Sunday, July 27, 2008

Chicken heads for the soul

This is the story of how a chicken head showed me that the soul is a myth...

Okay, my tongue is ever-so-slightly in my cheek. But, still, let me explain. I've never had much to say about the whole 'can atheists be spiritual?' topic. When I first understood I was an atheist, I discarded the idea of a soul without giving it much thought. Later, in university and thus going through one of those 'experimental phases' university students practically feel obliged to force themselves through, I had what I took at the time to calling a 'crisis of faith in my atheism'.

My main reasons for using that phrase were (a) it was oh so clever, and (b) I wasn't so hot on the terminology. What I suppose I meant was that I had a crisis of faith in my materialism. As I developed all sorts of dopey new-age theories, ideologies and stoned soliloquys, I never actually found a place for any kind of 'creating' or 'conscious' force, but I did find space for plenty of what they might call 'spiritual' philosophies. I laugh now at the worst of my youthful excesses (though all of my quasi-spiritualistic rhetoric was bound round a humanistic ideology that I still have), but at the time I found them hard to shake.

In the dozen-plus years since then, I've found that my interest in matters spiritual has waned, but I was always conscious that I had never 100% given up on the concept of a soul. Even after becoming a semi-professional internet atheist rabble-rouser.

For me it came down to the self-evident fact that something possessing of life, say a jaguar, differed in some concrete way from something not possessing of life, like say a Jaguar. It seemed to me that there was a 'moment of death' at which point what was previously a 'living being' was now a pile of meat. It seemed that there was a valid distinction to be made there that, regardless of concepts of divinities or 'creators', could be called a 'soul'.

Or, you know, whatever. I didn't like to get bogged down in the terminology.

When I got to thinking about the fact that things like blades of grass and amoeba didn't really seem to be much more than self-replicating entities, I usually just mentally shrugged (a difficult thing to do; try it some time) and move onto the next topic. I think, strange as it may seem, that I maintained the belief in the spirit merely because I liked it - this, of course, being one of the major motivating factors behind all supernatural or theistic belief structures.

But I got thinking about headless chickens. You know how a chicken will flap its wings around for a minute or so even after it's been beheaded? Well, of course that's meant to be a complex nervous reaction. When I was in high school, we had to dissect worms and they'd sometimes twitch. As creepy as that was, it was easy to accept that the twitching was just some kind of nerve thing left over from when the worm was alive. Like how a disconnected electrical wire can still carry a bit of charge.

It's a lot easier to say that a little twitch is not a sign of life than it is to say that flapping wings, scurrying feet and the appearance of panic is not a sign of life. But I certainly would acknowledge that it is not the 'soul' in any case responsible for these things; that whatever a 'soul' might happen to be, voluntary actions result from that grey organ we all house in our heads. And it does seem to me that headlessness is a compelling sign of lifelessness. So, I suppose we all must accept that a headless (thus brainless) chicken is a dead chicken. And, thus, whatever complex tango of nervous reactions causes it, the flapping and scurrying a headless chicken does does not show sentience or, in any practical way, life.

The thing, though, that really got me thinking was partially headless chickens. Don't laugh; they do exist. There has been more than one documented case of chickens who, during slaughter, found themselves with their heads only partially cut off. Now, in humans, half a head's not worth much, but apparently the motor control mechanisms in a chicken are located so far to the back of the chicken's head that it's practically in the brain stem itself, and a chicken can have so much of its head lopped off that it appears to have nothing but neck.

In such a case, a chicken can 'live' not just minutes but months - however long chickens really live. In the documented cases, the farmer will feed and 'water' the chicken down its exposed throat. Then, the chicken will continue to walk around the farm and do whatever chickens do, completely unencumbered by its lack of a head.

Now, obviously chickens are stupid. Headed chickens don't exactly write haiku and read Proust. But the ability of a headless chicken to keep on keepin' on raises questions in me about the relationship between consciousness and 'life' in animals. It seems that any animal that has consciousness becomes in some important way 'dead' when that consciousness irretrievably goes away. I really don't have a detached view about heavy topics like euthanasia - in fact, I find it difficult to form any opinion at all. But I do know that doctors seem to know what they're talking about when in certain cases they say that brain death is irreversible. And that, whether or not the organs carry on, brain death is the only real death that matters.

So if the biological concept of 'life' is nebulous, obviously the spiritual concept of 'the soul' is going to be even trickier. But the two have to be connected, right? Everyone I know who believes in the soul in one form or another believes that it departs the body at the moment of death. The spiritual definition of death would, I suppose, even be 'the separation of the soul from the body', regardless of the question of what happens to the soul thereafter: whether it goes to heaven to meet Jesus, whether it goes into another newborn creature, whether it joins the Brahma or the Tao or just dissipates into the environment.

If you believe that humans have a soul but chickens don't, this creates no problem for you. I've never, at any time in my life, conceived of a worldview that could distinguish humans from other animals in this way. Believing as I do in evolution, I have to believe that what separates us from gorillas is 1.6% of our DNA and a few million years, nothing else.

To suggest that a 'soul' is something that exists but something that we evolved after our branching away from other higher primates seems silly. If we've got it, they've got it.

So if chickens have a soul, does a headless chicken have one? Is it kept in the head? It seems to me the answer ought to be yes. Which means that the walking, flapping headless chicken is also a soulless chicken. And whatever 'life' it possesses (since it seems silly to describe it as 'dead') it does without whatever essence distinguishes us from rocks or Jaguar cars.

Rationally, it's all getting a bit too much. Good old William of Ockham and his rule about simplest explanations, right? Either souls exist, but it's really difficult to suss out who has one and who doesn't, or souls don't exist, and it's just one other thing we have in common with all animals - and rocks too, come to think of it.

1 comment:

Sips With A Fist said...

I gotta get me one of those "nearly headless" chickens. Oh, BTW, isn't there some Jack Canfield book that turns those lopped off heads into Chicken Soup for the Soul.....