Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sad news on the Eagle Cam

As reported on WEIT, the female eagle that has been observed on the EagleCam, has died after being hit by a jet plane. 
This is very sad news, as the eaglets (?) are still fledglings, and now have to be cared for by the father alone.  From what I read this morning, this mating pair had been together for 10 years.

There are a lot of emotional responses on the web stating how sad this news is, and hopes that the father will be able to cope with the loss, and be able to raise the chicks on his own. 

This has got me to thinking a few things about it:

Does the male know the female had been killed, or is it unaware of the fate of its mate?  For all I know, the male may only be experiencing a sense of loss as to why the female has not returned from hunting, or maybe even only being aware that the eaglets are more hungry than usual, and need more feeding.

I would not be surprised if the male is experiencing some emotion over it, as it is not out of the question that other animals can exhibit and express emotional responses.  Nearly everything about us as a living creature comes from our evolved past, and emotions seem to be a prime candidate for evolution.  Reacting to some event with an emotion can be a good short cut to the proper or appropriate reaction.  Some times it is misplaced, but generally it works out for the best.  It seems to me that emotions take place without engaging the rational parts of our brains; we experience some event, the emotional systems kick in first, we react, and then we rationalise our reaction in light of the event and our emotional response.

Empathy: We humans feel sad for the widower of another species, and it is not that mysterious.  The ability to feel empathy across species is not special to humans either.  For example, who has not experienced feeling sad, and having the family dog come over and lay their head in your lap and sigh?  The circuitry for feeling such emotions are built into all of us (us including non-human animals) and have been evolved into conscious creatures for a long time, although how far back I don’t know. It may be an interesting question for how closely we share these emotions with animals that branched from us in the distant past.

At a guess one way that can evolve in is to first have the kin protecting emotion to recognise when one of our relatives is in distress and to go to assist that relative.  As a social animal, this feeling is promoted in the well being of others of our herd and promotes a better means of survival for our herd, and the sense of empathy towards unrelated animals grows.  We then have the next step of recognising empathy towards unrelated species.  Remember that we are not typically enemies of other species, so without a sense of animosity towards them, we can imprint empathy to them.

Why are these particular animals so special that we invest emotions into their lives, while millions of other animals, some more conscious, some less, will die today due to human activities?  I know from my personal experience that humans do not need to kill or exploit animals to survive.  In fact, after tucking into my coffee and chocolate cake this morning (both vegan recipes) I know that we can have a rather luxurious life without exploiting conscious creatures.  So why is it so difficult to explain to people that the regretful emotion they are experiencing over animals they have known is just as valid to express over animals they have not known?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Sam Harris debated William Lane Craig - ugh

Just finished listening to the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, as discussed at Why Evolution is True, and there was one point that really annoyed me that it was not addressed, WLC argued:

If god exists, then we have an objective basis for morality. 
If god does not exist then we do not have an objective morality, therefore morality does not exist.

Of course this argument is for saying that god must exist, or we would not want to suffer the consequences.   Consequentialism is not a good reason for having an unfounded assumption.

I would have preferred a response to this argument that was reframed from an atheist point of view. A better response is that we know morality exists, and because god doesn't exist* morality must be intrinsic in how conscious creatures think.  Easy peasy.  I think that is what Sam Harris is getting at in his book, The Moral Landscape.

WLC also argued that we must have an objective morality, and the only way to have an objective morality is through some higher authority that dictates what that morality is.  Sam Harris responded that objective morality exists anyway.  To expand on that, what WLC is saying is that morality needs to be dictated by, well, a dictator.  Appointed for life, and as he is an immortal being, that is as big a dictatorship as one can get, this dictator has ultimate say in all things, and there is no avenue for redress.  Back here on Earth, in some countries we did away with kings and their absolute power a long time ago, and replaced them with representative democracy.  This is a good analogy as to why we don't even need the idea of a god.  Through parliamentary representation, common law and equality under law we have our own objective morality that is decided through the rules of law and the decisions of the people under which that law applies.  No need for kings.

* no evidence for god = no god.

Update: I should have mentioned in the beginning of this post that I thought Sam Harris did an excellent job in the debate, and enjoyed what he had to say.  My annoyance is just what popped into my head at the time.  As for WLC, not so much on the enjoyment front there.