Sunday, 31 July 2011

Animal consciousness.

Morrissey recently caused controversy by suggesting that the mass breeding and killing of non-human animals for fast-food is worse than the killing of 77 human beings by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. I happened to believe that his comments raised some important questions, which I talked about in a previous blog post.

Since then, I have seen some people arguing that non-human animals are not ‘sentient’ or ‘conscious’ and that what Morrissey said is therefore incorrect. To them, animals are the “beast machines” of Descartes: mere biological machines devoid of a subjective experiential existence. This appears to entail that human beings are the exclusive beneficiaries of mind and consciousness, which emerged suddenly and inexplicably in the evolutionary process with no prior and less sophisticated form. Given what is known about the evolution of other characteristics, serious doubt should be cast on this view of animals.

Consciousness is a very difficult phenomenon to explain. Though it is thought to be an emergent property of the physical matter and activity of the brain, considerable investigations in humans into the neurological correlates of conscious experience have failed to explain consciousness. It is arguable that consciousness is in fact inaccessible by scientific methods. It is an immaterial and subjective phenomenon that can not be observed by others or by scientific instruments. Indeed, the only way in which we can gain insight into the conscious mind of another human being is through their subjective report. Some philosophers argue further that the existence of minds other than our own can not be proven via the scientific method and that the existence of such other minds is a properly basic belief.

Far less research has been carried out on non-human animals, with Edelman and Seth (2009) stating that “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken”. The basis on which the Cartesian view of animals as “beast machines” should be accepted is therefore unclear. There is certainly no scientific proof for a lack of consciousness in non-human animals and it is unclear how scientific methods could ever provide such proof.

Most people don’t take this view of animals. Pet owners view their pets (particularly dogs) as loyal and loving companions with a mind and personality of their own. People are outraged by instances of animal cruelty that appear in the media – the case of the woman caught on camera throwing a cat into a wheelie bin being a powerful example. Indeed, there is legislation against animal cruelty precisely because of the experiential distress it causes to the animal. There is no such legislation against purchasing a toy robot or a computer and smashing it to pieces in the privacy of ones own home. Individuals and society recognise and acknowledge the capacity of animals to suffer and that there is something inherently wrong in inflicting such suffering upon them.

Unfortunately, the majority of people do not extend their abhorrence of animal cruelty to the intensive farming of animals for the production of cheap meat, dairy, and other products. The conditions that these animals have to endure for life in factory farms before meeting their brutal end are far, far worse than what happened to the previously mentioned cat – yet there is no outrage. Perhaps some people aren’t aware of what goes on behind the closed doors. I, too, was once unaware, but once I learned of the reality of what these animals face I was thrown into a very uncomfortable state of mental turmoil which could only be relieved by behavioural change or resorting to spurious arguments like ‘animals aren’t sentient’. I chose the former and have never regretted it. 

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Richard Dawkins' refusal to debate William Lane Craig

Richard Dawkins is one of the most ardent and well-known proponents of atheism in present times. He appears to have made it something of a personal mission to challenge religion and promote atheism via writing books (e.g. The God Delusion), making TV programmes (e.g. The Root of All Evil?), and engaging religious people in debates. At the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate, therefore, a member of the audience requested that Dawkins explain his refusal to debate William Lane Craig, arguably the world’s foremost Christian apologist (1). Dawkins responded in the following way:

"I have always said when invited to do debates, that I will be happy to debate a bishop, a cardinal, a pope, an archbishop. Indeed, I have done both (sic).

"I don't take on creationists and I don't take on people whose only claim to fame is that they are professional debaters. They’ve got to have something more than that. I’m busy".

Given that Dawkins was invited to debate Craig on numerous occasions previously, it must be assumed that Dawkins knew very well who Craig was and that this misrepresentation of him was deliberate. While Craig is certainly a skilled debater (a fact which a number of Dawkins’ colleagues have experienced personally) this is not his profession. He is a Research Professor in Philosophy with doctorates in philosophy and theology to his name, in addition to an extensive list of published works. Quite clearly there is “something more” to Craig than his skills in debate. Nor is Craig a "creationist" in the “young Earth” understanding of the word. In agreement with modern science and cosmology, he argues that the universe began some 13.7 billion years ago in the “Big Bang”.

Perhaps Dawkins could be given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was unaware of these facts at the time. If so, perhaps he would have subsequently became aware of them and reneged on is refusal to debate Craig. Alas, he has not done so. Having been invited to debate Craig on the subject of The God Delusion in Oxford later in 2011, Dawkins has once again refused to participate. This has been met with accusations of cowardice on his part, even from Dr Daniel Came, a fellow atheist at Oxford (2).

Having seen the likes of Dawkins (e.g. Christopher Hitchens) engage Craig in debate and walk away the loser, I can understand his refusal to debate. Dawkins is a biologist; he isn’t equipped with the philosophical or theological knowledge and understanding to match Craig. Craig has presented numerous philosophical critiques of Dawkins’ arguments in published works, which have not been met with a response from Dawkins. For example, Craig points out that Dawkins’ “who designed the designer argument” can not be taken seriously, as the demand for an explanation of an explanation would require an infinite regress of explanations which would undermine the enterprise of science itself – that is, if an explanation always required an explanation, that explanation would also require an explanation, etc, and therefore nothing could be accepted as true. In a debate with Craig, Dawkins would be out of his comfort zone of biology and into the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, and theology.

As an agnostic (that is, I do not believe one way or the other), I’d very much like to see this debate happen. It’d be interesting to see how Dawkins would respond to the type of critique that Craig would offer, and also to see what Dawkins might have to say on the rather impressive cosmological and teleological arguments that Craig typically advances. However, I suspect that the accusations of cowardice are true and that Dawkins will continue to avoid Craig. 

Morrissey: The fast-food industry and the massacre in Norway

Morrissey is reported to have said:

"We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown with 97 dead". 

"Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried S*** every day."

Unfortunately, the reaction to these comments indicates that many people are either wilfully misinterpreting what he has said or are unable to identify and understand the point he is making. He was not referring to what happens in McDonald's outlets (they don't deserve to be called restaurants). He was not suggesting that the act of frying chips or burgers is worse than committing mass murder. He was not suggesting that the act of a child tucking into a 'Happy Meal' was worse than mass murder. Nor was he even suggesting that the detrimental effects of such junk food on the health of populations is worse than mass murder. Rather, he was referring to the breeding and murder of animals on an industrial scale to supply the meat required for the products sold in fast food restaurants. 

Despite the unsophisticated wording of Morrissey's remarks, he raises an important question: Why should the murder of almost one-hundred human beings be a global story that causes sadness and outrage in those who were never even aware of the existence of the victims, yet the unrelenting murder of animals on an industrial scale quietly continues behind closed doors without ever entering into the thoughts of most people? The latter is quite clearly worse in a range of aspects. The scale is in the realms of billions of victims, not tens. The duration is best measured in years, decades, or perhaps ultimately centuries, and not minutes or hours. The victims are bred into a system that values efficiency over welfare which they must endure until their life is brutally terminated; they are not merely unlucky enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

These considerations seem to be unimportant for those criticising Morrissey. The most significant difference for those people is that in one case the victims were human and in the other case they are non-human. For them, human life is inherently of more worth than non-human life. Therefore, the murder of one-hundred human beings causes them to be upset or angry, while the killing of animals on an unfathomably greater scale is met with mere indifference. This, and the speciesism underlying it, are reprehensible. Ironically, particularism and supremacism in another form, racism, motivated Breivik to murder Labour activists who he considered to be responsible for multiculturalism in Europe.

Morrissey considers the killing of human beings and animals to be wrong. I suspect that if he had his way, neither would happen. That is commendable. On the contrary, those mocking him appear to be indifferent to killing so long as the victims are non-human or happen to be in the domain of animals who've been unfortunate enough to be singled out by human beings for exploitation.