the concept, these implications are evident in interpersonal and intercultural relations the world over. Not only is human predation upon his fellow inmates generative of tragic folly and abject cynicism, it is impractical and wasteful in a time in which populations are booming and resources are being strained. For those who simply must kill for food in order to survive, not even the choice of survival is self-justified, although it is perhaps excusable to all but the most wizened ascetic. But for those to whom the freedom from predatory practices is ubiquitous, there can be no logical excuse.

In an age obsessed with nutritional health, the concern for the health of the conscience is yet neglected. Well, not by me; not any longer. We shall see how I fare.

Vitruvian Man

The time will come when men like me will look upon the slaughter of animals as we now look upon the slaughter of men.
—Leonardo daVinci

The Blue Ball Machine

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For an animated GIF that is, from all appearances, much more than the sum of its parts, feel free to visit the Blue Ball Machine (and its sibling, BBM II) at You’re The Man Now, Dog! Gaze in stupefaction as these great feats of useless engineering do…umm…something with a bunch of small blue balls.

These dainties have been around the Web for a while now, but perhaps they provide existential fodder yet to be mulled over and argued about. Could these Blue Ball Machines have evolved to this level of complexity on their own, according to the Laws of Blue Ball Mechanics, or do they provide the ultimate teleological proof of the existence of dorks? Either way, I found them both rather remarkable and thoroughly entertaining.

“Behemoth is a Dinosaur”

From the documentary film Friends of God:

(RT: 06:43)