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 Dictionary.com the first definition is “tohaveaconsciousmind,tosomeextentof reasoning, remembering experiences,makingrationaldecisions,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 plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality. 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 dictionary.com’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.