Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Inner Lives of Animals

I recommend that you pick up a copy of the October 2022 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC if possible. You can't miss it; the cover shows a close-up of a sphinx cat. The lead article, "Minds of Their Own," explores the emotional and cognitive capacities of animals.

Not only some mammals but some birds can pass the "mirror test," recognizing their own reflections. Rats will often free another rat trapped in a plastic tube. Horses respond appropriately to positive or negative emotions as displayed by facial expressions, not only in other horses but also in humans. Sheep can recognize faces. Dolphins sometimes blow water bubbles and play with them. Some animals have been shown to react negatively to other members of their species who cheat. The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC piece mentions other examples, including the famous dog who communicates by nosing symbols on a mat.

For many centuries, mainstream science believed animals didn't have an inner life, nothing resembling emotions or thoughts in the human sense. Famously, 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes declared that animals were mere "automata," machines in principle similar to clockwork, although more complex. Here's an article about that theory and a contemporary of Descartes, Ralph Cudworth, who argued against it. (If you want to read this page, do so in one sitting, because the website allows only a limited number of free readings per month.):

Descartes Versus Cudworth

Cudworth, who (unlike Descartes) maintained that animals had souls, defined "soul" more broadly than Descartes. The defining characteristics of a soul, according to Cudworth, are "self-activity –- the ability of a thing to determine its own movement and action" and "subjectivity," self-awareness and the ability to experience pain or pleasure. Most of us nowadays would agree that animals, at least the "higher" species for sure, have these traits even if we attribute them to biological systems rather than immaterial entities. As the article puts it, "Cudworth noticed and emphasised the animal in the human, and more importantly, the human in the animal."

If the argument that we can't attribute "anthropomorphic" qualities to animals because we have no direct access to their minds (if any) is valid, how could we refute a similar argument about human beings? How can we know, just from their behavior and speech, that our fellow humans share the same inner experiences we have instead of being mere automata? The Marquis de Sade apparently thought we couldn't; one of his characters argues that it's fine to inflict pain on other people, since we feel our own pains and pleasures but have no proof others feel the same things. Most of us wouldn't want to embrace that philosophy, though!

Hard-line materialists might insist recently discovered resemblances between animal and human emotions and thought processes prove we are "only animals," little more than biological machines ourselves. The similarity could be considered from a less reductive angle, though. Maybe what those discoveries demonstrate is that animals, possessing inner lives somewhat analogous to our own, are in many cases closer to human than we've previously believed.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment