Thursday, April 08, 2010


Do electric sheep dream of androids?

On the radio program Speaking of Faith this week, host Krista Tippett talked with two Jesuits who are also astronomers. One, Guy Consolmagno, says this, as he notes the excitement with which people all over the world received his astronomy lessons and telescope demonstrations:

And it suddenly dawned on me, well, of course. It’s only human beings that have this curiosity to understand: What’s that up in the sky? How do we fit into that? Who are we? Where do we come from? And this is a hunger that’s as deep and important as a hunger for food because if you starve a person in that sense, you’re depriving them of their humanity.

That’s brought up a number of thoughts for me, which will probably result in a few entries in these pages. This is the first.

Do we really know that humans are the only animals with such curiosity? We assume it, of course, but do we know? When the cat sits in the window and looks out on the world, how do we know that he isn’t contemplating existence? Might the amazingly engaging guide dog I saw the other day have been feeling that he’s making something of his life by helping others, and thus fulfilling some sort of destiny? Who’s to say that a cow grazing in a field isn’t deep in thought as she munches?

We assume that they aren’t sophisticated enough for that, that their brains aren’t sufficiently developed. And we can stick electrodes on them and do brain scans, and see what areas of their brains respond to what visual stimuli, just as we do with humans. But those tests can’t tell us what they’re thinking.

We want to believe that we’re unique. Dr Consolmagno’s religious learning has taught him that God created us specially, created us in his image. That he gave us dominion over the animals, and so on. And it’s clear that we have unique abilities with respect to engineering, communication, and the like.

But how do we know that our abilities to wonder curiously and to think philosophically are unique. Maybe when a dog or a horse or a bird looks up at the night sky, there’s also wonder in its mind about what’s up there, and how we on Earth fit into it. That they can’t communicate it to us doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

As you travel life’s highway, don’t forget to stop and eat the roses.

— “Cow Philosophy”, cartoon by Gary Larsen

1 comment:

Sue VanHattum said...

Yep, seems arrogant to me to assume only humans wonder. I'd imagine dolphins and whales have lots of leisure time for thinking. They might not look at the stars much, though, living underwater as they do.Perhaps their philosophical musings go in different directions than ours.