Friday, April 24, 2009

Your Conscience

Your conscience...what a miracle.

Isn't it curious that we have a built-in information center which constantly provides feedback to our brain regarding the morality of any given situation? And, that we are the only beings on the planet that have such a device?

Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.
-1 Samuel 16:7

We are accountable.


  1. Gabriel,

    "And, that we are the only beings on the planet that have such a device?"Are you sure about that?

  2. Which other creature do you think has a conscience Matt?

  3. The short answer? Yup, I'm sure.

  4. I guess it depends on how you define 'conscience'.

    We have an ability to tell right from wrong, sure, but what does that actually mean?

    Is it really anything more than being able to perceive the benefits/drawbacks of a given action, for both the individual and the group?

    I'll readily admit that we have a more highly developed 'conscience' than any other species, but that doesn't mean that other species don't have a rudimentary form of the same 'device'.

    That would be like saying that, because an eagle has the best eyesight in the animal kingdom (for example), no other species has eyes. It doesn't really make much sense unless you really get down to establishing what you mean by 'conscience'.

    Many other species have been known to show basic levels of altruism, compassion, guilt, frustration, love and other emotions - chimps, for example, are generally considered to be as emotionally developed as a 2-3 year old child.

    I'm not trying to be difficult, but I don't see how you can claim a uniqueness for humans if you haven't adequately defined what it is that you think makes us unique.


  5. PS. there is a small part of me that knows that I'm just being contentious to see where the discussion goes - sorry!

  6. Matt,

    Do not be sorry, please! I thoroughly enjoy the back-and-forth.

    And...I do know that you like to play Devil's Advocate (please pardon the pun! Goodness!) for the sake of a good mental tennis match.

    I do believe that humans are the only beings on Earth which are self-aware.

    When an animal is wounded and is laying on the ground, dying, it does not ponder its fate or its life or anything like that as it experiences the last few minutes of its life. If I had to make my best bet as to what is going on inside a wounded animal's brain as it lay dying, I think it would be something like:

    "Legs, move"
    (legs do not move)
    "Legs, move"
    (legs do not move)
    "Legs, ..."

    Please pardon the sarcasm, if it's too thick :-)


  7. If I wasn't too clear, I was answering your question by saying that a being has to be self-aware in order to have a conscience. That's a basic pre-requisite.

  8. Cool lets see where we get to...

    Chimps, crows (and some other birds), elephants and dolphins are all self-aware in that they recognize their own reflection (an ability that was, until fairly recently, thought to be a uniquely human attribute).

    What this means is that they are aware that what they are seeing is 'self' rather than 'other'. Anyone who has spent time with chimpanzees (or bonobos) will tell you that it is possible to read their expressions and identify human-like emotions. We don't know if they ponder the heavens or the meaning of life - some might say that this would make them the lucky ones!

    Question: How can you tell the difference between instinct and conscience?

    Eg. a Gorilla mother protecting her infant would be called instinct. But would a human mother's same action be called 'moral' in the same situation?

    Further down the rabbit-hole we go...

  9. An animal recognizing its own reflection does not make it self-aware. It also recognizes its offspring and its mate(s). It would stand to reason that it could recognize itself.

    Facial expressions...also, nothing there. They resemble humans in the face, of course their expressions could be described as "human-like". Dogs make facial expressions, too, when they are ready to fight, or when you rub their belly. It's just a response, that's all.

    Lastly - I would call a mother protecting her child instinct. We have instincts too, which go against logic. Point a gun at my wife and I'll not hesitate a second to step in front of it and take the bullet myself. That is because God made men to be protectors of our wives a children; that's why it's in our nature to guard, defend, and (when necessary) fight to protect our family, friends, and belongings.

    God made women protectors of their children. I'll bet a woman would be much less likely to step in front of a gun pointed at her husband. But that same woman would do anything to protect her children. It's how God made us...

    What was this post about again? Oh, that's right - our conscience. We have diverted from the topic, slightly.

    Do you think one animal feels bad after savaging another animal and leaving it to suffer and die? The answer is: No, it doesn't.

    They're not self-aware. They don't worry about whether something they have done is moral or not. Or fair.

    My wife and I went for a walk the other day. One of the neighborhood cats had badly injured a bunny, which was bloody as heck and desperately trying to squirm away, but couldn't. The cat was just playing with it like it was cat-nap or something. My wife thought it was so sad! She almost cried. The cat, though, seemed to be having a good time.

  10. After-thought:
    I might have just set the record for my longest comment ever.

  11. Gabriel,

    I think you're dismissing facial expressions too quickly. We understand dogs' behaviour/expressions because we've coexisted with them for many thousands of years and there is a strong understanding between the two; mostly this is taught (through obedience training and so on).

    However, chimps are not dogs. As our closest living relative, genetically speaking, chimps are the species we should look to when examining our differences/similarities with the rest of the animal kingdom. Agreed?

    Chimp groups are know to plan ahead, build beds/shelters for the night, mourn their dead, shape tools for hunting and adopt infants if the infant's mother dies.

    They are capable of understanding human language and, through their facial expression are able to communicate a wide variety of emotions that are strikingly similar to human emotions - curiosity, affection, loneliness, happiness, envy, pride, aloofness....

    But more than that, I think, is what you're after. I think you're defining 'conscience' as the ability to tell right from wrong, whereas I was thinking more about 'consciousness' which is a necessary attribute for a conscience to exist, but not the same thing. My apologies.

    So, again, I come back to the question of 'what are right and wrong?' Almost all the moral dictates we follow are predicated on serving the interests of the society we live in, starting with those closest to us and then moving out (you don't feel the same sense of urgency to intervene when you hear about a gun being pointed at someone's head in outer Mongolia as you would if it were your wife, right?)

    When we say 'that's wrong' or 'he acted morally' we generally mean that the person has acted either for or against the common good. We each try and establish what the 'common good' is at any one time, given the current situations, and try to behave accordingly.

    How much simpler would our morals have to be if the 'common good' only extended to a few dozen individuals? That's the point I believe chimps are at.

    [ok, I'm just trying to beat your word-count now!]


  12. Nice post brother, it has blessed me today. Keep it rockin' and rollin' bro.

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