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Our knowledge of mental phenomena


The aim of this essay is threefold. Firstly, i hope it may contribute to a better understanding of other animals,1.1 something that may also provide grounds for a better treatment of them: instead of basing our treatment of them on myths or philosophical dogma regarding their lack of abilities and purely instrumental value, we can treat them with appropriate respect based on their actual abilities and how they actually experience the world.

Secondly, i wish to contribute to a better self-understanding on the part of humans. What is the case for all or most animals, vertebrates or mammals, is automatically the case for humans -- so by studying other animals we can learn more about ourselves. Hopefully this will lead to a more realistic anthropology as we find out that we are not as exceptional as we like to believe. Many of the faculties we value highly and which have often been considered uniquely human -- especially those related to knowledge and ethics -- turn out to rely largely on biological foundations which we have in common with other animals. It is these biological foundations which will be my main focus in this essay. Thereby i will to a large extent ignore those faculties that are uniquely human, in particular linguistic skills. This is not to deny that those faculties exist and are important, but they are considerably less important than has been generally assumed.

The main emphasis is in other words on the continuity between man and the rest of the animal kingdom. It would be absurd to deny that there is such a continuity, more than 100 years after Darwins Origin of the Species and Descent of Man, but up to now we have been too unwilling to face the full consequences of this.

This essay can also be seen as part of a larger project to rectify a completely erroneous idea of nature which has infested the western world at least since the 17th century. I am here thinking of the idea of nature as partes extra partes, something purely external, passive, without any essence or inherent value. Both by showing that those of our faculties that we value highly, are largely natural in origin, and by showing that (other) animals are not the thoughtless, instinct-driven machines that followers of Descartes and Kant would have us believe they are, i hope to have contributed to a more viable view of nature.

Issues in philosophy of science will be discussed further in section 1.3, but i will mention one issue already here. The cartesian and related views of nature are usually presented as ``scientific'', and this has been coupled to a strong emphasis on measurement, or precise description and control. In the study of animal behaviour this has led to the view that the best and most reliable knowledge is obtained by removing the animals completely from their natural conditions and confining them to laboriatories where they are presented with artificial situations. Among the most orthodox, observations of animals in nature have been dismissed as ``anecdotal evidence''. It should be obvious that in this way, little or nothing will be learnt about what nature really is like. It is akin to the man who searched for his keys under a street light, and when asked if he thought that was where he had lost them, answered `No, but the light is much better here.' If one wants to learn about nature and animals, this is best achieved by studying them in their natural surroundings -- field studies, not laboratory experiments, must be the primary source of knowledge. One must also realise that singular events are just as real as recurrent phenomena,1.2 and the most valuable laboratory experiments are those which distort the animals natural environment the least.

When, as part of a more adequate view of nature, i wish to restore the idea of a cosmos or a natural order (cf. section 3.1), this may be seen as `panglossian'1.3 or romantic. However, i do not claim that everything in nature in nature or all traits of individual animal species are adaptive -- on the contrary, disharmonies are very important, and i will criticise an adaptationist explanation of general altruism -- but by and large, animals are adapted to their environment (and vice-versa). In other words, essential features of animal behaviour may be understood this way.

I must warn that i am not strictly scientific everywhere, and some sections may be quite speculative. However, i believe this may be fruitful, as long as this is not seen as purporting to present any final answers, but rather inviting a (possible) discussion.

It could perhaps be expected that i started with a discussion of whether other animals have a mind (thoughts, experiences, hopes, beliefs, etc.) at all. In response to this, i would quote Hume [20, p.176],

`Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant.'

More recently, this problem has been discussed so thoroughly elsewhere that i find it even less necessary to repeat the arguments. Some references to representative arguments can be found in the bibliography [8,11,40,41,43,45].

What can be known about the minds of animals?

Even if we accept that other animals have minds (and that we can talk meaningfully about them), the question still remains: what can we know about them? Can we ever know `what it is like to be a bat'?

I believe that we are able to acquire a sizeable amount of knowledge about the minds of other animals, and that common, na´ve beliefs about this are largely correct. This does not mean that these beliefs do not also contain considerable errors and anthropomorphisms, but those are more on the level of details, not fundamental weaknesses.

A common argument against the possibility of knowing anything about the minds of other animals is that we cannot ask them about it. This argument relies on a picture of the mind as a `hidden' world which can only be accessed through language. However, this picture also poses severe problems for our ability to know anything about the minds of other people.

In The Concept of Mind [44], Gilbert Ryle argues that our knowledge of the minds of other people is largely obtained through direct observation of their behaviour, without any need for inquisitorial questions or inferences to hidden causes. Even in those cases where we are able to ask, this may not give us any more reliable information. If someone is angry, this can be seen from his facial expression, how he moves, the tone of his voice, his reactions to other people. But it may well be that he does not know this himself, and he will (angrily) deny that he is angry. Furthermore, our ability to obtain information by asking questions depends on our having learnt the meaning of words by associating them with external behaviour or other criteria.

But if we can learn to know our fellow humans by studying and interpreting their behaviour, why should this be impossible when we are faced with other animals? We can obviously not automatically assimilate the behaviour of other animals to our own, but there are no grounds for claiming that the same (observed) behaviour should be an expression of radically different processes in eg. a human and a chimpanzee. (And many people would not have great difficulty in accepting that we are seeing the same process at work in the lion and the chimpanzee.)

More specifically, we can say that when a behavioural trait of a reaction in an animal has more or less the same (primary) function in the life of the animal as the same trait has in humans, and they also rest on the same anatomical and physiological basis (and share a common phylogenetic history), the two traits express the same mental process: there is no reason to claim anything else. There are many such mental processes which are found all over the animal or mammal world, such as perception, fear, hunger, thirst and various satisfactions. Or to use an example from Wittgenstein [51, 647],

`What is the natural expression of an intention? --Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape.'
Yet another example, of great importance for altruism (see section 3.4), is caring for offspring.

Take an example which should be fairly uncontroversial. For an animal with (more or less) the same colour vision as humans, the colours will be the same as they are for us. To claim that the colours can look different, that they are perceived as something different from what we understand as colours, or that perception of colour can be a purely physiological process without any subjective, experiental component, leads immediately to the same questions being raised regarding our understanding of other humans. But the question whether `what is red for me can be blue for you' is fallacious: it is the same things we see as red or blue, and we confirm this every day in our normal communication. Nor could you claim that language is what makes us able to see things as red or blue (although it does have a certain function when it comes to defining borders between neighbouring colours) -- the main point is that we have colour vision and that red and blue are properties of the things. This holds true for any animal that can differentiate between red and blue.

A more controversial example comes from Jane Goodall [15]:

`I can imagine, to some extent, the pleasure of a female chimpanzee during the act of procreation. The feelings of her male partner are beyond my knowledge -- as are those of the human male in the same context.'

In his review [52], Lord Zuckerman calls this `overhwelmingly anthropomorphic', without any further justification. What makes this case problematic is that human sexuality is so tied up in social and cultural conventions and institutions that sexual pleasure can probably not be identified as directly with `raw animal lust' as Goodall appears to do. This may also make some degree of understanding across the gender divide possible.

As we can see here, there are cases where it is difficult to decide whether the circumstances are sufficiently similar to call it the same mental state or process -- or to decide what this would mean. This is well-known from relations between humans: when can honestly i say `I understand you', and when is this just words? But here, as elsewhere, it does not follow from the existence of borderline cases or ill-defined borders that there are no clear-cut cases on both sides of the border.

There are problems connected with functional convergence -- where two species or evolutionary strands which are originally far apart, develop similar organs or patterns of behaviour because they live under similar conditions. What should receive the greater emphasis -- the similar function or the different evolutionary history?1.4 I shall not go further into these complex problems at this point.

It is no coincidence that Thomas Nagel [32] chooses the bat as an example of an animal we cannot hope to understand. Here, the criteria i outlined above are not satisfied. The bat perceives the world primarily by echolocation (ultrasound), a sensory apparatus which we do not have. So we cannot identify its sensory world with ours, nor construct it by just subtracting something from our world -- the bats world is completely alien to us, Nagel argues. But not all animal worlds will be as alien -- in some cases we can `subtract', modify or imagine `adding' something to our own world.1.5

Kathleen Akins [1] believes that a future neuroscience may answer Nagels question. She justifies this by referring to how science can teach us things about our own view of the world of which we were not previously aware, and correct erroneous beliefs about ourselves. One such example is that the dominant position vision has in our sensory apparatus has made us apply one feature of our vision -- the focus on one thing at a time -- to all of our mental life, so that we believe we can only have one thought at a time. But this is based on contingent features of the anatomy of the eye. Some birds of prey have eyes constructed in such a way that they can keep an eye on two or more areas at the same time (their retina has two regions with a high density of receptors, while we only have one). When we know this, we can more easily see that we can ourselves pay attention to several things at the same time. It may also enable us to understand better how the birds of prey experience the world (since we have got rid of at least one prejudice).

The problem is: we can find (and partly correct for) contingent features of our own experience, and find out much about how other animals organise their experience -- but how far does this help us see how the world appears to the bird of prey and the bat?

Subjective and objective

This question leads me to consider a more fundamental divide regarding mental phenomena, which i have so far avoided. If, with Nagel, we insist on asking what the world is like for the bat (how the bat experiences the world), is this not a product of `a picture of mental phenomena as events in another, hidden world'? Or, conversely, if we accept that we can learn about the mind by studying external behaviour, can we then meaningfully ask about anything subjectively mental on top of this? When we have charted the external behaviour and physiological processes, do we not know all there is to know? Is not asking for something on top of this unnecessary obscurantism, or even a category mistake -- which should be eliminated by Ockhams razor?

This way of asking questions misrepresents the positions on both sides. It is a form of misrepresentation which is quite common in debates, and can lead to unnecessary polarisation. Here i will use it to introduce a couple of the more extreme positions, as well as a key to a possible solution of the problem above. Then i will return to the real positions of Nagel and Akins.

Up to now, i have assumed the validity of folk psychology -- that we have mental states that are in a certain sense subjective; states that i know from myself. At the same time i have rejected the `cartesian myth', as Ryle calls it, that they are completely private, ie hidden from everyone but myself. This appears problematic. Should i take the consequence of the questions above and deny that the mind is anything apart from what is publicly available and observable? If this position is to be fully consistent, it must also apply to human beings -- it is no use to say that humans have subjective mental states, while the minds of other animals consist only of what is external and objective. Thus we end up with pure behaviourism or eliminative materialism as advocated by Skinner and Churchland respectively.1.6 Ryle may be interpreted in several ways: We may interpret him as claiming that all talk of subjective experiences is meaningless, and that such experiences are therefore monstrous illusions -- ie., a logical or philosophical behaviourism. He may also be understood as a methodological behaviourist -- ie., he does not deny the subjective experiences; he only avoids talking about them, and tries (as far as possible) to construct the mind solely from observable behaviour.

What makes these positions so attractive is that they claim to represent a completely scientific view of the mind. They are not based on anything but what we can know or control, and avoid airy metaphysical speculation. The purported observations which formed the `empirical' basis of introspective psychology turned out to be unreliable and uncontrollable -- partly due to our great capacity for self-deception. In order to achieve a reliable, objective psychology, it would be better to get rid of these cartesian remnants, and base oneself instead on physical, objective data gathered under controlled experimental conditions. So, according to behaviourism, a mental state is only a set of behavioural patterns and dispositions, not a subjective experience. The physicalist will claim that it is nothing but a neurophysiological state.

The problem with this is that it flies in the face of our self-understanding: i cannot understand my pain or my being in love only as a disposition to behave in certain ways or as a neurophysiological state -- this can in no way explain the phenomenon of pain or being in love. I may be mistaken about myself, and believe that this is more than it really is -- but how then to explain my own belief? Ryle claims that his position agrees with common sense -- and to the extent that he appears as a methodological behaviourist this is true: his account appears far more convincing than anything in the cartesian tradition. Nor does he wish to deny well-known facts about our mental lives, and he clearly distances himself from mechanical materialism. But to the extent he carries through his elimination of `the ghost in the machine', he ends up in a mixture of linguistic evasion (describing the usage of words rather than the content of concepts) and avoiding mention of, or downright denial of well-known phenomena. This becomes particularly clear in his treatment of moods, which are explained as terms in hypothetical, law-like propositions; and imagination, which he very unconvincingly attempts to explain away.

The reason these positions can never account for our understanding of ourselves and our understanding of the world, is that they from the outset deny that the subjective has any kind of reality -- only what is objective and `scientifically' controllable is real. In section 2.1 i will explain why this is an impossible starting point. By denying the (subjective) perspective from where we experience the world, and claiming that the world is `really' what it would look like from no perspective at all [33, chap. 14], you make all our experience, and thereby all our knowledge of the world, a complete mystery -- there is no attempt to understand it.

The cartesian solution -- construing the subjective as some sort of quasi-objective entities in an internal world, available only to one person -- only serves to multiply the universe, and does nothing to explain the phenomena. A collection of impressions which i observe on an inner screen will have as little significance to me as the shadowy objects in the presumedly objective outer world.

The way out of the morass, in my opinion (following Merleau-Ponty and Nagel) must be to ascribe also to the subjective a status as properties of the things: this is how they look from our perspective. In this way we do not need to multiply the world to understand that a mental state can be both a subjective experience (with a certain significance) and a set of behavioural dispositions and a neurophysiological state or event. This is `only' a case of a change in perspective, which does not necessarily imply any change in degree of reality.

If we now return to the disagreement between Nagel and Akins, we will be better placed to see the nub of the problem. Akins construes Nagels position to be that what is needed, and what is impossible to obtain, is an insight into the subjective sensory qualia of the bat. She objects (quite correctly) that even if we succeeded in obtaining a film of the phenomenology of the bat, with all the sensory qualia credibly depicted, this would be of little help in understanding what it is like to be a bat. We would still not know, understand or feel what all this impressions mean to the animal; their intentional and representational aspects will be lost (such as the wish to catch the moth when i `see' it, the feeling of throwing myself around, etc.). Hereby she claims to demonstrate that Nagels basic intuition is untenable: the `raw' quality of the sensory impressions is not what stands in the way -- there are no such `raw' impressions. What matters more is how the animal orients itself in relation to the phenomena. And we cannot rule out that we could learn much about this from science.

It is clear from this that Akins does not subscribe to a wholly objectivist view of mind like those of Skinner and Churchland, as i previously insinuated. Nor does Nagel represent a dualist, almost cartesian view. It appears, however, that Akins attempts to construe him into this tradition (perhaps closer to Hume than to Descartes). When she uses the word `phenomenology' to imply sense data, and then points out that we must also -- or primarily -- consider intentionality, she ignores the fact that one of the core concepts in phenomenology (the philosophical school) is indeed intentionality.1.7

At the end of the day i believe the disagreement is primarily over whether or not the subjective is real. While Nagel believes the objective view from nowhere will always miss part of what is involved in seeing the world from one specific place and perspective, Akins appears to think that the subjective can be fully conceived and explained in terms of a more or less scientific, objective description.

But is it science?

But whatever our view on this, should not science as often as possible aspire to a completely objective, behaviourist and/or physicalist description of the phenomena? Is not subjectivity strictly speaking irrelevant to science, at least in the sense that once we have achieved a complete, objective description, there is nothing more for science to find out?

I should make it clear that i have nothing against behaviourism as a scientific method, as opposed to a philosophical position. Behaviourist psychology is an entirely legitimate branch of psychology, and it is true that in those cases where we can hold no hope of understanding the (subjective) perspective of the animal, it provides us with all that we can know. I also accept that behaviourism gives far more reliable results than classical introspective psychology (even more so since the latter is based on untenable metaphysical premises). But behaviourism has no monopoly on the label `scientific'1.8within psychology -- and physicalism far less so.

Even if we accept that all science must consist only of objective descriptions, using empathy to try to understand the world experienced by animal is not without heuristic value. It can be an important aid to finding out which acts and expressions should be viewed together. Given the serious, fundamental problems with categorising behaviour, and with the concept of action in general, such an aid can be invaluable. Konrad Lorenz says, `Before you can study an animal, you must first love it' (quoted in [12, p.426]). Of course there is a danger that we may make connections where none exist, based on erroneous empathy. I will say more about such traps in chapter 3.3. But such dangers are hard to avoid whatever we do -- we have a choice between more or less fallible criteria for making such connections, or no criteria at all.

Another point is that even though knowledge (empathetic understanding) of the subjective might be irrelevant to science, it is not irrelevant to us as human beings. In fact, it is highly relevant to our treatment of animals, and of fellow humans. Few would deny that it matters whether an animal feels pain -- Bentham even claimed that this is the only thing that matters in any moral judgement. Thus, we may end up in a situation where we need criteria to determine what an animal feels and experiences -- criteria which science cannot provide us with. So much the worse for science!

As i already indicated, behaviourism cannot claim to be the only scientific approach to animal behaviour. It is rather a case of one specific attitude or interest [9,50] among several -- finding out how things happen (on different levels). Another attitude, generally accepted as equally scientific, is the evolutionary, concentrating on why an animal has such and such traits, and what is the function of these traits. The study of intentionality involves a third attitude: the interest in finding out in what a certain action consists, or what meaning it has. Cognitive ethology is thus a hermeneutic discipline, aimed at understanding. These three (or more) projects are obviously not independent.

As in other hermeneutic disciplines, it is not possible in cognitive ethology to make any rigid divide between observation, interpretation and theory formation.1.9 Our observations and interpretations depend on certain `prejudices' regarding the kind of intentions, beliefs and mental capacities in general the animal in question possesses. To form a correct understanding, both criticism of old understandings, and more independent criteria for interpretation -- for instance, relating to physiology or phylogenesis -- are needed.

Clever Hans

The most famous example of complete misinterpretation of an animals behaviour is Clever Hans, the horse of von Osten [35]. This horse, it was claimed, could perform a great number of tasks requiring a high degree of intelligence, such as arithmetic with fractions and decimal numbers, changing (german) money, recognising notes and intervals, and spelling german words, in additon to understanding all the questions put to him in german. Von Osten himself was convinced of the abilities of his horse, he toured with him, and Hans answered questions from the audience correctly even when the owner was absent. But it turned out that Hans was in fact doing something quite different: He tapped his hoof in response to unconscious, almost imperceptible cues (facial expressions) from the audience -- cues that the spectator expected Hans to continue or stop tapping his hoof. When the audience did not know the answer, Hans would not answer.

This story has given name to a collection of phenomena -- commonly denominated as the Clever Hans effect -- which have the thing in common that the animal really does something quite different from what an anthropomorphic understanding leads us to believe. The term is often limited to cover only those cases where the animal receives unconscious or subconscious cues `showing' it what to do.1.10 It can still take many different forms, and this makes it possible to see the Clever Hans effect almost everywhere.

I will not describe all the attempts that have been made, especially in ape language studies, to construct experiments where the possibility of Clever Hans effects are completely eliminated. I believe that in many cases this approach is misconceived. The issue is not, as i understand it, whether the effect theoretically may occur, but whether it actually occurs -- or rather, what actually happens. The action can still involve more or less complex cognitive processes. Clever Hans could not do arithmetic; he reacted to signals from the audience. But why did he do this; what was he doing in his own mind? He was probably tapping his hoof on cue in order to get some reward. It appears unreasonable to me that it should be just a reflex. To take a different example: if the chimpanzees in the language experiments are not communicating with each other and/or us, what are they then doing? Perhaps they are playing? And in some way they still have to keep track of the signs or symbols. Saying only that they may have received unconscious cues is mere obscurantism. Only when we have a sketch of an alternative understanding is it possible to decide what is more likely. Quite often, a simple intentional understanding will turn out to be far more adequate than a long or complex chain of reflexes.

Insisting on rigidly structured experiments in order to remove any scope for Clever Hans effects would -- even if it were possible -- prevent any investigation of certain kinds of mental activities from the outset. An informal setting is required for certain activities, such as play and communication. Even human children learn language by imitating their parents and other people, and when a child speaks his first word (amid cries of joy from the proud parents), it is more play than language. And play, imitation and social intercourse remain central to the development of our mental capacities. Should we then eliminate all this in our investigation of the possible linguistic capacities of the chimpanzee?

Morgans Canon and other criteria

In many cases we have good reason to be sceptical towards stories about animal intelligence, and we should be actively seeking alternative explanations. In some cases, almost any alternative explanation, no matter how complicated, is preferable. We need criteria, beyond the observation itself, to decide what kind of explanation to accept.

The traditional instrument is Morgans Canon, which in its original formulation [31] reads

In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower on the psychological scale.

This has often been considered a special case of Ockhams Razor, well suited to cutting away all mentalist concepts from animal research. Apart from its interpretation being unclear [50], and the later behaviourist interpretations probably not agreeing with Morgans original intentions [41], the validity of this canon as a general rule is quite dubious. We are faced with two conflicting interests. One is the traditional scientific virtues, like simplicity, avoiding unnecessary assumptions, etc., expressed by Morgans Canon. The other is explaining the continuity between humans and other animals. This encourages `inflatory' descriptions: if there are no good reasons to the contrary, we should assume that other animals have the same capacities as we do.

To achieve a reasonable balance between these two interests, we must consider mental attributes in an evolutionary perspective. The crucial issue will be at what point in evolution the various mental capacities arise. It is unreasonable to assume that they all arise magically in the transition from hominid to human, or that they are fully present in all living things or even in all matter (panpsychism). To aid us in this inquiry, we should consider the function of mental processes.

The biological function of perception, hunger and sex drive is obvious. However, this may serve to cloud the issues rather than enlighten -- the function is just as obvious for the amoeba (sex excepted) as for the lion. Still, most of as will be reluctant to ascribe perceptual awareness to the amoeba. What is lacking? A tentative answer is that the evolution of awareness is an evolution of freedom, meaning the possibility of reacting adequately and in a differentiated way also to unusual or unforeseen situations. The `problem' for the amoeba is not that it is poorly adapted to its environment, but that it is too well adapted. The patterns of reaction become rigid1.11 -- but as long as the animal does not leave its natural environment this does not matter. With this approach we can say that freedom unfolds in the animal world when we move from reacting `automatically' to internal or external states, to `choosing' between different patterns of reaction.

Hunger, for instance, has no function for a life form which is always looking for food, or never needs to search intensively so that it must change its pattern of activity when there is a risk of shortage. This does not imply that eg. herbivorous mammals living in plenty lack the capacity for hunger, since firstly they are descended from animals who may have starved, and secondly they are mostly aware of what they are doing. To an animal with flexible patterns of behaviour, hunger is a signal that it should start looking for food, unless it has something else very important to do. Similar reasonings can be made for perception, fear, care etc. I will take a closer look at intentions in chapter 3.2. In all these cases, what allows us (to some extent) to know the mental states, is an interplay of behavioural criteria, knowledge of the rest of the animals mind, and functional and phylogenetic criteria.

It can also be argued that a certain complexity of the nervous system is a necessary condition for consciousness. This follows especially from a connectionist view of the physical basis of mental states. We can also assume that the more information an animal possesses, processes and utilises about itself and its environment, the more reasonable it is to assume that some of this is potentially conscious, and that the animal acts consciously. The amoeba, a unicellular animal, and insects, who are essentially `ganglia on legs', are thereby ruled out from being conscious or aware. We could also investigate further what is required for having concepts, categories, emotions etc. of various kinds.

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