Rethinking Animals
February 12, 2019 10:24 AM   Subscribe

 
Overthinking a plate of intelligent beings?
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:53 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


"If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason."
posted by thelonius at 10:56 AM on February 12 [40 favorites]


The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.

But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?

posted by Rhaomi at 10:58 AM on February 12 [6 favorites]


Female trout “fake orgasms,” quivering as though they’re about to lay eggs, perhaps so that undesired males will release their sperm and be on their way.

Who hasn't?

Seriously, I appreciate you posting this. I knew about Jains' beliefs, but I didn't know they put them into practice through veterinary work. The vastness of suffering in this universe is more than I can contemplate. I mean, I literally can not. It is fractal.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:00 AM on February 12 [24 favorites]


I enjoyed reading about the Jain perspective on animals and suffering, but this article had very little to say about what science can tell us about consciousness and suffering, much less the philosophical understanding of consciousness. It basically runs through a few lab tests that talk about how a few different animals respond to different stimuli, including pain-inducing ones. It then posits a sort of consciousness homunculus that might explain how animals see the world. And... that's it? The question of whether animals feel pain (they do), whether they suffer like us (we're not sure/it's a spectrum), and whether they're conscious (no idea because there's no good definition of consciousness) are all given short shrift IMO.

Overall I give it a 'C-'; needs work.
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:10 AM on February 12 [9 favorites]


a silent scream, born of the fish’s belief that it has entered a permanent state of extreme suffering

me too bitch, you're not special
posted by poffin boffin at 11:11 AM on February 12 [49 favorites]


But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?

I'm here for you my friends. I hear you.
posted by Splunge at 11:22 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]


I thought it was very well written, and I shared this widely among my friends.

runcibleshaw, I have to push back a little against the assessment that he doesn't talk about animal consciousness. He talks about animal consciousness through the entire piece, by talking about how much we don't know. The little bit of scientific research I wish he had linked to instead of just stating the results in the article, and for that I have to give him a B, but I do feel strongly that he addressed both of those pieces, and touched on
- why scientific research into cognition is ethically challenging (using the pain studies as examples)
- why scientific research into cognition is extremely difficult (this is a subtext I read through his talking about animal consciousness from a mystical perspective as he included the sparse studies on the topic

I think though, that although the Jains may have taken pascifism to an extreme, their extreme is an ethical standard that few can live up to but that would heal our relationship with the Earth rather quickly.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 11:34 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]


The vastness of suffering in this universe is more than I can contemplate. I mean, I literally can not. It is fractal.

The entire universe is at best indifferent to your concerns and needs and at worst actively working against them. There is only one source of kindness in the universe - intelligent life - and if you'd like more kindness in the universe, you need to create it.

But it's OK to eat fish because they don't have any feelings.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:39 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]


Mankind cannot mend its relationship with the biosphere without revising its understanding of the nature of thought. In materialist scientism, thought is an inexplicable remainder appearing mysteriously in a few lifeforms within an otherwise thoughtless universe. This reductive, eliminative approach is responsible for almost all the problems that afflict humanity and the biosphere. We need an inclusive approach in which thought is understood as the fundamental fact of all existence. There is ample intellectual and spiritual grounding for such an approach. Materialist scientism needs to be put in its place.
posted by No Robots at 12:18 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Mankind cannot mend its relationship with the biosphere without revising its understanding of the nature of thought [...] Materialist scientism needs to be put in its place.*

*citation needed
posted by runcibleshaw at 12:22 PM on February 12 [9 favorites]


"In materialist scientism, thought is an inexplicable remainder appearing mysteriously in a few lifeforms within an otherwise thoughtless universe. This reductive, eliminative approach is responsible for almost all the problems that afflict humanity and the biosphere."

What are you trying to say? Thoughts are not inexplicable, nor can only a few organisms have them. There doesn't seem to be any need for a supernatural mechanic for living beings to exist and have thoughts and function as they do, so I'm not sure what your argument is.

Material scientism should be put in its place, which is everywhere, I guess.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:39 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]


The accusing finger is pointing straight at a materialist scientism that enthrones matter and dismisses mind:
It seems barbaric to attempt to deprive nature of its soul, only because it is unlike our soul. Barbaric seems to me a materialism according to which a purely external mechanicality, an outwardness devoid of an inwardness runs through nature. Barbaric was the science that preaches such materialism, that is why philosophy perished in it, in its incapacity for thinking.--Constantin Brunner
The boosters of this worldview are the ones responsible for the decay of thought and life on this planet. They can continue to point their own fingers at religion or woo-woo, but the hour is late, and the reckoning is at hand.
posted by No Robots at 1:01 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


There is only one source of kindness in the universe - intelligent life - and if you'd like more kindness in the universe, you need to create it.

This technique has met with, at best, mixed results.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:11 PM on February 12


No Robots, your contention is that people who believe there is no evidence and need for magic are responsible for the decay of life and thought? That all life forms would be better off if we humans all believed in magic and the current state of the world (which will be fine BTW, extinction events are a dime a dozen) would be reversed had we only thought that animals had magic, intangible, unsensible, and non-interactable powers outside of their bodies?

I'm curious as to how you think lack of belief in souls has led to any decay. Hell, how has thought decayed, there is more thought and knowledge, freely available to more human beings, than at any other point in history. I know politically stuff is rough right now, but we are still at the apex of human development, philosophy, science, and "thought."
posted by GoblinHoney at 1:13 PM on February 12 [10 favorites]


That matter can be arranged in patterns that produce subjective experience is as much of a miracle and an object of awe as any schema that requires a brain/soul dichotomy.

Empathy and kindness don't require a soul, they just require eyes and the recognition that my suffering is not fundamentally different from yours.
posted by murphy slaw at 1:38 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


“The birds aren't singing, they're screaming in pain and terror” (Herzog)
posted by acb at 3:19 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Hell, how has thought decayed, there is more thought and knowledge, freely available to more human beings, than at any other point in history.

The problem is not the quantity but the quality of thought:
The withdrawal of philosophy into a "professional" shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth – and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.--Paul Feyerabend
The problem has only gotten worse since Feyerabend wrote that. Science needs to re-root itself in the spirituality of the great scientists of a century ago:
We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal.--Albert Einstein
This is the only way out of our biocidal stupor.
posted by No Robots at 3:49 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I used to fish off piers and on day boats between here and Catalina with my Dad when I was in elementary school. We would usually eat what we caught and most of the time it was caught with live anchovy or squid as bait. I remember being proud of myself for being a girl who could, most of the time, bait her own hook as humanely as possible. (There was always some old geezer nearby willing to "help" girls with the "gross" stuff. Which, comparatively speaking, was the grossest part of fishing.)
I grew up, and days off never worked out and I just sort of stopped going with him. I miss that time, and would love to try to recapture that magic, but I think I'm too sensitive for live bait now.

All of this to say the pull-quote from TFA makes me want to cry so it looks like my fishing days are probably over.
posted by ApathyGirl at 3:55 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]


Thanks for posting this.

A former professor and current hero of mine, Stevan Harnad, is both brilliant cognitive scientist and passionate vegan activist. For runcibleshaw and thebotanyofsouls, and anyone else who's interested, some of his writings discuss how little science has to tell us about consciousness in general, and how a scientific understanding of cognition doesn't do much to help us understand the inner lives of others—humans and nonhuman animals alike:

Trying to protect animals from suffering operates under an enormous logical handicap, well-known to philosophers: the "other-minds problem." It is logically impossible to know for sure ("prove"), even for scientists, whether and what any entity other than oneself is feeling. Even language is not a guarantor: if someone says "that hurts," they could be pretending, or they could even be a robot, a zombie, that does not feel at all. Logically speaking.

But it is obvious to all who are trying to be honest about the problem of human-inflicted animal suffering that it is disingenuous to invoke the "other-minds problem" in order to create doubt about suffering in animals where we would not invoke it in the case of humans. We know that just about all mammals and birds suffer if they are confined, deprived of access to their kin and kind, or forcibly manipulated. We recognise the mammalian and avian signs of stress, pain, fear and depression; and where we lack personal experience (such as with reptiles, fish or invertebrates), there are not only scientists but lay people—with abundant experience observing and caring for animals—who are highly capable and more than willing guide us.


Literally all of Stevan's publications are available for free here. You can also check out Animal Sentience, which is an "interdisciplinary journal on animal feeling" that he edits.
posted by materialgirl at 4:47 PM on February 12 [16 favorites]


The entire universe is at best indifferent to your concerns and needs and at worst actively working against them.

You are a fluke of the Universe.
You have no right to be here.
Whether you can hear it or not,
the Universe is laughing behind your back.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:48 PM on February 12


"Then Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ("shedding," as he called it finely, "the green blood of the silent animals"), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called "Why should Salt suffer?" and there was more trouble." - G K Chesterton
posted by Hogshead at 5:07 PM on February 12


We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal.--Albert Einstein

This is the only way out of our biocidal stupor.


I clearly observe the syndrome you are describing at work in the world, but I disagree with both the disease process you propose is at work , and your single prescription.

Everything needed to be kinder, more respectful of all life, and better stewards of our tiny bubble of habitable space exists in the material world we apprehend with our senses at every moment.

If pantheism and belief in an essential feature of conscious experience that exists outside of the brain makes it easier to do those things, I am not going to try to argue you out of it.

But belief in non-physical causes is neither necessary nor sufficient for these goals.
posted by murphy slaw at 5:10 PM on February 12 [8 favorites]


"Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition"

Well finally
posted by New England Cultist at 6:31 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


If fish can’t have the belief that their pain will end in due course, surely they can’t have the belief it will go on forever either? They don’t (wouldn’t) have beliefs about its duration at all.
posted by Segundus at 7:42 PM on February 12 [5 favorites]


I mean, I think the fish flop around because the ones who have the muscles that spaz out like that in that scenario have a shot at ending up back in the water. Like, they've been evolving for 500 million years and fish get washed up onto rocks and beaches a lot, I think that's what nature has come up with for that situation.
posted by floam at 8:54 PM on February 12 [6 favorites]


If fish can’t have the belief that their pain will end in due course, surely they can’t have the belief it will go on forever either? They don’t (wouldn’t) have beliefs about its duration at all.

Just the opposite I'd think. Not being able to conceive of duration or a future, in the way we might imagine it, would mean living in the eternal present where that which is felt now becomes the totality of one's existence for there being no concept of time. Pain would be the entirety of existence as there'd be no imagined alternative possible. Forever in that sense is identical to the now.

Although an ability to remember, should fish have such a thing, would though hold a basis for implicit comparison, a state without pain in which one lived previously and the new state of pain giving some vague sense of change in status in the gulf between "then" vs "now".

The more important consideration, from my perspective, is in how we approach our understanding of the world and in this particular example animals. Most of us come from cultures where the basis of understanding starts from assumptions of difference, that animals are unlike humans in their consciousness so we can justify our use of them absent special proof of similarity in awareness, while some start from an assumption of likeness or connection demanding special proof of difference before being able to justify use of animals in ways different from how we'd act towards humans. I'm personally not convinced most cultures choose the right path.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:07 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I think that's what nature has come up with for that situation.

Yes, but: pain is another nature's brilliant invention, used to send a signal that "urgent action must be taken to stop whatever is going on", signal which some apes too clever for their own good sometimes decide to turn off permanently along with everything else. That's what you get for having a concept of time I guess.

Interestingly, this behavior might be not unique to us.
posted by hat_eater at 7:08 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


If fish can’t have the belief that their pain will end in due course, surely they can’t have the belief it will go on forever either?

The article provides some evidence that fish can model other minds, namely cooperation with eels which includes what appears to be gestural language. If that is correct, it gives additional reason to think that fish can model their own minds, consciousness.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:29 AM on February 13


If these behaviors add up to consciousness, it means one of two things: Either consciousness evolved twice, at least, across the long course of evolutionary history, or it evolved sometime before birds and mammals went on their separate evolutionary journeys.

Does this argument really follow? By the same token it's impossible to prove someone isn't a philosophical zombie, evolution can't exert any pressure on consciousness. It seems to me that anything with a complex enough nervous system is going to experience some degree of consciousness. I can imagine the scale quite clearly, I travel the full (so far known) length of it on a daily basis.

> Science needs to re-root itself in the spirituality of the great scientists of a century ago

I'd be more likely to agree with this if it was followed up by "and then they might have a tiny chance at getting anyone to listen to what they've been yelling for decades." Like, who do you think is telling us all about what we're doing to the planet?
posted by lucidium at 1:54 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


It’s not enough for scientists to tell us how fouled up the planet is. Scientists need to acknowledge the crucial role that science itself has played in getting us into this mess.
posted by No Robots at 2:03 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


to misquote homer simpson: "To [Science], the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!"

the problems you are attributing to "science" are due to lack of consideration of ethics and global utilitarian outcomes, not anything inherent to scientific materialism itself.

many, many fields (cough politics) have exactly the same problem. it's not the science, it's the people. it's always the people.

if there is a contribution to the problem by the scientific method itself, it's that science is a very powerful tool and is a force multiplier for *all* intentions, good or ill.

and if you're going to argue that scientific materialism inevitably leads to lack of empathy or concern for ethical outcomes, dude, i'm right here.
posted by murphy slaw at 4:42 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


Even the greatest proponent of science must admit the existence of bad science. And underlying bad science is bad thinking. Here is Spinoza on what constitutes good thinking and good science:
[M]an conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character. Thus he is led to seek for means which will bring him to this pitch of perfection, and calls everything which will serve as such means a true good. The chief good is that he should arrive, together with other individuals if possible, at the possession of the aforesaid character. What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature…. Thus it is apparent to everyone that I wish to direct all sciences to one end and aim, so that we may attain to the supreme human perfection which we have named; and, therefore, whatsoever in the sciences does not serve to promote our object will have to be rejected as useless. [Emphasis mine]
There is nothing being done in science to promote “knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature,” whereas, according to Spinoza, everything in science besides this is useless. I would add that the failure of science in this regard makes it not only useless but downright hazardous.
posted by No Robots at 11:14 AM on February 14


There is nothing being done in science to promote “knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature,"[...]

What does that mean?
posted by runcibleshaw at 1:22 PM on February 14


Knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature means knowledge that departs from the position that just as the whole of nature is a continuum of matter, it is also a continuum of thought.
posted by No Robots at 1:49 PM on February 14


departs from the position that just as the whole of nature is a continuum of matter, it is also a continuum of thought.

do you mean "departs from" or "embraces" here? because if it's the former I'm not sure what you're trying to say.
posted by murphy slaw at 2:08 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


I should have written "starts from."
posted by No Robots at 2:19 PM on February 14


thank you for clarifying.

I don't see how belief or disbelief in a realm of the mind that is separate from the physical substrate that produces that mind affects one's sense of connection to the web of life or the totality of existence.

my eyes can see the damage that we're doing to the environment, they can see the harm we cause to other people and creatures by deluding ourselves into thinking their pain is not real like ours, they can see the way that avarice and impatience cause us to build systems to satisfy our wants without regard for the long-term effects of those systems.

i also think my mind is a dance of electrochemical impulses bouncing around in a three-pound hunk of fatty meat, and little or nothing more (pending future discoveries).

i don't see how these two things are in conflict.
posted by murphy slaw at 2:45 PM on February 14


Look, I know that many people—most people—are legit materialists. Hell, I used to be one. And when I was one, I cared about things. However, with my metanoia came not only inner peace but also improved praxis. Not everyone is open to this kind of change in outlook. But I do see hopeful signs. Even this o.p. is evidence of that. The materialist viewpoint must be confronted in order to bring attention to the alternative. If a person is content with the way science is proceeding, there is little anyone can do other than to suggest exploring an alternative. What do you have to lose?
posted by No Robots at 3:02 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


I just don't see how "does not believe in an immaterial basis for minds" and "is content with the way that science is proceeding" are strongly correlated.

I'm discontent with the way that humanity is proceeding more than the way that science is proceeding specifically.

Getting hung up on scientific materialism as the cause of our ills seems to me like having a bunch of yahoos come over to your house and dig holes all over the yard, and then declaring that humanity lost its way when the shovel was invented. The problem isn't the shovel, it's the people digging the damn holes.

At any rate,I feel like we've staked out our positions pretty clearly at this point.
posted by murphy slaw at 3:15 PM on February 14



If fish can’t have the belief that their pain will end in due course, surely they can’t have the belief it will go on forever either? They don’t (wouldn’t) have beliefs about its duration at all.


that is correct, they are exactly like humans in that way. when you are dying in agony you lose the ability to have beliefs that can be expressed like that. if you can think sentences, like "this is the worst pain ever," that means it isn't. when pain and panic take up the full space of your consciousness, you don't have thoughts or a personality or a sense of time until they back off just a little bit; they go away. you just have sensations. "I thought it would last forever" is what we say after we get better, looking back, applying language to our memories the way we have to do to explain our nonverbal dreams. at the time, you don't say or think "this is eternity;" you're too busy screaming. for the duration of the extreme and total suffering, you are no better than a fish.

tl;dr: if you're going to kill an animal and you have a choice, do it instantly or don't do it at all. it's true they can't philosophize when they're in excruciating pain, but neither can you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:36 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]


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