week 7- the universe

The topic of animal consciousness is one that is hard to approach without hypocrisy, which makes it all the more multifacted and interesting.

The hypocrisy becomes clear when we examine the discussion of animals as sentient, thinking beings on a cohesive level. The speaker last week spoke at length about the different ways in which animals perceive the world based on their evolutionary adaptations to focus on different aspects of their environments immediate ecology.  The bees see ultravioltet, because to them ultraviolet is ultrayummy. Astrophysicist Richard Dawkins limns this point in his stunning TEDtalk entitled, “Queerer than We Can Suppose: The Strangeness of Science.”


He discusses the farthest reach of the universe, from the unfathomably large (like measuring the vastness of the universe) to the very, very small (like understanding the nature of quantum mechanics).  He poses the question: is the universe queerer than we can suppose?  Are there aspects of the universe that operate on levels which we cannot humanly fathom? In elucidating the current ideas of how large the universe may be, he points out the outrageously small amount of matter that exists.  Compared to the amount of space in the universe, there is an almost neglibile number of atoms.  The fact that those atoms can together in such a way that they interplay in a self-sustaining chemical reaction called Life, and that one form of life can reflect on it’s own being, is truly astounding.  The fact that we are here is absolutely dumbfounding.  And then he draws our attention inward, to examine the amount of space that exists even in things that are solid.  If we could see an atom, the nucleus would be the size of a baseball, and an electron would proportionally be the size and distance as a fly on the outer rim of the stadium.  So there is not only a ridiculous of space between clumps of atoms called plantets, but there is very little of anything in atoms themselves. They are mostly empty.  However, he sheds light on this fact in his explanation of what he calls: The Middle World.  We have evolved to operate on the Middle Level of perception, rather than the quantum or jumbo, because these interactions are what we need to know to function.  In this way, we have evolved to develop sensory organs that pick up on relevant information, such as wavelengths of reflected light rays (color) or vibrations of moving objects (sound) or subliming matter (smell), just as bats have evolved to detect color with their ears, dolphins have developed the ability to understand the relations of sound, echo, and distance for travel, and bees have that ability to detect ultraviolet light. We have these sense because those are the things that are most relevent to successfully surviving in our reality given our physical needs.  However, Dawkins also points to the idea that our very ability to comprehend our senses and our place in the swirling infinite is limited as we have only the brain capacity to understand that which is vital for us: a Middle World perspective.    It seems oddly unsettling and beautiful that while we are in control of our thoughts, those thoughts are in the bathwater of a limited capacity for perception.

You think you may be in charge, but that only goes so far.

Given all of this, we can turn our attention to the idea of animal rights, which seems to be the practical application of understanding animal consciousness.  We can group the entire universe into two categories: living things, and non-living.  Mutually exclusive.  And there is such an outrageously small amount of matter, and such a small percentage of that is living, that it seems like appreciation and awe is to be assigned to all life.  Of it it isn’t, then regard should not be shown to any living thing.  Because it doesn’t seem like the number of brain connections or the beauty or the friendliness or the complexity of a living thing should be the core criterion of ellicting respect; rather, it seems that any life at all should be treated equally, because the very fact that it is living is an outrageous miracle.  In the way that Kant describes how morality, if it is to be had, should be accessible and right and unwavering in all situations: if something is right, then it is always the right thing to do.  In the same way, if we are to come to a conclusion about the way that animals should be treated based on the fact that they too are conscious, it should seem that all animals have the same shot at love or mistreatment and damnation.

However, this idea is rarely applied in everyday life, even when talking about this topic directly. Many people will spout off about the ethical treatment of animals in movies or science or research, belaying the masses to appreciate life, and to save those poor cute animals.  Those intelligent, strangely human orangutans with dinner plate eyes and said gramma faces.  Those adorable flourescent bunnies or undifferentiated stem cells.  Its life, man.

But few stop to look beyond the sensationalized PITA compaigns and look at their own actions.  They march in the anti-animal cruelty parades in their leather shoes and celebrate a good days work with a hamburger, entirely ignoring the glittering fact that their consumer choices support the systemic massacre of animals every day.  Because, well, its life man. And that life, to me, seems like the miracle worth preserving, rather than just the life we deem to be somehow more miraculous than the simpler forms.  Given the vastness of the unvierse, it only seems fair.  Given the vastness of the ignorant empty abyss hiding in their heads, I doubt the hypocrisy will diminish anytime soon.

allie gates.

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