Animals Learning

An interesting little report in The Register this morning.

Old notions die hard, right?

For example, Rene Descartes and his argument that animals are automatons.  Only humans think, because only humans have souls.  Animals don’t have souls, therefore they don’t think; the only existence available to them is as unconscious biological mechanisms.

I despise this notion, and Descartes for promulgating it.  I know from the histories of philosophy that he wasn’t the only one to believe that — it was popular among a certain class of 17th-century intellectuals — but it’s his name that is stereotypically associated with the idea, right down to the present time.

It’s wrong.  It’s false.  It’s provably, observably, factually false.  This is not a vaguely philosophical “Matter of Opinion” issue, like that goofy notion of his regarding Minds and Bodies and the pineal gland.

Well, Descartes was not an empirical researcher.  He was a mathematician.  He was a brilliant mathematician — and a pathetically inept philosopher.  (It’s extremely instructive to compare his methods with those of somebody who really was a researcher — his older contemporary Galileo.)

Animal intelligence is, in fact, a proper matter for straightforward scientific investigation.

For the past five or six decades, people have been conducting just such studies.  Their results have given us increasing confidence that animals really possess — in misty, simpler, sometimes rudimentary form — most of the same kinds of sentience that we humans do.

These results, inconspicuous as they are, have consequences for much bigger questions, concerning . . .

  •  human language and its origins
  •  the origin and persistence of human religions
  •  the nature of animal, human, and artificial intelligence.

I’ll get to those in time.