For what it’s worth

Consider this a kind of postscript to the last two posts. My personal view is that consciousness and mind are perfectly “natural” in the sense that no supernatural intervention was necessary to “insert” them into the process by which life developed. I take it that they emerged once living organisms became sufficiently complex, even though how this happened is still very incompletely understood. But at the same time, I think they are real features of the world and shouldn’t be explained away as mere epiphenomena. The temptation to treat them as such arises when theories or concepts are taken to be exhaustive descriptions of reality rather than abstractions that only capture certain aspects of it. So because consciousness, say, doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of measurement and quantification that have given theories in the physical sciences so much of their explanatory power, scientists (or more commonly philosophers and popularizers of science) sometimes dismiss it as somehow “less real.” What we need then is not an appeal to the supernatural to make room for mind, but an understanding of “nature” that is sufficiently rich to accommodate all the parts of our experience.

More specifically, I don’t think Christians have any theological stake in viewing mind or consciousness as somehow separate from nature. Even though most mainstream churches have made peace with evolution to some extent, there is still a tendency to make an exception for human minds. For instance, some theologians still insist that each human soul is directly created by God at the moment of conception. This not only seems to wreak havoc with the unity of the human person, but it undermines the observed continuity between humans and other animals. I think it’s preferable (and arguably more biblical) to see human beings as unitary organisms with both physical and mental aspects. Moreover, it seems more credible to think of God as creating a universe that already contains within it the seeds of consciousness and mind rather than as having to add them after the fact.

Meat in a vat?

This piece from NPR has generated some interest in the topic of in-vitro meat–that is, meat grown in a lab from a cell culture. Apparently there is a real possibility that sometime in the next decade or so we could see lab-grown meat on our supermarket shelves. On its face, this seems like a win-win for animals and for the environment given the well canvassed evils of industrial meat farming. That is, assuming the resulting product is safe for human consumption.

Undoubtedly the idea of eating meat grown in a petri dish will not sit well with a lot of people, at least initially. Similar to concerns about genetically modified crops, they may consider lab-grown meat “unnatural.” But in the case of GMOs there are legitimate concerns about cross-pollination or other forms of environmental harm that wouldn’t seem to apply here. This likely wouldn’t satisfy everyone, but the way most meat is currently produced isn’t exactly natural either, unless you consider being pumped full of hormones and antibiotics meat’s natural state. Maybe in the in-vitro future, “real” meat will become a niche or luxury item affordable only by the very rich. Or maybe eating real meat will come to be seen as grotesquely immoral given the widespread availability of ethically sound alternatives!

From a vegetarian/animal liberation perspective I can imagine that in vitro meat might seem like admitting defeat or a concession to “carnivore culture” (or “carnism” as some people refer to it): instead of convincing people to give up eating animals through moral persuasion, we’re enabling their flesh-eating ways. But assuming the rationale for animal liberation is reducing or ending the suffering and exploitation of animals, rather than just an objection to meat-eating per se (and what would the rationale for that be?), it’s hard to see this as much more than an emotional response.

I could be persuaded otherwise, and I likely wouldn’t eat “vat-meat” myself, but I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with this apart from the initial “ick” factor.

Friday Links

–Why Washington doesn’t care about jobs.

–At the Moral Mindfield, Marilyn has more on the question of whether welfare reforms benefit animals raised for food.

–Metallica’s classic album Master of Puppets turned 25(!) yesterday. This was the first real metal album I ever heard, and it’s still one of the best.

–NPR’s “First Listen” is streaming the new REM album in its entirety.

–For all the sci-fi nerd parents of small children out there: Goodnight, Dune.

–David Brooks will decide when it’s time for you to die.

–A lecture from Peter Singer: Evolution versus ethics.

–From the blog Experimental Theology, a series of posts on universalism: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

–How all the extra noise created by human beings affects animals.

–On James Alison and discipleship.

–Peter Gomes, the black, Republican (at least until late in his life), openly gay Baptist preacher who was the long-time minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, died unexpectedly from complications associated with a stroke this week. Michael Westmoreland-White has an overview of Gomes’ life and work.

–Two good ones from Fred Clark at the (newly moved!) Slacktivist: The epistemology of Team Hell and Should I not be concerned?

–In honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 9th, Oxfam is “raising awareness about hunger, climate change, and other crises facing women worldwide.”

ADDED LATER: Glad to see Marvin back in action with posts on Christian Taoism, the politics of union-busting, and the Rob Bell-universalism brouhaha.

Chimps, morals, and God

This Frans de Waal essay and the accompanying video discussion with Robert Wright, on the evolutionary roots of morality, are worth checking out.

De Waal’s argument is that moral impulses exist in our non-human animal relatives–particularly our closest relatives, the primates–and that we can see morality emerging along a continuum as a completely “natural” phenomenon. I think posing the issue as “morals (with or) without God” is misleading, though. I don’t see why a theist (Christian or otherwise) should have a problem with the idea that morality is “natural.”

On the contrary, it makes good sense to me, theologically speaking, to say that the potential for morailty would be natural to human beings. God–so the Christian tradition says–wants us to live lives characterized by mutal care and support. This kind of life-in-community is what we were made for.* This is directly contrary to the idea that morality is some kind of divine “add-on” to the human condition. I see de Waal’s proposals as something like an updating of Aristotelian-Thomist ethics in light of current knowledge. Morality is basically about those rules, practices, character traits, and so on that are conducive to human flourishing.

The other question that comes up is that of sanctions. Will people be moral if they aren’t afraid God will punish them? I think that, one, it’s just an observable fact that a lot of people behave perfectly decently without worrying about divine punishment (including many religious people), and, two, basing morality on the fear of divine punishment is bad theology. Paul’s letters in particular make it clear that a Christian’s motive for morality should come from a freely given response to the love God has shown us, a response empowered by the free gift of God’s Spirit.

Where we might see a distinctive human quality here (and I realize that arguing for “unique” human capabilities is risky) is in our capacity to take a “God’s-eye” perspective on morality. What I mean by that is that we can grasp a moral vision that goes beyond our immediate kin group, beyond our friends, beyond our religious and national ties, even beyond our species, to encompass all God’s creatures. An example is the imaginative depictions of God’s eschatological peace in the Hebrew prophets. This is consistent with some recent theology, which has located the “divine image” precisely in our function as God’s stewards of creation. On this view, our “dominion” is properly aimed at facilitating the widest possible flourishing of God’s creation.
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*Talking about “what we’re made for” obviously means something different in an evolutionary picutre of the world than one in which humans are understood to be a direct, special creation of God, but I think we can say that God intended to bring about creatures like us through the evolutionary process, in addition to whatever other divine goals that process serves.

UPDATE: In retrospect, “Monkeys, Morals, and God” seems like the obviously superior title for this post. I’m really terrible at coming up with catchy blog post titles.

“Self-awareness is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon”

From Wired, a report of laboratory monkeys (rhesus macaques, to be specific) that have shown signs of self-recognition (and thus potentially self-awareness):

In the lab of University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Luis Populin, five rhesus macaques seem to recognize their own reflections in a mirror. Monkeys weren’t supposed to do this.

“We thought these subjects didn’t have this ability. The indications are that if you fail the mark test, you’re not self-aware. This opens up a whole field of possibilities,” Populin said.

Populin doesn’t usually study monkey self-awareness. The macaques described in this study, published Sept. 29 in Public Library of Science One, were originally part of his work on attention deficit disorder. But during that experiment, study co-author Abigail Rajala noticed the monkeys using mirrors to study themselves

The article goes on to point out that self-awareness, long thought a unique identifier of human beings, isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon:

So-called mirror self-recognition is thought to indicate self-awareness, which is required to understand selfhood in others, and ultimately to be empathic. Researchers measure this with the “mark test.” They paint or ink a mark on unconscious animals, then see if they use mirrors to discover the marks.

It was once thought that only humans could pass the mark test. Then chimpanzees did, followed by dolphins and elephants. These successes challenged the notions that humans were alone on one side of a cognitive divide. Many researchers think the notion of a divide is itself mistaken. Instead, they propose a gradual spectrum of cognitive powers, a spectrum crudely measured by mirrors.

Indeed, macaques — including those in Populin’s study — have repeatedly failed the mark test. But after Rajala called attention to their strange behaviors, the researchers paid closer attention. The highly social monkeys only rarely tried to interact with the reflections. They used mirrors to study otherwise-hidden parts of their bodies, such as their genitals and the implants in their heads. Mark tests not withstanding, they seemed quite self-aware.

I would think that this kind of sliding scale of cognitive abilities is just what evolutionary theory would lead you to expect. After all, it posits a continuity between human beings and other forms of life.

I’d also add that creatures with self-awareness probably shouldn’t be kept in labs and have electrodes stuck in their heads. (Though, ironically, laboratory conditions probably made it more likely that we’d discover their self-awareness.)

Coming up for air

Thanks to everyone for their kind congratulations on the birth of our daughter. If you have kids, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s an exhilarating and exhausting experience. And if you don’t, my paltry words won’t be able to do it justice. I can’t go so far as to say we’re in any kind of routine yet, but we’re getting the hang of things, thanks in large part to some much-appreciated help from my mother-in-law.

I took a month-long leave from work, so I’ve been getting well practiced at the mechanics of infant care (diapers, bottles, swaddling, etc.), running interference between my wife and daughter and the outside world, spending money hand over fist on baby supplies, and receiving visits from wonderful friends, who have usually come bearing delicious food. All that plus trying to get to know this mysterious little creature who now shares our lives.

There has been some down time (newborns sleep a lot), and I’ve spent most of it reading baby books, usually of the how-to variety. But I also picked up, on Marilyn‘s recommendation, The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl. It summarizes, in a very lay-reader friendly fashion, some of the recent research on how babies’ minds develop. Specifically, it looks at how infants’ minds are hardwired to solve certain conundrums that have bedeviled philosophers for centuries like the existence of other minds and the external world. I’m not sure David Hume would be satisfied, but it makes for fascinating reading, especially for a new parent.

I also managed to read Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. The bite-sized nuggets of text were perfect for those first few bleary days after coming home from the hospital, when my brain could only process about 150 words at a sitting (at most). It was a good reminder not to let the stresses of new parenthood turn into an excuse for eating crap. Though, contra Pollan, convenience food can be a blessing in some circumstances.

Hopefully as the learning curve becomes a little less steep I’ll find more time to post here. I will try to avoid becoming a “daddy blogger” though. :)