Why are meat-eaters blind to the down sides of meat and vegetarians to its advantages? Cor van der Weele is interested in idiosyncrasies in selective attention. Her main focus in recent years has been on cultured meat and what it might mean for the way we look at meat. The extraordinary professor of Humanist Philosophy talked about this at her inaugural lecture on 17 January.
'I talk about ambivalence, contradictory values, and that is certainly not irrational in itself. Research shows, for instance, that many meat-eaters are ambivalent about meat: on the one hand they like it and they believe it to be healthy, but they do also see the negative sides related to animal welfare. Meat clearly does not have one straightforward meaning.'
So ambivalence isn't always a bad thing?
'On the contrary; I think it's a pity ambivalence has such a bad name in our society, and that we see it as indecision and feebleness. In fact it is fast, straightforward opinions that lead us to fast, oversimplified solutions. While there are serious and complex problems around meat.'
But we are not always honest in the way we deal with that contradictory information?
'That's right. Take meat-eaters for instance. They often maintain a strategic ignorance about animal welfare. And vegetarians are all too ready to believe that meat-eaters are slobs and that meat is unpleasant to eat. These are automatic mechanisms that are in our systems. If we accepted our ambivalences it would be easier for us to weigh up our interests against those of others as more impartial observers.'
There is no room for ambivalence in the meat debate anymore: everyone is dug into their trenches. Why do you think in vitro meat could breathe new life into the debate?
'In vitro meat is impervious to the current polarization. It is meat, but it doesn't involve any animals as it is grown using tissue cultivation techniques with stem cells. So it lacks several of the disadvantages of meat - those related to animal welfare and to the use of resources such as land, energy and water. On the other hand, it does provoke a sense of alienation and raises questions, such as whether it isn't too high-tech. It generates a whole new discussion around meat.'
But cultured meat is still only an idea, isn't it?
'Yes. The Maastricht researcher Mark Post will be producing the first cultured hamburger later this year, but the main aim of that is to attract attention and more research funding. But this idea is already having a big impact, partly because it stimulates the imagination. You can see that in the ideas of Eindhoven students of industrial design who let their imaginations loose on what cultured meat might look like. Some of their images don't look like meat as we know it at all. Cultured meat will create a change of mood: who knows what other surprising new possibilities there might be?'