A game that used to be played on radio, and also by kids in the back of a car on long journeys, was known as 'animal, vegetable or mineral'. Someone thought of an object and the questioner was given a certain number of questions to identify it – 20 questions as far as I remember. The rules allowed for a hybrid object – for example, partly vegetable but mainly mineral. In these innocent far-off days, it seemed a pleasant sort of game.
I don't know whether the BBC organisers of the radio programme were aware that they were implying a metaphysical position. I doubt it. The implication, I guess also unnoticed by the kids in the back of the car, is that it can be argued that animal, vegetable and mineral make up in the end all there is in the universe or at least on this Earth. As a bit of metaphysics, as an answer to the question 'What ultimately exists?', the radio and car game offers an initially plausible answer: animal, vegetable and mineral. But not all scientists or philosophers would agree.
The question of what ultimately exists was first posed by the Ionian school of thinkers who existed in the 6th century BC in Asia Minor. It is plausible to say that these were the first scientists/philosophers (for there was no distinction for many centuries). It has sometimes been claimed that the Egyptians and the Chinese had science before these early Greek thinkers. For example, the Greeks got the idea of geometry from the Egyptians who used it for measurement. But what the Egyptians and Chinese had was really early technology. The credit for scientific explanation must go, in my opinion, to the early 6th-century BC Greeks around the port of Miletus.
Why did science/philosophy originate there? No-one really knows, but Miletus was a busy port and sailors would bring assorted stories of the gods and strange happenings from all over. In other words, there was great scope for free thinking in Miletus, a necessary condition for rational inquiry. There was also slave labour for basic tasks, and decent weather to sit under the olive trees and think or gaze at the night sky.
Anyway, these early thinkers discussed metaphysical questions such as: Why is there anything? Could there not just as easily have been nothing? Granted that something exists, what basically is it? One of these early thinkers, usually given the credit of being the first scientist/philosopher, was Thales. He argued that everything is as it is because everything is a form of water. Where does the 'argument' come in you ask? Well, Thales reckoned that what there is seems to be either liquid or solid or gaseous, and water was the only substance known to him that could take all three forms in water, ice and steam.
Now he was totally wrong, but his theory is the right kind of thing, and as such it represents a big step forward for the human mind. It is based on reason. There were other thinkers in the Ionian School who offered similar rational/scientific arguments. For example, Anaximines argued that the basic substance was air and attempted to explain various natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning by referring to the thickening of air. Thunder is the sound of a cloud bursting and lightning is the bright sky showing through the tear in the cloud. Totally wrong, but again the right sort of thing – a naturalistic explanation. Stories of the gods throwing bolts are much more appealing and imaginative, but they are not science.
A modern physicist might agree with Thales that in the end there is just one sort of stuff, perhaps not even material stuff no matter how sophisticated the account of it. In the end, there may just be some sort of primal energy, although how that squares with the existence of 'dark matter' I shall leave to Brian Cox to tell us.
But even if dark matter can be accommodated into the primal energy story – the Big Bang – the game of 'animal, vegetable and mineral' presents a problem. No doubt 'mineral' is easily accommodated, but what about living things, such as fruit and veg, not to mention your favourite pet labrador? Can their existence be satisfactorily explained in terms of the existence of a primal soup or primal energy?
There have certainly been valiant attempts to do so. The motivation behind these is just the same as that which motivated Thales to seek for an explanation which showed how all the diversity of existence could be reduced to one type of thing. Thus, it has been argued that all the ingredients necessary for living things could have combined by chance in the primordial soup, perhaps assisted by a crashed meteor or chunk of comet bringing other necessary chemicals from outer space.
The argument would be that very simple living things emerge from the chance mixing of ingredients in the primordial soup, that they develop over millennia into more recognisable living creatures. At this point in the story, prominent thinkers from Darwin to Dawkins explain the origins and development of species by a process of natural selection. Those animal species survive which have been able to adapt to the changing circumstances, climate and so on, of our planet. Others have gone extinct. Where does that leave our species, the human animal?
There have been quite a number of human species. Most people have heard of Neanderthals but there have been others, such as homo rudolfensis and homo erectus. Indeed, a new type of human has been very recently discovered in China, homo longi, thought to be our closest ancestor. We are homo sapiens although apparently we have inter-married with Neanderthals (if marriage is the right term for a union with a Neanderthal). Neanderthal is in the DNA of many of us. Indeed, you can see Neanderthals any day of the week in Byres Road.
But even if we grant (which I don't) that there is a line that can be established by science from the soup through to primitive creatures and then to animal species, can it be plausibly extended to us? Dawkins and many others claim that it can.
There is, however, one feature of homo sapiens which constitutes a real problem for those who hold that we are a highly complex development of the soup. The problem is that we have consciousness. Not only do we know that this is an apple in front of us, we know that we know. And we are aware of our self as the person choosing the apple. No-one has come up with a satisfactory explanation of the existence of consciousness, not to mention self-consciousness. It seems to have no evolutionary significance, yet it seems to be one unique feature of homo sapiens. And computer models of consciousness do not succeed in explaining all its many aspects.
'Animal, vegetable or mineral' was a good game of yesteryear but as a bit of metaphysics it doesn't take into account that the game is played by homo sapiens. And homo sapiens is characterised by at least one attribute which is not just animal, vegetable or mineral.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow