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There is a long tradition of looking to self-consciousness as the basis for our conceptual faculties. Kant in the transcendental deduction of his "Critique of Pure Reason" says "It must be possible for the 'I think' to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all" (CPR, 152). This is admittedly an opaque passage. John McDowell in "Mind and World" interprets this claim to mean that "It is only in the context of a subject's ability to ascribe experiences to herself that experiences can constitute awareness of the world". (4). Awareness here is not to be understood as a mere receptivity, i.e. light or sound waves hitting the eye or ear. As Kant, Sellars and McDowell all agree, something to which we were merely receptive, but not aware (i.e. conscious) could only have a causal not a rational effect on us. In order to qualify as "awareness of the world" in McDowell's sense, that of which we are aware must be something which is conceptually articulated. After all, "intuitions without concepts are blind" (CPR, 93). We can now see how it is that the philosophical tradition might be led to believe that animals are mere automata. After all, it certainly does not seem that they have language which as I said before is viewed (at least in the contemporary philosophical tradition) as the means by which we have concepts. Even more, according to Sellars and perhaps Wittgenstein, we need to be a part of an entire linguistic community in order for our conceptual capacities to be actualized. It does not seem that even in higher apes that such highly evolved linguistic communities exist.
If we are to believe Kant and McDowell then it seems that we cannot have conceptual awareness (as opposed to merely causal receptivity) without first having self consciousness. However, could we have self-consciousness without having concepts (or language)? According to McDowell the answer is no, as "Creatures without conceptual capacities lack self-consciousness" (MW, 114). His reasoning for this is that to ascribe a non-conceptual self-consciousness is to fall into what Wilfrid Sellars calls the Myth of the Given, i.e. the notion that knowledge of or awareness of the world has a foundation which is given to us in something that is pre- or non- conceptual. If McDowell is right, then we are in a bit of a bind if we wanted to claim that animals are not mere automata i.e. that a parrot or a chimp is somehow different from a thermometer. After all, all three would be responding in a merely causal manner to inputs from the environment. As we shall see later, McDowell himself has a way out of this "mere automata" bind, but first we should turn our attention to some other work, which using empirical studies has attempted to ask the question of whether some animals (specifically chimpanzees and orangutans) are in fact self- conscious.
Gordon Gallup Jr. in his article "Can Animals Empathize" (5) cites several of his studies in which Chimpanzees and Orangutans can pass a so-called "mirror test". In the mirror test, Gallup anaesthetized and put red dye on the brow ridge of the apes in order to determine whether they would recognize the change in their reflection in a mirror. His finding were that in many instances, he apes would reach up and touch the spot on their heads after noting it in the mirror. Gallup's conclusion from this was that the apes recognized the reflection as being their own, and that therefore the apes were self-conscious or at the very least had a concept of self. It is Gallup's contention that the concept of self in presupposed also in examples of empathetic behavior. I.e. that it is only through self- consciousness that we become aware of mental states in others, such that if I see certain pain behaviors, for instance, in others that I can conclude that the other is in pain based upon my concept of my own pain behaviors. This seems a reasonable enough conclusion. In another experiment, Gallup attempted to test whether or not apes were aware of the sightedness of human experimenters. Two human experimenters ere placed in a room in front of the chimp, one blindfolded, the other not. Each experimenter would then point to one of a few cups on a table of which one had been bated with food. Usually, the chimp would follow the advice of the sighted experimenter. Gallup interprets this as an indication of the chimps awareness of the blindness of one experimenter, and the fact that blind individuals are not good at disclosing which cup contained food and which did not. In other words, the Chimp was aware of the fact that one experimenter, and not another had access to the subjective phenomenon of sightedness. According to Gallup this ability to empathize is further indication that certain apes have self-consciousness.
If these findings are valid, then either 1) McDowell and Sellars (and perhaps Kant) are wrong, and the Myth of the Given is not in fact a myth at least with regard to self-consciousness, 2) much of the recent philosophical tradition is wrong, and concepts are not rooted in linguistic acquisition, or 3) chimps and perhaps other apes have some language or linguistic ability that is unknown to us. Being a student of Philosophy, and a fan of both Sellars and McDowell, the first two options I find a bit off-putting to say the least. The third is an issue for further empirical investigation. Though, even Gallup the supporter of ape self-consciousness says that chimps do not have language. Of course Gallup's conclusions could also be suspect.
Daniel J. Povinelli in a response to Gallup attempts to dispute the findings of Gallup's study(6). His makes a two part claim. First, in other similar experiments, Gallup's conclusion that apes were able to recognize subjective states in others (i.e. were able to empathize) were not held up. His version of the experiment was to place two experimenters in a room with a chimp, both holding food, one blindfolded and the other not, and to observe the begging behavior of the chimps. His findings were that the chimps begged at random from the experimenters, and only after a period of time did they begin to gesture to the experimenter who could see them. In another experiment, Povinelli placed a blindfold over one experimenters eyes, and another over the other experimenters mouth, in this case, they chimps begging behavior remained entirely random. The conclusion that Povinelli drew from this was that the behavior of the chimps were merely caused responses, not instances of understanding that a particular experimenter could see. Of course responses can be acquired/learned in the presence of various phenomenon, as after all classical conditioning does work, so we need not conclude that any conceptual understanding of blindfolds, for instance, was in play here on the part of the chimps. Despite Povinelli's findings, the issue of ape self-consciousness is still an open one. For instance, Gallup has raised several concerns the age of the chimps in Povinelli's studies.
The issue of whether certain apes are self aware, or whether they use some less advanced form of language is still something that is open to empirical study. Supposing that we were to find that animals posses neither self-consciousness or language, would we then be forced to conceive of them as mere automata? As I said before, John McDowell despite his other claims opposes the view that animals are mere automata, and it is with this that I will conclude. As I said before, on McDowell's view animals lack language, concepts and self-consciousness or any other kind of consciousness for that matter. There is therefore (despite Thomas Nagel's insistence to the contrary), nothing that it is like to be a bat, for instance. To ask what it is like to be a bat is simply to ask what it would be like for us to have echo-location, as there is no self-awareness and thereby, no consciousness in bats. McDowell makes the distinction between living in a world, as humans do (i.e. something characterized by a world view which is open to re-interpretation and manipulation), and living in an environment as animals do. To live in an environment is simply to be confronted with problems and opportunities. Animals of course lack the ability to weigh their decisions, and therefore these problems and opportunities have a strictly causal effect. The world in which animals live would be something like the world in which we live when we are absent-mindedly driving. We are obviously responding to stimuli, however, we are not fully conscious of what is happening. Our responses are in a sense caused by entities in our environment. Likewise, when we are in excruciating pain, or when we are as some might say "scared to death" our conceptual contact with the world in some sense shuts off. Our behaviors are to a large extent simply caused by the pain or the fear, and we are perhaps not aware of having been in pain, or having been scared until an act of reflection takes place after the fact. If that is true, then the animal rights activists among us need not worry about pain in animals. Animals feel pain despite the fact that they are never aware (in the "human" sense of awareness) of their sensation of pain. A mere automata does not even live in an environment, and does not have sensation. An animal responds to stimuli both from the perspective of the outside observer, and from the "perspective" of the animal itself. A thermometer is only responding to stimuli from the perspective of the outside observer who attributes meaning to certain fluctuations of liquid in a tube. It is the fact that animals are receptive that makes them not mere automata, and as such, able to sense pain without 'pain'.
2) Kant, Immanuel "Critique of Pure Reason". (St. Martin's Press, NY) 1965
3)Sellars, Wilfrid "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1997 (originally published 1956))
4) McDowell, John "Mind and World" (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1996) Pg. 114
5)Animal Self-Awareness: A Debate - Can Animals Empathize? - Yes, by Gordon Gallup, Jr. in Scientific American, 1998
6) Animal Self-Awareness: A Debate - Can Animals Empathize? - Maybe Not, by Daniel J. Povinelli, in Scientific American, 1998
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