Not so Clever Hans

Jerry Fodor

  • If a Lion Could Talk: How Animals Think by Stephen Budiansky
    Weidenfeld, 219 pp, £20.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 297 81932 1

Maybe, some day, we’ll have serious and well-confirmed theories about how minds work; theories that actually explain interesting things. Historians of science will then be able to consider psychology as just another episode in the long struggle. If so, I bet they’re struck by how often in 20th-century behavioural science methodological nuttiness got in the way. Why, they’ll wonder, did psychology feel compelled to embark on its investigations by tying one hand behind its back and using the other to shoot itself in the foot? Didn’t problems about the mind seem hard enough to bear without adding a freight of procedural inhibitions?

If a Lion Could Talk invites that sort of grouchy and tendentious speculation. Stephen Budiansky wants to know whether animals think. Quite sensibly, he has gone to what science there is for what answers it affords, and the book is a report for a lay audience. Well researched and easy to read, it’s a success by the standards of this kind of enterprise. But, in Budiansky’s book as among the scientists themselves, methodological nuttiness is pervasive. I’ll come back to this presently.

Whether animals can think is a hard question, and not just because the relevant experimental data are exiguous and anecdotal observations arguably unreliable. For one thing, it’s a question that isn’t easy to keep in focus; it’s forever getting mixed up with whether animals’ thinking is ‘conscious’, or ‘self-conscious’, or whether it’s ‘symbolic’, or ‘semantic’, or whether it’s ‘like ours’. Such conflations are practically irresistible, and Budiansky commits them regularly.

Budiansky is inclined to think that being conscious has something to do with having a capacity for ‘higher order’ thoughts (thoughts about one’s thoughts); and that these, in turn, are possible only for animals that are able to talk; hence, de facto, only for us. Both theses have, to be sure, a provenance in the philosophy of mind; but neither is a foregone conclusion, and one ought to hedge a lot on claims that presuppose them. I don’t know how ‘smart’ my cat is; I’m awfully afraid not very. Certainly I doubt that he ever thinks that he’s thinking that I’ve just stepped on his tail. But I don’t doubt at all that he finds having his tail stepped on painful, so when I do, I make it a point to apologise. Since being stepped on clearly pains my cat, I suppose it follows that he’s conscious, at least from time to time. If so, then his being conscious maybe doesn’t need much higher order thinking after all. Perhaps, indeed, thought and consciousness are largely independent in both directions. It’s been the burden of quite a lot of psychology since Freud that much of our thinking goes on without our noticing. In any case, it isn’t clear how being able to talk could create thought or consciousness since, to put it mildly, it isn’t clear how a creature that can’t think and isn’t conscious could learn a language. Budiansky doesn’t tell us, and neither do the philosophers he relies on.

I remark in passing that the animal rights movement is a target of some of Budiansky’s polemics. He claims it has overstated the case for the intelligence of animals in the course of arguing their moral status. Well, perhaps it has, but I wouldn’t have thought that it needed to. Surely what matters to whether it’s all right for me to step on the cat’s tail is primarily whether it hurts him, not what he thinks about it: still less whether he thinks about what he thinks about it. Budiansky writes that ‘our ability to have thoughts about our experiences turns emotions into something far greater and sometimes far worse than mere pain.’ Well, maybe, but in my experience, mere pain is quite bad enough. I like mine with lots of anaesthesia, or not at all. So, I imagine, does the cat.

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