I recently went through a period of vegetarianism, because I didn’t like the idea that if I was really aware of where my meat came from, I wouldn’t want to eat it. That seems to me a pretty reasonable maxim of behaviour – if you can only do something by being unreflective about it, you should probably stop. But despite continuing to believe that, I’ve started eating some meat again.
Now I don’t want to suggest that I resumed my omnivorous ways for some principled reason – in all likelihood I gave in to convenience and the deliciousness of eating flesh. But I have been thinking, ever since, about what point in the food chain I start caring about.
A good framework for discussion can be had by considering the question transcendentally – that is, from the perspective of the necessary conditions for the possibility of asking the question at all. I need to be alive, and non-starving to even have the behavioural flexibility to decide what I ought to eat. This basic fact provides a transcendental basis for rejecting any account of what organisms we should care about which implies that my very existence is wrong. So if someone tried to argue that we should care about every microorganism, every plant and every animal equally, we can reject their position simply on the grounds that it would make life, and more particularly life which is able to make dietary choices, impossible. You can’t take a step without killing some tiny mites, or run your finger across a table without precipitating a microbiological holocaust. Since there appears to be no way to produce an organism complex enough to worry about what it eats without it killing zillions of simpler organisms all the time, we should conclude that this isn’t something to worry about.
So we know that there must be some limit, some line beyond which we are not obliged to care (or maybe not obliged to act as though we care) about some organisms. Life would be impossible otherwise. Now we’re just trying to work out where that line is. As usual SMBC provides some guidance:
Ok, so that didn’t actually help any. But I find it amusing.
Anyway, I’ve come to think that the relevant line is not (as the comic suggested) the absolute number of neurons involved, but rather whether or not the organism in question has a world. It’s the experience of sentient beings that I’m worried about, because only sentient beings have experience. I don’t care if you kill a pig in World of Warcraft, because it’s obviously not a conscious creature. I do care if you kill a person, because they have thoughts and feelings, a perspective, and so on.
Now that doesn’t really clear all that much up, because as we all know the debate about what consciousness is has been going on forever and does not appear to be coming to an end any time soon. But I do think there is a fairly plausible contender for a naturalistic account of consciousness, Thomas Metzinger’s notion of a ‘transparent self-model’. Since having been introduced to this model through his book Being No One a few years ago, it’s become my go-to way of thinking about consciousness. He describes it in the video below.
If you don’t feel like watching the video, here’s my potted summary: conscious experience is the result of an organism possessing a transparent self-model. A self-model is a kind of global workspace where your brain brings together a summary version of all the different streams of information it’s processing at any given time. It’s like a simulation that your brain runs of your world. The ‘transparent’ part means that your brain is set up to not notice that what it is dealing with is a simulation. Each of the disparate parts that are linked into the self-model treat it as though they aren’t dealing with a representation, but with the world itself. So we get this compelling, irresistible impression that we have a world.
Obviously the debate goes on, and particular features of his view could be wrong. But I think it’s an excellent starting point for thinking about conscious experience. The question then becomes figuring out which animals have transparent self-models. This isn’t easy, and I’ve had limited success. It isn’t at all clear what neurological structures would underwrite our own self-models, so we can’t just peer into the brains of animals and figure out which ones have a world. And I’m not at all clear on what behavioural criteria are the right ones to focus on.
Currently, my best approximation to an answer is to see whether an animal cares about reality. Constituting a world is making a model of reality, so inherent in consciousness is a concern that we have a correct picture of the world. For example, given a choice between finding out that my significant other is cheating on me and feeling really bad about it, or never finding out and proceeding in blissful ignorance, I would choose the painful reality. In that sense, I care more about reality that my own comfort.
Similarly, my cat is a terribly skittish little animal. Loud noises, all loud noises, make her flinch. But despite being afraid of basically everything all the time, she insists on having closed doors open. She wants to know, despite being terrified, what is in the great beyond of the stairwell outside the doors of our apartment. I take this as evidence, not conclusive, but suggestive, that she has a world.
Chickens, on the other hand, seem to not care that much about reality for its own sake. I’m told by a reliable source that to count as ‘free run’, chickens merely need to have some means of access to the outside. But given sufficient food, heat and space, they will spend their entire lives indoors, ignoring the exit which would expand their experience of reality. Again, I could easily be wrong, but I take this as evidence that chickens do not possess a world.
On that note, I’ll leave off with a video of some chimpanzees seeing the light of day for the first time in their lives. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to have lived in a medical laboratory for 30 years, and then suddenly be turned loose into the wide world. But courage and curiosity drive them, past their fear, to look up and see the sun for the first time.