Twenty years or so ago I ran across a mind boggling book called Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This book was fun, thought provoking and, honestly, more than a bit baffling. But it helped my thinking a great deal. This is one of those books that reading can and does change your life.
The next Hofstadter book I read was The Mind’s I. Another bit of fun, deep thinking and pondering wise. This a book that I never finished. Maybe it was the many brilliant authors all talking at once. Maybe I was going through a lazy phase and didn’t want to have to work that hard. I do remember that I liked it and I keep my tattered paperback copy around for years planning on reading in earnest one day. I never have. Yet.
Which brings us in my round about way to I am a strange loop. Ok, I have not read the whole thing. Right, just the first chapter. Really. But it was a pretty good chapter and I am looking forward to the rest of the book. Like all of his books, this is pretty dense and filled with ‘hard’ words, even though the author seems to think he is easy and laid back. I guess he is, since I read his books and don’t read, oh Nature Biotechnology or Cell Research. Of course, he’s not exactly Stephen King or Anne Rice either.
When Douglas was a child he had a few experiences that made him question the moral rightness of eating meat. This in turn lead him to think about the ‘size’ of the souls of these animals and if other things had souls as well, things like trees or grass for example.
Ok, it presupposes that there are souls, though he makes it clear he is not talking about the live-right-or-burn-in-hell kind of soul, but more along the lines of self-awareness. Unlike Professor Higgins I am not so sure that I have a Divine Spark.
In the perfect world of Star Trek, they have a nifty machine they call a Replicator that can whip up anything from a cold beer in a frosty mug to a new uniform to a steak dinner with plate and utensils included. This wonder of imaginary science makes these things out of the nowhere and into the here. There is no worry over the moral evils of eating animal flesh or using the fibers of unwilling plants or minerals.
In the world we live in however, everything that is alive only stays that way by the death of something else. The fact that the something else is not an animal should not be that much of a moral difference. But Douglas goes on to say that plants don’t have ‘souls’, so it’s ok to eat them. Or at the very least, it’s better to eat plants than it is to eat Wilbur and Elsie.
The trouble with Vegetarians is that they don’t have a standard code of ethics to live by. The results is that anyone who wants to, can call themselves a vegetarian. This group includes, but it not limited to people that eat vegetables, fish, chicken, and basically, whatever they want to eat. We barbarians who eat whatever finds it’s way onto the plate in front of us don’t worry about the morals of where that food came from. Nor do we have to explain why we are wearing leather shoes and eating a fish taco.
I think that the trouble is not so much that cows and pigs and chickens are smarter than they once were, I think that we are just too far removed from the process of what food is. The fact that we can sit around and feel bad for animals and choose to eat something else is a sign that we live in the best of all possible worlds. We have the time to sit around and ponder these things and then have the option of doing something about it. People have been starving for most of human history. If it wasn’t poison it was an option for the table. Even that most forbidden of all taboos, human flesh, has been eaten when the need is great enough.
Still, Douglas is fun to read and his scale of souls is fun and interesting. He thinks the size of the soul has something to do with the quality of the intellectual life being lead. Thus if he could prove that cows are thinking deep thoughts as they chew thier cuds, then they would have bigger souls than Ronnie Regan had in his last brain damaged days. I don’t agree on this point.
But as I said, I have only read the first chapter. And it has got me thinking.