Does Baxter Compute?


Baxter type this the other day: “CCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCC . . . CCCCCCCCCVC” Well, not exactly computing, but it was incredibly cute.

This blog isn’t really about whether or not Baxter, or any cat, uses a computer, but whether he, or any cat or any animal, including humans think. So, the question really is can animals think?vvgggg

The answer depends on what you mean by think. At the first definition is “to have a conscious mind, to some extent of reasoning, remembering experiences, making rational decisions, etc.” I suppose this will do for now. 

Daniel Dennett uses what he calls “the intentional stance.” Here he is using intention to mean more that just having an intent to do something. Intention is often used in philosophy to mean any “beliefs, hopes, judgments, intentions,” among other states of mind. A full discussion of the term intentionality can be found at So, intentionality could also be used to define thinking.

According to Dennett we can use the intentional stance to understand others’ behavior. This goes for other animals as well. It can even be used profitably for understanding inanimate things such as computers. Dennett is not claiming that anything actually has intentions, only that it is a useful way of understanding behavior, living or nonliving.

Baxter is at it again. When I went out for my morning walk just now he was sitting by the computer with the screen black. When I arrived back in fifteen minutes the screen showed my book review for The Columbia History of Western Philosophy that I had been working on. I asked him if he was proofing my review. He didn’t answer; what a typical cat.

So, if Baxter won’t say anything, except “meow” in a variety of ways, how can I tell if he’s thinking?

Now, back to intentionality. The thing about this stance is that it is meant in a purely metaphorical sense, when applied outside of humans. It is also what is part of folk psychology. This philosophical psychology is the use of everyday language to describe the behavior of minds. We really have no other way to talk about them. This goes for our own as well. Yes, we understand our minds in exactly the same way we understand others. Thus, we might not even be able to say we have a mind except through this type of psychology. It is interesting that to eliminative materialism, a branch of philosophy of mind, there is no mind, hence there is no thought either. What would Descartes say about this?

Folk psychology is taboo as far as eliminative materialism mainly the work of Patricia S. and Paul Churchland. According to this theory, folk psychology fails to explain the working of minds. This is because there is no possible experiment that could determine if it was true, so no evidence has been found to establish it as a valid scientific theory. Eliminative materialism says that we should give up using folk psychology and focus on the working of our brains, which are open to experimental testing.

You can see that eliminative materialism is also involved with the philosophy of science. Paul Churchland attempts to argue for this in his book The Neurocomputational Perspective. It tries to define what counts as science, and takes the hard-line that it must be capable of reduction. From this view the ultimate explanation for the mind must be capable of reduction to the brain.

My main problem with eliminative materialism is that it has a huge promissory note attached to it. It is not available to us now, and the level of detailed working of the brain needed, may not be achievable, and if it is, it will be many many years, certainly after I have died. As is evident, we are stuck with folk psychology if we want to talk about the mind.

Now, back to Baxter. As I mentioned in my first blog, I observed Baxter navigating a box of tissues on the coffee table. Each reach of his paw showed to me he was thinking. Why do I claim he was thinking? Because I believe the brain is solely responsible for thought. As such, Baxter’s brain is definitely actively working out how to get around the box of tissues. If that is not thinking, I suppose you might as well jump on the eliminative materialism’s bandwagon and claim that thought does not exist.

Now with Dennett’s “intentional stance,” I can use it to try to figure out why Baxter is behaving as he does, except for the inexplicable, which is a large share of Baxter’s actions, not to unlike some humans’ behavior. Whether or not believing Baxter thinks explains his behaviors, it still is fun to play around with his thoughts. Or, sometimes it is just fun to stare and watch.

I feel that what I have said about Baxter’s thinking could mutatis mutandis apply to any animal with a brain that contains a cortex. As such I feel that’s definition of think is far to restrictive. Sure other animals do not use language, but I do not think that is necessary for thought. After all, some people claim to think things out visually. There is also the fact that language just flows without any conscious control, and what about wild children who have no language.

What about consciousness? I think consciousness is an attention director. Where our attention is needed most, that is what we are conscious of. Baxter certainly looked as if he was paying attention to the situation with the tissue box. So I think consciousness looked at in this way is very common, especially in mammals.

What about self-consciousness than? Again we use it when we need to pay attention to ourselves. Is Baxter aware of his paw’s movement? It is part of him. Or, do we limit self-consciousness to awareness of our thoughts? We are aware of our thoughts mainly indirectly because of language. So, if awareness of thoughts is what counts in self-consciousness, than I would say no. Baxter is not self-conscious. From this perspective no other animal, except humans could be thought to have this level of consciousness. The experiments that show that some animals are aware of spots painted on their heads when looking in a mirror just shows their aware of the spot, not their thoughts.

Is Baxter aware of himself in some manner? Some people like to point out that cats and other animals chase their own tails, showing that they do not understand that is part of them. I feel the better explanation is that they are playing and having fun fully aware that the tail is part of themselves.


6 thoughts on “Does Baxter Compute?

  1. So if eliminative materialism is a branch of philosophy of mind, and it holds that there is no mind, then eliminative materialism is a branch of nothing. Right?

    I think some people are too smart for their own good and would be better served directing their energies to more productive pursuits.

    If there is no mind hence no thought, what directs me to read your post, consider (synonym for think about) it and develop a coherent response then type it out? Am I nothing more than a jumble of bone, sinew, blood, muscle, neuron, and electrical impulses impelled by genetically coded instructions and conditioned responses to prior experiences?

    Do not thought and mind by any other names still perform the same functions or serve the same purposes, and if so what’s the harm in calling them such?

    As to whether or not Baxter computes, I don’t know. But I believe that he, and as you typed mutatis mutandis any other animal with a cortex-containing brain, is aware and does think, even if that thought doesn’t rise above the level of goal-directed action. Just because we humans haven’t yet figured out how to determine what animals think or whether they do at all (hell, we haven’t even figured out reliably how to tell what our fellow humans are thinking!) doesn’t mean they don’t.


    1. Denny, thank you for your thoughtful comments, which I do appreciate. I will, hopefully not to long, will make a fuller reply to your comment. I will first have to reread the blog.

      Take care.


  2. Here’s my considered response I promise you.

    I may have push the limits to what the Churchlands or others would say about eliminative materialism. I don’t recall either of them saying such a thing, but I do think it follows nonetheless. I still wouldn’t call it a branch of nothing by taking my view on it. This is because while I might be saying that in the eliminative materialism view there is no mind, it still explores what the mind is. Basically, it claims that the mind is the brain, so that the study of the brain is all there is to the study of the mind.

    If you are referring to philosophers as being to smart for the own good, this may well be true. What a lot of philosophy has is a kind of play, nothing really to contribute beyond an exploration. To me that’s what philosophy is–exploration.

    To be flat out I honest say you are directed to read and consider and respond by your brain. This is your brain is ultimately responsible for your thought. Since, the brain is guide by genetics, biology, and experience, I could say that’s all there is to our thought, feelings, experience, and behavior. But, these things are real and their yours, brain or not.

    I am not a staunch eliminative materialist because it is not a practicable endeavor, and will probably not be. Another reason is that we experience thought, just as we experience perception and feelings. While I believe folk psychology does not explain thought, it is the way we talk about thought and behavior.

    From your last paragraph I get the feeling that you think I don’t think Baxter, or any other animal, with a cortex thinks. I most certainly do think he thinks and is conscious of his world, and he maybe self-conscious if that does not require language as I wrote in the blog. If self-consciousness is only the awareness of himself, than he would indeed have it.

    I am currently working on a blog on the brain and freewill which will further spell out what I think about determinism. I am also considering a blog about meaning which will further explore, in part, my thinking on thought, which you previously asked about.

    PS: I am currently reading Paul Churchland’s, one of the eliminative materialists I have mentioned, The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul. He makes the claim early in the book that most animals think and are conscious to a degree. I have not yet gotten to his arguments to back up these claims, but when I get to do the book review, I will probably mention it, which might take sometime—I’m so backed up. Currently ten books behind. Oddly enough, I am on Patricia S. Churchland’s Touching a Nerve: The Brain as Self.

    PSS: I thought I would explain something about my ideas I think about. I do not talk or write about these ideas to convert anyone to them. That would be preaching, not philosophy. I write and talk about my ideas, so that other people might understand why I hold the views I do. Whether or not others might want to come to the same understanding as I have does not matter. After all, we are all different, so why should I expect that. Not even Bette, my long long time girl friend (I don’t know if I have mentioned her before), believes all the things I believe, and we live a life together, that is harmonious to a very large degree, and the inharmonious parts don’t involve our religious or philosophical differences.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s