Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mateo's conceptual apparatus, or why a trip to the park is work

We took Mateo for a long walk among the squirrels, birds, museums, merchants, playgoers, tourists, flâneurs, and others in Balboa Park this Sunday. After an hour or so, we headed back to my truck. As we were walking, we started talking about the dog's mind and, in particular, whether he has concepts and what they might be like.

I know that there are still people around who like to say that when we think about the minds of (non-human) animals we should not think about the minds of dogs, since they are not the product purely of natural selection but also of a concerted effort at artificial selection or, at least, that dogs and humans have selected each other in various ways. And, of course, it is extremely important not to anthropomorphize. It is extremely easy to impute to our pets a mental life that they almost certainly do not have. But, they have some mental life—in Nagel's phrase, there is something it is like to be them—and they are animals, so a consideration of dogs does give us a consideration of what sort of mental life non-human animals can have.

This isn't the place and mine is not the mind to attempt an exhaustive account of canine mentality, but a few things came up in our walk. So, just a few things that seem certain:
  • Insofar as concepts are categories, dogs have concepts. They are able to recategorize objects. When we say, "bird," to Mateo, he looks for a bird and when he finds it, he points. Having spotted a cat—something we tell him to look for with "kitty"—he will continue to look if the prompt was "bird." As with these words, with many others: "ball," "chiche," "baby," "bone," etc.
  • And, these categories are general. Many different birds fall under the concept he associates with "bird."
  • They are able to associate their concepts/categories with linguistic items, with words and with other signs and gestures. Apart from words, dogs can be commanded—as the Trappists are said to have done—via hand signal. Mateo, for instance, responds to a finger snap as he does to the command "sit," at least when I snap my fingers. His other owner is incapable of that.
  • The same concept can be associated or understood from more than one linguistic expression or other sort of sign. Not only does Mateo sit at "sit," and finger-snaps, but also at "sentate." 
  • The fact that we use words to communicate with dogs does not—cannot—support any claim that their concepts are coextensive with ours. Mateo associates something with "bird," but it seems that ducks and cranes are not within the extension of whatever concept/category he is using. He has some concept and it is associated with a word, but it is not our concept.
  • They have both particular and general concepts. Apart from the sort of concept mentioned above, Mateo also understands names. Of course, he comes at the call of his own name as well as a small number of nicknames, such as "Tater" and "M," but he also knows our names, the name of my mother, and the name of my mother's dog. That is, if you ask him to look for "Tyler," he will search for me.
  • They seem to have at least a basic concept of negation. "That's not your ball," sends him to back on a search. 
Of course, whatever we say about the conceptual apparatus of dogs, we have to steer between two different dangers. We shouldn't attribute to them too complex, abstract, or recursive a system. There are surely very many thoughts that I can entertain—and that I like to act as if Mateo can—that are beyond his abilities. It may very well be that much of this complexity is tightly connected to linguistic ability.  He doesn't reflect, he doesn't think about numbers, he doesn't worry about the meaning of life, he doesn't think about whether he will be remembered—even if he makes a concerted effort to make sure he is remembered in the moment.

But, at the same time, it is a fatal objection to any account of concept possession or the mind to exclude animals. We do, as the Churchlands would have it, need to watch out for the infralinguistic catastrophe.  There is something going on in his hard head and it is of a kind, if not of the same degree, as what is going on in mine.

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