Sunday, September 15, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Descartes Errors

Evaluate Descartes's theory that only those beings with a mind can suffer and that only humans have minds. Explore the consequences for utilitarianism if we agree that animals (including human beings) have a capacity for suffering.

Much of a problem with Descartes is that his thinking was taking place in an era in which only the most primitive levels of science existed. It is easy to judge people as being foolish or silly for ideas they had, which we now know were faulty. The fact of matter is though, we know things they didn't know thanks to centuries of scientific advancements. It has been pointed out that without our current scientific knowledge, it DOES look like the sun rises and goes around our earth, along with everything else in the universe.

Still, Descartes was wrong on many things, for whatever reason. His most famous statement, with which he started his meditations, was cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. I remember when I first heard that high school thinking, what's wrong with I feel, therefore I am? Now I think I have an answer. It's because Descartes was prejudiced in favor of thinking. Not that he is wrong, it's just that it's too narrow statement. I am aware, therefore I am would probably have satisfied both of us.

What Descartes could not know is how deeply the human brain is connected to the mind. Damage the brain and you damage the mind. Of course, even modern thinkers sometimes accept the existence of a soul. Upon death your soul is restored, so even a damaged brain becomes a complete mind once this spiritual event tales place. People who believe in this have reported near-death experiences in which lost limbs were restored to them during their out of body experience. I do not know if people born without limbs have the same experience. If anyone knows, please inform me! As long as I'm wandering off this way, what about people blind from birth? Do they feel that they were suddenly able to see? How accurate are their impressions?

Back on topic. We are all influenced by the thinkers who to came before us. As Newton said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Descartes was clearly influenced by the ideas of his time, which were firmly based on old medieval ideas. The idea I'm referring to in this particular case is the chain of being. This supposes that every bit of life everywhere in the universe -- remember the universe was then believed to only have life here on earth, in heaven, and in hell -- so then, every bit of life in the universe had its place, it's rank, and its value.

God was at the top, then angels, than humans, then animals which were similar to humans, and so on all the way down. Only humans had souls. Descartes was Catholic so he believed this as an absolute truth. That meant that animals were not subject to heaven or hell, but simply died when they died. They had no morals, they had no mind.

Descartes claimed that he started with cogito ergo sum and built everything else up by logic. Today it's easy to see that he simply started with a set of prejudices, including his Catholic faith, and then found ways to rationalize his belief in those pre-existing concepts.

He felt that since animals were inferior to people, and since people were given dominion over animals, obviously the animals could not suffer. The fact that anyone with eyes in his head could see that animals suffered didn't seem to bother him. But let's admit it, that's rather typical of philosophers. Reality is less important to them than the cleverness of their reasoning. I'm going to put a comment from an earlier posting here about modern scientists. Their ideas are descended from Descartes and are just as silly.

Previous post: Finally, how does this affect humans, apes, and other animals? Biologists who actually work with experimental animals have, for over a century, stubbornly refused to admit that animals have feelings like humans. They claim that this is their scientific objectivity at work. In fact, it is a way to excuse themselves from committing often terrible acts against animals that have feelings. So extreme has this attitude become that you can read some biological papers in which researchers describe animals as exhibiting "hunger like behaviors" or "fear like reactions".

And yet the same biologists are firm believers in evolutionary theory. Basic evolutionary theory says that evolutionary traits do not suddenly appear in isolation. They slowly evolve over millennia and even millions of years. That means that if we humans have emotions, those emotions must have spent millions of years evolving in other animals. Which means that there are no emotion like behaviors, there are only emotions. At the risk of being crude, imagine the ridicule a biologist would receive from his fellows if he described an animal as engaging in "eating like behaviors" or "defecating like behaviors".

End previous post.

It is important to remember that some historians and philosophers regard human advancement as partly linked to our acceptance of others as ourselves. In other words, as long as we can identify a group as not us, it becomes acceptable to do terrible things to them. We advance morally when we admit others to be like us. There is also, and this is what really applies in this case, a strong tendency to assume that those others are so different they can't suffer. This attitude was common among European imperialists in regard to American Indians and the Japanese. They didn't show their suffering in cultural ways which we recognized, therefore it was assumed they weren't really human and didn't really suffer.

It was very important to Descartes and most humans alive at that time to believe that animals were incredibly inferior to humans. They did not believe in evolution, so they could believe that animals were created fundamentally different. Since so much of human life depended upon inflicting suffering upon animals, they needed a good excuse to continue to do so. Descartes gave them a very good one.

Today we know that what we feel must exist in at least a primitive form in lesser animals. Otherwise it could not have evolved. Clearly animals do feel pain. And if they feel pain, clearly they can suffer.

Descartes's claim that only humans can think has also been disproven. The list of animals that can look at a problem, think about it, and then work out a solution has grown larger and larger as scientists have worked with them. Chimpanzees, monkeys, orangutans, dolphins, dogs, rats, corvids, and many more animals clearly can think and learn. So, by Descartes's definition, they think therefore they are. They have minds.

Oh, corvids are very clever birds which include crows, ravens, and so on.

This means that if we accept a utilitarian view of morality, we must include animals in that elaborate calculation. This makes things even more unbelievably complicated than they already were. How do you tell how happy a dog is? How about a crow? How can we be sure how much they're suffering? The moral calculus, already ludicrously complicated and subjective, becomes totally impossible to perform.

On the other hand, the mere fact that they do have minds and can suffer strongly supports environmentalists. Since they do have some kind of mind and since they can experience suffering, we need to think about their needs as well as our own.

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