We now know that not only is our Solar System heliocentric rather than geocentric, but that our Sun is just one very typical, garden-variety star of billions of stars within our own galaxy, and that our galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies within the visible universe (visible using the Hubble Space Telescope), each galaxy containing billions of stars themselves. Many of the galaxies in our Universe seen through the Hubble are over a billion light-years away (for perspective, our Sun is 8 light-seconds, or about 90 million miles away; one single light-year is about 3.9 million times that distance). The Universe is vast, and we are most likely not at the center of it. From this perspective, we have significantly more in common with gnats, dust mites, and amoebas than we might have otherwise thought and mammals are our brothers and sisters on this miniscule home we call Earth.
Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Time
The Universe is estimated to be approximately 14 billion years old. Many galaxies, including our Milky Way galaxy, formed about 13 billion years ago. Our Solar System formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The Cambrian explosion of diversity of life on Earth occurred about 550 million years ago. The first humans appeared about 350,000 years ago. If we put the 14 billion year age of the Universe on a 24 hour scale for perspective, then Earth formed almost 8 hours ago and the first humans appeared on Earth a little over 2 seconds ago, at 11:59:58pm. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the Universe. Again, we have much in common with beings who we consider having very short, relatively insignificant lives.
Science: Down to Earth
The theory of evolution is so foundational to our current knowledge of living organisms, including ourselves, that biology and modern medicine would not make sense today without it. Established scientific theories like evolution and relativity are not “just theories” randomly tossed onto the wall to see if they stick. On the contrary, established scientific theories provide the core principles of a scientific body of knowledge which have been confirmed thousands of times by empirical studies performed by independent scientists attempting to falsify them. If evidence from empirical studies counter any of a given theory’s principles, the theory is appropriately replaced in part or in whole. We know from evolution and modern biology that we are on an overlapping continuum of sentience with all other living organisms, with many more similarities than differences. Indeed, there are many nonhumans, some of whom we kill by the billions annually for trivial preferences, who are smarter, more sentient, and more self-aware than many humans. For example, normal pigs, chickens, dogs, and “cattle” are far more self-aware and intelligent than any infant or severely mentally disabled human. Humans are 2 – 4 years old before they can compare in self-awareness to so-called “food” animals. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the biosphere, at least not one untainted by characteristics which overlap in highly relevant ways (morally speaking) with many other species. Indeed, the difference in characteristics between us and other species, like Darwin said, is one of degree, not kind, and we can verify that the degree is significantly overlapping, even in that sacred characteristic which generates so many anthropocentric claims of superiority: intelligence, which by itself, is really little more than a handy tool that can be used for good or evil.
Science: Putting Us in Our Place
It is true that none of the science above disproves claims about the existence of God, the Absolute, Brahma, or Ultimate Reality. In fact, science, given its epistemological standards of empirical verification of logical theory and its insistence on scientific claims being falsifiable, has nothing to say about such matters. Science also has nothing to say about morality and ethics and what we ought to value in our life. But our newly and more properly conceived place in the Universe given to us by science over the past 150 years ought to offer us a different perspective about morality, especially as it relates to nonhuman animals. Apparently, God has had little or no effect on our folly and hubris in relation to Earth and other species, which we are continually polluting and abusing, respectively. Perhaps science can provide the information and perspective, and with appropriate maturity and judgment, we can recognize that we are not the center of the Universe; that we are not different from many other species on Earth in any morally relevant way which would justify our use and abuse of them; and that if we continue on our self-destructive trend, Earth will take care of the problem by becoming so sick and hot that we cannot survive here.
Let’s very briefly turn to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East and ask a few questions. If God is beneficent, would God want us, as individuals, to personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of 10 billion of animals annually in the United States (50 billion worldwide)? Perhaps we can get a hint from Genesis before The Fall of Man: “God said: ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food’. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” Given these verses in Genesis, is not breeding, torturing, and slaughtering 10 billion animals annually the epitome of The Fall? How many animals do we need to breed, torture, and slaughter annually before we hit the rock bottom of The Fall? Wouldn’t a beneficent God want us to treat animals as we would like to be treated by God, perhaps with kindness instead of ruthless cruelty? Wouldn’t a beneficent God be utterly disgusted and revolted by our carelessness, ignorance, indifference, cruelty, greed, and gluttony? I think so.
Religion: Mindfulness and Compassion
For those who look to Eastern religions for moral guidance and inspiration, are we really mindful, compassionate, and observing the skillful means of nonharming when we personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of animals, including when those animals and their bodily fluids are labeled with marketing slogans like “certified humane”, “free range” or “cage-free”? Is slaughter ever humane or compassionate? How much do we really know about these so-called “humane” animal products? Is ignorance preferable? Would we like to be born as the future victim of someone’s oral cavity? Does “cutthroat compassion” make any sense? We cannot eat animal products with both mindfulness and compassion operating concurrently. If we are consuming animal products “mindfully,” we cannot be also consuming them compassionately, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness; and if we are consuming animal products “compassionately,” we cannot be mindful of the reality of that being’s slaughter, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness and compassion. Perhaps all we are mindful of when consuming animal products is our attachment to trivial preferences and unskillful actions.
Coming Up: Secular Moral Philosophy
For agnostics, including many scientists, the next blog entry or two will address secular moral philosophy and moral psychology. We’ll see that regardless of our religion or lack thereof, there are always much more compelling reasons to embrace animal rights and veganism than to continue onward in the glaring moral blind spot which has defined and grossly distorted our moral obligations to animals, especially in light of modern knowledge of nutrition and veganism.