Saturday, September 13, 2008

Animal minds: How well can we understand a cat ... or a bat?

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel published a most interesting essay called "What is it like to be a bat", which reminded us that animals not only have different minds from humans, they - in some cases - have different senses. Their whole experience of life may be different: For example, he notes:

To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.

[ ... ]

I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.
Nagel's main purpose was not really to understand what it is like to be a bat, which he believes unlikely. Rather, he opposed reductionism - as in "the mind is nothing but ..." as a strategy for understanding the mind. His point is that reductionism is not even a good way of understanding animal minds, let alone human minds.

As he says,

Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable. Perhaps that is why current discussions of the problem give it little attention or get it obviously wrong. The recent wave of reductionist euphoria has produced several analyses of mental phenomena and mental concepts designed to explain the possibility of some variety of materialism, psychophysical identification, or reduction.

[ ... ]

Every reductionist has his favorite analogy from modern science. It is most unlikely that any of these unrelated examples of successful reduction will shed light on the relation of mind to brain. But philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different. This has led to the acceptance of implausible accounts of the mental largely because they would permit familiar kinds of reduction. I shall try to explain why the usual examples do not help us to understand the relation between mind and body—why, indeed, we have at present no conception of what an explanation of the physical nature of a mental phenomenon would be. Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless. The most important and characteristic feature of conscious mental phenomena is very poorly understood. Most reductionist theories do not even try to explain it. And careful examination will show that no currently available concept of reduction is applicable to it. Perhaps a new theoretical form can be devised for the purpose, but such a solution, if it exists, lies in the distant intellectual future.
Conscious Entities notes,

Nagel's aim is to launch a kind of counter-attack against physicalist arguments, which would reduce the mental to the merely physical, and which were evidently getting into the ascendant in 1974 when the paper was published. Tempting as it may be to fall back on the familiar kind of reductionist approach which has worked so well in other areas, Nagel argues, phenomenal, subjective experience is a special case. Reductive arguments always seek to give an explanation in objective terms, but the essential point about conscious experiences is that they are subjective. The whole idea of an objective account therefore makes no sense - no more sense than asking what my inward experiences are really like, as opposed to how they seem to me. How they seem to me is all there is to them. Any neutral, objective, third-person explanation has to leave out the essence of the experience. The point about conscious experience is that there is something it is like to see x, or hear y, or feel z.
Non-materialist neuroscience, which we explore in The Spiritual Brain, treats the relationship between the mind and the brain in a non-reductionist way, like the relationship between a television program and a television set. The program requires the set but cannot be reduced to it. Little will be discovered about the program by analyzing the set. On the other hand, if the set is damaged, it may not transmit the program very well.

There are, of course, other non-materialist ways of looking at the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Other "animal mind" stories from The Mindful Hack

"Animal minds: Monkeys understanD money?"

"When pop science TV wants to hear only one side ... "

Animal minds: Art produced by animals: Is it art?

Researchers ask: What does it mean to be an animal?

Deception in humans and animals: The differences

Medical journal published article on cat's death predictions