Lawrence Sutin

How Do We Think We Know If Animals Think?

When I posed the question in my title to my daughter Sarah, in her early twenties and independent, she replied: “I didn’t even know people thought about that. How sad that it isn’t obvious that animals think whether we think they do or not.”

Sarah’s disdain notwithstanding, and my agreement with her notwithstanding, the question has been asked for millennia. The short answer to it, I would say, is that each one of us is boxed outside the consciousness of any animal, just as we are boxed outside the consciousness of any fellow human being. So long as we separate subject and object, the separation exists. That separation may be based on necessity—how we are designed, that we have no choice but to look from without only. Or perhaps it stems from patterns of cognitive clinging—we can’t awaken to see that we are all one. Howsoever, that’s our pickle.

Or am I alone on the planet talking to myself? And is there a myself?

Unanswerable questions, although you’d think they’d have been answered by now. Which brings me back to animals, as to which, whether or not we claim to know they are real, we agree that we see them there. We ought to agree on that, as we eat them and use their hides, bones, organs and excreta for our needs; experiment on them; place them in zoos; make pets of them; and shoot them if they eat other animals we say we own.

When Sarah was nine, she placed a Post-it Note on the inside wall of our refrigerator. It read: “The only way to eat meat is to stop buying it.” This was her first manifesto, and neither my wife nor I could argue with it. It was time to become vegetarian or, in my case, pescetarian. Why do I eat fish? Because fish eat each other all the time. Because plants hate to be eaten as well. Because I crave the taste of flesh of some sort. I am part-feral.

I think that animals consciously prefer not to suffer, nor to have animals dear to them suffer. By so saying, I am already immersed in controversy. There is a distinguished tradition of philosophers who deny that animals can think, even about their own suffering. By thinking, the philosophers always seem to mean, think just as we humans do. As if there could not be as many different modes of thought—by way of smell and secretions, calls and other sound articulations, touch, taste, sight, all of which could trigger realizations as rich as those of any human language—as there are sentient species. And within each species, vastly distinctive realities could be ceaselessly created by species members unthinkingly thinking out their dreams of their own individual lives.

Philosophers find animals tasty but cannot adapt animal thinking to their own needs and so they conclude that there is no thinking going on in any event. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, argued that as animals did not possess rational souls, they could not plot moral courses for themselves, could not experience physical pain as unjust, and hence their suffering, if suffering can be truly attributed to an unknowing creature, was not worthy of our moral concern. Aquinas believed that the issue of human torture of animals mattered only because of the possible impact on those humans watching or doing the torturing who might develop an urge to try out their skills on people.

Aquinas acknowledged that we all see behavior by animals that seems intelligent. But he counseled that it was God’s gift of instinct to animals that allowed them to survive, and God’s gift of free will and—above all—rational souls to humans that made immortal salvation possible. Animals did not possess souls, rational or otherwise. When they died, they died, no hellfire, no hosannas.

It is axiomatic for Aquinas, and for most philosophers of East and West throughout history, that animals are not rational. I don’t see that we know this is so. “Rational” is an exalted name for a set of rubrics of thought that earthly primates have found useful in finding and having their way. Our so-called laws of reason are provisional descriptions. Animals can be imagined as having perfectly rational—functional—rubrics of their own that differ from human reason. When Aquinas goes on to argue that the suffering of animals is not true suffering given their lack of rational awareness of its injustice, rationality, to my ear, is kicked in the head and left for dead. That is what a species in power, careful of its comforts and disliking what it sees must be futile distress, says of a species it relishes enslaving and eating.

Four centuries later, a freethinker educated by the Jesuits named Rene Descartes agreed with Aquinas as to the irrationality of animals. Descartes was also well aware of the irrationality of humans. He spent most of his adult life in the Netherlands, where the Inquisition did not extend with so great a fervor as it did in his native France. Descartes knew of the house arrest of Galileo and the burning of Giordano Bruno, and did not wish the same fate. We do not know all that he kept to himself but we know he did so. As he wrote in a then-private journal of his published works to come: “Just as comedians are counseled not to let shame appear on their foreheads, and so put on a mask: so likewise, now that I am to mount the stage of the world, where I have so far been a spectator, I come forward in a mask.”

In the case of animals and their putative souls, the mask seems to me to have slipped just a bit in Part Five of Discourse on the Method, though the slip is on the side of the powers that be. Descartes insists that there is no reason to believe that animals are more than the sum of their material parts. Their actions are equivalent to those of a machine, to which no human attributes an immortal or even a mortal soul. Descartes anticipates the Turing Test by imagining—by way of analogy to a talking parrot—a machine that could simulate language but never the complexities of human dialogue, which would be “morally impossible.” Implicitly, Descartes sees it as a moral violation that a machine or an animal could be seen as equal to a man in rationality and hence in spiritual significance.

The consequences of such a moral violation were vast in terms of the universe Descartes believed in, which included not only reason but also the Christian God. If humans, who learned the ways of reason from philosophers, were told that animals had souls, their faith would be shattered. For “there is none more likely to turn weak characters from the strait way of virtue than the supposition that the soul of brutes must be of the same nature as ours, so that after this life we have no more to hope or fear than flies or ants. Whereas, when we realize how much they really differ from us, we understand much better the arguments proving that our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body, and thus not liable to die with it; and since we can discern no other causes that should destroy it, we are naturally led to decide that it is immortal.”

Not only, then, are animals our inferiors—they must be so if our views of our own superiority are to rest intact. What became obvious to the philosophical successors of Descartes was that, despite his assurances to the contrary, the argument against animals possessing souls could easily be applied to humans as well. The materialist Julian de La Mettrie, author of the provocatively titled Machine Man (1747—a hundred years after Descartes), dared to declare that animals resembled us more than we liked to think, and that failure to recognize that called into question the reality of what we call reason and of what we believe to be an exclusive relationship between God and human souls: “Observe the behavior of the ape, the beaver, the elephant, etc. If it is clear that they could not act in that way without intelligence, why should we refuse it to those animals? And if you agree that they have a soul, you fanatics, you are doomed; however much you protest that you have said nothing about its nature and that you deny its immortality, anyone can see that that is an arbitrary statement.”

To this day, no philosopher truly knows if humans or animals have souls and if so of what kind and how comparable. None of us knows how animals think or even how we think. The positions taken often seem to have more to do with human preferences than with reasonable views of animals and ourselves. When I start sinking into this sort of cognitive mire, I typically ask my daughter Sarah for help. She despises mire and wonders why I wander into it so often but she remains willing to throw me a rope from her stance on dry land:

“People who try to push down the idea that animals can’t think are more like the unthinking animals they describe than the human thinkers they’re sure they resemble. It’s unthinking to believe that animals have no inner life. But people want to eat meat and thinking gets in the way. I know that from the hostility I get being a vegetarian. I never push my vegetarianism on anyone else. But if people find out about it, they’re often defensive to the point of attacking me. I believe in my gut that happens because they know they’re wrong. But they don’t want to think harder. It’s the same as with most issues.

“I just like animals more than I like people. If you can’t relate to animals, feel them as a source of awareness and love, it would be impossible to understand them. You can’t think your way to it.”

As for my dog Murphy, when I asked him what he thought of the whole issue, he replied that he had just returned from a dogs-only symposium on the question “Why Are Humans So Lonely and Angry?” The conclusion was that the communication skills of so-called humankind were not as advanced as those of dogs, hence the great desire by humans to have dogs by their side as an aid and comfort. Then I fired up a frozen cheese pizza and Murphy got his share, as he knew he would.

Lawrence Sutin is the author two memoirs, two biographies, one novel, one work of history and lots of essays here and there. With his wife Mab Nulty, he has recently founded See Double Press, which is devoted to interfusions of text and image. See Double Press has published Mary Ruefle's erasure book An Incarnation of the Now, and Lawrence Sutin's The Seeming Unreality of Entomology is forthcoming this autumn. Check out SeeDouble.Press.

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