My friend and I were discussing my flexitarianism (that is, flexible vegetarianism). I said I thought the act of killing certain animals was worse than the act of killing others. I believe this because mammals, for example, have more complex and prodigious nervous systems than insects, for example.
Friend: I would count them all equally because we do not know how each of them feels.
Me: Yes we do, based on their biology.
Friend: Maybe smaller animals are more overwhelmed by less complex feelings because of their size.
Me: There is no evidence to support that theory.
Friend: There is no evidence against it.
Me: What about the fact that smaller people aren’t more sensitive?
Friend: Maybe they are. Maybe they have learned to handle their intense feelings. Or maybe my theory only applies to different species. The point is, I don’t know, so I choose to treat them all equally.
Friend: When we don’t know things, we believe what makes us feel best.
Later that day …
Me: Do you believe in aliens?
Friend: Depends. I would have to find out the molecular rotations of these proteins that scientists are claiming constitute life on other planets. Do you?
Me: Yes, because there are so many planets and because they like the idea. The prospect stimulates me mentally.
Friend: See? This illustrates my point. When we do not know something, we believe what we want.
As much as people who think they know things because they “just know” annoy the hell out of me, sometimes both positions are equally unfounded (for example, there is insufficient proof that there is a god/goddess and insufficient proof that there isn’t). In these situations, I think it is okay to believe what makes you feel best, as long as you don’t take it as fact. When you try to persuade others that your subjective beliefs are right, it is usually because you are trying to convince yourself. This is what I have found in my own life.
Still, my friend is a little silly, and I will continue to care more about the life of a person than that of a tick.
As another friend put it during one of my rants about uncertainty, “things aren’t as bleak as you may think.” In fact, one of the lessons I have learned in college is that some seemingly mysterious questions can be tackled experimentally if one is creative enough (I think this first hit me when I read some of “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner, which uses neuroscience to discuss free will. This will get its own post if you remind me).