Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Animal Minds?

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote "The ancestor of every action is a thought." Superficially this idea seems plausible enough, but on closer examination it turns out to conceal a vicious paradox. If every purposeful action necessitated a prior thought, then every act of thinking – every thought – would itself have to be initiated by a further motivating thought. This inextinguishable spiral of antecedent thoughts is sometimes known as a “Rylean regress,” named after the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle who took the view that “intelligent practice is not a step-child of theory.”

At the core of Ryle’s philosophy was the conviction that intelligent behaviours are not the result of practical knowledge but are instead instances of practical knowledge. Confusion arises because we tend to conceive of knowledge as an independent "thing" that leads to, results in or produces actions. Ryle exposed the “category mistake” implicit in this reified conception. Knowledge for Ryle is neither an entity nor a neurological region that we can point to on a fMRI scan – it is a repertoire of aptitudes, skills and dispositions. For Ryle, skillful action is a form of thinking. And if thought and action are indivisible in this way, then there need be no prior “thought processes” driving intelligent behaviour. Actions are already integrated processes of intelligent engagement with the world.

So, do animals think before they act? A Rylean analysis would suggest not. But this is not to support the view that only language users are capable of contemplating the future or of making plans. Many plans are diagrammatic objects after all. Nonetheless what it does strongly suggest is that the skills involved in planning and other sophisticated forms of future directed activity, rely upon techniques that must be learned and practiced through trial and error. In the human case this is achieved through publicly negotiated forms of communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Without such public exchanges it is extremely doubtful that any creature could ever develop the capacity to ponder with any degree of complexity or proficiency. Skills are demonstrated and tested in the unforgiving crucible of actuality, not in the cosseted ether of thought or imagination.


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