Recently, my wife and I have decided to transition towards vegetarianism. For me, this is partly driven by meat heavy Czech dishes, like roasted pork, grilled duck and pork liver that make me wish I had just ordered a salad. It’s also driven by the uneasy feeling I get browsing the meat section in the supermarket; particularly the packages of minced meats never fail to creep me out.
I have a vegan colleague who introduced me to a bunch of Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese vegan restaurants sprinkled around Prague. He pointed out how amazing it was that these places offered buffets with so much variety and changing daily menus using just vegetables, grains, and tofu, while other restaurants can use any ingredient under the sun and they end up making goulash.
I was a vegetarian for a while in college, and my motivation was not so much the moral or ethical repercussions of eating meat, but a love for rice, bean, and cheese burritos that I thought gave me all the sustenance I needed.
But now that my wife is really getting into vegetarianism, we find ourselves watching more documentaries about food and the raising and slaughtering of animals in factory farms. It is heart wrenching to see animals treated that way: cows that are so confined they can’t even fully turn around, pigs that spend their days splayed out on the floor, seemingly unconscious, while being sucked dry by a mob of thirsty piglets, and chickens that are artificially raised to fatten up so quickly that their legs cannot support their own body weight, so they just plop down miserably in the dark. Not to mention footage of sadistic farmers who kick the chickens around. All these images make eating animals seem like a really cruel and inhumane thing to do.
But what about eating plants? Just like animals, plants have a will to survive. This is manifested in their nourishment, respiration, and reproduction. The notion that it is admissible to eat plants because their consciousness has not developed enough through evolution to protest their killing is an artificial distinction made by humans, as we habitually associate contested killing with a life that should not be taken away.
When my wife became pregnant with our daughter about two years ago, I was amazed that a life had emerged in her belly. But, probably like for most parents, my daughter’s personhood was intangible and difficult for me to grasp. At only three weeks, my daughter was a ball of cells with a full set of DNA containing blueprints for her growth, determining her sex and eye color among other physical traits. By around five weeks, her heart began to beat. Soon after she had eyes and eyelids and fingers and a nose, and then her vital organs, including her brain, started to function. But at which point did her ‘life’ begin?
Obviously this question has been central to the hugely controversial topic of abortion rights. Medical experts, philosophers, and theologians have battled it out and failed to reach a consensus on the starting point of life. Is it the moment of conception? The moment of birth? Somewhere in between? The point of ‘viability’ has often been pointed to as a cut-off milestone, which vaguely refers to the point when the baby can live independently from the mother. The arbitrariness of this milestone is highlighted by technological advances, where machine-assisted life support is constantly pushing back the age where a fetus can survive outside of the mother’s body. So then the definition of life is made not by biology, but by technology.
How ‘alive’ we are compared to animals and plants, and then the cells and subsequently the molecules, atoms and subatomic particles that constitute them, is a very interesting question to ponder. The wonderful book by Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Science Delusion’, delves into this topic in a chapter called: ‘Is matter unconscious?’. He argues that although we often confront situations where we make conscious decisions, a majority of our actions, like driving to work, showering, breathing, eating, etc, take place in the form of various routines or habits. The lives of animals can be considered to be more strongly governed by such habits, and less by conscious decisions. Like humans, animals are driven by certain natural forces such as hunger and sexuality, as well as feelings such as pleasure and pain, to behave and act in certain ways that have become habitual to them. The same can be said for plants, even though their actions are much more subtle and difficult for us to perceive unless we are very attentive, or botanists.
But then Rupert Sheldrake goes a step further. Do particles also display traits of life by forming habits? Physicists know that electrons are also guided and drawn by natural forces, namely electric and magnetic fields, to which they respond in a way that can be considered to be habitual. Given that electrons have charge, they are drawn to electric fields, and given that they have spin, they respond to and precess about magnetic fields.
But can it be said that electrons have a will? When confronted with multiple paths in an electrical circuit, it is well-known that they take the path of least resistance. But how do they know this before hand? In one analogy I found on the internet, it is like people leaving a crowded movie theater with two doors, a large one and a small one. The first few people leaving may choose a door at random, but after a while most people will flock towards the larger door, because people at that door are exiting more quickly, which is habitually favorable for us. According to this analogy, the electron is making a decision, which gives it some degree of free will, even if it is eventually acting out of habit.
My physics professors were always careful not to draw any philosophical conclusions in their lectures in quantum mechanics. This is the so-called ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’; namely that we should only believe what the equations tell us, even if they make no intuitive sense, and not venture to speculate what they imply outside of quantifiable probabilities. It has been the domain of philosophers to contemplate these questions, which seems difficult to do if you aren’t a trained physicist, or have the mathematical prowess that is needed to understand the complicated equations that form the language of quantum mechanics.
A good example of a quantum mechanical experiment with many philosophical implications is the infamous double slit experiment, first attributed to Thomas Young for his apparatus using light. In this experiment, a beam of electrons is directed towards a barrier that has two small slits cut out of it. When reaching the barrier, the electron has a choice of which slit to go through. By placing a detecting screen at a distance behind this barrier, we can tell where the electron has arrived at the screen, but we don’t know which path was taken. According to quantum mechanics, the electron has a certain probability of taking either path, and since its wavefunction is determined by the sum of possible paths, it can be considered to take both paths simultaneously. This is why interference patterns form, which implies that the electron has indeed taken both paths, just like a wave. If the electron has taken both paths, then it can be presumed that it appeared at two different locations at once. By trying to measure which slit the electron goes through, we collapse its wavefunction by determining its path and removing the other probabilities, which leads to a disappearance of the interference pattern. So there appears to be a very strange thing going on, with electrons acting out their wills in a sphere that we have no experimental access to.
Unfortunately, people who attempt to discuss ideas such as the will of an electron are often categorically dismissed as quacks, even though such a discussion seems central to our understanding of what life means.