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?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A question about beliefs, volition, and rationality

Several years ago, I read J.P. Moreland's book, Scaling the Secular City, where he made an argument for substance dualism from the self-refuting nature of physicalism. Physicalism, in this context, is the view that all we are is the sum of our physical parts. We have no immaterial soul or spirit or anything like that. He argued that physicalism is self-refuting because it entails determinism, and determinism removes the necessary preconditions for rational thought. So it could never be rational to be a physicalist.

I don't want to get into that argument. I just wanted to explain the context of what I do want to get into. Moreland claimed that "If one is to be rational, one must be free to choose his beliefs based on reasons" (SSC, p. 95).

Some time after that, I listened to a lecture by Moreland that I think was called "Love Your God With All Your Mind." It was posted on line here but is no longer there. During his talk, he stated emphatically that our beliefs are not under the control of the will. To prove his point, he had the audience imagine that he would offer them a million dollars if they could choose right then and there to believe that there was a pink elephant flying around over their heads, and to actually think it was true. He said that even with a million dollar motivation, you couldn't choose to believe it. The reason is that our beliefs are not under the control of the will.

He went on to say that we can change our beliefs by choosing to read things and to expose ourselves to ideas, and that our beliefs will change as a result. But our beliefs are not under the direct control of the will such that we could simply choose to believe something.

To me that seemed inconsistent. I sent J.P. Moreland a letter at an address I found on the website to Talbot, but I never heard back from him. I've asked about this issue on a few message boards, and I even asked a question about it on Yahoo answers recently. But I've never gotten a satisfying answer. Most people I ask don't even seem to understand the question.

Recently, I got two J.P. Moreland tapes from Stand to Reason. One is called "The Invisible Man: A defense for the existence of the soul," and the other is called "Is non-sensory knowledge possible?" I don't remember which one it was, but in one of them Moreland repeated his whole thing about how our beliefs are not under the control of the will.

I had entertained the idea that maybe since Scaling the Secular City was written in the 80's that maybe Moreland has just changed his mind over the years. But then just a few minutes ago, I found where Moreland has posted a blog called "Atheism and the Empty Glass" where he said that "those who take the time to tell you that free will isn’t real are assuming that you have the free choice to listen to them and change your views accordingly!" Apparently, he hasn't changed his mind.

Since just about all the people who post on my blog seem to be pretty bright, I thought I'd get your thoughts on the subject. This is my question: Are our beliefs under the control of the will? If not, can we still be rational? And please don't just give yes or no answers. Give me your reasoning. Thanks.