Yesterday Doug commented:
I think this is the core of religious feeling– the conviction that it is impossible for something as infinite in potential and capability as the mind to cease to exist because of something as trivial as a microbe or a car accident.
Perhaps the core of atheist feeling is the obverse of this: the sad observation that it is possible for something as infinite as the mind to cease to exist. From that perspective such things as good works, creativity, being an inspiration to those who come after, these are the only “immortality” we have.
One could say that the “atheist premise” is that the feeling of being human comes from a shared legacy of a highly evolved brain. This premise leads to ethical conclusions that are different from the ethical conclusions one might derive from the premise that humans are a product of divine creation.
For example, I am atheist, which puts me in the distinct minority in my culture. Somewhat recently I became vegan, which really puts me in the minority. For me the veganism was a direct logical outgrowth of the atheism, a conclusion I was bound to reach eventually. If we ascribe our feeling of kinship with other individuals to these astonishing brains of ours, then I find it impossible to draw a line between human individuals and individuals within species whose brains are more similar to ours than different. Of course other species do not have our facility with language, but that doesn’t seem to get at the essence of things – newborn infants and people with certain kinds of disabilities do not have language, yet we consider them to be individuals, not things – and we try to avoid eating them.
Complex brain function leads to the capacity to feel, to experience life, to have a subjective emotional experience. For me, this capacity constitutes the line between “those individuals here in this world with us” and the indifferent world outside those individuals. Speaking as a scientist, I find the empirical evidence to be overwhelming that individuals of many species are far more similar to humans than different in their capacity to feel and to have a subjective experience of life.
To sum up: an atheist view of the brain, combined with the observation that we share almost all brain functionality with members of many other species, leads to an expanded view of what constitutes an “individual”. When looked at objectively, without any preconceived bias, the huge similarities of brain form and function between individuals across many species are far greater than the relatively small differences.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that I “love animals”. It just means that I find it inappropriate to eat them.