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24 June 2010

Reductionism and Discontinuity

For a long time I have held the position that there is a discontinuity between humans and other animals, and that the increasingly frequent claims made for animal consciousness and language-use are based on anthropomorphism. I’m fairly certain that I identified a problem with claims made by certain scientists about animal suffering (not that I was necessarily original in doing so). A good example of my stance is the blog post Pity The Prawns (on my main blog).

In a philosophical spirit, I want to re-examine all of this.

To summarize, it turns out that the attribution of human-like suffering made in certain interpretations of the experimental findings (sometimes by the scientists themselves) rests on a hidden assumption: that animals are conscious, or that they experience what happens to them. But this is what the interpretation is claiming, so we have a fallacy here, namely begging the question (assuming what you are trying to prove). This comes about by interpreting autonomic responses to adverse stimuli as pain, which allows an equivocation resulting in the attribution of specifically human pain experience to animals. If a prawn reacts adversely when you put acid on its antennae, it does not follow that crustaceans suffer pain, because pain is defined outside of the realm of the experiment, that is, usually with reference to experience, to subjectivity and consciousness. A definition of pain is not in the purview of a biologist. Or if we do define it in biological terms, then we have to be careful not to equivocate and blur the distinction between biological pain and human pain experience.

So the question is whether it is reasonable to attribute human pain experience, and hence consciousness, to animals. But if it is, then why do we need science to “prove” that animals suffer, when we can see it with our own eyes?

I saw in all this a kind of anthropomorphism, which is the fallacy that lies behind much of the popular support for animal rights. The other side of the coin was the reductionist description of human behaviour as “nothing but” matters of genetics and evolution. This has always seemed to me vulgar, so I took a stand against these ideas, asserting a discontinuity between human and non-human species. But this is coming to be regarded as anachronistic and unscientific. Although there have been successful attacks on reductive materialism within philosophy, this seems not to have impinged on the prevailing intellectual climate: in the end, everything is just physics, and could in principle be explained in terms of physics. In other words, our need to explain, for example, behaviour in terms of psychology, or history in terms of economic development, is just an epistemological deficiency: the more science progresses, the more we can pin down everything with hard science. Or so the story goes.

Well, perhaps the idea of a discontinuity is unscientific. Maybe that’s the point: it is non scientific. But so what? If there is a well-supported scientific description of a thing, it does not follow that the thing is reducible to that description; it is not necessarily its definition. Music is what is described in musical notation and what we hear and feel, more than it is a complex of acoustic phenomena. The former have more meaning, unless we are deliberately restricting ourselves to scientific matters. If our naming of animals hadn’t been so dominated and changed by science, it would still be legitimate to call a whale a fish (evolutionary heritage does not automatically trump other modes of classification).

Hilary Putnam said that “higher level facts about organization have a kind of autonomy”, pointing out that the objective facts about a computer – what a computer is – are best discussed at the level of software, not at the lower level of physics1.

From this it follows that to talk of a discontinuity between humans and animals can be legitimate, because it might not be a requirement to talk about what a human is in terms of biology. In fact, it is surely the case that our most common requirement is that we do not talk about what a human is in terms of biology. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker says,

The mechanistic stance allows us to understand what makes us tick and how we fit into the physical universe. When those discussions wind down for the day, we go back to talking about each other as free and dignified human beings.2

I would go further and say that such non-mechanistic talk has no less claim to be allowing us to “understand what makes us tick” than the mechanistic stance. In other words, it has no less claim to objective truth, especially if we see the intersubjective as a kind of objectivity.

No guinea pig has been to the moon, and this is not a matter of degree. It is not as if guinea pigs have attempted the journey but only got half way there. They have not applied themselves to building a spacecraft only to find that they were not able.

This is a discontinuity, but perhaps not an enlightening one. After all, there is also, on this basis, a discontinuity between any species and all other species, assuming that each species has some kind of unique behaviour or characteristic.

And when we look at evolutionary lineage, as in the diagram of Darwin’s finches, we see that, at any moment in time, each finch species is at the end of its own branch, discontinuous with the finches it shares an ancestor with.

But are not the discontinuities between humans and all other animals more striking, of a different quality, or more fundamental than the ordinary differences between animal species? Are not space travel and agriculture, which developed with no help from natural selection, of a totally different kind of thing from animal behaviours? Escaping from one’s natural environment completely and landing on another planet seems outside the scope of what is normally studied by biologists and zoologists. And this is because human beings have transformed their mode of living in several important ways in a period over which they have not changed biologically.

And discontinuities add up. If we can identify a great number of them between humans and animals, of the kind I have mentioned, then is it not legitimate to say that there is a general discontinuity between humans and animals? And using the term “discontinuity” rather than “difference” is justified by the sheer number of these qualitative differences.

Here’s how I think about it. There must have been a time after which we were set on our historical course, the one that allows us to alter our environments and lifestyles in very short spans of time, not owing to direct evolutionary adaptations. This was a break that had never happened before, as far as we can tell. This break in time translates to a relevant conceptual break between humans and other animals.

I have been using the word “we.” There is a lot contained in that little word. Human society is not like the organized communities of certain animal species, even if the latter are sometimes startlingly sophisticated. Our “we” takes in the history of our species, something we know about because of the way that we have come to share our thoughts, observations, feelings, techniques and plans in writing, with the fully conscious aim of informing those who come after us. And our “we” is a community of individuals, each of whom we presume has their own peculiar ideas, desires and plans, even within the constraints of a shared social context. We venerate or castigate individuals who are long dead, for the decisions they made which continue to affect our lives. Individual people have shaped our society; they were agents of change, something no mere organism can hope for in its life – not that it can hope at all.

And the quotation above from Pinker indicates that while the mechanistic stance is useful, it may be irrelevant to questions that are put in terms of values such as freedom and dignity, the values that we ordinarily think of as being most essentially human. This is not to say that we can’t examine the biological and evolutionary conditions that enabled or compelled us to come up with these concepts, but only that there is always something left over in such a view, because humanity is an open project, i.e., an undetermined one. Freedom matters to us, whether or not we’re causal determinists. What is left over is explored in more or less rigorous ways by social scientists, philosophers and artists. What we call the humanities contain truths, but they are overarching, rather than natural-scientific, truths. They subsume our organic substrate, just as the algorithmic representations of a computer subsume its silicon.

There is a basic truth underlying all of this which is that human beings are subjects in the world. If you deny the existence, primacy or meaningfulness of freedom, love and beauty, then you are denying the existence, primacy or meaningfulness of our subjective experiences. You are reaching for a “view from nowhere,” in the words of philosopher Thomas Nagel. In physics, this is understandable. Indeed, I have myself caught glimpses of how it must feel for physicists to strive for the ultimate truths of the universe, and how disturbing it is to think that perhaps we can never know everything about it, because we can never escape our point of view. But when it comes to human nature, such a denial is absurd: it is in our subjective and intersubjective experiences that we are most essentially human.

I have always been a great believer in the scientific project and a defender of it against superstition, suspicion and conservative caution. What I object to is the inappropriate encroachment and wild ambition of a small but highly vocal part of the scientific community, which contrasts so much with the modesty of great scientists such as Charles Darwin.

And I can even look to science for support. We owe our special qualities partly to self-consciousness, which is closely associated with language, and there is a large evolutionary dimension to this. Chomsky talks of the evolutionary development of language as a special, unprecedented process, one which was so fast that it is in fact best seen as an event in our history, of a different kind from ordinary adaptations. The radical expansion of the human brain over a short period also suggests that something unique happened in our natural history.

In summary, then, I think I am justified in seeing an objective discontinuity, partly because objectivity need not entail a purely biological definition, but also because even from a biological and ecological point of view the human species is an oddity.

But whether I am talking of history, language or biology – or, for that matter, morality – I might be skirting around the possibility that my argument is begging the question: “we alone on Earth have language, therefore there is a discontinuity”. Saying that we alone have language – or that we can travel to the moon and no other animals can – already contains the idea of discontinuity.

If it is just a bald claim, or just a truism, then it might not be very useful in itself, because it is not saying much; but what might be useful is re-affirming this obvious truth in the face of the doubts that are being expressed about it.

1Hilary Putnam talking to Bryan Magee on Youtube

2Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

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