Friday, August 20, 2010

Meaning and mammals…

Recently Dr. Feser wrote about Fred Dretske's theory of naturalized semantics. I won't exegete the post, since, if you care about the topic, you should read it for yourself, and since a livelier discussion stemmed from it with regard to animal cognition. In the combox, a reader asked,

How does the A-T notions [sic] of final causality better account for misrepresentation than Dretske's? I understand that natural signs in nature better accords [sic] with the A-T theory but I don't see A-T having any better way of accounting for misrepresentation.

Dr. Feser responded, in part, thus:

We … need to note the difference between intellect on the one hand and sensation and imagination on the other, and the unique situation our having both material and immaterial aspects of our nature puts us in. Neither animals nor angels (with a qualification in the latter case) are capable of error the way we are. Animals because they are purely material, and thus lack intellect. Only what can make a judgment in the first place can make a false judgment; and animals, though they can feel frustrated when things don’t go as they expect, don’t strictly speaking make false judgments because they don’t make judgments at all.

I added:

I think it is problematic to ask how AT accounts for misrepresentation since "misrepresentation" presupposes a representationalist theory of mind (TOM), and AT's TOM is not representationalist. I take it that the problem you are posing is, "How can AT account for illusory perceptions and the like?" I recommend the following essay for a discussion of the matter: This work is also illuminating:

I think a major divide here hinges on the role of esse intelligibile and esse intentionale in Thomistic, and broadly Scholastic, thought, versus the inherently unintelligible referentiality of natural signs for someone like Dretske. Insofar as things are formally activated matter, they have an inherent intelligibility which is activated intentionally by the intellect on the basis of abstraction from phantasms. The point is that even if we make room for misperception in AT, we still do so with a robust theory of forms and finality.

Not much later a reader, call him JT, wrote:

By what philosophical argument do you postulate that “Animals … are purely material, and thus lack intellect. Only what can make a judgment in the first place can make a false judgment; and animals…don’t make judgments at all.” Ethologists study and verify animal intelligence and judgement every day. A philosopher must defend such a bombastic subjective, anti-empirical claim.

Ethology and animal cognition being very keen topics for me, I replied by saying:

Judgment is a technical term in Aristotelian and broadly Scholastic discourse. Hence, bringing up Hume is a fallacy of equivocation, since Hume didn't think humans made "judgments" in the Scholastic sense. The term has to do with copular predicate logic as the core of language ("A is B [yet A is not numerically identical to B]"). To deny the power of intellectual judgment to non-human animals is NOT a singular claim of thinkers like Dr. Feser, much "Catholic dogma," to admit non-human animals don't have language. Konrad Lorenz expressly denied non-human animals had language. Wittgenstein made mincemeat of the anthropomorphism inherent in asking, e.g., what a lion 'means' by roaring or a dog 'means' by barking. Even Dan Dennett admits this "third-order representationalism" is what distinguishes us from other animals. Daniel Gilbert (Harvard, psychology) admits as much by saying the essential difference between animals and "the human animal" is that only the latter has a coherent *conception* of the future, a conception integrally related to language. Even mainstream Buddhism acknowledges an essential divide between human and animal cognition, which is, among other things, the Dalai Lama will never be a llama.

Judgment is just the primary act of the intellect to say that "X is y". Animal cognition (sensation and perception) by contrast makes *no semiotic, verbal distinction between the sign and the signified*. Animal cognition just says, "X" as long as the stimulus impinges on the sense organ. Show a green apple to a cat and it is appeared to green-appley. Train it to hear "apple" when it sees the apple and then to meow for the apple when it hears "apple" and you still won't have the performing a conceptual judgment. The animal does not conceptualize any *difference between the sign "apple" and the apple itself*, since the whole point of training it to 'know' "apple" is so it goes for apples, not so it can ponder "apple" as such.

But hey, don't just take my word for it. You really ought to read John Deely, Mortimer Adler, Joseph Donceel, David Braine, Adrian Reimers, Karol Wojtyla, Charles Taylor, C. S. Peirce, Walker Percy, Jacques Maritain, inter alii, for a rigorous account of the human difference. These days it's taken for a sophisticated, humane truism that there is just a difference of degree between human and animal cognition, but as Wittgenstein was fond of saying, "Everything is what it is and not something else." Respecting differences in reality is part of the ascesis of philosophy.

JT replied with a series of comments:

There certainly is a long list of people who share the idea that animals (especially mammals with brains and a CNS) are unconscious (neurologically impossible), unreasoning (I like Hume on this), and inferior because they do not think in words (is language necessary for thought, really?).

I maintain that their animal view is merely a postulation that best fits with whatever dogmatic beliefs they hold. But to paraphrase Hume, “if animals generally resemble us in flesh and behavior, then we should reasonably assume our subjective experiences are likewise similar.”

…a gratuitous assumption that the A-T mantra of 'the intellect is the form of the human body (soul).' It's the same assumption of primacy of thought which Descartes makes and which is the purpose of the author to criticize!

Given the ubiquity of our bodily sensations - feelings/emotions - why wouldn't a realist conclude that this is more fundamental than intellect?

As I understand A-T 'knowing' as the intellect's act of making judgments, this is something all higher-order creatures have to do. To deny this is just crazy-making.

OMG, how could any 21st century person aware of cognitive science and neurophysiology (and its pathologies) do anything but laugh this stuff back to the middle ages - this is childish jibberish! And if phantasms ain't representationalist, what is?

Dogs - the brutes - are just experiencing a whirlwind of disconnected sensations of particulars when at a new home they see a chair and jump in it to lay down (cuz they're universal, man), or bring a stick or ball to you to throw (cuz there is the universal of throwable/retrievable things).

Whenever a dog comes on TV one of our dogs rushes at it and barks. Sounds like a false judgment to me. Given the close similarity w/ how animals with CNS take in and act on sensory data, your own epistemology of phantasms and intellect has to work in the same manner for us as them.

… So, I would really like to hear the rational argument of why, say dogs cannot make intellectual judgments (reasoning for Hume) -- unless you want to say it is Catholic dogma.

I replied:

Semiosis is not intellection. Nor are phantasms themselves intellectual in nature. They are more or less what Hume meant by "impressions" and what neural representations are in current parlance. Denying representatiolism *as a theory of mind* does not mean rejecting representationalism per se. The problem with representationalism as a complete theory of mind is that it shifts cognitive focus from the objects of experience *to the ideas we have about those objects*.

A dog barking at a dog on a TV is not making a judgment, it is evincing a response. Can the dog be taught not to bark at the TV-dog? Surely. But at no point is the dog taught to consider the conceptual difference between a "real dog" and a "fake dog." The whole semiotic series remains behavioral and representational, not intellectual and abstract.

But these are technical points I hope you can explore from the authors I mentioned before.



Let me share an anecdote:

Some years ago I read a news story about an Italian mayor who outlawed curved-glass fishbowls, allowing only plane-glass aquaria and fishbowls. Why? He felt curved glass was cruel because it gave fish a distorted view of the world. If that doesn't strike you as bizarre and profoundly confused, then I suspect we can't have much more of a discussion.

Do animals deserve to know the truth about the world? Is it wrong to lie to a dog? People deserve to know the truth and lying is wrong among humans but the notions of deceit and integrity as moral concepts have no place in the animal world. This is a key difference.

To which JT replied:

On the fishbowl, I think it is incumbent on us to respect the subjective experience of animals. If somehow we knew it was stressful for the fish, then the guy had a valid point.

Codge, are you saying that the brains of apes, whales, or wolves are not used to make decisions to navigate their natural homes? I am not sure they could move without some form of decision-making.

I answered:

No, I am saying that navigating a semiotic Umwelt does not rise to the level of intellection. It's all dyadic semiosis, not triadic, and certainly not quadratic. Behavioral adaptation is not what intellectual judgment is about, otherwise we could be conditioned to conceive of a triangle as a four-sided ball of jealous yarn. The difference between intellection and perception is that, once we "get" what a triangle is by definition, that notion orders our perception to true or false triangles in the Umwelt. A dog could be trained to bite any red object upon hearing the word "triangle" without having any notion that the objects are circles, triangles, squares, rods and so on. It's grasp of "triangle" would be a semiotic false positive.

The question of a fish's discomfort in a curved bowl has no bearing on giving it a false or accurate picture of the world, since "the world" is itself an abstract notion beyond sense cognition (pleasant or otherwise).

I then added a good point from Mortimer Adler's essay, linked above, about animal vs. cognition:

"The rule of parsimony in scientific inference first formulated by William of Ockham and later applied to research on animal behavior by Lloyd Morgan, proscribes the positing of an unobservable entity unless positing it can be shown to be necessary in order to explain observed phenomena. This rule directs us not to posit the unobservable power of conceptual thought, either in men or in other animals, unless we are unable to explain their observed behavior in any other way. Only if the power of conceptual thought is indispensable to explaining their behavior are we logically justified in positing it as a power they possess."

I followed this up with another key point from the essay:

"To say that only man thinks is as ambiguous and imprecise as to say that only man makes products or that only man is social or lives in organized society. If the word thinking covers problem solving of all sorts, then other animals think, for problem solving is not a unique human performance. It is, therefore, false to say that only man thinks, or that only human behavior indicates the possession of a power to think. … [T]he most precise statement of the difference of man, to which observable behavior can be interpreted as relevant, is as follows: only man has the power of conceptual thought, in addition to the power of perceptual thought; all other species totally lack the power of conceptual thought, while possessing in varying degrees the power of perceptual thought."

JT repsonded by saying, "Thanks, Codge. Your quote from Adler is spot on with what I have been trying to say. I am anxious to read it all."

Then a little later he asked, "Does semiotics cover Alex?" and provided a link to a video about the famous talking African gray parrot

A day or so later, I replied:

Ah, good ol' Eric the African gray parrot. I don't have the time right now to carry on a very elaborate/technical dialogue, so I'll just make a few points.

1) By invoking "semiotics" I am not out to supplant or even seriously alter the Aristhomist epistemology already under discussion. Semiotics is a tool which is only lately being rediscovered as a vital theological and philosophical means. John Deely is a pioneer in this "semiotic Scholastic" revolution (but then again so were Peirce and Percy).

2) Eric's learning is stunning by all accounts, but he might ipso facto be the exception that proves the rule. Consider: a single parrot rigorously trained for 10 years by the same person (or handful of persons) that achieved what some previous primates have achieved. His accomplishments are therefore as provocative on their own merits as they *for the reason that he wasn't a primate*.

I can't go into a very detailed analysis but having watched a few of the interviews about, and clips of, Eric (in the past and anew, with the aid of your link), I am struck by how much gross anthropomorphising and wax-nosing there is in the discussion. E.g., the trainer says Eric's erratic series of errors is due to being bored. That begs the question. I've argued before (here and there at my blog) that animal trainers (and roboticists!) often just as easily get conditioned by their animals/bots as vice versa. The point of the research is to demonstrate that *Eric can speak* like a human, not that his keeper can "talk to birds." (Mr. Magoo is hilarious and Lassie is groan-making for exactly this reason. Lassie's already smart enough semiotically to alert a boy to a fire; why strain the net to say she's also "actually speaking just like we are," only in Caninese?) Why doesn't Eric assert that he is bored, rather than his keepers whimsically twisting his nose, er, beak to fit the research goal? Robots and animals are as smart as we want them to be, if that's the game.

I also found her discussion of the "zero" concept confused and overwrought. In the end, it is she who provides the "zero" explanation for his repeated error––even stating explicitly how she was *trying to make sense of it despite the plain evidence*––and I'm not convinced his performance demonstrates his grasp of "nullity" in any case.

Keep in mind also the phenomenon of meta-conditioning, viz., an animal is conditioned to present *a whole range of desired behaviors* not just particular behaviors. This would account for the alleged "spontaneity" of Eric's responses to random objects. After ten years of relentless drilling over the same range of desired responses, it is only natural he would toggle through the only class of responses he's been given. ("What do they want from me now? Oh, 'color' might work. … Hey, she's happy, it worked!") As such, his responses don't get into, e.g. "the poverty of the stimulus" problem as in Chomskyan linguistics. By contrast, were Eric to look at a disc and just say, "Now that is just beautiful," rather than just emit any of a range of acceptable responses, then I'd be sold. This would show the uniquely generative and autonomously intra-stimulated nature of abstract human thought.

You should like this piece:

3) None of this is meant to denigrate animal intelligence, much less to give grounds for animal abuse. It was Descartes' theory of mind, after all, not the classical and Scholastic theory, which portrayed animals as sensless meat machines. Indeed, native animal intelligence HAD BETTER be impressive, otherwise the Aristhomistic notion of the "animal soul" is vacuous. I would go so far as to say that, on Aristhomism, the lion's share of human intelligence is basic animal and nutritive intelligence alone ("the body knows," reflexes, body maps, proprioception, non-verbal intuition, cravings, semiotic induction, phantasms, etc.). Moreover, we all know how much smarter numerous animals are in countless other tasks. I don't understand why many people get so touchy to hear it claimed that animals just happen to lack *the peak of our intelligence* when the peaks of their own forms of cognition are already marvelous? Straining to find abstract language in animals is to me like making dogs wear tennis shoes or sunglasses so they look "cuter", when in fact they are already stunning just naked and at home in their own nature. The delightful parallels between animal and human intelligence, while admitting a mysterious but clear difference, is all of a piece with the fundametally teleological and hierarchical classical/Scholastic worldview: elements, minerals, plants, proto-animals, animals, humans, saints, angels, etc. A vast hierarchy of tightly interlocked ANALOGICAL FINALITY. If animals showed no humanoid wisdom at all––or vice versa!––, we would be bizarre ontological danglers, which is what the basic gripe with Cartesianism is.

A random final thought:

At the end of the day, if you conversed with Eric, you'd know you are talking with a parrot, and not with a human. If there weren't a distinct and meaningful distinction between these kinds of communication, there would be nothing sensational about Eric. The sensation is that, even though we know he doesn't think like a human thinks, it sure feels like it. Once you leave the room, Eric goes back to his unstimulated muteness. He doesn't generate anything creative, but of course, if he could, he would be no more sensational than a dwarf or a bearded woman is.

I suspect the dialogue will dribble on and I will most likely add the sequel to this post as it arises. Now go have a chat with your goldfish about all this.


Crude said...

A few quick comments.

1) The conversation comes right on the heels of allegations that a well-known Harvard professor was involved in research misconduct, and the focus seems to be around his misrepresenting his findings with certain animals being "just like humans", etc.

2) What shocks me about people who have this axe to grind re: animals is that they have, of all people, thomists and Catholics in their sights. Thomists, who - if I have my knowledge of A-T down - thought the Cartesian claims of animals being mere meat machines was absurd, or who recognized that there were proper ends (and therefore proper conditions and ways to care) for animals. All while ignoring the necessary conclusions of materialist philosophy, including some prominent ones. If I recall, Dennett himself - of interest to you lately, it seems - flat out regards animals who lack language as not being 'conscious' in even the anemic and silly way Dennett himself would regard humans as being so. He's not the only one either.

I can't help but suspect that part of the reason is that materialists strike me as typically more willing to just nod their heads and pay lip service to whatever public piety is the rage now. "Oh, eating meat, bad? Animal experimenting, horrible? That's the latest trend? Sure, I'm on board." It reminds me of how, as was pointed out to me once, proponents of "scientism" get their noses out of joint over the mere mention of creationism or ID, and scream about the war on science. But if some animal rights protesters storm into a lab and smash things because they don't like the research methods? Comparative silence. No one talks about PETA's or ALF's "War on science".

Max Weismann said...

Thank you for posting this--we are Mortimer Adler's website.

Max Weismann
Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann
Home Page:
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