UNDERSTANDING ANIMAL MINDS
D. R, Khashaba
I have been reading an intriguing article by Brandon Keim on recent and ongoing scientific research and scientific thinking on animal minds: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Animal-Minds/237915
I do not intend to comment on the article since it is mainly outside my range. I will only give a couple of marginal reflections.
At one point we are told that Georg Streidter “noted that fish have demonstrated many (…) cognitive feats. These include …. the ability to count, as described in angel fish who differentiate between schools with different numbers of individuals …”. What strikes me here is that the word ‘count’ seems to be used with peculiar nonchalance. To “differentiate between schools with different numbers of individuals” is not to count. A one-year-old child knows the difference between ‘big’ and ‘biiiig’ spoken with outstretched arms. A savage who cannot count three will know the difference between a horde of a hundred bison and one of a thousand bison. To count involves the application of the conceptual number series. Whether certain animals have something corresponding to conceptual thinking is a distinct question. What I object to here is the lose use of the term ‘count’.
It is admitted that “the nature of subjective experience is only partially accessible to objective science” (Gordon Burghardt). Nevertheless Burghardt goes on to say that “we must keep trying to understand it.” There’s the rub! I would not say that the nature of subjective experience “is only partially accessible to objective science”; it is totally inaccessible to objective science. What scientists investigate in their sophisticated experimentations and observations is not the nature of subjective experience – which can only be known in the inwardness of one’s own subjective experience – but external manifestations and indications. A person born deaf may study musical notation. May even appreciate the mathematical concordance n a musical score. But she or he can never know the experience of listening to a melody. That must be individually experienced.
Indeed I would say that the differences and controversies between scientists in interpreting the results of scientific experimentations arise because one class of scientists are actually posing and trying to answer philosophical questions about subjective experience while other scientists are content to give objective accounts of the results.
In referring to raising and trying to answer philosophical questions about subjective experience I do not mean that there are philosophical answers to these questions. A philosopher probing her or his subjective experience cannot explain the nature of the subjective but can only – equally with the poet and the artist – give symbolic intimations of their inner reality.
What best we gain from the scientists’ interest in studying our kin in the animal kingdom is a widening of our sympathies and a release from the arrogant illusion of human uniqueness and human superiority.
When we read that “insects, too, would appear to be conscious” I find in that corroboration of my conviction that living intelligence is the metaphysical ground of all Being.
D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, October 26, 2016