The furry identity can be seen as a kind of voluntary psychological experiment. We are disconnecting the idea of 'self' from the reality of our physical forms.
All people do this to some extent. Furries, at least those who socialise through the guise of an animal-person avatar, are a special case. The disconnection is more clear, and more extreme.
Collectively, we may be experimenting with identity on a scale that has no comparison in human history.
The loose connection between our human bodies and our furry identities is fascinating from a psychological point of view. There is a fledgling discipline related to our behaviour—transhumanism—which researches both the virtualization of identity (such as the furry identity), and the integration of technological augmentation (more on that later).
Let's take an extreme example: a furry who engages with society entirely through a furry identity, and who thinks of herself as an animal-person 'on the inside'. Her identity is expressed entirely through her furry avatar, and her human self is just a biological mechanism. Let's call her Furry Zero.
Most furries are like Zero in some ways; she is simply at the extreme end. Those furries who don't have a furry alter-ego are at the other extreme, and the rest of us are somewhere in between. Some people are further along the spectrum than others.
It's different for everyone: the reader may wish to consider themselves as an example.
I'm going to use myself as an example: I have a virtual furry identity. I'm not an edge case like Zero, but I'm pretty far along the spectrum. Internally I prefer to think of myself as JM, animal-person, but my identity is partly associated with the human biological organism named Matt.
For Zero, her human body is a purely physical entity; her furry identity is purely mental.
In case this all makes me, or Zero, sound a bit fruity, it's worth mentioning that all people do this to a degree. There are always differences between each person's physical form and mental identity.
For starters, let's look at how parts of the body are sometimes considered critical to identity, and sometimes considered irrelevant. Starting at the irrelevant end, consider fingernails. It's rare for people to feel any loss of identity when they trim their nails, but it does happen (ref). Moving into more relevant body parts, the fingers are important to identity for more people, and so the loss of one is more likely to be personal. And more people will be affected by the loss of an arm, and so forth.
The biological items most often important to identity tend to either be identifying features (such as a face), or those that allow us to fulfil basic human functions (such as legs or genitalia). The point here is that each person's identity only includes a subset of their physical body.
Zero has no association between her physical body and her identity. So she feels no loss when she cuts her fingernails, and if she lost an arm she would feel pain and be inconvenienced but would not feel any loss of identity.
The difference between each person's physical form and mental identity extends beyond personally 'important' and 'unimportant' body parts. There are also aspects of identity that exist outside of physical form.
This process is called virtualization of identity, a path well-trod by furries (led by Zero), and is becoming common in the modern world. People are living more of their lives online, creating virtual identities that are different from their physical selves. This is happening mostly in small and subtle ways, but it represents a big shift in the way humans interact with each other, and the way humans perceive themselves.
The shift towards online identity has created some wonderful opportunities and improved the lives of countless people. (Not least is the ability for physically disabled people to interact in a way where their disability is irrelevant.) It has created some problems too, and these problems are what interest psychologists (and editors of tabloid newspapers) the most.
Inhabitants of the world are rapidly moving online, with internet penetration exceeding 40% of the world's population (ref). People are exploring differences between 'online' identity and 'real world' identity. The first steps towards separation of these two identities is typically modest, but is already causing societal change.
A whimsical example can be seen in the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem (summarized here). In a simple ruling by the Court in the salad days of the mid-1990s, it was determined that 'virtual' sin is not 'real' sin. The decision was made over a crude augmented reality technology, which was designed to give the experience of eating pork: the user would eat baked tofu while being exposed to a virtual reality that invoked the look and smell of real pork. They judged:
"In our view virtual pork is totally permissible, has nothing to do with real pigs, and thus can be enjoyed by Jews."
This apparently common-sense ruling was (predictably) cited as precedent a couple of years later after someone engaged in virtual adultery. In considering virtual pork, the Court failed to guess how virtual experiences can be real, and how they can inform identity just as much as something that happens in meatspace.
Zero, and the rest of us furries, are several steps ahead on the journey towards virtualization of identity. We experienced the challenges of online relationships long before mainstream society or the Rabbinical Court, and we continue to lead the way into deeper water. The experiences created by our collective transhumanism provide clues to changes that society might expect in the future: social groups may grow with less reference to geography; people may become less class-oriented; society may see more diversity in sexual behaviour, sexual orientation, and gender.
Virtualization of identity is a kind of transhumanism driven by modern technology, but it's not the only kind. A second change in the way humans create identity is driven by technological augmentation. This is where people look for technological solutions to mental problems. We can see the first steps in this direction with on-board vehicle technologies such as collision detection or ABS (which will overrule the human driver), and wearable technology like smartwatches or Google Glass.
Technological augmentation becomes useful for what researchers call 'high bandwidth' problems. The human brain is very good at activities like pattern matching, but cannot process large amounts of data. High bandwidth problems are those that require a lot of information from the outside world, information that would normally overload an individual's processing capability.
The human/Darwinian response to high bandwidth problems is a kind of mental 'tunnel-vision', where we focus on important data in a way that cuts out a lot of background information. An example of this is the psychological phenomenon know as 'flow', where a person becomes immersed in a complex problem, becoming less aware of his surroundings. He will put more mental resources towards solving the problem, but will receive less information about his ambient environment.
That extra information can be important. Technological augmentation can gather this information to help us: either by overruling our actions, or by summarizing that information in a manageable form. Such augmentation is most advanced in modern combat environments (background info from Psychology Today here), although we are starting to see it appear in some of today's consumer goods.
The societal response to transhumanism—both virtualization of identity and human augmentation with technology—is, to date, lacking sophistication. Most commentators could broadly be classified as either Luddites or Libertarians. These two groups of opinion, the techno-pessimists and techno-optimists respectively, are considered by experts to be simplistic and fundamentally flawed (ref).
Experience shows that, when technological augmentation is available, then people will enhance. Zero will certainly take advantage of technological enhancements to her physical self, because she doesn't have any personal attachment to her human body beyond its biological function. So why not upgrade?
There is little doubt that the growth of transhumanism will bring huge changes on human society. Many of these changes will have unpredictable effects, just as with previous technological revolutions. But societal upheaval is rarely a bad thing: human society has been changing rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, a time that (for all its ups and downs) has seen massive improvements in worldwide literacy and life expectancy.
As human society continues to change, it's reasonable to expect that things will broadly continue in a positive direction. And we humble furries are, at least when it comes to transhumanism, the vanguard.