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On Animal Cognition and "Language"

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  • On Animal Cognition and "Language"

    Hello all,

    One sometimes hears people speak of this or that new discovery regarding animal communication, including, last year, the claim that prairie dogs can use different "words" to describe different things, as noted here:

    Is there a good Classically Theistic response or thought about this? If they do indeed possess abstract reasoning, then many forms of Classical Theist (especially Thomists) would have to conclude that they are (philosophically at least) human beings, which seems...odd, to say the least. Still, as the article itself points out, there is substantial doubt about the research in question. Still, it seems worth responding to.

  • #2
    I just never saw any evidence that any of these animals could actually grasp universal, abstract concepts. Most cases seem to be the result of roting, or just sheer correlations between acts and events. These ideas would seem to better explain such cases, or at least are just as compatible. Since the correct understanding of "words", "language", "concepts" requires philosophical knowledge, most of these reports just use the terms in a colloquial sense that would be compatible with roting, correlations between particular events, and so on.

    Also one minor note, if prairie dogs were capable of reasoning then they would be rational animals, not human beings. We just say rational animals are humans because those are the only rational animals we know of. But if there were intelligent aliens for instanc, they would be another species of rational animals, not humans.


    • #3
      The objections to Slobodchikoff's work, which the author mentions in the penultimate paragraph, seem substantial to me. In particular, it is surprising that anyone has claimed to have discovered animal language without any account of its syntax, for it is out of composition that truth and falsity emerge, and which enables, e.g., inference. Of course the final paragraph of the article attempts to shame us into ignoring those limitations:
      Frequently when faced with a study of animal intelligence, people look at the research as merely “interesting”, but dismiss the evidence as “not quite good enough” to be taken seriously. This may stem from anthropocentric bias in how most people view intelligence, especially in complex communication. Cognition is recognized to occur in animals. However evidence of higher order cognition in species is seen as something that is unique only to humans. The result has been largely that when humans look at intelligence in the animal kingdom, the species that are most validated for complex cognition are those that resemble humans, (i.e chimps gorillas, and the like). Though certainly prairie dogs are not near the level of human cognition, why should the possibility that this rodent is able to communicate adaptively, consciously, and with complexity not be considered? Accepting such results requires a definite sacrifice of ego. Recognizing the chirps of the prairie dog as something more than a simple call could create a whole new view of the depth of how animals communicate and a whole means of exploring that communication.
      On the other hand, it is not controversial (and would not embarrass Aristotle or Thomas to admit) that a lot of animals are capable of forms of vocalized communication. And there is no reason to balk from calling that language, on analogy with our own. But it isn't evidence of abstract reasoning.


      • #4
        The biggest problem with research in that area is the utter confusion with terms plaguing the vast majority of researchers and pretty much every public figure presenting the progress. Problem is that this confusion is financially worthwile (citing, I believe at least, Rosalind Picard), claiming to make progress in computing consciousness secures funding, but also establishes confused concepts, like mental reductionism or even eliminativism.
        It is like the article I read some time ago in "Nature" where the scientist insists that the neural network developed has the abilitiy to "learn". Of course, as people familiar with the appropriate neuroscience know, the way that machines and humans "learn" differs greatly from one another.

        Also, supporting Greg s point, the difference is supposed to be in the recognition of universals or abstract concepts. This doesn´t mean that animals can´t have communication or language, however the latter is regularly cited by linguists to show where the main cognitive difference lies. Arguably though, this aspect may only be a difference in degree. The difference in kind is supposed to be in our rationality.


        • #5
          You should look for Marie George's episode on the Thomistic institute podcast she covers this