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Animal MindsReview - Animal Minds
Beyond Cognition to Consciousness
by Donald R. Griffin
University of Chicago Press, 2001
Review by Adriano Palma, Ph.D.
Jul 31st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 31)

Griffin's book is an interesting case of science in the making. Unless the inquiry turns up decisive reasons to drop the issue as hopeless, here one sees the beginning of data collection. His subject-matter is the existence of consciousness in animals other than humans.

I start by dividing up the turf ahead. "Thought" names commonsensically a variety of processes and activities. We, humans of the homo sapiens variety, at least within the adult populations and barring pathologies, have access to episodes and trains of conscious thought when we have access to all sorts of contents. I am now conscious of being in the process of fashioning sentences for an article. At the same time I am conscious in a somewhat fleeting way of how the texture of my shirt affects my upper body, of the feel of the keys on my fingers, of the noise made by clicks on the keyboard, of the wind coming in from the windows and so forth. There is much thought, or mental activity going on in me I am not conscious of: subtle clues constantly given by my mind/brain to my torso to keep it in the right posture, even subtler schemata of interfacing between my language faculty and the production of output, which itself is closely coordinated with sensory motor units that drive my hands. I use here a rough classification: call thought anything that has or can have a content (a "know how" or a "know that"), call sensation anything that, while accessible, need not necessarily have a content. Modern philosophy of mind and much psychology sees thought processes as computational processes of some kind: in thought the creature processes information. The correct way to characterize such processes is for the nonce subject to much controversy. Nobody doubts that there are processes of the kind. Consciousness on the other hand is, virtually for all, self-evident introspectively (for those in doubt, check any case of deliberation about what to do next in a situation requiring choices.) It is far less evident that I have a priori reasons to attribute conscious states (pleasures and pain, or deliberations, e.g.) to entities other than myself. The philosophical science fictions of the zombies-world are of this kind: a zombie world is a clone of our universe in which everything stays the same except that nobody is conscious. Many, driven by intuitions, claim that in such a world, there would be a copy of me, differing from the original myself only by not being conscious of anything. In particular for those who want to test their own intuitions in the matter, my second self has to lie consistently when asked whether he felt pain; he had all the behavioral, mental, neurological processes I had but no consciousness. Hence he could not answer truly there was for him something it felt "like" the feel of the collar of the shirt (the expression "what is it like" is borrowed from Nagel's 1974 piece, often cited -- by Griffin as well.) It ought to be immediately clear that our CAMINO real to attribute consciousness is constituted by language. For the pedantic readers, el CAMINO real is not the only road available, so don't you worry about infants (they may be conscious as well). But in the case of animals we have simply no direct access at all to their mental states, much less we can discern conscious one from non conscious. It seems to me fairly uncontroversial that many species present all the signs and give us reasons to think the process information, they think in one way or another, probably very different from ours.

Griffin proposes to push onward. There is animal cognition, as specified above non human animals process information (it is then a terminological dispute whether such processes ought to be named inferences or not.) Is there animal consciousness? The answer is: no, not that we know, within the limits imposed upon us by reality and by the tools of inquiry available. None the less, Griffin piles up an extremely impressive amount of evidence. The evidence collected comes from all sorts of observations by naturalists and (almost) controlled experiments. The difficulty of the task is enormous. To give but one example, if dolphins are "talking" to each other the very basic fact that they exchange sounds (underwater) makes it virtually impossible for us, at the present state of technology, to track one family of sounds to one particular individual (see p. 230 and ff.) Bees dance at fourteen movements per second, making somewhat hard to follow their language, even in the simplest terms of reconstructing its syntax. The triumph of the book is an exercise in overcoming the obstacles that, more often than not, philosophers declare to be a priori insuperable barriers.

I would suggest seeing the book as unifying available evidence under the rubric of behavioral and analogical. By behavioral I point to all forms of animal behavior (of which plenty examples are given) which appear to be difficult + not impossible + to interpret as purely stimuli driven. By analogical I suggest all cases in which we can underscore the force of the similarity between processes we assume to give rise to consciousness in us and processes we can discern in animals with a central nervous system. Our evidence for physiological clues to conscious thought is "geographical" (see p. 148), and at best we can point out that the (roughly) same areas are activated in animal brains. All of which depends on the empirical consideration that neurons, synapses, and glia are quite similar across quite a wide spectrum of organisms. The most fascinating, to this reader anyway, bits of behavior come from the insect world. The bees' behavior is extremely complex and they appear to be communicating in ways that cannot be reduced to "animal communication as GOP". They show a sort of symbolic behavior together with some syntactic structure in their dances. Animals morphologically closer to humans like vervet monkeys display actions that verge closer and closer to the crossing of a semantic divide. On the anedoctal side Alex the parrot may be the first empirical refutation of Descartes' view to the effect that parrots are capable only of parroting language, but display no access to its creative and free aspects (see p. 180 and ff. in which amazing Alex learns to answer questions more or less appropriately, but certainly is not just repeating or mimicking noises made by others). Numerous examples are given as well of behavior that is often taken in human young children as a symptom of the maturation of a "theory of [other] minds" module or psychological faculty. We encounter animals that behave as if they were deceiving, they were inducing in peers or enemies mental states bearing false contents, a.k.a. deception or any form of sophisticated manipulative behavior in which humans specialize.

I conclude with three general remarks.

1. The book is extremely useful for readers ready to look at available evidence on a fascinating and obscure issue. In all sorts of cases one is almost torn between the logical possibility of endorsing a behaviorist interpretation and the alternative pushed by Griffin. His alternative is always judiciously bent on showing the limits and defects of behaviorism, and basically for the same reasons behaviorism for humans is not any longer a very fashionable option in psychology.

2. The books points to a number of faults in popular accounts. Animal thought and/or consciousness, if there at all, turn out to be far more surprising than we might expect. Bees' dances that even a skeptic about animal languages like N.A. Chomsky now sees as the closest competitor to human languages, are not seen by anybody. The "linguistic gestures" of bees are perceived as patterns of vibrations. If there are mental representations in bees, they are much closer to the representations postulated by current linguistic theory. Just their interfaces are radically different from ours (no phonology at all, one would venture to guess.) Many have pointed out that invertebrates or mollusk would not recognizable as using anything like a representational system because of lack of hardware. Well, it may very well be that nature has more than one engineering solution to the problem of interfaces. At the same time it looks safe from the evidence to conjecture that in non human animals, conceptual-intentional are categorizing modules are radically impoverished with respect to us, even at the human infant level.

3. On the ethical side of the issue, Griffin sensibly points out that showing the existence of animal consciousness, of their awareness of pain and pleasure for instance, is of ethical import only against a background of mutually shared moral intuitions. The scientific side the book is an excellent field trip to see how far real studies on cognition have moved away from the mythologies of the mind as a black box.

© A. P. Palma 2001

A. P. Palma, Inst. Jean Nicod & Tsh/U.T.C.


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