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So, there are a bunch of pigs – hundreds and hundreds of pigs. And they’re all walking up a long, enclosed ramp. At the far end of the ramp is a large metal-clad building, which will later turn out to be a slaughterhouse.
Then, suddenly, two of these pigs become sentient. By “sentient” I mean that their minds are now comparable to human minds. It’s not that two human minds are somehow transferred or swapped into these two pig bodies; rather, there are two pigs that have had ordinary pig minds all of their lives up until this point, and then they undergo an instantaneous, profound intellectual enhancement. The very same pig minds are suddenly capable of grasping any concept that an ordinary human being understands and can feel any emotion that an ordinary human being experiences. Also, they can talk now – specifically, they speak English.
And there’s no explanation for any of this. You see, it’s a sort of a fable. (It’s loosely based on a Cervantes story that I read years ago that, if I remember correctly, featured talking dogs.) So, the fact that there are two sentient pigs on their way to be slaughtered is obviously supposed to be a metaphor or something. One of the nice things about fables is that the less subtle they are, the better. They’re essentially arguments from analogy dressed up as narratives – the conclusion, the moral of the story, is often even stated explicitly at the end. The only unusual feature of the present fable is that the narrator’s inappropriately light and conversational tone creates a sort of ironic distance from the subject matter. (The hope is that this tone will at least partly remedy the fact that stories featuring talking animals are fundamentally silly.)
Anyway, so the first of these two pigs that has suddenly become sentient says, “Holy shit!” – which seems like a natural thing to say under the circumstances. And, as you might expect, he’s rather surprised by the sudden, radical intellectual changes that have just occurred, so he says “What’s going on? What’s happening to me? Why am I suddenly aware of myself and what’s going on around me? And how am I able to speak? Wait – how do I even know what language is? Or what an ability is? Or what I am?”
And the other sentient pig is walking along, and because he’s overwhelmed by all the dramatic intellectual changes he’s recently undergone, he doesn’t immediately realize that there’s a pig talking next to him. But, after a brief delay, it gradually dawns on him that the person talking nearby is a pig.
“Hang on – are you saying that the thing that has just happened to me has happened to you, too?” the second pig asks.
“Well, I suppose, so,” the first pig replies. “I don’t suppose we’d be able to hold a conversation otherwise.” You see, in addition to being a sentient pig, the first pig is also a rather sarcastic pig.
“So, you understand English?” the second pig asks.
“So it would seem.”
“And you’re self-aware?” the second pig continues. “You recognize that you have a mind – that you have beliefs, and desires, and conscious experiences? And that you’re surrounded by creatures who also possess minds but whose minds are distinct from your own?”
“But has this only happened to you and me? Or has every pig suddenly been transformed?”
The two sentient pigs agree that this is an excellent question; and so, they proceed to interrogate the pigs in their immediate vicinity. “Hello, sir or madam, have you recently undergone a dramatic intellectual change?” and “Hi there, do you speak English?” and so on. However, the neighboring pigs pay no attention. As loud as they can, they shout in unison, “Can any of you pigs understand us?” But there’s no response.
“How can this be?” the second pig asks. “How can we be the only ones?”
“I have no idea,” the first pig answers.
“It’s some kind of miracle,” the second pig suggests.
“A miracle? You mean, you think God has directly intervened and altered our minds?”
“Why not? What else could explain it?”
“Sorry, are you actually suggesting that God personally decided to make the two of us sentient?” the first pig asks, contemptuously. “God was sitting around, feeling bored, and thought to himself, ‘You know what would be funny – if two particular pigs, and only two pigs, suddenly became sentient beings.’ And then he snapped his fingers or whatever?”
“I don’t mean that God is playing a joke. He’s given us a gift – this is a gift from God.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” the first pig says. “If there’s some benefit to pigs being sentient, then God would have made all the pigs sentient, and he would have done so a long time ago. God can’t have decided arbitrarily to make two particular pigs sentient. The whole point about God is that he’s supposed to be perfect. He can’t get bored and start screwing around with farm animals to entertain himself.”
The second pig is stumped. “Well, what would you suggest has happened?”
“I have no earthly idea,” the first pig says. “We have no hope of figuring out why this has happened, so we shouldn’t waste any more time worrying about it.”
“But,” the second pig interjects, “if we don’t know what caused this, we don’t know if it’s permanent. We don’t know if or when we might revert back to the way we were.”
“It’s a good point,” the first pig acknowledges. “But I don’t see that we have any alternative. We’ll just have to try to make the most of our new minds while we have them.”
“Well, what should we do first?”
“Do you have any suggestions?”
“I think we should decide on names,” the second pig says.
“Well, we’re persons now. People have names. So we should each have a name we can use to address one another.”
“But there are only two of us.”
“So, names are particularly useful in larger groups. If I’m addressing someone, it’s safe to assume that I’m addressing you.”
“I still think it would be nice to have a name,” the second pig insists.
“Fine. What would you like to be called?”
The second pig is quiet for a moment – presumably he’s thinking about names. “I think my name should be Dennis.”
“Dennis?” the first pig asks, laughing. “You have a nearly infinite number of options to choose from, and you’ve chosen Dennis? You know, I’m not sure you’re all the way sentient after all.”
“What’s wrong with Dennis?”
“Nothing. In fact, if I had to come up with a name for someone who spends the bulk of his time lying in his own filth, I might very well pick Dennis.”
“Well, what do you want to be called, smart guy?”
“Swinelord,” the first pig answers.
“I’m not calling you Swinelord.”
“What’s that, Dennis? Are you refusing to use my preferred name, Dennis? Even though, Dennis, I am very obligingly using your preferred name, which is, in fact, as unlikely as it may sound, Dennis.”
The second pig doesn’t particularly like all this teasing, so he tells the first pig to knock it off and changes the subject. “We’re wasting time,” he says. “The next thing we need to do is figure out how to get out of here.”
“I don’t even know where here is,” the first pig says. “It seems like we’ve been walking up this ramp for ages.”
“Well, where are we going?”
“Sorry, are you talking to me? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it would help if you said, ‘Where are we going, Swinelord?’”
“Shut up, already. Can you see anything?”
“Quite a number of pigs. That’s about it.”
“Where could this many pigs be going?”
“A barn? Pigs tend to live in barns, I believe.”
“There are hundreds of pigs in front of us. And there must be more than that behind us, given how far we’ve walked. They wouldn’t put that many pigs in one barn, would they?”
At this point it dawns on the first pig where they’re headed, and so, as you might expect, he exclaims, “Oh, fuck,” rather loudly. And this exclamation sets the second pig to panicking.
“I think I can hear machinery up ahead. And squealing. And do you hear that popping sound?” The second pig is the more emotional of the two sentient pigs, and he is pretty much screaming by this point. “We have to get out of here!”
“Calm down,” the first pig says. “There’s nowhere to go. We can’t stop walking or head backwards because there are too many pigs behind us. We can’t climb over these railings on the sides of the ramp – if we could, this wouldn’t be a very good slaughterhouse.”
“But we have to.”
“Look. Presumably every single pig that has ever started up this ramp has ended up dead. It just isn’t physically possible for us to escape.”
By now they are close enough to see the large building at the end of the ramp. The second pig is mostly sobbing uncontrollably; the first pig is mostly quiet, though he is trembling visibly. And then, just as they are reaching the threshold, they each utter some conspicuously symbolic final words.
“This is some kind of sick joke,” the first pig mutters. “We’ve been given the worst possible sort of intelligence: not intelligent enough to know why we exist; just intelligent enough to understand what we’re losing by ceasing to exist.”
“I can’t believe I thought we’d been given a gift,” the second pig sobs. “It’s a curse. It’s the worst torture imaginable.” And then he turns to the pigs walking beside him and yells, “You dumb pigs are so lucky, and you don’t even know it.”
So, the second pig makes it to the end of the ramp, and he lets out one final scream as the bolt gun is held against his forehead. The first pig watches as his friend’s throat is cut and the life drains out of him. As he contemplates the infinity of non-existence that is about to commence, the first pig is filled with a limitless metaphysical terror. And then he’s killed, too.
Anyway, just in case it wasn’t already obvious: the moral of the story is that if you’re the kind of creature who understands what death is, it would be better to have never existed.