Sunday, December 27, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section three

Plants, Animals, and Human Beings (Chapter One, section three)

The author begins this section by asking how to make a plant happy and (as a representative of animals) how to make a cow happy. Leaving aside for a moment that there are many types of plants and that cows are hardly representative of all animals (I excuse the arbitrary representation of all animals by cows because it is just meant as an example), the ingredients given for each organism’s “happiness” (assuming that plants or even cows have something analogous to emotional states) show a woeful ignorance of biology. The plant is prescribed “the right amount of light, air, and water” – no mention of nutrients or opportunities for procreation. The cow’s needs for food and to “propagate” (a word actually better suited to plants) are acknowledged, but the author also suggests hitching “him to a plow.” As if cows (and by the way, a “cow” is by definition a female, not a “he”) are meant for plowing and they need job satisfaction.
{incorrect scientific fact, teleology}

He goes on to say that providing a person with the same – nourishment, job, and exercise – does not guarantee that they won’t be depressed or commit suicide. (The author seems to be using depression and suicide as a barometer for happiness.) That is true, but that’s because people, unlike cows, seek both meaningful social interaction and purpose in their lives. We have the questionable blessing of being self-aware. I would also like to note that clinical depression and suicidal ideation is a mental illness, and not merely the result of dissatisfaction or unhappiness with one’s life. Mentally healthy people normally do not commit suicide no matter how awful their lives may seem, and clinically depressed people are not happy no matter how wonderful their lives are. Pointing to illnesses to show that a given factor does not provide happiness is misleading at best. The opposite of happiness is sadness, not depression (let alone suicide); just as the opposite of physical strength is weakness, not muscular dystrophy.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The author then writes: “There is obviously a drastic difference in how to define happiness when it comes to an animal versus a human being.” What he probably meant was that there is a drastic difference in how we go about achieving happiness in an animal versus a person. If it was a matter of definition it would be a meaningless point. After all, if the definition of happiness is arbitrary then we could call it happiness for animals when they are branded with a red-hot branding iron. Obviously, when he’s speaking about animals being happy he means something approximating what we mean when we talk about people being happy.

The reason that the means for achieving happiness are so different may have more to do with his choice of example than anything. He is continuing his mistake of treating “animals” as a monolithic category. It’s true that different things make cows and humans happy, but it’s also true that different things make cows and tigers happy, and there are yet other differences between tigers and slugs.
{incorrect semantics}

The author now cites Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While Maslow’s hierarchy provides a useful rule-of-thumb, it’s not exactly on the cutting edge of psychology and was based on conjecture rather than on actual experiments or studies. Since then it has been confirmed by some studies, but it is still somewhat controversial and is useful mostly as a rule-of-thumb.

The author acknowledges only the lowest level of needs, the purely physical, as being shared by people and animals. Yet the next level, the need for safety, is also shared by both people and animals; and the third level, the need to belong and be recognized by a social group, is found in many social species besides humans. The author refers to the highest level of the hierarchy, the need for fulfillment of potential and self-actualization, as a uniquely human need. I don’t know how he reached this conclusion, as 1) there are many people who feel no need to self-actualize (that they may be derided by some societies as underachievers is beside the point, and is dependent on the society in which they happen to live), and 2) I don’t know of any studies that have tried to examine self-actualization in animals. Until it is studied, the most we can say is that we don’t know if there are any other species that feel compelled to achieve as much as possible.

He now states that, “No cow or chimpanzee will ever contemplate a Rembrandt painting, seek to learn something that has no bearing on his own personal existence, or join the Peace Corps.”

It is true that humans are the only species to produce visual art, but so what? What makes this particular quirk so ennobling? The emotion art can evoke? Emotion is just chemicals and electrical signals in the brain. That we happen to be wired to react emotionally to certain images, and that some people are capable of producing images that provoke emotional responses in others, does not make the production of such images an objectively ennobling activity.

It is probably true that animals don’t seek knowledge that has no bearing on their own existence, but again, so what? That humans do seek knowledge that isn’t immediately useful to us is just another quirk, albeit a more practically useful one in the long run than art. Is the author trying to make collecting trivia into the defining difference between people and animals? It is a difference, and one that has been influential in helping our species develop a growing body of knowledge, but it is hardly a metaphysically ennobling trait.

As for joining the Peace Corps, well, animals clearly do not have the social sophistication humans have achieved and do not form globe-spanning organizations. But altruistic behavior has been observed in other primate species, proving that the desire to help others in not a uniquely human trait.
{questionable scientific fact, false significance}

The author now states that the need for self-actualization is said to reside in the soul, and asks if “the existence of the soul can be proven?” If the need for self-actualization is real, it resides, as does everything we experience, in our brains. That this need is supposedly universal makes it all the more obvious that is must be part of our makeup. All typically-developing humans are born with needs, abilities, and predilections that are hardwired in our brains. These include reflexes, physical drives such as hunger, a liking for faces, a tendency to organize the world into patterns, a desire to avoid pain, and abilities such as learning to talk and walk. Neuropsychologists have identified the areas of the brain responsible for many of these inborn traits and continue to work to pinpoint which area does what. Perhaps someday they will identify the cluster of neurons responsible for our need to self-actualize. (Assuming, of course, that the need to self-actualize is a real phenomenon.) Perhaps not. Either way, there is no need to posit a metaphysical soul to explain what is basically an emotional drive.
{unwarranted assumption}

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