Black sheep

We are good at countenancing the ridiculous.  Indeed it may be necessary to do so in order to test the boundaries of the feasible, plus our own sanity.  So consider this question:  If it were possible for birds to build things other than nests, would they become other than birds?  In other words, are the birds the cause of the nests or is there more to it – are both explicable by changes at a deeper genetic level, so that birds are birds because of their genes and nests are really extensions of these genes into the world – the nests being organic extensions of biological processes in the same sense as the birds themselves, as proved by the fact that the birds are just behaving instinctively and not really designing anything?   But is it still possible to say that the birds are behaving intentionally, and what does this mean for the explanation of intentional action in the human case?    


What about our abilities to design things?  Did the opposable thumb, upright gait, forward vision, large brain etc enable tool use because this was nature’s scheme, or did our schemes take over to shape evolution in that direction with non-natural intentions – because nature does not act intentionally.   Now consider this ridiculous scenario:  You wake up one day and find you have been transformed into a sheep, but you retain all your human faculties.  You can’t talk because you don’t retain a human larynx.  What do you do?  What would you want to do?  You could try to communicate by scratching symbols in the dust, but would they be seen for what they are?  Other attempts to act hyper-intelligently are likely to be seen as simply odd, especially amongst sheep, just as it is amongst humans.  Also, as a ruminant, you need to spend most of your time eating and the farmer might not like the idea of you starting to eat meat in order to buy more time for clever pursuits like playing with fire.  


It is generally concluded that your best survival strategy would be to behave as a sheep.   So shape is the designer and the environment is the architect of change, itself changed by the unintended morphologies of life.  Then does this extend to our intentions, which we must accept as not really existing as free choices?  Is the idea that we can make up our minds for ourselves to be seen as the ridiculous conclusion of those who can’t think for themselves, but think they can?  Alternatively is the wild freedom of intentionality a new environment in which nature and climate need to adapt? 


Mike Laidler.



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