Tag Archives: animal cognition

Latest Draft of Mental Time Travel Paper

CLICK HERE to read the latest draft of “Measuring Mental Time Travel in Animals”.

I’ve been working on this paper over the semester, responding to comments and generally cleaning it up. I’ve also added a new sub-section that explores an analogy with–believe it or not–whether Pluto is a planet. I also cut down on some repetitiveness towards the end. I will be turning it in as a Qualifying Paper very soon, so any last minute comments/suggestions/corrections would be greatly appreciated.

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Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology

Just how far should we expand the circle of ethics?

Right now I am reading Peter Singer’s book The Expanding Circle. It’s a good book so far. It’s clear, well-argued, and written with a sense of moral urgency. The central argument is that due to the way ethical reasoning works on the basis of impartiality, it would be arbitrary to restrict the moral community to a single group, such as your own tribe, gender, or race. Hence, the evolution of morality over the years is moving (and will hopefully continue to move) in the direction of ever greater impartiality as seen by societal advances in abolition, woman’s right’s, etc. However, Singer also argues that we should expand to circle of ethics beyond the human realm to all other sentient creatures capable of feeling pleasure or pain. Singer argues that it would be just as arbitrary to restrict ethical considerations to humans as it would be to restrict them to a certain class of humans.

But then how far down the evolutionary continuum should we go? Singer thinks we should probably draw the line around oysters and the like, since it seems implausible that oysters are capable of feeling pleasure or pain. And Singer definitely thinks we should not expand the circle to include inanimate entities like mountains or streams. So what’s so special about the ability to feel pleasure or pain? Singer thinks that this capacity is a nonarbitrary dividing line because it’s something that humans can take into consideration. On what basis could we include mountains and streams into our moral deliberation? There seems to be none. But the fellow capacity to feel pleasure and pain seems like a good candidate.

This is where I must disagree with Singer. I simply don’t see what’s so morally special about the ability to detect cellular damage. And that is all pain perception really is. It’s an evolved biological mechanism that registers damage to cells and then relays that information to appropriate motor centers to move the creature out of harm’s way, which increases the biological fitness of the creature, maintaining homeostasis and organisational structure. Vegetarians like Singer loathe this line of thinking because it brings to mind the old practice of torturing cats and dogs because Descartes argued they can’t really feel pleasure or pain because animals are simply unfeeling mechanisms. But I don’t think the permissibility of wanton torture follows from the idea that pain perception is just a simply biological mechanism for damage detection. Even if it is permissible to use animals for food, it doesn’t follow that it’s permissible to torture them for fun. Even if it’s permissible to eat animals for food, we might still be obligated to treat them with respect and try to lower the occurrence of pain to it’s absolute minimum. But, personally, I believe that just having the capacity to feel pain doesn’t launch you into the moral category whereby it becomes impermissible to be used for food for humans.

I’ve heard it claimed that this kind of speciesism is injustifiable if we consider the cognitive capacities of those who are extremely mentally handicapped or incapacitated. Since presumably I think speciesism is justifiable because humans are cognitively superior to nonhuman animals, then it should be ok to treat cognitively inferior humans just like we do cattle. Since we wouldn’t think it’s ok to do this to mental invalids, we can’t just use cognitive superiority to justify the way we treat nonhuman animals. My immediate response to this is that there is a difference between entities who, if everything had been biologically optimal, could have developed to the human cognitive level, and entities who could never reach that level despite being developed in optimal biological conditions. This principle of potentiality is enough to show how it’s nonarbitrary to treat human invalids different from nonhuman animals.

 There’s another point I want to make about the moral worth of pain itself. How could it be of that much importance when nonhuman animals themselves seem to be indifferent to it compared to the typical human response to pain? I read in Euan MacPhail’s The Evolution of Consciousness that there have been field reports of chimps getting into fights with other males, having their testicles bitten off, and immediately afterwards being capable of having sex with a female. I doubt there is any human who is horny enough to ignore the pain of having their genitals mutilated just to have sex. On the basis of this observation, we can infer that chimp pain perception is different from the awareness of pain that humans possess. And since chimps are seen by people like Singer as being the most worthy of our ethical consideration, what does this say about the pain capacities of animals even lower down the totum pole than chimps? Nonhuman animals don’t seem to “care” about their pain to the same extent that humans do. Caring about pain as opposed to pain itself goes by another name: suffering i.e meta-consciousness of pain. While it is plausible that some nonhuman animals have the capacity for a kind of protosuffering, it seems clear to me that human suffering is of a level of sophistication far beyond that of any nonhuman animal. Now, I don’t have a clear argument for why human suffering is more morally valuable than the mere pain of nonhuman animals, but it is at least a nonarbitrary cutting off point and one that has a kind of intuitive support.

However, I don’t think the moral worth of human suffering over nonhuman pain is enough to justify the claim that nonhuman pain has no moral worth at all. As a matter of fact, I agree with Singer that the pain of nonhuman sentient beings does have some moral worth, and that we are obligated, ultimately, to reduce that pain. For this reason, if I was presented in a supermarket with the choice of eating real beef or artificial beef grown in a lab, I would choose the artificial beef. So the only reason I am not a non-meateater is because the right technology has not been invented yet. As  soon as that technology becomes available (and they are working on it), I will gladly give up my practice of eating meat. But since I believe that eating meat is a very healthy way to get protein and animal fats into my diet, I do not think the current pains of nonhuman animals is enough to overcome the selfishness involved in maintaining my own health, for I value my own life over those of nonhuman animals. Again, this is not because I don’t place any value in nonhuman life. In my ideal world, not a single sentient entity would ever feel unnecessary pain. I feel predation to be evil, but I nevertheless eat animals for health reasons. If I sincerely thought vegetarianism was healthier than an omnivorous diet, I would be a vegetarian (which would be nice because it would line up with my beliefs in the evils of predation). But since I am a speciesist and value human life more than nonhuman life, I think it is permissible for me to continue my practice until the technology of artificial meat becomes widely available. I’m aware of the possibility that this reasoning could be nothing more than a post-hoc rationalization of my comfortable habits of meat eating. But I do think that there is a nonarbitrary argument to be made for speciesism that makes the exclusion of nonhuman animals from the moral sphere far less arbitrary than the exclusion of subclasses of humans. Contra Singer, I don’t think speciesism is equal to racism or sexism.


Filed under Philosophy

Does Understanding Need Language?

Jon Cogburn is a great professor because he always inspires me to work on really cool problems. Yesterday was the first day of his graduate seminar on animal cognition and he already suggested an awesome topic for my term paper: Does Heidegger’s account of understanding require language? Since we are reading Brandom, and Brandom uses a similar contrastive approach whereby humans are understood as being discontinuous from animal minds in virtue of linguistic-inferential doings, I will defend Brandom by defending Heidegger’s argument (which Brandom himself is heavily indebted too). I think I am also going to use Charles Taylor’s account of constitutive self-interpretation and Tomasello and Clark’s account of linguistic constructionism to demonstrate the way in which language modifies understanding so as to create world-richness. And this account will be structured by a holistic, usage-based (rather than formal) model of language acquisition wherein the syntactical abilities of young children are primarily item-specific with only little ability for systematicity.  Here is an abstract I whipped up last night:

Heidegger appears to contradict evolutionary science when he claims that whereas humans are “rich” in world, nonhuman animals are “poor”. Calling him a “linguistic chauvinist”, scholars often commit Heidegger to a view of understanding that is “equiprimordially” grounded in linguistic practice or “cultural discourse” (construed broadly). In this paper, I will argue that this interpretation is mistaken because it overlooks the prepredicative or prethematic level of understanding common to all organisms, what Heidegger calls the hermeneutic as-structure, in distinction to the apophantic or assertorial as-structure. Moreover, scholars often commit Robert Brandom to a similar “linguistic chauvinism” beset with the same problems associated with Heidegger’s views on animals. In this paper, I will show (1) how understanding does not require language and (2) how language significantly modifies understanding so as to “enrich” the world. Doing so will relieve the pressure on both Heidegger and Brandom’s theory of mind and language.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

On the Anthropomorphic Interpretation of Animals – Are Dolphins Persons?


I have been seeing a lot of commentary on the recent Science article about whether dolphins should have nonhuman personhood status.


Marino began researching dolphins and determined that they had a brain-to-body-mass ratio that is second only to humans. Human beings have the largest brains, compared to their body mass, of any known animals. Brain size, relative to body size, is believed by many scientists to be a key prerequisite to intelligence, although there are many other factors as well.

So Marino and Reiss turned to the New York Aquarium, which had a couple of male bottlenose dolphins in captivity, to see if they knew who they were.

“We marked them on different parts of their bodies with a magic marker,” Marino said. Each dolphin immediately raced to the mirror, “postured in front of the mirror and positioned itself in strange ways to expose the marked part of its body much the same way that you and I would if we passed a wall with wet paint on it. As soon as we get to the bathroom we would look in the mirror and turn around to see if we got any paint on us.”

Sometimes the researchers used a marker that left no mark, and the result was quite different. The dolphin would dash to the mirror, but if he could not find a mark, he would immediately move on, ignoring the incident. Marino and other researchers have concluded that the experiment showed the dolphins were aware of who they were and knew it was their body they were checking out.

If an animal recognizes “itself” in the mirror, that animal is said to possess self-consciousness, a purportedly advanced cognitive skill traditionally thought to be unique to humans. Thus, the difference between human and nonhuman animals is largely quantitative rather than qualitative.

I see this argument put forward frequently, by journalists and academics alike. On first glance, the argument seems perfectly reasonable. However, if we examine the language involved, we can see than the reasoning is faulty on phenomenological grounds. The key point is that in order to be self-conscious, one must be able to attain genuine selfhood status. Having a body is not enough. It seems to me that a particular type of cognitive savvy is necessary for being a “Who”.

The central claim is that “The experiment showed the dolphins were aware of who they were.” In order to understand this claim, we must know how it would apply to us. To say that Susan “knows who she is” is to say that Susan, could, in principle, tell a story about her past, present, and future life, either to herself, or to someone else. To know who you are is to explicitly know what it is that you do, broadly speaking. For example, I am a graduate student. I know that I must read and study philosophy in order to be who I am. Moreover, part of who I am is who I want to be, namely, an academic philosopher. When existentialists talk about human beings “having a project”, this is what they mean. The project of academia structures my entire being, that is, my entire mode of thrown existence in the world. Accordingly, humans are exceedingly teleological in their mode of being. In normal humans there is a sense of purpose, a sense of direction in one’s life, a directedness-towards, both implicit and explicit. This can be as mundane as getting ready for work work or as grand as martyrdom. Heidegger referred to this curiously strong, sometimes-explicit teleological drive as our “directionality”. As Dasein, humans are always involved in projects only intelligible at longer timescales. Moreover, even at the small-to-medium timescale, our lives are infused with microteleology insofar as we are intimately familiar with our daily surroundings and thrown into daily coping, usually, with some degree of skill.

Furthermore, a subcomponent of this self-knowledge is knowing, in principle, how other people would describe me if they were asked to briefly summarize “who” I am. Knowing how other people would describe me helps me describe myself. In the modern world of facebook and online dating, we are all used to describing ourselves in several brief paragraphs. We have explicit knowledge of what sorts of things we like to do, what our interests are, what music we listen to, what shows we like to watch, and moreover, we routinely practice making such knowledge available to others, verbally or in writing. Personally, I have always  partly defined myself and others in terms of books read, if any. I look at my bookshelf and see my intellectual self extended in time.

Moreover, we dress ourselves in accordance with our levels of social conformity and individuality in order to form a  “look” with the express purpose of making other people think “I like that persons look”. “Forming a look” is something we all do whether we are conscious of it or not.Even if we do not “take care of ourself”, we are well-aware that exactly such a message is being transmitted publically; the question then is whether we care. The amount of time we spend arranging superficial details of our appearance before going out into public is one of the most curious behaviors of our species.

Furthermore, self-knowledge usually consists of being able to form internal narratives about yourself. When making a mistake we might think “How typical of myself to do that” or “I can’t believe I just did that! That isn’t who I am”. Without this possibility of self-expression, the normative structure of social experience remains low dimensional. With human culture and language, the possibility of expression in regards to self-interpretation constructs a high dimensional normative space in which deeper layers of experiential meaning can occur than a purely instrumental calculation affords. For example, in some cultures the language game of honor/dishonor provides a deeper  layer of normativity powerful enough to induce suicide in those who understand themselves to be dishonored. We should never underestimate the brutal emotional force of social shame. Moreover, the distinction between understanding oneself to live a honorable vs. dishonorable life surely requires a logical space of reasons holistically constructed by linguistic discourse and what John Protevi calls “bodies politic”. Such concepts simply don’t make sense outside of a larger social background knowledge involving complex affective experiences such as shame, despair, existential anxiety, wretchedness/pride, honor, eudaimonia, sanctification, etc.

Charles Taylor is the best source on this notion of linguistically constructed self-interpretation being the basis of higher order emotional-cognitive complexity. He says, for example,

Shameful[ness] is not a property which can hold of something quite independently of the experience subjects have of it. Rather, the very account of what shame means involves reference to things – like our sense of dignity, of worth, of how we are seen by others – which are essentially bound up with the life of a subject of experience.

By articulating our feelings through the structures of language (good/bad, desirable/non-desirable, etc.), we set up the possibility of having

a sense of what the good life is for a subject; and this involves in turn our making qualitative discriminations between our desires and goals, whereby we see some as higher and others as lower, some as good and others as discreditable, still others as evil, some as truly vital and others as trivial, and so on.

Accordingly, this sets up the cognitive skill of second-order evaluation, wherein we can desire to have different desires e.g. we can repudiate ourselves for giving in to temptation. Second-order evaluation allows for a high dimensional normative space such that we can evaluate our desires and goals and set up hierarchies. A Christian, for example, might “reorder his priorities” and “put God first” instead of falling prey to the secular world. Although he deeply craves secular freedom, he has a higher-order desire to live a “pure” life.

As we can see then, it requires an extreme anthropomorphism to make the claim that when dolphins notice a mark on their body they are being self-conscious, as opposed to simply being aware-of-a-mark-on-their-body. Self-awareness means being aware of a self not a dot. Dot-consciousness is not self-consciousness. As Skinner proved, the ability to receive proprioceptive information from a mirror is no more philosophically interesting than doing so by normal means of bodily-perception. Are then Dolphins persons? Not like we are.

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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology