Over the years, I have dabbled in a lot of “New Age bullshit” – everything from astrology to zen. In part, what attracted me to these topics was the degree to which they were shunned by the mainstream scientific community. I despise hegemony in any form. As wonderful as science is, anyone who has read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions knows that science is subject to the errors and biases of scientists, who, despite their best efforts, remain mere mortals, incapable of pure objectivity.
I strive to be open-minded. To that end, I refused to dismiss New Age topics simply because the scientific authorities wanted me to. In so doing, I remained true to the spirit of science, which is based on empiricism and rationalism. Science demands that we accept information on the basis not of authority but of experience and reason.
Over the years, my interest in many New Age topics has faded. But for a few of them – meditation, yoga, and veganism – my interest has only been validated and strengthened by an ever-growing body of scientific research.
Some might debate whether veganism can rightly be considered a New Age topic. I do not claim that veganism is inherently New Age, only that it has been associated therewith. Maybe New Agers are more likely to try veganism. They’re already willing to question the mainstream scientific consensus, so it’s only natural that they’re willing to question the age-old belief that humans need to eat animal products to be healthy.
In fact, it was my study of Celtic druidism that led me to become a vegan. In The 21 Lessons of Merlyn, the druid instructs a young Arthur to refrain from eating animal products during his training. The rationale is that when one consumes an animal product, one absorbs the qualities of the respective animal. The purpose of humanity, Merlyn says, is to transcend the animal kingdom. Absorbing the qualities of an animal is counterproductive, as it causes you to take a step backward into the animal kingdom.
Obviously, my reason for becoming a vegan was pretty unscientific. You might therefore assume that my assertion that veganism is a more science-minded lifestyle to be a post hoc rationalization. But the same could be said for those who deny the benefits of veganism. Most people who eat meat do so not because they consciously adopted an omnivorous diet, but because their parents fed them animal products. By the time we are old enough to think rationally about health, the environment, ethics, and spirituality, the habit of eating meat has become so ingrained that kicking it would require significant effort.
It has been said that you cannot reason someone out of a position that they did not reason themselves into. Meat eaters did not arrive at the practice of eating meat through reason, so cold hard facts alone will not convert them to veganism. I was not converted by reason (or compassion). I was converted by an emotionally charged desire to catalyze my spiritual development.
Although I did not arrive at veganism scientifically, my passion for and commitment to veganism has been bolstered by science. Whether veganism is inherently more spiritual than omnivorism, it is undeniably healthier and better for the environment. I have come to the view that eating animal products is unscientific. It is trendy to be science-minded, as evidenced by the title of a popular Facebook page: I Fucking Love Science. But can you really claim to be science-minded if you do not base your lifestyle choices on scientific evidence?
I know that many will protest this bold assertion. After all, plenty of science-minded people smoke cigarettes. But I would also argue that anyone who smokes cigarettes is not properly sciencing.
The problem is that for many people, science-mindedness is little more than nominal. You say you are an atheist. You say you believe in the Big Bang and evolution, and reject intelligent design and creationism. You even like I Fucking Love Science and share a few of their memes. But it’s all talk. You might refrain from going to church and praying, but even that is an inaction, not an action. What are you doing to be science-minded?
For me, science-mindedness is not merely an intellectual position. It requires us to act. What good is it to know about climate change, the correlation between cigarettes and cancer, or the health benefits of veganism if you don’t alter your behavior on the basis of that information?
Neil deGrasse Tyson says in an episode of Cosmos:
We’re pumping greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere at a rate not seen on Earth for a million years. And the scientific consensus is that we’re destabilizing our climate. Yet our civilization seems to be in the grip of denial; a kind of paralysis. There’s a disconnect between what we know and what we do. Being able to adapt our behavior to challenges is as good a definition of intelligence as any I know.
If our greater intelligence is the hallmark of our species, then we should use it, as all other beings use their distinctive advantages to help ensure that their offspring prosper, and their heredity is passed on, and that the fabric of nature that sustains us is protected.
The relationship between veganism and climate change is more intimate than you might think. According to the United Nations (which presumably employs some of the world’s leading scientists), the consumption of animal products is a leading cause of climate change.
Veganism, then, is not merely a moral imperative. It is not merely a healthcare imperative. It is a scientific imperative. By eating meat, you not only ignore the suffering of animals and the ill effects on your own health. You also ignore the ill effects that your personal choices have on the environment. You are risking the survival of the human species.
In an amazing interview between philosopher Peter Singer and biologist Richard Dawkins, Singer asserts that our horrendous treatment of animals is based on a pre-Darwinian worldview. Before Darwin, we did not think of humanity as just another animal species. There was a sharp dichotomy between humans and animals. In the Western world, this was based on the idea that a god created humanity in his own image, and placed animals here for us to use as we please. Thomas Aquinas even argued that it is not immoral to torture animals.
Then Darwin came along and proved that humans are, in fact, just another animal species. The difference between humans and animals is merely a difference of degree. We no longer have any compelling justification for eating animals. If it is unethical to kill and eat humans, then it is unethical to kill and eat animals. If it is ethically permissible to kill and eat animals, then it is ethically permissible to kill and eat humans.
I greatly admire the meat-eating Dawkins, for in his commitment to logical consistency, he agrees with Singer. He even has the humility to admit that Singer is a more ethical individual, and wishes that there were more people like him. Perhaps a long career in science has insulated Dawkins from the defensiveness and denial so often exhibited by meat eaters who are confronted with the unpleasant reality that their personal choices are unethical.
What does ethics have to do with science? That is probably the attitude adopted by the Nazi doctors who performed cruel experiments on living people. But in this day and age, ethics and science are inseparable. In academia, one must win the approval of an “ethical review board” to conduct research on human participants. Science is not merely a body of empirical data; it is also a philosophy of how this data should be put to use. In short, we should use the fruits of science to improve the wellness of ourselves, our fellow species, and the environment that we share.