Philosophy Talks : Animal Minds

Philosophy Talk

Animal Minds

John Perry and Ken Taylor
March 11, 2007
What is it:

People have strong but divergent opinions about the nature of animals’ minds.  Do dogs make plans?  Do they remember specific events?  Do they dream?  Do cats recognize their owners as unified wholes, or just as collections of parts, some warm, some capable of providing food.  Could it be that whales, dolphins, elephants, and various kind of monkeys have mental lives that approach — or surpass — those of humans in subtlety and richness?  John and Ken explore the nature of non-human minds with guest Colin Allen from Indiana University.

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Listening Notes:

John begins by talking about his own dog and the evidence that she has a mind, while Ken wonders if there is any dog owner anywhere who seriously doesn’t think that their pet has a mind. John then wonders whether Ken really has a mind, and they talk about some reasons to believe that other humans, at least, have minds. John then discusses how often humans anthropomorphize their computers, their cars, their boats, their toasters, and how this often leads to what seems like acknowledging the minds of inanimate objects. Ken brings up Donald Davidson’s position that “Thought goes where talk goes,” and that since we talk and animals don’t we think and they don’t, but John brings up the perennial case of parrots.

In order investigate animal minds, Ken introduces Colin Allen, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of many books and interactive websites addressing philosophy, animal behavior, and logic. John asks Colin how, without the benefits of language, human beings can attempt to understand what goes on inside an animal’s mind. Colin disagrees with the phrasing of the question, since there are many other ways to communicate besides spoken language, and a lot of evidence which shows that both humans and other animals use other strategies to get their feelings across. Ken and Colin briefly discuss the problems with Descartes’ and Davidson’s theories of animal minds, which deal mostly with the necessity of concepts and language.

John thinks that if Davidson had a dog he might not have linked spoken language and minds together so absolutely, and goes on to give examples from his experience with his dog that shed some light on how an animal’s mind might be defended from its behavior. Ken asks Colin to explain how we can go about deciding whether an animal has a mind in general–what tools are used in the lab and what options are there besides anthropomorphizing our subjects? Colin responds that no broad methodologies can really be identified, and instead we must deal with the kind of details that John observed in his dog in all animals we scientifically study. Colin goes on to give concrete examples in scrub jays and other birds which illustrate their social knowledge and memory.

John, Ken, and Colin go on to discuss many other animals and the scientific evidence for their mental lives, as well as what form the content of their mental worlds takes, do they think in images? Or perhaps in some sort of unique language? Callers weigh in on their experiences with pets and wild animals that make them believe in the minds of animals. Ken and John conclude by discussing how the diverse range of animal minds can inform the way we look at different human capacities, and the moral implications of this perspective.

  • The Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:13): The Roving Philosophical Reporter interviews ALEX, or the Avian Learning Experiment, a parrot who supposedly displays many traits of natural language.
  • Conundrum on Roommate Responsibilities (Seek to 47:01): John and Ken try to help a Seattle architect deal with a cheating roommate and whether his moral obligations to his roommate’s fiancee outweigh his self-interest in sharing rent payments.

Colin Allen, Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, Indiana University Bloomington

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