Saturday, August 4, 2018

On Montaigne's cat

The person who, in a sense, invented the blog way back in 1580 in the form of his meandering Essays, was Michel de Montaigne.  He rambled across much of the territory of human thought, opining, suggesting, hinting, retreating and, well, just musing often rather incoherently.  Isn't that how most all modern blogs--this one included--are?!

Sadly for him, Montaigne couldn't Tweet his frequent 'posts', but he did Meow one.  In a famous oft-quoted part of his 'An Apology for Raymond Sebond', Montaigne muses about the arrogantly vain and presumptuous way that we judge our own uniqueness, in particular relative to other species.  In a famous passage, he writes:

"When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her"

  "Am I not a 'me'?"  Our own Mu (drawing by Anne Buchanan)

Humans routinely, conveniently, ignore the thought.  It is not in our self-interest.  Indeed, by now our cultural legacy is from the often obscure writing of Rene Descartes who, at least about himself recognized "I think, therefore I am."  But, apparently, a cat doesn't, so isn't.  By turning other creatures into automatons, mere machines, in the period that laid the foundation for modern science, Descartes' objectifying dogma opened not only justification for raising or hunting animals for our tables with a clear conscience, but also for the diverse experimentation that we do on uncountably many laboratory animals (indeed, the story with plants and their sense of self-awareness is becoming more complex, but that is too disturbing to think about).

Mea culpa!
I am personally heavily burdened by the thought of what I did over decades of research to countless mice.  Wholly innocent of any offense, they suffered the ultimate mortal penalty, so we could see what genes were expressed in their unborn young's teeth, or model effects on their craniofacial development or even, unforgivably perhaps, determine when they grew too old and their lives were no longer (to us) worth living and 'sacrificed' them.  No Viagra relief, retirement centers, hearing aids, etc. for them!

We were once forced to 'euthanize' (gas to death) a large number of laboratory mice, males, females, and young.  This was done in the usual 'humane' and research-ethics-approved say.  Deep in their sacrificial tank, as the hissing N2O began and the mice sensed the lack of air, they grouped tightly together in a terrified death huddle, young pressed against their mothers, that as I watched reminded me of images of Hitler's death-showers.  I will never forget that, though it was entirely within the standard accepted IRB protocols by which 'we' manage and manipulate 'them'.  They're just things after all.....aren't they?  Of course, if so, why do we bother with any sort of 'humane' treatment?  Or, if they're like us, why are we allowed to manipulate them, often to their terror and suffering?

We smugly let chimpanzees retire comfortably to senior centers (e.g., Chimp Haven, in Louisiana).  Why?  Because they are like us!  But other animals, even rhesus monkeys, are merely them.  Their lives are disposable.

Fortunately, for doubters at least, there is no after-world in which justice will be served to us, or where we might ask Him (She? It? Them?) why life was created as a food chain in which each depends on one or another form of this sort of savagery just for survival.

The science question
All of this is confession in the side booth, but it does raise the important question that bemused Montaigne: what is the 'me' of a cat like, compared to my own 'me'?  Can we ever know?  Scholars have long mused over what the nature of consciousness might be and how we could ever know it.  When the detached, mechanistic Descartes said, metaphorically, 'I think therefore I am", in the realm of consciousness he was 'thinking' in an exclusive way.

Frans de Waal, a prominent primate-watcher, has argued in a convincing way that 'thought' as we would casually use the term, doesn't really require language--doesn't have to be just the way you, right now, are doing it, to exist in every meaningful sense.

Of course, consciousness and its causative or even phenomenological nature has always been, and still is, essentially elusive.  I think and I am....but how?  How does wiring among a huge bunch of neurons lead to the meta-phenomenon of self-awareness?  Or since clearly cats and even bugs are self-aware in some senses, and many if not all animals have similar genomes and neural structures and wiring, why don't they, too, have the same sense.  Is there such thing as a lesser sense of 'me'?  How could we know, and  more importantly on what basis can we assert that they don't really have It?

Many have opined that science is the specifically objective endeavor by which we, operating from the inside (of our own heads), assess the way the outside world works.  If so, then science can't be expected to look inside the inside, from the inside, so to speak; perhaps consciousness is a literally subjective phenomenon that we experience but cannot examine by what we call 'science'.  Further, we assume that it--whatever it is--is also experienced by (at least some of our more decent) human fellows.

If the notion that in reality consciousness is the internal experience that is out of bounds for the essentially external purview of science, then we may relate our own and describe it as each of us sees it in others, from the outside, but we can't really understand it objectively.  If so it would simply be out of bounds by being inappropriate for science.  Many dabblers have tried to get around these obvious limitations, and they document all sorts of externally observed 'neural correlates', and in the same sense that a bullet through the head ends the phenomenon, these observations may reflect much about its objective nature.  But since consciousness is inherently about the experience, whatever the wiring, these correlates are, so far at least, just that--correlates.

Then how can we pronounce about other species?
Given this, what justifies the Cartesian convenience by which we blithely judge that they, not even cats, don't have 'it'?  Or is it just a more profound kind of convenience, namely, that we want them--other species--to be 'things' so that we, with our self-declared special powers, can control their lives and even eat them?  Is that different from the view wasps and tigers must essentially have of their prey?  Or is there such a thing as 'partial' or 'lesser' consciousness, compared to ours--as opposed simply to a different kind of consciousness, for example, not based on symbolic language as ours is?

Mammals, like our cat and dog friends, and even birds, have very similar genotypes to ours.  They have very similar cellular and anatomical structures, and neural wiring, to ours.  Their behaviors are very similar to ours.  They communicate in ways quite similar to ours except, perhaps, that it is more by stereotypical signaling than abstract symbols.  But we presume to dismiss their particular internal experiences as being mechanical, that is, fundamentally different from ours.

Is our declaration that they are just machines, or at least don't really have 'it', more than our particular convenient, self-interested rationale for doing what we like to them?

In its fashion that we would completely recognize were we to experience it, does a cow in the slaughterhouse queue ever ask:  'Whats this? Why me?', or a cat wonder 'What is it like to be a human?'  I ask what is it like, what does it seem and feel like, to be a laboratory mouse enjailed in a tiny cage?  Or to be gassed to death, at our convenience?  Montaigne's question is as cogent today as it ever was:

"When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her"

Our  cats (and chipmunk).
Drawings by Anne Buchanan.  For more of her fantastic artwork, see
                                           Left, center: are they not 'me's?  Right: aren't cat and chipmunk 'me's?


Unknown said...

A provocative post about a large question. And close to home. I grew up hunting and fishing, even trapping and at one point, many years ago, participated in "sacrificing" animals for research. No matter how humane, the question was always there and for me, that cruelty, can't be denied. I'm glad it is raised for consideration again.

Anne's lovely drawings and paintings temper this post. She has a touch with everything. I love the moggie with the chippie, the paintings of winter (and summer) and am betting I'll return to see the world differently...anew...again. Thanks for adding them and also letting us know about her website.

Ken Weiss said...

We can all, or as many as possible, muse on problems and dilemmas of life, and perhaps somehow ameliorate them.