A Thought Experiment
Once, I had a girlfriend. We lived together. We got a cat together. I know, this is the one of the most exciting things that you’ve ever heard. Mr. Fascinating, that’s me.
She was the first girl that I ever lived with, and she was also a stripper, which has nothing to do with this story. She was also the last girl that I ever lived with. Living together; it’s tricky. I’m not a commitment-phobe — if anything, I’m needy and co-dependent — and I’m not against living together. I just suck at it and I’ve never gotten the hang of it. When you’re not living together, you’re picking and selecting times to hang out, and thus you’re excited. There’s anticipation. You’re picking times to hang out the way that a person picks through a box of chocolates, selecting the yummy chocolates and avoiding all the nougats. Living together is all of the regular chocolates plus the disgusting nougats. Living together is all the times that you want to spend together plus all the horrible times that you don’t. I realize that these are some of the most obvious sentences that any human being has ever written, but I really wanted to break it down. What I’m trying to say is that some people seem to have gotten the hang of spending all the regular times together plus the all horrible times together, but I never have. I don’t know how to do it.
About six months in, we got a cat. This obviously was not an attempt to patch over the cracks of our relationship and add new interest in cat form, except that in retrospect, it totally was.
It was an adorable kitten. A tabby. We named her Sarah, after Sarah Lawrence College. I had intended to go to grad school that year at Sarah Lawrence College, but instead I deferred for a year to live with my girlfriend. How we got a cat was this. I said, “Well, if I can’t go to grad school, I at least want a cat.” The amount of passive-aggressiveness in this sentence requires no explanation.
If you get a cat, you start talking in cat talk. “Oooh, wook at wittle mew-mew, whying on top of the sof-aw!” The “w”s there indicate the truly terrible voice that we used for the cat talk. My girlfriend took the lead in the cat talk, but I’m of a certain whimsical bent, so I gamely followed along.
I think I sensed that our relationship was in real trouble when we started saying horrible things to each other via the medium of the cat. “Oooh, wittle mew-mew, wook. Mommy’s going owt to work. Guess she won’t be back until 5 a.m. and won’t evah answer the phone.” “…Oooh, wittle mew-mew, wook, daddy’s whying around on the couch again, pwetending dat he’s going apply to mwah grad schools, but instead doing nothing like he always daws.” “Ooh, mew-mew, doesn’t mommy look like a whore today?” “…Oh, mew-mew, hasn’t daddy gotten fat?” And such. And such. And so on.
One day, I plopped down on the couch, preparing for a long day of not applying to grad schools and of doing nothing. I was sick to death of the cat talk thing. It was time to cut the sh-t. It was time to cut through the treacle. “Jesus Christ,” I said, in a loud, clear voice. “I am sick to death of this sh-t. Things have got to change. I mean, things have really got to change.” That’s when I realized that I was still talking to the f-cking cat. I had finally become capable of talking to the cat normally. The problem was, I could no longer talk to my girlfriend at all, not even in a funny voice. …Later on, we broke up — me and the girl, I mean — because of course we did. Because if we hadn’t, I definitely wouldn’t be telling you this story. She kept the cat, by the way, since people are always interested in what happens to cats. She kept the cat because it was her apartment. You were more interested in the fate of the cat than in the fate of our relationship, weren’t you? Admit it. The cat is still alive and is just fine; she lives in Georgia now.
Now, clear your mind of all of that. All of the above has nothing to do with anything. I just wanted to tell you that story.
Now, here is a thought experiment. If you could give human consciousness to an animal, would you? So you could grant human consciousness to, say, your cat. Your cat would then have human thoughts and emotions and could, I guess, communicate. So my cat in the above situation could have been like: “Christ, dude, get a grip. You’re falling apart here.”
And not just cats, obviously. All types of animals. Horses, dogs, eagles, moles, otters. These creatures now have human emotions. They get bored. They get angsty. They think beautiful and poetic thoughts, but they are also aware of their impending mortality, which animals are not currently aware of. They realize now that they will someday die and that everyone that they know and love will also someday die.
And it doesn’t even have to be animals. Characters in a video game, say. Now Pac-Man knows of love and hate but also of death. Or totally inanimate objects. Rocks. Lamps. If a lamp could talk and think and feel, what would it say? Would it be unhappy? “Gawwwd all I do is sit here all day long, please kill me, gawwwwd.” Or would you be surprised by the amount of happiness it feels: “The contrast between the light and the dark, it’s joyous to me, and I’m the only one who truly understands it, I think.”
Of course, if you give human capabilities to, say, your lamp or your dog, you’re sort of ruining your current dynamic with your lamp or your dog, so think about that too. Ditto with how you’re sort of ruining taking a walk in the woods if you decide to give thoughts to trees.
Essentially what you’re doing here is playing God. In the Bible — not that we necessarily believe in the Bible — but in the Bible, God chooses at a certain point to give these abilities to humans.
So, what would you do? …In a way, this question asks if you think that God made the right choice. So: do you think your cat would be happier if it had people thoughts? And do you want to step into God’s shoes in that way?
If so, why? And if not, why not? If you don’t want to give those powers to your cat, why? Isn’t that a little selfish of you? Why should you get to decide that cats won’t be able to experience human feelings? Do you think it wouldn’t benefit them, to have feelings like that? And are you so certain of that belief that you are just willing to withhold magical powers in that way? …And here’s another question: if your answer is “No,” are you withholding these powers for your own benefit, because you don’t want to have to change the way you interact with your cat, the trees, your lamp?
Please respond to the above thought experiment in any way that you please, but please explain your reasoning when you do so. The best-slash-most intriguing answer will receive a prize from me in the mail, although as always, it will be a weird and possibly not very good prize. And as always, this offer is for real.
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