I’ve been reading a little about the abilities of animals to do things that once were thought uniquely human – using tools and language for example (see Are people more than animals?). So are humans nothing more than clever animals?
Intuitively, we believe that human life is precious. Our laws protect human life to a much greater degree than they protect animal life. So how do we resolve this question of the value of humans vs animals?
Two accounts of reality
It seems there are two very different accounts of the reality we all experience.
1. The world is material, nothing more
This is a common view today, especially among physical and biological scientists. On this view, humans are nothing more than the physical, just like everything else. Our bodies and brains follow physical and chemical processes that are generally understood. We appear to be different to animals, but that is just a matter of degree – we may be smarter but we have similar DNA and we aren’t any different in the way we are made and live.
This view has several implications:
How do we think?
If our brain processes are controlled by natural laws, then our thinking is determined by those laws. Our brains, like the rest of us, have evolved via natural selection to help us survive and reproduce. Our thinking will be pragmatic. We can do simple logic, so that a potential threat (e.g. a predator that makes a noise) triggers a reaction to flee. But the ability to think abstractly, consider other alternative hypotheses or consider whether we need be afraid of dying, will only get in the way of survival. So our abilities in these areas are difficult to explain.
The results of our thinking will be determined by these physical and chemical brain processes. There is no “us” standing outside those processes to change them in any way. So while we can make choices, those choices couldn’t have been any different in that situation. We wouldn’t have freewill in the sense of being able to choose differently. Most neuroscientists seem to come to this conclusion, though many admit it is difficult to live without the illusion (as they see it) of freewill.
Right and wrong?
This has implications for ethics. If we were unable to make a different decision, then how can we be held morally responsible? Each of us, from the philanthropist to the pedophile, are acting according to our brain chemistry, which we have no actual control over. This rather frightening conclusion is softened a little, perhaps, by the difficulty of finding an objectively true basis for ethical decisions anyway. So on this view, our ethics are determined by our cultural upbringing, and our choices are determined by our brain chemistry.
Who am I?
We instinctively recoil against these conclusions, for we feel we are more than that. We are conscious of ourselves as rational, moral, responsible beings. But, the materialist neuroscientists tell us, our consciousness is also an illusion, a by-product of evolution that cannot be explained, at least not yet.
All this fits the scientific assumption that materialism is true, but it doesn’t fit our common human experience. It seems to lead to a very debased view of humanity and leave us more open to amoral anti-social beahviour.
2. The material isn’t all there is
This is the common instinctive view in many people. We feel we really are conscious, rational, morally responsible beings, and we are disappointed, perhaps even affronted, when others behave differently. We instinctively believe pedophiles, mass murderers, wife-abusers and lying politicians are truly and deeply wrong. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine really is wrong, evil, unnecessary.
This view struggles for acceptance among scientists and atheists, for they argue there is no evidence for anything other than the material. This argument seems to me to fail for two reasons:
- Science is materialistic by definition. Its tools all measure the material. If there is something beyond the material, science isn’t capable of measuring or observing it. So it could never come to a dfferent conclusion on its own. Science has pre-judged this question.
- There is plenty of personal experience in favour of non-materialism. Like I have said, people feel we are rational, morally-responsible beings. We feel we can make chocies and we hold people morally responsible for their choices. Our consciousness, which science cannot yet explain and some scientists say is an illusion, is actually the most fundamental thing we know.
This view can be worked out in several ways (see A challenge to materialism?). Possible the most common conclusion, called dualism, is that human beings are both material and mental beings, some would say material and spiritual beings.
Most religious people would believe this, but slowly a number of secular philosophers are also thinking that materialism doesn’t fit the facts.
Are people precious?
Materialism seems to debase humanity to the level of smart animals. But we seem to be more than that. We instinctively feel we are more than that.
We fall in love, we appreciate beauty, we are capable of great heroism and altruism. At the same time we can abuse, create ugliness and act deeply seflishly. We all experience the highs and the lows of being human.
It is hard to see how we would think the same about cows or fish. It is true that we may see moral and rational qualities in some animals, such as border collies, dolphins and apes. But that is because we intuit that they too may have qualities that are more than merely material.
I can’t help feeling that materialism is an unjustified belief, and allowing it to influence our view of humanity is an enormous social experiment that may lead to unexpected consequences.
Photo: samer daboul on Pexels.