Monday, April 2, 2018

What Does It Mean To Be Human? or The Question of Sentience

What does it mean to be human?
Most humans would say that being human is something that sets us apart from the rest of... everything. Being human is something that elevates us above the animals.
Even though we are animals.
"Christians" would say it's because humans have a soul, but what even is a soul? Some bit of "secret sauce" that makes us more than just a biological machine? I don't think I can buy that anymore.

I mean, there's nothing to say that animals aren't just as soul-full as man. Just because the Bible doesn't say it, doesn't mean it's not true. The Bible doesn't mention America, either, so maybe that's just a fantasy, too.

And there's nothing to say that a "soul" is what elevates humans. "Christians" have taken a lot of liberties and made a lot of assumptions about the phrase "breathed life into" Since man was last, there is nothing to say that God didn't go around breathing life into the "nostrils" of all the animals.

Personally, I'm tired of the liberties "christians" take. It's the definition of entitled.

However, it's not just "christians" who have long said that humans are elevated above the animals. Science has long held this to be true, too. And I get it. Man has done so much stuff that other animals have not: created art, built cities, murdered for fun. Man looks so much different than every other creature, not in physicality but in... accomplishment.

But what if it all comes down to opposable thumbs and a prefrontal cortex?

When I was growing up, what was said was that man is the only sentient animal. But what is sentience? Looking up the definition, now, it's pretty loose: the ability to think or feel subjectively. Basically, the ability to have a personal perspective.

So let's talk about my dog:

My dog doesn't like tall men wearing hats. There are few things that can make her flip out like a tall man in a hat walking by, well, other than the vacuum cleaner, but the vacuum cleaner is her nemesis. Now, it is objectively not true that tall men in hats wish her harm. My father-in-law is a very tall man who sometimes wears a hat, and she loves him, though she is giving him special dispensation. Clearly, something in her past (she was a rescue) has caused her to hate tall men in hats. It is her personal perspective. It is also her personal perspective that she doesn't hold my father-in-law to the same standard as other tall men in hats.

And, yet, dogs are not generally considered to be sentient.

So let's throw in one other factor that is often applied: the concept of "I am."

Humans like to think of themselves as the only creatures with a concept of individual identity, which is something I find highly amusing considering that most people spend their time trying to do nothing more than fitting in. And, while we're not sure if dogs have a concept of individual identity, we're pretty sure some other creatures do.

Take dolphins, for instance, who have names. They have fucking names just like we do as people, making it blatantly obvious that they not only have an awareness of their own selfhood but of other's selfhood as well, and I would be willing to bet that that extends to humans. They sound a little more evolved than we do, though.

I could go on with other examples, but I'm going to skip ahead to the part where I talk about elephants.
Elephants have a complex social structure, distinct roles and personalities, value the individual, and, even, some kind of funeral observance for the dead. Their brains are of a comparable size to human brains, and they are capable of complex tasks and, yes, building. Why don't they do it in the wild? Lack of interest? I don't know. What is clear, though, is that if there is any other land animal that qualifies as sentient, the elephant would be it. And, yet...

And, yet, Trump #fakepresident recently made it legal to once again bring elephant trophies into the United States. He might as well make it legal for ICE agents collect ears and scalps. Oh, wait... I better not give him any ideas.

Look, I'm not saying I have the answers about sentience and where or what that line is, but, then, I don't think anyone has that answer yet, What I am saying, though, is that if there is the possibility -- and there is EVERY possibility where elephants are concerned -- you should not be supporting the murder of said sentient species, especially when that species is already endangered.

But, then, Trump #fakepresident has a difficult time of recognizing the humanity of fellow humans (see Puerto Rico), so I suppose it's too much to expect that he would see anything beyond his own bloated sense of self-worth. And his gut and bucket of chicken.


  1. Yes! Anyone who can't see the "soul" and intelligence in animals has the internal complexity of a slug. *no offense to slugs*

  2. Hey! Just doing my once in a blue moon check-in. I like your thoughts here. It reminds me of when I first read Carl Sagan's book that is sort of on this topic (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) and how it blew my mind with story after story of experiments with animals (mainly primates, if I recall correctly... it has been a very long time) that can only honestly be concluded with the idea that animals have a much richer inner life than most people ever suspected.

    Which really puts into perspective that Descartes - who famously nailed his wife's dog to a board and vivisected it in some sort of weird 'proof' that it had no soul and was more like an automaton only acting like it was in agony - took his claims on the human soul way too far.

    He apparently enjoyed it so much that he continued to torture dogs and happily record his thoughts for a long time. That dude had to be a psychopath... since he struggled with wondering if other humans were also automatons too.

    Regardless, bringing back elephant trophies is messed up. I don't think it's going to end well for us humans. Our worst instincts are rewarded by society way more often than they should.

    1. Rusty: Yeah, I think we're beyond the point where we can do anything to salvage the environment. If not for Trump (#fakepresident), we might have been able to do something, but we're going to spend the first decade after his fakepresidency just trying to get back to the place we were at the end of Obama's presidency.

  3. I do have to take issue with one thing you said, and that it's that animals don't murder for fun because dolphins, in addition to having names, do that. But yes, I agree with everything else you said. It's inhuman the way those people act. Why is "elevated above" mean "I get to do whatever I want to you" instead of "I'm expected to act with more compassion than you"?

    1. Jeanne: When I say "murder," I mean specifically about killing one's own kind. I don't think dolphins kill for fun within their own species. I could be wrong about that. I'm not a dolphin expert.

  4. I have a theory with regards to souls. That is: every living creature has one. (Swarms of insects share a soul.) Which makes me wonder about future artificial intelligences. Will they have souls? I kind of think they will. What imbues a creature with a soul? How does life form?

    Right, so off topic...

    1. Liz: I don't know that I believe in the "soul" at this point. The idea of the soul is specifically religious, and I don't see any basis for it in science, especially since we can artificially create out-of-body experiences which resemble what people think they experience as near-death episodes.