The Guessing Game of Animal Minds

1377241_21039680By Grace Boey, originally published at 3 Quarks Daily.

What is it like to be a bat? Philosopher Thomas Nagel famously posed this question in 1974. As he noted, the question is one that cannot be answered: no matter how many objective, scientific facts we may discover about a bat’s physiology or neurobiology, we can never access its subjective, personal experience. Phenomenal consciousness – or qualia – is a private, opaque matter. Nagel’s question (and lack of an answer) is one that almost all philosophy freshmen are acquainted with.

But long before I’d heard of Nagel – or the mind-body problem of philosophy – I’d already developed a few ideas of my own about bats. As a child, I’d been enchanted by the tale of Stellaluna, a baby fruit bat who is accidentally separated from her mother. My own mother would often read the book to me at bedtime; I’d fall asleep thinking about brave Stellaluna who befriends a group of baby birds, reluctantly learns to eat worms, and is taught to sleep the wrong way up. When Stellaluna and her mother are finally reunited, both are overjoyed – and the baby bat finally feels like she is someplace she belongs. According to the story, bats are capable of complex emotions, preferences and desires – just like us.

Stellaluna is a wonderful children’s tale. But, as a scientific description of bat psychology, the text is clearly lacking. It is questionable whether bats are capable of possessing mental states such as ‘bravery’, ‘love’ or ‘belonging’, or whether they are capable of establishing ‘friendships’. The text commits what scientists refer to as ‘anthropomorphism’ – the act of assigning human-like qualities to non-human animals. Among scientists, anthropomorphism has become somewhat of a dirty word.

It is certainly unwise to blanketly assume that non-human animals have inner mental lives identical to those of humans. Yet it also seems unlikely that non-human animals have no mentality at all. If excessive anthropomorphism is a sin, then so is excessive anthropocentrism. In all likelihood, the truth about non-human animal minds lies somewhere in between. What, then, is the ‘correct’ way to interpret animal behaviour? This question comes with significant stakes, since how we relate to non-human animals is guided by what we believe about their minds. Unfortunately, the task of animal psychology is rife with methodological and philosophical difficulties. It would certainly be responsible for us to gather as much accurate, relevant scientific data as we can – but as Nagel has pointed out, the best we can do from there is still to guess.

The Problems of Other Minds

It’s interesting to note that when it comes other minds, the guessing game isn’t just limited to non-human animals. The privacy and opacity of subjective experience means that what goes on in the minds of other humans is subject to skepticism too. Taking philosophical doubt to its extreme, I can’t even be completely certain that everyone around me isn’t just a zombie.

This is the classic philosophical Problem of Other Minds. Peter Carruthers, philosophy professor at University of Maryland, summarizes the problem:

The problem of other minds is this: there is an argument which seems to show that we can have no knowledge of any other mental states besides our own. If the conclusion of the argument were correct, then I could not be said to know that the human beings around me are, in the strict sense, persons. Although I should see them walking and talking, laughing and crying, I should not be able to know that they have thoughts, have feelings, are amused or upset, and so on. All I should be able to know is that there are certain living organisms which physically resemble myself, which move around and behave in characteristic ways, and which are the source of complicated patterns of sound which I call speech.

Carruthers’ points aren’t intended to make a knock-down case for metaphysical solipsism, but what it does do is highlight the scary places to which the privacy of experience can take us. Returning to the case of animals, we are now faced with beings who appear to be alive, but whose physiologies differ significantly from ours. This raises quite a few questions. For one, are non-human animals even conscious? 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes completely denied this, describing non-human animals as mere automata, or machines programmed to act in certain ways under certain conditions. Gary Francione, professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers Newark, describes the inevitable results of the Cartesian position:

Descartes and his followers performed experiments in which they nailed animals by their paws onto boards and cut them open to reveal their beating hearts. They burned, scalded, and mutilated animals in every conceivable manner. When the animals reacted as though they were suffering pain, Descartes dismissed the reaction as no different from the sound of a machine that was functioning improperly. A crying dog, Descartes maintained, is no different from a whining gear that needs oil.

In this day and age, few would dare to refer to a crying dog as a “whining gear that needs oil”. However, there still are hot debates over the mentality of certain beings that seem to be at the threshold. Do shrimp have consciousness? What about oysters, or insects? And even if we accept that certain non-human animals possess basic mentality, what is the nature of this consciousness? To what extent are non-human animals able to feel pleasure and pain? Which non-human animals, if any, are capable of emotion, rationality, beliefs and desires?

Morgan’s Canon and Ockam’s Razor

It would help if we had a clear rule to help us interpret animal behaviour. As noted earlier, anthropomorphism has become a dirty word amongst those in the business of studying animal minds. John Andrew Fisher, philosophy professor at University of Colorado Boulder, notes (in an excellent exposition of anthropomorphism) that it is “generally treated by thinkers as an obvious mistake or fallacy of some sort. It is a term of criticism regularly applied to those who support animal thought and animal rights … philosophers and scientists often approach anthropomorphism as an obstacle to be avoided, or as a general problem to be overcome by those who wish to attribute cognitive or emotional states to nonhuman animals.”

To counteract our natural tendency to anthropomorphize, animal scientists have come to commonly follow a principle developed by 19th-century psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan, known as ‘Morgan’s Canon’:

In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale.

Morgan believed that anthropomorphic approaches to animal psychology were fallacious, and his canon is often used by behaviourists against hypotheses that postulate inner mental states of animals. Elliott Sober, philosophy professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, gives two examples of the application of Morgan’s Canon:

When an ant in the species Solenopsis saevissima dies, its fellow workers carry the body out of the nest to discard it. Why do they do so? One possibility is that the workers believe that the immobile organism Is dead, and they have the desire to rid the nest of dead individuals. A better explanation is provided by the fact that the dead ant exudes oleic acid. Workers are disposed to pick up and discard anything that smells of this compound, even living ants that perverse biologists have daubed with the tell-tale substance.

When a piping plover (Charadrius melodus) sees a predator approach its nest, it will produce a broken wing display, dragging its intact wing along the sand as if the wing were injured. Why does the bird do this? One possibility is that the plover wants to protect its young and believes that the display will induce a false belief in the predator. A better explanation is that the plover wants to protect her young, and believes that the broken wing display will have that effect.

In the first of these examples, a nonmentalistic explanation is preferable to a mentalistic explanation; the hypothesis that the ants are engaging in a fixed action pattern, triggered by a chemical trace, seems more plausible than the hypothesis that they are acting on the basis of beliefs and desires. In the second example, we prefer to explain the plover’s behaviour by attributing to it a belief about its own action, rather than by attributing to it a belief about the mind of the predator it confronts.

On its face, Morgan’s Canon seems like an instance of Ockham’s Razor – the generally accepted principle that, when we are faced with two competing theories, the ‘simpler’ theory is better. But on closer inspection, it’s questionable whether an interpretation that involves a ‘lower psychical faculty’ is indeed a ‘simpler’ theory than one that involves a higher one. E. Newbury points out that Ockham’s Razor “is applied when we adhere to a paucity of assumptions, whereas Morgan’s Canon refers to lower processes of development.”

In the light of Ockham’s Razor, it would be unwise to blindly apply Morgan’s Canon without considering all the other assumptions about the world we take to be true. Almost everything about animal behaviour, after all, can be explained in terms of ‘lower-level’, non-conscious processes if we really flexed our creative muscles. But it is generally accepted by the current scientific community that human beings are animals situated at a point of an evolutionary scale, and the notion that human beings are necessarily ‘special’ and set apart from other animals by a sharp gulf is outdated. Sober points out:

Although the canon helps one avoid the bias of anthropomorphism, the question needs to be asked whether it introduces an opposite bias of its own. If other creatures really are like us in certain respects, perhaps the canon will lead one to miss this fact about nature. The canon would not make sense if it merely avoided one bias by embracing another.

Once we consider a Darwinian continuity between humans and animals, it seems much less likely that consciousness, or even ‘uniquely human’ mental capabilities – such as emotions, desires, beliefs and so on – are truly exclusively ours.

Implications of Animal Mentality

What we guess about the minds of non-human animals has important implications for the way we relate to them. One of the most pressing issues is this: non-human animal pain and pleasure. Whether – and to what extent – non-human animals experience pleasure and pain affects the ethicality of practices such as animal testing and factory farming. Most people also believe that non-human animals such as cows and pigs are capable of feeling pain, and few can resist squirming when they see these animals being mistreated. Yet many of us are much less uncomfortable with seeing fish or shrimp being hooked live. Since such creatures seem so physiologically different from us, they are often thought of as incapable of experiencing pain. We are often told that their aversion to painful stimuli, or the wriggling and writhing they exhibit after being skewered, are automatic physical responses. But based on the available scientific evidence, scientists are still uncertain if this is true.

Beyond pleasure and pain, it’s also interesting and important to consider whether non-human animals have any significant self-awareness – and if they do, whether they are aware of themselves as beings that persist over time. The answer to such questions have crucial implications for practices such as euthanasia. Although humans may hate to see their loved ones suffer from chronic illness, to euthanize anyone against their will or without consent would be akin to murder. Human beings have an interest in remaining alive, and an interest in determining for themselves when they should remain alive; we are aware of ourselves as beings that exist extended in time, and we construct narratives and projects for ourselves in the memory of past events and anticipation of the future. When such a life is taken, its owner is robbed of the chance to pursue these experiences and projects; this is a big part of why it’s wrong to kill a human being without their consent.

In contrast, most non-human animals are thought to mostly ‘exist in the here and now’. If this is so, it’s unlikely they have an interest in continuing to stay alive when they are suffering from crippling, interminable pain. Presumably this is why the practice of euthanasia is less controversial for sickly pet dogs than it is for sickly humans, even though dogs are incapable of communicating consent. The canine mind, in all likelihood, is also incapable of forming or rigorously considering concepts like consent or suicide. Given all these factors, it may well be the case that we have moral obligations to assist terminally ill animals by putting them out of extreme suffering.

Clearly, questions about animal minds come with many other high stakes. Both excessively anthropomorphic and anthropocentric interpretations of animal behaviour may have disastrous consequences for the subjects of our attention. Animal mentality may be a guessing game, but one thing is for certain: it is up to us to make the most principled, informed guesses we can – by both scientific and philosophical standards – if we are to live ethically alongside our non-human friends.

This article was originally written for and published on 3 Quarks Daily, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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