Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Animal Mind (Thinking About Thought - Part 4)

Chapter XI: On the Reason of Animals

How similar are we to the animals?  What makes us uniquely human?  Is it our ability to think and learn about the world?  As Hume has already shown, we do not understand the world through reason, we understand it through experience.  In this chapter, Hume expands his theory to include non-human animals.  In doing so, he knocks down at least part of the wall that separates us from our animal kin. 

Hume offers two observational arguments:

1. Animals clearly learn from experience, and are able to work out cause and effect relations such that they can anticipate the effect from a cause.  If this were not the case, then newly-born animals should be just as skilled as their parents.  What we find, however, is that more experienced animals display more caution during danger, more craft during the hunt, more prudence when required, than any juvenile of their kind.  A dog that gets stung on the nose will be sure to avoid bees in the future.  How is this customary conjunction any different from our own?

2. The foundation for this learning cannot be reason, since animals lack the faculty to reason.  For this second argument, Hume employs an argument from analogy.  When we see a cause and its effect, we can infer from a similar cause a similar effect, but this is based on analogy.  If the causes are identical, then the analogy is perfect.  If the causes are similar but not identical, then the analogy is less perfect and will be more-or-less useful depending on the degree of similarity.   In this case, since animals are able to learn through experience, and there are clear similarities between us and non-human animals in this regard, we can use the rules of analogy to presume that this experiential learning is similar, if not the same, to our own ability to learn through experience.  Since we do not learn through reason, how much less can the animals!  And since the animals cannot learn through reason, how much stronger is the case that neither do we.

Hume does not argue that animal knowledge is identical to our own.  He lists nine reasons why, even though experiences are shared, some humans are smarter than others, and suggests that a similar line of argument could be made for the human/animal divide:

1. Experience is based on observation; some people are better at observation than others
2. We rarely see one cause and one effect; we see a complicated mix of them.  Some minds are better able to sort these out than others.
3. Some can follow a chain of consequences further than others.
4. It is easy to confuse one idea for another, and some are more susceptible to this.
5. The conditions for an effect to happen might in turn require other conditions, and it takes great skill to sort through them.
6. General maxims are prone to error, and some are better than others at making them.
7. Making analogies is a skill that varies among minds.
8. Biases vary among minds.
9. Literacy greatly enlarges one’s experience.

All of this is no doubt true, but surely Hume cannot be arguing that all animal behaviour comes about through experiential learning?  Indeed, he is not arguing this; he recognizes another impulse which dictates animal behaviour, which he, like we today, call instinct.  It is instinct, not experience, that drives a bird to form a perfect nest, or bees to create a honeycomb.  However, argues Hume, instinct is not separate from learning from experience.  Rather, custom is just as reasonless as instinct, and is therefore a subset or type of instinct.  We are born with the instinct to form customary conjunctions and customary connections; animals are born with varying degrees of this instinct, while having shares in other instincts.  Humans rely on the instinct of custom more than most animals, but that does not make us any freer from instinct.

And so, human and animal minds share more in common than often realized.  ‘Animals, therefore, are not guided in these inferences by reasoning; neither are children; neither are the generality of mankind, in their ordinary actions and conclusions; neither are philosophers themselves…’

Concluding Thoughts
Hume believed that the power of his theory of knowledge was in its universal scope; it applied not only to humans, but to animals as well.  This does not mean that our minds are identical to animal minds; animals are incapable of literacy, of following long and complex chains of cause and effect, etc.  Hume also does not address issues of consciousness, self-recognition, morality and worship that many would argue distinguish the human mind.  However, by arguing that animal minds are similar in kind to our own, he does pave the way for later evolutionary theories of the mind which would deal with such issues.  It is also important to remember that in a previous chapter Hume argued that there were two objects that our minds contemplate: matters of fact, and relations of ideas.  Our knowledge of matters of fact come from experience, much like with animals, but our knowledge of relations of ideas (mathematics) come from reason.  I think Hume would agree that it is our amazing capacity for formulating and understanding mathematics that, to a large degree, separates our minds from our animal kin.

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