Sunday, June 24, 2007

My cats and other minds

I want to tell you what happened, but first I want to tell you about several views on animals I've heard in the past, especially in how they are distinguished from humans. (I realize humans are animals, too, but for the sake of discussion, let's just say "animals" are non-human critters.)

Some people say that animals don't have souls, but people do. (For my Jehovah's Witness friends, yes I realize "soul" is synonymous with "person" in many places in the Bible, but I'm using "soul" in the classical sense that you find in substance dualism where people are said to have both a material and a non-material nature.) I've never heard any rational for this. It seems to me that anything that has a mind has a soul, as I've argued elsewhere.

But then there are some people who say animals don't even have minds. They have no first-person subjectivity, no consciousness, no awareness, no kind of experience, etc. They're like robots. They're just machines blindingly reacting to stimuli. I don't remember who it was, but they justified the most cruel kind of experimentation on animals imaginable under this idea, and they brushed off the squeals and shrieks of the poor beasts as comparable to the noise a car might make if there was something wrong with it. That is, it was just a reaction, but there was no real suffering behind it. Animals were incapable of real suffering. That view struck me as extremely odd.

Some people say the difference between humans and animals is that humans have free will and animals don't. Animals are slaves to their instincts, but humans have the capacity to act contrary to their instincts. While I might have once agreed that animals are more driven by their instincts than humans, the difference was only a matter of degree, and animals even differed amongst themselves in degree. But I always thought and still think that there must be some strange idea of what "choosing" is if a person thinks that any act arising from an instict is not a "choice." Having since then become a compatibalist, I now think all of our choices--whether prompted by instinct, pursuasion, desire, or learned behavior--are determined by the reasons we have for making those choices. In this regard, there's no difference between animals and humans.

The most common difference I've heard is that people have the capacity for reason and animals don't. This views goes back as far as Plato. I've also been skeptical of this view since I can remember.

A view I recently read about is that humans are capable of self-awareness and animals aren't. Self-awareness is not the same thing as consciousness, although some people use the terms interchangeably. Self-awareness, in the context of the book I'm reading, refers the process of thinking about our own thoughts. According to the author, both humans and animals are able to think, but only humans are able to reflect inwardly about their thoughts.

What all of these views have in common in my opinion is that they're just guesses. I don't see how it's possible for anybody to know these things or even to consider them educated guesses. They're just mere speculation.

I want to talk about one in particular, though. It's the one that says humans have minds and animals don't.

The most interesting thing about a mind, in my opinion, is that a mind is capable of first person subjectivity. There is a me, a self, an *I* capable of thought, feeling, sensation, perception, emotion, intention, etc. The thing about first person subjectivity, is that each person is the only person who can experience it. Each of us has private access to our own mental states. A brain surgeon may know more about your brain than you do, but you know more about the content of your thoughts than he does. While an observer may draw conclusions about your emotions based on your body language, only you can actual feel or experience your emotions. Unless each of us had a mind of our own, there would be no reason (nevermind ability) to think minds had anything to do with brains. A strange alien life-form that has a completely different kind of organ associated with their minds might come to earth and examine brains ad infinitum and never find a thought, feeling, or intention, or even have any reason to think such were properties of the brain.

Each of us knows that we have a mind. I know I'm thinking merely because I'm thinking. I know it with absolute certainty, and the knowledge isn't derived from anything prior. I don't reason my way into thinking I have a mind. It's a prori knowledge. It's immediate, and it's incorrigible.

But how do we know that anybody else has a mind? We can't observe their thoughts or feelings. We can't examine their brains and find anything like them. The only way we have to know is to use analogy. My words and actions reflect the thought behind them. So when I see words in actions from creatures that appear to be very much like me, I assume there's a mind behind their words and actions, too. But for all we know, those words and actions could be the result of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence. Biological machines are often far superior to man-made machines, so why should it surprise us?

In philosophy, the issue I'm raising is called "the problem of other minds." The problem is that there's no way, even in principle, to prove that there's any mind other than your own. A solipsist is somebody who thinks they are the only person who exists. Everybody else is either an illusion or a robot.

Although analogy seems to be the only kind of verification possible that there are other minds, I actually don't think that's how we become aware of other minds. I'll say more about that in a minute, but let's assume for the sake of arguments that analogy is how we know about other minds. It seems to me that one need only spend a little bit of time with a cat or a dog to see enough analogy between themselves and the animal to see that the animal has a mind just like they do. If analogy is the only way we can know about other minds, and anlogies tell us that other humans have minds, then analogy should tell us the same thing about animals. They also communicate, express what appears to be emotion, act on what appears to be thought, etc.

Don't you find it interesting that animals instinctively know to look you in the eye when interacting? Babies do it, too. Do you ever wonder why that is? Do animals know you can see them with your eyes? Do they know it's the eyes that are looking back at them? How do they know that?

I don't think animals or babies consciously make analogies like I'm describing. Many animals may go their whole lives having never looked in a mirror to see what thoughts correspond to what facial expressions. But they still seem to distinguish emotions when they see it in other animals, and they still treat other animals as if they had minds. They still look other animals in the eye. They still try to communicate with other animals. They still try to elicit responses from other animals, which shows that they think the other animal has a mind.

This leads me to think our knowledge of other minds is innate. It's just like our knowledge of the external world, causation, the past, the uniformity of nature, morality, and various other things. If I were a Kantian, I might say these are all examples of synthetic a-priori knowledge.

Of course it's possible for our natural inclination to believe these things to go wrong. While our memories can tell us there is a past, and can even tells particular things about the past, our memories are nevertheless sometimes wrong. But that doesn't cause us to think are memories are completely wrong that there even is a past. Likewise, our knowledge of the uniformity of nature sometimes causes us to make hasty generalizations, and to even be mistaken when not so hasty. But that doesn't leave us to dismiss the principle altogether. We make mistakes in causal inferences, but we don't doubt that there are causes. We experience mirages, dreams, and hallucinations, but we don't completely doubt the reliability of our senses because of it, so we don't completely abandon our belief in the external world. A lot of people out there will point out how we differ amongst ourselves in our sense of morality and conclude that there must not be any morality in any objective sense. It's all just in the mind. I don't know why people make this logical leap regarding morality when they never make the same leap with any of these other things. All that follows from the fact that two people differ in morality is that somebody has make a mistake in their moral reasoning. It no more undermines the existence of morality (or even the reliability of our moral perceptions) than differences in memories undermines the existence of the past (or even the reliability of our memories).

I've gotten a little off track, but there is a point. Some theists say that our knowledge of God comes from our knowledge of other minds. God is simply a greater mind that we're instinctively aware of the same way we're aware of other minds in the physical plane. That makes belief in God rational even for people who don't engage in philosophical arguments.

Atheists often counter that although we do have a natural inclination to project "minds" onto other beings, we often over-personify by attributing minds to things that don't actually have minds. We name dolls and cars and use personal pronouns to refer to them. God, while perhaps being a natural belief, is nevertheless no different than a natural belief in the personhood of your teddy bear or your imaginary friend, and no more rational.

An atheist doesn't have to deny the reliability of our knowledge of other minds to make this argument. He just has to say that like all of our other items of synthetic a priori knowledge I mentioned above, we may also be mistaken in what we attribute minds to. I don't want to go too far down this rabbit hole, though, because I keep getting farther away from the whole point of this blog.

At the beginning of this post, I said I was going to tell you what happened, but first I was going to preface it. I didn't intend for my preface to be so long. I just wanted to tell you what happened because I think it's really interesting. The preface was basically background information about my own thinking so you would understand why I found this to be so interesting.

Grace, my daughter, came over a few weeks ago with an Amazing Amanda doll. You've all seen those dolls where you pull a string or push a button and the doll talks. Well, the amazing thing about Amanda is that she's animated. When she talks, her face moves along with it. When Grace came over with that doll, my cats completely freaked out. They growled and hissed. It was obvious they were scared to death of it, but their curiosity was such that instead of running away, they followed Grace around. It looked like they might even want to attack it, which scared Grace a little, and she turned it off.

Now lemme tell you why I found that facinating. My cats have seen people talk, and it doesn't wig them out. They've heard human voices coming out of the speakers on my computer and my sterio, and that doesn't wig them out either. They've even witnessed human voices coming out of other dolls, and it didn't bother them. But Amazing Amanda freaked them out. Why?

This may be speculation, but I think the cats must be able to distinguish between living and non-living things. What freaked them out about Amazing Amanda was that she blurred that distinction. She messed with their categories. The cats freaked out for the same reason any of us would freak out if one of our toys came to life. Remember Chucky? Talking Tina? The only way my cats could've been freaked out by Amazing Amanda is if they are both capable of abstract thought. They both possess the instictive knowledge of other minds that we all possess. With Amazing Amanda, it looked as if something inanimate was animate. In other words, the doll was possessed. Why else would it have freaked them out so much given that none of the other examples of voices coming out of things ever freaked them out?


At 6/24/2007 8:14 PM , Blogger Dale said...

Interesting post. I hate Chucky.

At 6/24/2007 8:25 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I never even saw chucky, but I'm still freaked out by the idea of a doll or something coming to life. After all, it's impossible that a toy could come to life and be benevolent.

Oh wait! There's always Toy Story. I hadn't thought of that.

At 6/25/2007 5:12 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I agree with a lot of this post but there are a few points of divergence.
I agree that at least some animals have minds. I think a distinction should be made between how we come to think that other entities have minds and what evidence we might be able to gather that indicates the reliability of our knowledge by analogy of other minds.
Clearly, if I look at the behaviour of other humans the analogy to myself is very strong, whereas other animals stretch the analogy to different degrees.
I disagree that thinking about the nature of non human minds is just speculation because it is in the nature of mind that it alters or directs behaviour. We can carefully observe the behaviour of animals in the wild and in controlled conditions.
I think this reveals important similarities and differences in the likely natures of the minds of different animals.
I think we do, as humans, have a bias to over detect mind and wrongly estimate the capacities of non human minds, leading to the risk of anthropomorphism.
On aliens thinking our brains were the organ responsible for thought, I think they could figure that out experimentally very quickly.
I think it very likely that cats and dogs have minds but very unlikely that they are close enough to our own to enable us to to imagine with any great accuracy what it is like to be a cat or a dog.
I agree that our knowledge of other minds is delivered by innate inference systems but also that these are not fool proof. In particular I think we tend to over ascribe human characteristics to non human agents.
Your cat example is interesting. I think the idea of the doll being in violation of cat categories of thought seems plausible but I would stop short of inferring the capacity for abstract thought in cats. The discussion of that would require a working definition of 'abstract thought' of course. After all, in a sense, is there any other kind?

At 6/25/2007 7:42 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Clearly, if I look at the behaviour of other humans the analogy to myself is very strong, whereas other animals stretch the analogy to different degrees.

I agree with that, but I think that in cats and dogs, it's plenty close enough to infer minds.

On aliens thinking our brains were the organ responsible for thought, I think they could figure that out experimentally very quickly.

I'm sure they could, too. My point is that nothing about the brain itself could tell them that. They could examine the brain exhaustively and never discover that it has any mental properties. The only way they could discover the brain was the organ for the mind is by observing how the body reacts when they alter the condition of the brain. The whole point of the alien thing was to say that mental states are private and not at all open to third-party observation.

In particular I think we tend to over ascribe human characteristics to non human agents.

In the case of animals, I think we tend to under ascribe human characteristics. Or at least a lot of people do.

The discussion of that would require a working definition of 'abstract thought' of course. After all, in a sense, is there any other kind?

No, I guess all thought is abstract in the sense that thoughts aren't concrete. I'll have to think of another way to explain what I mean.

At 6/27/2007 3:03 AM , Blogger Aaron Snell said...

Nice post - a good challenge to the common view worth thinking about. Do you hold to a Reformed epistemology? It sure sounds like it.

Like psiomniac, I wasn't initially sold on the idea that abstract thought is a necessary condition for the cats' "confusion of categories" (if that's what it is). Though I would disagree with him that all thoughts are abstract thoughts. This would make the phrase redundant, which it is not (for good reason): a concrete thought is directed towards a concrete object (e.g., thinking about a tall tree, ); an abstract thought is, as the name implies, an abstraction from the concrete, a generalization that moves from object to idea (e.g., thinking about tallness).

After reflecting, though, I think I see what you were saying: that cats are capable of generalizing to the category of "inanimate" and comparing a concrete to that abstractia. So I guess your assertion of "capable of abstract thought" hinges completely on

1) cats do in fact have cateogries and

2) they freaked out because those categories were violated.

I wonder if, in building a case for the uniqueness of first-person subjectivity, you have shot yourself in the foot in your ability to answer #1.

Also, I suppose, in regards to #2, one could posit an instinctual reaction to a previously unencountered and oddly-behaving thing as an alternative explanation, though that does seem to just push the question back one step (why would the cats find it oddly-behaving, if they didn't have a mental category structure informing them of what was normal?).

At 6/27/2007 10:08 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

You said:
Though I would disagree with him that all thoughts are abstract thoughts. This would make the phrase redundant,
That's why I said 'in a sense'. The point I was making was that without a proper definition of abstract thought it is difficult to say whether a 'cat category violation' requires it. In the sense that I understand abstract thought, I don't think cats have this capacity. I do think they could have automated inference systems which deliver information about agency, whether things are predator/prey, whether they are living and so on. A mismatch between the outputs of such systems might well cause distress. I don't think abstract thought is required for this. Thought involving things that are abstractions are not necessarily abstract thought. So, whether or not something is a predator can be framed in terms of its membership of a class. A class is an abstraction. It seems unlikely that the cat's judgement as to whether it is at risk of being eaten constitutes abstract thought though.

To be capable of abstract thought the cat would have to be able to manipulate and draw inferences from abstract entities. All we suspect here though is something like that the cat's animate/inanimate detection module has an output in conflict with its agent/non agent detection module.
Detection of whether or not X is a member of P can be done without any conscious awareness of the precise rules that generate P or even a clear description of P.
An analogy might be that most adult humans can detect whether a sentence in their native tongue is grammatically legal. That is quite different from the level of abstraction necessary to describe the rules of grammar or to manipulate them to make a formal language, or be able to operate on symbols and make deductions thereby.


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