Thursday, 15 May 2008

A talk across the species border

My friend the oriole is back. I have missed him yesterday, and he did not respond my call. But today, on my morning jog, I heard him again, and I immediately responded. My oriolese (oriolic? oriolian?) has a terrible human accent, of course. I only manage a glissando but not his characteristic slip of tongue. Today, I had the impression that he mocked me, imitating my manner of oriolizing at the end of his call.

I may have misheard it or overrated my importance to him. Anyway, this cross-species talk is very fascinating. It leaves me with a number of questions.

The most important one is the question of empathy, that is, the ability to put oneself into the mind of someone else. Even between humans, this leaves a number of questions that are not easy to answer. But between species, the real hard to answer questions emerge.

We humans have the tendency to put ourselves at the top of the pyramid and look down to the so-called "lower" species. For instance, I know that my friend the oriole is not human, but does he know that I am not an oriole? I think I know and he doesn't. Yet my feeling of superiority gets a ticking off when I imagine him looking at me and seeing that I cannot fly. My oriolese is so bad that I never won't get a female. I cannot build a nest. I cannot catch flying insects. And let alone finding my way back from Madagascar every spring. Orioles have no mental pyramids, but if they had, they would find good reasons to put their species on the top and look down at us humans.

Obviously, the oriole does hear and respond to my whistled call. He is a perceiving subject, he knows his female personally, and therefore he must have something like a mind, even a conscious one. Some birds like ravens have proven to be intelligent, some even use tools to reach goals. It's very interesting to imagine non-human minds and trying to figure out the difference between them and us.

Another big question is cross-species qualia, in this case the perceived quality of the sound produced by the oriole and by me. Both sounds are quite similar to me, and obviously to the oriole, too. But the ear and the brain of the oriole is so different from mine that the sound quality that reaches the mind of the oriole, most likely, is very different from the sound quality that reaches my mind.

Last week, on a beautiful Sunday morning in the riverside forest, my wife was with me, and the oriole was there, too. But I cannot tell whether the sound quality reaching her mind is the same that is reaching my mind. I suppose it is, but qualia cannot be shared, they are stuck in every individual forever. It is hard to grasp, but the concept of qualia forbids any reasoning about similarity. Therefore, it cannot be said that the sound qualia of me and my wife are more similar than those of me and the oriole.

There is much food for thought in an oriole call. I've not got very far today, so I may come back to some of the questions in upcoming posts.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Is dignity a useful concept?

royal insignia

When asked this question two months ago, I would have answered it with a clear yes: Of course, in humanist ethics, the concept of human dignity seems to be central. Dignity, according to Webster, is the "quality of being worthy of esteem or honor". It may be a matter of dispute whether all people, regardless of what they think and do, should be given such a quality. But such a dispute may be about how much, about a minimum of dignity that should be given to every human being.

But two weeks ago, a Swiss ethics commission has declared that not only human beings and animals but also plants have a dignity. This sounds quite out of place to me, and not only to me. It is so much out of place that I have asked myself whether the concept of dignity is useful in ethics at all.

Before going further into this reasoning, I want to make clear that I support without any doubt or reservation the ultimate goal of this concept: Respect of other human beings, and the application of the Golden Rule. I only doubt whether the concept of dignity is useful or necessary for this goal.

Dignity is assigned by a third party

My main problem with dignity is that it does not grow by itself but must be assigned by somebody. Royal dignity is a typical example. It always has been assigned by a superior authority. In earlier days, kings have claimed to have received it directly from God. Most European kings have been crowned by the Pope. Even today, many ethics experts derive their dignity concept from a theist or creationist point of view.

A dignity concept based on religious authority cannot be useful in secular humanism. Can dignity be assigned in a non-religious way and, if yes, by whom? Ethics commissions, of course, but in these, religious people always have their seats. We live in a democratic society, thus I do not find they must be excluded.

One big problem with any assigned property, such as dignity, is that it can be revoked. What can be given can always been taken away. It has been said that the prisoners of Abu Ghraib have been deprived of their human dignity. Every torturer argues in accordance with the human dignity concept, claiming that his victims have lost their dignity (by misbehaving) and therefore are no longer human beings.

In church history, we can find many such examples: "Heretics" and "witches" have been burnt alive because the church had withdrawn "dignity" from them. Even more, they twisted the concept in a way to state that the "dignity of the immortal soul" has been saved by burning the sinful bodies alive.

Rights is all we need

Of course it may flatter my ego when musing about my own dignity, a property that in earlier days has been reserved to kings. But I think that human rights do a better job, anyway. All the people now starving because of the new global hunger crisis do not need dignity at all. They need something to eat. They have a right to eat. At least they should have. That's all.

I prefer the concept of rights because their origin is in the free will of the individual persons. The persons decide themselves what to do, and the rights regulate this will, allowing some acts and restricting others. Individual freedom is the default, and the freedom of other people is the only useful limit.

I think that individual freedom, rights, and the Golden Rule are sufficient for an optimal humanism, and that the concept of dignity does not add any value. On the contrary, it may even be double-edged and subject of misuse. And the plant dignity example shows that it may even be pushed to a state of nonsense.

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Saturday, 3 May 2008

Buddhist goal for free

I do not know why this idea jumped to my mind today, but it gives me the feeling of an unexpected gift. Hey, I get it for free, and others have to pay for it. Buddhists, for example, try hard to reach a state that stops the endless cycle of life, death, re-birth, again death, and so on and on and on. They try hard, using meditation techniques, to reach the state that ends this all, forever. And here is it, the gift: You will reach it, I will reach it, all human beings will reach it when they die.There will be no return to an endless circle of life. It will be over, forever. Quite a lot of the most important Buddhist goals will be reached, without further ado. Just for free.

When looking at all the labour that Buddhists are ready to invest, it must be a very rewarding goal. And yes, I agree, the idea of a never-ending afterlife sounds like horror.

What is nirvana?

The declared highest goal of Buddhists has been described in many ways. This definition is one that comes very close to my own way of thinking:
"Like a flame that has been blown out by a strong wind goes to rest and cannot be defined, just so the sage who is freed from name and body goes to rest and cannot be defined."
Sounds pretty much like what will happen after my death, and if this is the highest goal of Buddhists, I'll get it for free.

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Friday, 2 May 2008

As time flies by faster and faster

high speed
Maybe you are not yet aware of it, but if you'll approach my age, that is, in the second half of your life, you inevitably will come to the impression that time hurries up faster than before.

It must be more than ten years ago when I had this feeling for the first time. Since then, I always have asked myself how come, and I have developed a theory: Our mind uses all the events in lifetime as a benchmark for measuring time. For a young child, the things that happen during one day are a considerable proportion of all the events during lifetime. For an old person, the events of one day are only a tiny fraction of all lifetime events. In other words, a day is about 1/3000 lifetime of an eight year old child but only 1/30,000 lifetime of an eighty year old senior. Assuming that our mind uses lifetime as a time benchmark, one day must appear shorter and shorter with age.

Memory is the key

A recent experiment of David M. Eagleman and co-workers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, has added an important point that my theory has missed. I was right assuming that mind uses events to assess the length of time. But memory also plays an important role. A child will store more events per time in his memory, and an old person will store only a smaller fraction of the same events because memory gets weaker in old age. Less stored events give the impression that time runs faster than in younger age.

My son had a bike accident some years ago. He told me that he had the impression of time running very slowly after his bike had crashed into a car. This is in accordance with the event benchmark theory given the fact that in high danger, all senses are highly alerted and a great number of details are stored in memory.

Eagleman has undertaken similar experiments with volunteers in a situation where they were falling into an invisible net, not really in danger but perceiving a highly dangerous situation. He concluded that people in danger do not live in a “slow-motion" situation in real time but, after the event, they have the impression of time running slower because they have stored more details in that time. Thus, real time does not slow down in a frightening event, but the time in retrospect does.

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