Treating non-humans as persons

It works. But is it more than that?

Re-Assembling Reality #19 by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt.

In Re-Assembling Reality #18, we made a distinction between persons and humans. Modern societies tend to consider all humans to be persons and all persons to be human. But this has not always been the case. Nor is it the case for all societies even today. Some societies have not conferred personhood on all humans. And most societies confer personhood on at least some nonhumans.

Nonhuman persons?

If you have a pet called Porky the Piglet, you will apply different moral standards to how he should be treated, in contrast to, say, relating to it as an object to be slaughtered for meat.

Porky the Piglet. (Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil via Wikimedia Commons)

Many societies treat a far greater range of nonhumans as persons, including rocks, animals, trees, stars, and so on. Even in Hong Kong, we often see joss sticks burning at the foot of old Banyan trees. And there are shrines to the “Earth God” everywhere. In fact, those trees, and those places, are being treated as persons.

At this point your first reaction, having received a modern education, is probably to chuckle at those quaint customs, in which people “believe” what is patently wrong — trees and earth are obviously not persons. They won’t respond to joss sticks, and they won’t get upset if we don’t burn joss sticks for them.

Many anthropological and psychological theories explain why we tend to treat nonhumans as persons. For example, in his book Faces in the Clouds, the anthropologist Guthrie argued that, early in our evolutionary history, when humans all lived as hunters and gatherers in an environment where there were still many huge predators dangerous to humans, it served us well to assume that, every time there was a sound of leaves rustling in a forest, that the cause of that sound was a being with consciousness and intention, just like humans. It also served us well to assume that their the intention was to pounce on and kill humans. Seeing the world as full of such persons, humans learned to be always on alert and responsive to invisible intentions, and this gave us an evolutionary advantage [1].

According to this theory, the innate tendency to indiscriminately see consciousness and intention everywhere has remained with us and is the source of the belief in anthropomorphic gods. Confirming this theory, cognitive psychologists have shown that children, from a very young age, develop a set of intuitive assumptions about how other people think, which cognitive scientists call “Theory of Mind” (ToM); and they tend to see intentional purpose everywhere, in what the psychologists call “promiscuous teleology”.

Disney’s Lion King.

Children love to assign the attributes of personhood to nonhumans — something that we see in their enthusiastic responses to fairy tales and cartoons, in which animals are persons. Premodern people carried this predisposition into their adulthood. Modern scientific education works very hard to change the way we naturally use our ToM, so that we apply it only to humans.

Are we correct in restricting our ToM to humans?

Well, there is no evidence that non-humans are persons.

But is there evidence that humans are persons?

If we treat humans as objects, we can scan their brains and observe the electrical flows between their brain cells, which we infer to be the physical signs of “consciousness”, which is usually taken to be a condition of personhood. But there is a problem here: what we observe is millions of brain cells communicating with each other, each of which is responding to distinct messages and stimuli. If you and I are in conversation, what is actually happening is millions of cells in my brain and in yours, responding to each other and to stimuli they receive from optic nerves, ear nerves, etc. There is no observable entity called “I” nor a coherent entity called “you”. “I” and “you” are suppositions. There is no evidence for their physical existence.

But if I treat myself and you as persons, these suppositions are self-evident, and the evidence for them is that we experience them, and they work. I experience myself as a person, and I experience you likewise. As subjective realists, we take these experiences to be real and not illusions. On that basis, we start a conversation, we communicate, we develop a relationship, we respond to each other, we get to know each other. We don’t need to know anything about each other’s brain cells for us to know each other. People treated each other as persons long before there were brain scans. Brain scans are not what we generally experience, and it won’t help us in our relationship. And if I treated you as a mass of brain cells rather than as a person, I doubt you’d want to become my friend.

Can this be evidence of our friendship?

Treating you as a person works, because I say or do something with you, and you respond. To the extent that there is a fit between our reciprocal signals and responses, we can assume that communication is occurring — even though I can never “see through you” to know exactly the nature or content of your consciousness or intention. I could always be wrong when I suppose I understand you when you say something. Misunderstandings arise. But even when the misunderstandings are never dispelled, we continue treating each other as persons.

In fact, if we put effort into treating each other as persons, it is likely that we will become more person-like, thus confirming our initial assumptions. On the other hand, if we treat each other like objects, it is likely that we will become more object-like. Research has shown that children raised in environments lacking in basic empathy, treated as objects, are more likely to have difficulty in establishing basic social relations. Never having experienced what it is to be treated as a person, they are more likely to treat people as objects. Thus, our assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Now what if we enter into relations with nonhumans as persons? In a relationship with a pet dog for example, we learn to communicate, using words but also facial expressions, sounds, body language, and so on. Although dogs don’t talk, we learn how to read their intention through their postures, their eye contact, their barks and whines, and so on. If you have experience communicating with a dog, you will react with skepticism to scientific reports that claim that “it is not possible to demonstrate that dogs feel emotions”[2]. According to one study, we project our own personalities onto dogs when reading their emotions [3].

But that’s how communication between human persons works too! When we begin a relationship with a person, we project our prior prejudices and assumptions onto that person. When they use certain words or act in a certain manner, we will first assume that the meaning and intention are the same as our previous experience of the same words and acts. It is only through further back and forth, that you might respond differently to the way I assumed, and I’ll adjust my assumptions, until the communication seems to flow smoothly, and the relationship seems to work. But ultimately, I will never know with absolute certainty. You may be nothing more than a complex system of billions of nerve cells, none of which is conscious of me, but whose configuration has fooled me into believing that you are a person.

Tibetan mountains, Javanese volcanoes, Amazonian forests

Many peoples treat mountains as persons. The Tibetans, for example, treat mount Amne Machen as the deity Machen Pomra, “Grandfather Pomra” or “The Great Peacock Ancestor”. This person provides the humans living on its foothills with flowing brooks and rivers along which they can build their villages, pastures on which they can feed their yak and sheep, and forests in which they can collect firewood and medicinal plants. The weather changes rapidly in high mountains, and he can send heavy thunderstorms and hail, blizzards, fog, and gleaming sunshine, depending on his mood.

The glacier at the top of Amne Machen, with prayer flags below. (Photo Credit: James Wheeler via Flickr)

If we treat all of these elements as objects, we can identify their relationships as forming an ecosystem. The different elements react to each other in natural ways, like the cells in our brains. If we treat them as objects, is not necessary to invoke the personhood of the mountain to explain the cycles and changes.

But for the Tibetans, behind all of these elements is a person. To approach the mountain is to approach that person, to communicate with him. Pilgrims spend two weeks walking and praying around the mountain, expressing their reverence for Machen Pomra, his power and his compassion. Different mountains have different personalities. Some of them are fierce and fickle, while others are gentle and constant.

Sounds romantic? Perhaps you’d like to visit that mountain and appreciate the beauty of these colorful stories, even if you think that the Tibetans are, ultimately, wrong. But for them, it’s not an expression of the romantic imagination. It’s a practical matter. It’s about learning to live with him and responding to the signals of what we call the environment of the mountain, and what they call Grandfather Pomra.

There may be “no scientific evidence” that the impersonal parts of the mountain combine to form a personal whole. In like manner, there is “no scientific evidence” that the impersonal chemicals that make up my wife combine to make a personal whole. Still, I treat my wife as a person, and I come to know her in a way that I would never have managed if I had seen her only as a collection of impersonal parts. Maybe I, too, am crazy. Maybe you chuckle at my quaint customs, just as you chuckle at the Tibetans’.

Let’s consider Javanese volcanoes. People living on them “get to know them.” They treat the volcano with respect. If Johnny went and looked into the crater when the volcano was grumbling like that, you shouldn’t be surprised that it killed him. He should show respect for the volcano’s moods. The volcano, in its rumblings is “trying to tell you something”.

The seismologist puts a seismometer on the side of the mountain is also listening to what the mountain wants to say, just in a different way. The seismometer translates the rumblings into written code that the seismologist can decipher. Does a Javan who “knows” the volcano know him less than a scientist who “knows about” the volcano? The Javan knows him as a person, the scientist knows it as an object. What message does the Javan hear in the rumblings? And what about the seismologist? Will they do different things about it? Are either of them demonstrably wrong in their manner of engagement?

When the Tibetans and the Javanese treat the mountain as a person with intentions, are they simply using anthropomorphic language to interpret signs that are more properly communicated with the mathematical quantities and visual graphs of seismology or ecology?

Or are they trying to achieve something different? Is the thing that they are trying to achieve something that we might recognise as being a worthwhile achievement? Is it even something that we ourselves might want to achieve? Might they, in recognizing the mountain as a person, be able to achieve something that we cannot achieve by adhering to a modernist view, but which we would like to be able to achieve?

Let’s consider another case: the indigenous people of the Amazon. They consider the thick rainforest to be teaming with persons — not only human persons, but also jaguars, fish, insects, roots, trees, rocks, birds, — all of these are persons, with whom they live together. They treat some of the animals and plants as family members, as in-laws or children; others as predators and enemies, and others as protectors. Seeing all of these beings as persons, they are always on the lookout for signs that those animals and things are communicating to them. They are always trying to understand their intentions, through traces in the forest, sounds, odors, actions, dreams or ritually induced trances.

Is it unreasonable to assume there is meaning in these sounds?

Just like in a society of humans, the more you know and communicate with the people you’re living with, the more you can know whom you can trust, the more you can negotiate with others, the more, also, you can avoid giving yourself in unnecessary trouble by inadvertently offending others. So that’s what the indigenous people do — they listen and watch carefully, they become familiar, they show gratitude when they take something, they express regret when they hurt the creatures in the forest.

Consider the extractive industries of mining, logging, fishing, and factories.
— Mining treats rocks as objects. You take them out of the ground. They are quantified by how much money can be made from them. We do not weep for the rocks.
— Logging treats trees as objects. We take them out of the land. They are quantified by how much money can be made from them. We do not weep for the trees.
— Fishing treats fish as objects. We take them out of the ocean. They are quantified by how much money can be made from them. We do not weep for the fish.
— Factories treat workers as objects. We take them out of their homes. They are quantified by how much money can be made from them. We do not weep for the workers.

If humans are persons then, even if you do at times use them as a means to an end, you recognise the sacrifice they make for you. You show gratitude to them for it. And you know your debt to them can never be fully repaid. You will always be bound to them.

If animals are persons, you do likewise.

If plants are persons, you do likewise.

If rocks are persons, you do likewise.

And — it works. For tens of thousands of years, without modern technology, indigenous people have been able to live and to survive in the rainforest. If you or I were to go into the forest, we would die. We could only survive by cutting ourselves off from the forest, by using nets, tents, insecticides, guns, motorboats, and bringing in packaged food from outside.

Is it reasonable to assume there is meaning in these sounds?

It works.

Ultimately, as Moderns, we can only survive by treating the forest, and its inhabitants, as objects. Moderns cut down the trees without asking and without thanking, and burn all life to the ground. The indigenous people themselves are treated as objects. We take their freedom and even their lives without asking and without thanking. For those who survive, the forest is shrinking, animals are becoming rare, the forest is less generous than before. She is less generous because she has been disrespected, and wounded — why would she continue to provide for such ungrateful humans? So she shrinks and disappears, the indigenous people are reduced to poverty and misery, and the global climate is disrupted, seeding chaos among humans everywhere.

So, for the indigenous people, treating the beings of the forest as persons, communicating with them as persons, has worked for thousands of years. When people stopped treating them as persons, it became increasingly impossible to survive. The indigenous people are themselves facing extinction, because the beings of the forest, and the indigenous people themselves, are treated as objects.

So let’s recapitulate our argument until now: there is no evidence that you are a person, but to the extent that I treat you as a person instead of an object, it works, and so I continue doing so. There is no evidence that animals, trees, rocks and forests are persons, but for the indigenous people who do relate to them as persons, it works, and it has ensured their survival for thousands of years.

“It works”.

For what end?

Pragmatism says that a thing achieves a desired end. It does not stop at “it works” but always says “it works for achieving this.” But pragmatism itself does not tell us what the end should be.

Nowadays, the objectification of the world around us “works” if we want to make lots of money in the short term. In this regard, indigenous tribes people have been abject failures.

But does a focus on the interdependencies of all creation work if we want to be human in the full sense of the word? In this regard, the people in the Modern West might be abject failures. If individual tribes-people die out, and if entire tribal cultures die, but, in their living they lived to be genuinely human, we might view that as success.

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This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forumand the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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[1]. Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[2].Miiamaaria V. Kujala. Canine emotions as seen through human social cognition. Animal Sentience 2017.013. Published online: https://www.wellbeingintlstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1114&context=animsent

[3]. Christina M. Brown and Julia L. McLean (2015). Anthropomorphizing dogs: Projecting one’s own personality and consequences for supporting animal rights. Anthrozoos, 28 (1), 73–86. Quoted in https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201504/do-we-project-our-own-personalities-our-dogs-behavior

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