Animal Cognition

The Economist recently ran a great article on the recent studies into animal cognition. The article doesn’t introduce the raging background discussions on the theories of animal cognition, but considering the topic takes up three full Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entries, I don’t blame the author. Rather, the article does an excellent job providing empirical information that can help one better pick among the myriad theories of animal minds. More than most subjects, I believe this topic continues to need more empirical information, because we have so little on account of how hard it is to study the inner workings of animals. And where information lacks, theories abound with little way to adjudicate among them.

In reading deeper into the topic on SEP, I found one particular passage enlightening:

One concern is that researchers may have a failure of imagination when it comes to hypothesis generation; they may make an inference to the best explanation argument without considering all the possible explanations. This reflects Kennedy’s worry when he claims that the following argument for attributing mental properties to animals rests on a false dichotomy: either animals are stimulus-response machines, or they are agents with beliefs and desires; since animals are not stimulus-response machines, they must be psychological agents (Kennedy 1992). According to Kennedy, the problem with this argument is that not all machines implement stimulus-response functions; some machines are complex and indeterministic, and if animals were machines, they would be machines of that sort (Barlow 1990; Kennedy 1992).

This observation seems to fit what I have read in studying animal cognition. Authors will gather a jumble of facts, and then either fit them into the box of ‘animals have minds just like human beings’ or ‘animals are completely unconscious.’ But what about a spectrum? I do not see any reason animals cannot possess mental capacity which puts them beyond pure unconscious decision-making but also doesn’t launch them to the same level of mental capability and freedom as human beings. Now, I hardly have the philosophical capability (or credentials) to give any substantive comment on what this spectrum would look like, but I think pointing out the possibility of spectrum might help break the logjam of either/or in animal cognition.

I think animal cognition also has a simmering background fight over naturalism vs. theism in the western world that encourages either/or thinking. For theists, man must remain separate from animals. For naturalists, breaking down the distinction between man and animal is a step forward. Add in sparsity of information, and what information we do have being closely tied to theory for interpretation, and we have a mess where almost anybody can get what they want with enough massaging. But I find this mess exciting! I think we have a golden opportunity to remain open to new information in a rapidly developing field, and one where careful thought on theoretical underpinnings goes a long way.