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March 29, 2014 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Animals aren’t tools for thinking. Animals are some of the basic building blocks of thought itself
When he’s teaching, my friend the writer William Fiennes sometimes asks students to write about an encounter they have had with an animal at some time in their lives. What they soon discover is that the animal is always some unspoken aspect of themselves. The rat in the compost bin. The teenage girls escaping from a predatory geography teacher who stumble on a sheep giving birth. The deer shot by two boys who’ve stolen a gun. Put an animal in a story and it is never just an animal.

«Les espèces sont choisies non commes bonnes à manger, mais comme bonnes à penser» - La Pensée sauvage, Claude Lévi-Strauss

One Of Us
That is technical language, but it speaks to a riddle age-old and instinctive. These thoughts begin, for most of us, typically, in childhood, when we are making eye contact with a pet or wild animal. I go back to our first family dog, a preternaturally intelligent-seeming Labrador mix, the kind of dog who herds playing children away from the street at birthday parties, an animal who could sense if you were down and would nuzzle against you for hours, as if actually sharing your pain. I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart she was. “Smarter than some people I know!” But when you looked into her eyes—mahogany discs set back in the grizzled black of her face—what was there? I remember the question forming in my mind: can she think? The way my own brain felt to me, the sensation of existing inside a consciousness, was it like that in there?
Scientific American: Is Consciousness Universal? -"Panpsychism, the ancient doctrine that consciousness is universal, offers some lessons in how to think about subjective experience today"
Salon: Can bees have Proustian moments, too?
NY Times Op-Ed: According Animals Dignity

more at Omnivore: Animal citizens and sovereigns
posted by the man of twists and turns (45 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
What

Actually the other day I was driving on a busy road known for occasional deer crossings which I drive daily without incident... So I never use high beams but had a feeling as I approached a minor curve in the road a cop or deer might show up out of nowhere and complicate my drive home, and so I turned them on for a second or two, slowed down about 10mph and saw nothing, and felt like that was weird, there be something here. Who tripped my sen-sor-s, Tuvok?

A few seconds later a coyote crosses the 50-60 mph highway right in front of me as I'm doing 40 and gives me this "don't mind me, just crossing" glance and I feel in my brain bag that this animal really wanted to cross, was sitting and waiting for awhile, and finally went for it, putting out a "don't kill me bro" memo to all threatening objects within a certain radius. Like when you're looking for your pet and driving around desperately knowing how shitty the odds seem but suddenly you just know where to pull over and detect your fuzz bucket but it doesn't make sense that he'd be here anymore than he'd be anywhere else but you keep focusing your search in this weird awkward neighbor's yard and whoop there it is
posted by lordaych at 9:02 AM on March 29 [10 favorites]


I have no doubt in my mind the animals can think and feel and imagine.

Neither do I believe for a second that the wolf mentioned in the above comment had any actual effect on the environment and the author is conveying a coincidence with altogether too much woo.

For lack of an environment in which they could make fire, it is entirely plausible that cetaceans would have developed technological civilization. Rudiments of technology abound among highly intelligent animals (crows, chimpanzees), and they have shown considerable sentience.

Humans, thus far, are the only animals that have achieved complex external-to-ourselves data storage, the only ones who we know of that plan not just minutes ahead but decades and centuries. One of just a few that even recognize themselves in a mirror.

There's absolutely something special about humanity, but there is no discounting that intelligence, imagination, agency, sentience, sapience -- all of these exist on a continuum, and several species, though none seem to surpass humans, are definitely close enough to our league to give them special consideration in our activities. (Cetaceans, Elephants, Primates).
posted by chimaera at 9:08 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


I just have more of a breathless adolescent thing going on when I recount tales of woo, but I'm familiar with confirmation bias and coincidences and try to explore what makes such stories seem meaningful -- life is boring, etc.

I do think that "thinking" and "feeling" are ultimately field-based manifestations that transcend their tiny containers and that some are more sensitive than others to thoughts bleeding beyond normal sensory boundaries and conduits like spoken word communication. Wooooooo

Other recent woo stories: I have a rather large window without a screen in the basement and had it open the other night. Then I suddenly thought "oh noes, a raccoon might enter my domicile, it's the hour of the raccoon, yarrrg" and went to close it. Then I thought "hey in the off chance there was a rabies infested raccoon created solely by my it's-too-fuckin'-late imagination is standing right there, why not stick your head out and up the window" and that seemed like a fine idea and I poked my head and recoiled quickly, realizing instead there was a kitty with a jingly bell checking me out. Maybe I heard something and didn't consciously realize it so my brain turned it into a threat narrative to investigate. Maybe it was a coincidence, it's such a petty story to even think about, like the other. Maybe instead of hearing something I felt something a different way, and maybe that's not that much of a stretch as it has to be.

I like tacos
posted by lordaych at 9:42 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


I don't have the mental stats right now to write a better comment but this makes me think of Jeff Vandermeer's super creepy psychological suspense/horror novel Annihilation.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 10:27 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Further reading: Science cannot truly begin until consciousness is understood as a universal property.
posted by No Robots at 10:34 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


"New Caledonian crows may understand how to displace water to receive a reward, with the causal understanding level of a 5-7 year-old child" - Crows complete basic 'Aesop's fable' task
posted by Poldo at 11:33 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Science cannot truly begin until consciousness is understood as a universal property.

A universal property of what?
posted by Appropriate Username at 11:34 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


The self-reinforcing and creating loop of consciousness! Read some of of Michio Kaku's latest book "The Future of the Mind" the other day. Consciousness is indeed one rather, strange, vexing, and wonderful thing - and we don't even know what it is, yet - and, we may never know. I wonder if we are some of the basic building blocks of existence itself, from the perspective of a different kind of consciousness - i.e. animal consciousness.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:37 AM on March 29


A universal property of what?

In my anthropology 101 course, our professor started off by having us look up "aporia" in our library's largest modern English dictionary (this would have been 1995). It wasn't there. "Our culture likes to believe that everything is knowable," he continued, "to the point where a word meaning not knowing has been removed from dictionaries." Apparently it's been put back in (the linked Wikipedia entry).

Maybe we should posit consciousness as a universal property whose scope we are unable to entirely know. Like the first article wonderfully illustrates, we're the hare, not the tortoise; keeping that in mind might actually make more discoveries possible.
posted by fraula at 11:41 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


A universal property of what?

Sorry if I was a little too brief. What I mean is that mind is a property of the universe as a whole and of each of its parts. Indeed, mind is the essential property of the universe and its parts. For more, see the works of Spinoza. I would also recommend looking at the work of Constantin Brunner, particularly his development of Spinoza's doctrine of mind.
posted by No Robots at 12:01 PM on March 29


Science cannot truly begin until consciousness is understood as a universal property.

You're really fond of making grand unsupportable pronouncement aren't you
posted by ook at 12:10 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


^You realize that I'm just paraphrasing my sources, right? I put them forward for those who are interested in the topic of the thread. You are, of course, free to reject them. Have a nice day!
posted by No Robots at 12:20 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Maybe we should posit consciousness as a universal property whose scope we are unable to entirely know.

Maybe we should posit an unsupported theory based on the principle that being unable to confirm it should be a basis for support of that theory? Lack of knowledge is not knowledge.
posted by Appropriate Username at 12:40 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


You're really fond of making grand unsupportable pronouncement aren't you

Yeah, I mean where do you think you are, No Robots? Metafilter or something?
posted by mondo dentro at 12:47 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Maybe we should posit an unsupported theory based on the principle that being unable to confirm it should be a basis for support of that theory? Lack of knowledge is not knowledge.

This applies equally well to the "theory" that consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently complex collections of unconscious matter. And the quotes around "theory" are because it's not really a theory--it's at most a working hypothesis.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:48 PM on March 29


What I mean is that mind is a property of the universe as a whole and of each of its parts. Indeed, mind is the essential property of the universe and its parts.

My chair, asteroids and cold oatmeal are all part of the universe. What use considering the mind of cold oatmeal?
posted by Appropriate Username at 12:50 PM on March 29


This applies equally well to the "theory" that consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently complex collections of unconscious matter.

So, this theory of consciousness is supported by a claim that we cannot understand or confirm a theory of consciousness? Because I think claims of support for such a theory would probably rest on some principle of information theory, right? And not a flat declaration that knowing we might not be able to know is a basis for knowing?
posted by Appropriate Username at 12:56 PM on March 29


Appropriate Username: Are the effects of relativity (general or special) or quantum mechanics apparent in your cold oatmeal? Nope, they're not. But yet all of these effects are present. It's just that they don't become significant unless your oatmeal has the mass of Jupiter, or a speed near c, or the size of an atom.

My point is that it is difficult to think of any phenomenon that is not universally present, whether or not it is apparent. Why should we expect consciousness to be unique among all phenomena in being completely absent until it isn't?
posted by mondo dentro at 12:58 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


So, this theory of consciousness is supported by a claim that we cannot understand or confirm a theory of consciousness?

Um, consciousness is a notoriously difficult, arguably the most difficult theoretical question out there. We can agree on that, no?

All theories start with "unsupported claims". That's what the craft of scientific theory-making is about--systematically assessing such claims and working toward either resolving problems with them until they become coherent, or abandoning them as unworkable.
posted by mondo dentro at 1:02 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Why should we expect consciousness to be unique among all phenomena in being completely absent until it isn't?

And the world will not be safe from the pink unicorn menace until eyes are watching every spot in the world at all times to be certain the pink unicorns aren't there to threaten us.

I think it's time to pull the ripcord on my HAMBURGER. Stay awesome out there.
posted by Appropriate Username at 1:02 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Weren't they on to this idea about 30,000 years ago in Chauvet?
posted by lagomorphius at 1:30 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


You're really fond of making grand unsupportable pronouncement aren't you

Not as much as you are, apparently.
posted by jamjam at 1:30 PM on March 29


*crickets
posted by bird internet at 1:31 PM on March 29


Yes, let's get snippy about theories of mind.

C'mon people. Do better.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:42 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Yes, let's get snippy about theories of mind

My consciousness is better than your consciousness. So there! :)

[My wave function is better than your wave function?]

[............]
posted by Vibrissae at 1:59 PM on March 29


I thought it was all the same consciousness m
posted by jpe at 2:22 PM on March 29


I thought it was all the same consciousness

Says who? haha
posted by Vibrissae at 2:32 PM on March 29


I thought it was all the same consciousness

That's just what big consciousness wants you to think. Wake up sheeple!
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:47 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


The main article was really interesting, and while I disagree with almost all of the author's opinions, I think he's excellent at funny observations and turns of phrase; I particularly liked his run-down of the Tortoise And The Hare. I look forward to reading the other articles in the fpp! Also, this was a hilariously awful thread of comments.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:34 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Fantastic article, ridiculously terrible thread.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:54 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Are the effects of relativity (general or special) or quantum mechanics apparent in your cold oatmeal? Nope, they're not.

You’re just not eating the right kind of oatmeal.
posted by El Mariachi at 11:05 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Science cannot truly begin until consciousness is understood as a universal property.

I know I missed the main poo-flinging event, but I thought I'd mention to No Robots that this statement leaves me wondering how we will manage to come to that state where we do understand consciousness as a universal property. I would have proposed "observe, theorize, test, refine", but ....... well, you see my problem, don't you?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:26 PM on March 29


so I read the article, and I read the thread, and I have absolutely no idea what he, our you lot, are on about.
posted by wilful at 2:21 AM on March 30


What is the reason for considering consciousness as a universal law, instead of like any number of biological regularities that are in no sense universal, such as photosynthesis, meiosis-mitosis, the nervous system, vertebrae, homeostasis, and so on? Consciousness as "universal" seems like an entirely superfluous hypothesis - we do not need to postulate any other evolved biological trait as being "unviersal" in order to understand it.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:23 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


And anyway, Jakob von Uexküll [pdf] provides a much better starting point on subjective experience of animals than any panpsychist metaphysical musings.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:30 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


Consciousness as "universal" seems like an entirely superfluous hypothesis - we do not need to postulate any other evolved biological trait as being "unviersal" in order to understand it.

Thomas Nagel is brought up in the article; his newest book, Mind And Cosmos, came out about a year ago, and it posits that consciousness is something tremendously different from any other aspect of the universe -- that it is so special, so unusual, that it may be a universal trait quite unlike the rest of the universe's physical laws.

Anyway, I thought it was a buncha horse-puckey! His justification seemed to be a big sloppy circle of "consciousness is, like, really special, because it is so special." And of course, he's a professor of consciousness, so I did lot of shouting at the book, "OH WEIRD THE GUY WHO STUDIES CONSCIOUSNESS IS CLAIMING IT'S THE MOST SPECIAL THING LIKE THE GUY WHO WROTE THE GAMBIT MINISERIES WAS SUDDENLY LIKE 'GAMBIT IS NOT JUST A COOL CAJUN DUDE, HES ACTUALLY AN OMEGA-LEVEL MUTANT'"

I did a lot of shouting at that book, actually, I can't remember the last time I shouted at a book so much
posted by Greg Nog at 7:00 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


[Couple of comments deleted; go ahead and debate ideas, but dial back the personal insults.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:08 AM on March 30


I'm thinking of writing a short story from the perspective of a transient coyote as it wanders through the concrete wasteland of industrial society into the ravines, through alleys, et cetera. It's the hardest story idea I've ever attempted. To know how it might be to think and perceive as a certain animal takes an extreme devotion to that species. I've never even considered the idea that wolves, coyotes, and dogs, for example, are anything but creatures who think, perceive, and are conscious, albeit with a different worldview than ours. The articles linked strike me as too ... detached, maybe, to really grok animal perception. I don't think you can do it with abstract theories alone. There's human effort involved.

I remember reading a book, maybe by David Mech, who wrote about getting comfortable on a hill adjacent to a pack of wolves after scent-marking "his" territory with human urine (!) to see how the wolves would react. He described the way the alpha (beta?) sniffed the ground, approached a bit, and stared at the man for a good minute or two, thinking, before trotting off to re-mark the human "boundaries" with his own spray of urine. I could just see the wolf pondering the man and deciding what to do.

It's nonhuman intelligence, but it's intelligence nonetheless. The fact that researchers try to quantify nonhuman intelligence using tests of human intelligence strikes me as bizarre and kind of desperate, really. Too anthropocentric. We're still favouring the animals who are intelligent in ways we can understand, like the crows with their excellent planning skills and use of tools, or the dolphins with their ability to play and to use language that we can decode with computers. Wolves are intelligent because they work well in social groups, etc. Is a solitary wild cat not as intelligent or as conscious, then, because it's not interested in humanlike skills or socializing in family groups?

Just my $0.02.
posted by quiet earth at 10:48 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Nice post. Thanks, the man of twists and turns.
posted by homunculus at 5:44 PM on March 30


I've always been curious about human interpretations of animal behaviors, but I was a little bit disappointed by the Haddon essay, which seemed to flitter about from branch to branch without actually settling down long enough to get into any really interesting insights.
posted by ovvl at 6:46 PM on March 30


Oliver Sacks: The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others
posted by homunculus at 4:00 PM on April 4


Dogs and Cats Are Blurring the Lines Between Pets and People
Cats and dogs occupy a unique place in the animal kingdom’s vast menagerie. Unlike other domesticated animals, like chickens or pigs or lab rats, they’re not treated as identity-less means to a human end; and unlike wild creatures, they’re not counted as populations or viewed as units of biodiversity.Instead, dogs and cats are individuals. They’re our friends. Some of us even consider them family. They’ve come out of the wild and into our living rooms, an extraordinary evolutionary and sociological journey that now raises profound questions about what it means to be a person.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:13 PM on April 9


posted by No Robots at 12:31 PM on April 9


Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?
posted by homunculus at 4:52 PM on April 24


This is How You Study The Evolution of Animal Intelligence
posted by homunculus at 8:29 PM on April 26


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