Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Gem of a Book 4

Answering His Critics

Labrador, Howth Summit, Feb, 2007
Professor Rowlands does answer his critics well – that is, those critics who accuse him of taking a wild creature out of its habitat. Firstly, he tells us that his wolf, whom he named Brenin, was not born in the wild, but rather in captivity. Also he is quite adamant that he gave the creature far better care and attention than he had had heretofore. Also, as a passionate animal and dog lover, having been reared in a family that owned two great danes, he knew that he was more than capable of training the young wolf and rearing him effectively and sympathetically. This wee memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf, testifies more than adequately to his success in this matter.

I am quite at one with Rowlands where he criticizes his would-be critics as being for the most part “middle class liberal academics with green pretensions.” (Ibid. p.36) Better to “walk the walk than talk the talk” as the cliché rightly puts it. This memoir is primarily about “walking the walk,” with the philosophical musings coming by way of reflection on those lived experiences.

What Nature Intends

I am also singularly at one with Professor Rowlands also where he states that “what nature intends” is very far from a closed question. In fact, it is so open that it admits of many possible answers. Therefore, those who throw off opinions as to what nature intends need to be wary and to have questioned what they mean by this statement in the first place. Now, that is true philosophy – the heart of which is a radical questioning of assumptions, presumptions and presuppositions.

Demeaning Animals

Many years ago I attended a debate between liberal theologians and scientists (biologists, geneticists and physicists) on the topic of evolution. One of the theologians was personally known to me and a brilliant liberal theologian he was and is. However, on this occasion, the biologist got the better of him in a certain argument about whether apes can love or not. This theologian had fallen captive to the categories of his own discipline and his lack of experience of working with animals. As an animal lover I know “on my pulses,” as the Romantic poet John Keats so aptly put it, that animals can love not alone one another but us as well. Every farmer knows that. However, on this occasion the theologian was simply wrong. In other words, I completely concur with Professors John Gray and Mark Rowlands that we have over-estimated our human worth to the sheer disadvantage of our brother and sister animals. That foxes, wolves, dogs, horses and dolphins are both clever and capable of love virtually goes without saying today. As Rowlands wittily puts it: “Try telling the urban fox that it should be engaged in its natural behaviour of hunting mice. Try telling the fox that its essence precedes its existence, and that, unlike me, it doesn’t have its being to be.” (Ibid, p. 39) [Rowlands is here referring to existential categories, especially those invented by Jean-Paul Sartre, that ultimate existentialist, who described that particular philosophical view as the contention that existence precedes essence for all humans and that essence precedes existence for everything else including animals].

I’m totally in agreement with Rowlands here that this is the height of human arrogance. It is interesting for this writer to note the almost totally unconscious acceptance by these so-called modern philosophers of many of the presuppositions made by more orthodox Christian philosophers before them, e.g., that humankind stands at the pinnacle of creation and can lord it over other creatures as a result. Sartre argued that humans were beings-for-themselves or pour-soi, while lowly animals were mere beings in themselves or en-soi. In other words the human being can define himself or herself, create their own project in life or choose a particular path or vocation of their own. In other words humankind is essentially free – or condemned to be free as Sartre would put it – while the mere animal is anything but free. Once again this is a very arrogant and condescending view of animal life by humankind.

The Hand of Cards

I have always loved a good image or a good metaphor. Here is another good one – the hand of cards. That life is a game or at least is composed of people who play psychological games as well as the more common ones, I have discussed in these pages before with reference to the brilliant book The Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne. (See here) On a similar note I remember reading a biography of Stephen Hawking written by two of his early Ph.D. candidates and later collaborators where he the world-renowned theoretical physicist uses the same metaphor for life. He told his interlocutors that he never felt a shred of self-pity because he was burdened with such a catastrophic disease that left him wheelchair-bound and voiceless relatively early in life, quite simply because as a physicist he understood the sheer chance that is nature. He simply believed that there was no use in getting upset by something which he could do absolutely nothing about. He also spoke about playing whatever hand of cards fate dealt you in life to the best of your ability. That is all we can do, all that is humanly possible. Rowlands is in agreement with this and uses the very same metaphor for the parts we ourselves can play in life. It is the same, our philosopher argues for dogs, wolves, foxes and more intelligent animals. In short, our esteemed Professor writes, and I am in agreement here: “A wolf, no less than a human, can play the hand it has been dealt. And what is more, you can help it to do this. As it becomes better at playing this hand, it becomes more confident. It enjoys what it’s learnt and wants to learn more. It becomes stronger and consequently happier.” (Ibid, p. 41)

That Rowlands is using a metaphor, and using it in its anthropomorphic sense to boot, goes without saying. One must allow for leeway here, dear readers, if not for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge so perspicaciously called “a suspension of disbelief” if we are following the professor’s reasonable argument in this short memoir.

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