Things I might have been born ‘as’

geedeecee asked:

If animals were conscious isn’t it more likely that you would be be an animal? I mean there’s thousands more animals than humans so what’s the chances of finding yourself human? Doesn’t this mean animals are not likely to be conscious?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Your argument is valid only if the probability of a human being conscious is equal to the probability of a (non-human) animal being conscious; and why should they be equal? On the other hand, you might consider the possibility that some animals are in fact conscious: dogs, cats, and horses, for example, while others such as bumble bees are not.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a very strange but intriguing question. Let’s consider the notion of ‘what are your chances of finding yourself human’.

This seems to imply that (a) your existence in some form or other was necessary (has a probability of 1) (b) that ‘you’ could have been anything ‘conscious’ — whatever that means (I won’t go into that). If on some planet there were 100 conscious apes and a 100 conscious humans then your chances of being human would be 50/50. If there are 200 billion conscious animals and 4 billion conscious humans then your chances of being human would be 1 in 50. And so on. Is that the idea?

To do the calculation properly, one would have to include the time element: all conscious non-human animals who have existed or will ever exist, versus all humans who have existed or will ever exist. You could come into existence at any time, past, present or future — so long as (say) the Earth exists. (Then again, why not include the whole universe?)

However, there is a problem with this. Assumption (a) is problematic. Why did you have to exist? The picture this conjures up is that ‘you’ are some soul or essence waiting to be incarnated in a physical form. What grounds do you have for that assumption? Only your conviction that you had to exist, that you could not have not existed. Why must that be true?

I agree with you that this is how one feels, when you consider the seemingly miraculous fact of your own existence. The problem is making coherent sense of that feeling. I look at this in the fourth chapter of my book Semolina Pilchard — a philosophical journey (Download Preview), ‘I exist therefore what?’

"In order to be here, writing this, my father had to produce the sperm that fertilized my mother’s egg, which grew into a foetus and eventually became me. If the sperm and egg had not come together, I would not have existed. But exactly the same applies to the existence of my parents, and their grand parents, their great grand parents, and so on. If any one of those links in the chain had been broken — going right back to the beginning of the human race — I would not be here today.

All in all, an incredible chance, a fantastical improbability.

It’s almost impossible to believe. But let’s just look at the alternative.

I had to exist. I could not have failed to have been born. How does that sound? slightly mad?

Am I willing to grant the same about [you]? Not at all. I have not the slightest difficulty in supposing that [you]… might not have existed."

That’s the point. Whatever the source of your metaphysical conviction that you had to exist — the only question being who or what you were going to be — it seems much harder to maintain that conviction with respect to any other conscious being.


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