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July 19th, 2001

An edited version of a letter regarding animals and reason:

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>I've been arguing with my neighbors that animals don't have the
> same capacity for rational thinking.
> When I ask if they believe if animals can comprehend the universe they
> say yes. They believe that animals understand the universe in their own
> "animal ways".

Animals can't figure out cosmogony and cosmology. Your neighbors are
basically saying any sentient being can figure out what he can
experience, to the best of its ability. The "universe" of a goat is
what it can perceive. But being able to figure out your "universe" is
not being rational if your universe is the back yard. And yes, they can
probably make the statement that relative to the goat, we only
understand our own back yard, as it were, and to some extent that's a
clever and somewhat valid argument, but not good enough.
It's true we can't see all of the universe, but we use reason to attempt
to figure out what we can't see. I don't think a goat does that.
One of the problems here is that "rational" is a very loosely defined
term, coming from "reason", which has definitons all over the map, some
of which fit a goat.

> What's your take on animals and reason?

Let me tell you about an experiment I saw once. Someone had constructed
a model of a room. They would show a chimp (or some such higher
primate) a model of a piece of food, or a prize, or whatnot. They would
show the chimp that they were putting the food model in a certain place
in the model, like in a cabinet or under a sofa cushion or behind a
shelf or whatever. Then they would take the chimp into the real room.
The chimp went straight to where the food was hidden. This is 100%
representationalizm. It requires reasoning. It requires the ability to
understand abstract ideas and forms.

One more thing-- you know how in baseball, the coach or third-base
coach, when giving a signal to the batter, there is a sequence or sign
that means "ignore this sign, the next one is the one I want you to
do"-- well, dolphins can grasp that concept.

I think, bottom line, the definition of reason is so slippery that
someone who wants to think their parrot can reason can make that
argument if that's what they feel like doing. I just wouldn't argue
with them anymore.

 

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