The sudden rise in popularity of making our own sourdough, fueled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, has brought with it a number of ethical questions, like whether longtime bakers deserve to buy its flour and yeast more than all the newbies in search of something—anything!!—with which to now fill their time. The resulting onslaught of Instagram posts has also led many people, like VICE’s own Bettina Makalintal, to question whether this contributes to a greater, damaging culture of compulsory quarantine productivity. Why should we continue to be good capitalist subjects when the system that demands it is crumbling all around us?
There is one ethical question we have yet to broach when it comes to sourdough, though, and it has haunted me ever since it popped into my head this morning, determined to fuck up whatever sense of normalcy I’d managed to cobble together as I made my way from the bed to the kitchen table for the 57th day in a row. Lest that question do the same for you, I suggest you turn away now. Open Instagram. Look at all the bread, untroubled in its roundness.
If you do feel up for it, however, then here is the question that has destroyed mine own ability to gaze lovingly upon yon digital loaves: Do sourdough starters feel pain? Do all the little very-much-alive fungi and microorganisms needed to make sourdough starters say, “Ow! My very being!” when you knead them with your fists, then pop them into the oven?
After some preliminary research, I regret to inform you that there is, unfortunately, much to think about.
To begin to answer this question, which is of course one of the many deranged things you might ponder when you have far too much time on your hands, we must first define its terms. A sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water that has been left to sit out for several days, allowing wild yeast and bacteria to populate it in a process we call leavening. (You can also just borrow a friend’s starter if you’re too busy being depressed to plan five days into the future, just make sure you do the drop-off safely at a secure social distance.)
The yeast and bacteria needed for dough to become bread are very much alive, just as humans are, and if we humans feel pain, does that mean that a starter’s microorganisms do, too?
While researchers generally accept that vertebrates feel pain, invertebrates like bacteria, including those found in a sourdough starter, are not thought to feel pain. Neither is yeast, which even PETA says is totally ethical to consume—at least if we understand pain through strictly empirical methods.
So, wait, what is pain? We must define that, too. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” We humans feel pain. (Go touch a hot stove if you don’t believe me.) Other living creatures like animals are thought to feel pain as we do, which could lead us to believe that living organisms, like those in your sourdough starter, do, too: There are many kinds of pain—physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual—and you could just as easily argue that pain is a reactive sensation responding to some kind of external or internal force as it is an experience unto itself..
What seems clearer is that pain is an experience brought on through the possession of consciousness, one of many self-evidentiary experiences that philosophers call “qualia.” If something feels pain, then it must be conscious, right? So, with that in mind, perhaps the question that literally no one but my demon brain asked is not, “Do sourdough starters feel pain?”, but rather, “Are the little tiny beings in sourdough starters conscious?” That would depend on whether consciousness even exists at all.
French philosopher René Descartes theorized that consciousness is the most obvious and undeniable fact of existence, attributing that existence to some kind of god-given magic that operates by its own rules. Because of how closely discussions of consciousness parallel more theological understandings of the soul, consciousness was apparently pretty taboo in scientific circles from the 19th century onward, and it is only in the past three decades that researchers have dared to venture further.
Today, the vast majority of scientists accept that consciousness is a real thing, even if they disagree on what that thing is or even how to define it. Some even believe in what’s called “panpsychism,” which proffers that everything in the universe from your Animal Crossing avatar to even your least Instagrammable succulent is conscious, or at least has the potential to be conscious. If panpsychism were to be believed, that would mean sourdough starters are, in fact, conscious, and therefore do, in fact, feel pain.
Current scientific research would not back up that claim. But if we look at the world through a panpsychic lens, it doesn’t matter whether we can objectively prove whether an organism feels pain; the simple fact is that it does.
That thought might be troubling, but oh my god, it gets worse. Though his understanding of consciousness does not represent a majority opinion by any means, American philosopher Daniel Dennett thinks that consciousness is an illusion, cooked up by our brains to process the meaningless world of matter before us.
That would mean that we are simply deluding ourselves like the citizens of Pleasantville, fooling ourselves into thinking we’re living rich, full lives while blissfully unaware of the void that surrounds us on the other side of the screen. If we are not conscious, then nothing is, including sourdough starters. And if starters are not conscious, then they do not feel pain. They just sit there in the nothingness, without lies or pretense, unafraid of what awaits.
That sounds kind of nice right now, doesn’t it? To think nothing, feel nothing, as the knuckles of the universe grind me down into a thick, bubbly paste to feed upon my happy husk. I don’t know how long I’ll be stuck in my apartment, keeping my distance from others as I shelter in place, but facing that unknown like yeast, painless in every sense, sounds pretty appealing.
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