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Minds and mental phenomena: an introduction
Minds and mental phenomena: an introduction

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1 The quick and the dead – the minded and the non-minded

Two of the most fundamental contrasts we draw are between living and non-living things – the animate and inanimate – and between things with minds or mentality and those without. Rocks and chairs are pieces of inanimate matter; they are not just dead, they are the kinds of things that can never have been alive, at least not in their present form. Plants, however, are living organisms, as are animals. But while plants are alive they do not have any kind of mental life. Their activities include nutrition, growth and reproduction, but they are not sentient; they have no sensations or sensory awareness or consciousness of the world around them. Plants do not undergo any experiences; they are not ‘awake’. While they certainly exhibit responses to various sorts of stimuli, it would be stretching it to say they perceive things in their environment or that they have inner experiences or sensations, that they can, for example, feel pain. Animals, of course, are sentient beings, or at least many animals are, for they are aware of their environment, in the sense that they can perceive, to varying degrees, what goes in it. Moreover, many animals, though perhaps not all, have inner experiences and sensations; they can feel pain, for example, and experience fear and pleasure – at least it certainly seems that way.

Among the animals, there are those that are not only sentient but also sapient: they have some kind of intellectual capacity for understanding, thinking, reasoning and knowing – in short, they have the capacity for rational thought and action. But just which animals fall into the category of sapience is a vexing question. Certainly human animals are sapient – we dignify our species with the name Homo sapiens, after all. But is anything else sapient? What about birds, dogs, apes and dolphins? There seems little doubt that they perceive and feel. But do they have thoughts? Do they really understand, know and reason about things? Philosophers are notoriously divided on the question. Ancient and medieval philosophers, such as Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), were of the firm opinion that animals lacked the capacity for thought and reason, though they believed that animals certainly had feelings and sensations. The famous French philosopher-scientist René Descartes (1596–1650) concurred that animals are indeed ‘thoughtless brutes’, entirely without reason – but he went even further, suggesting by implication that they lacked feelings and sensations and indeed consciousness altogether. Animals, on this view, are mere ‘automata’, entirely devoid of conscious experience. This radical opinion of Descartes provoked his contemporary Henry More (1614–87), the Cambridge Platonist, who agreed with Descartes on many other matters, to write to him in a letter that ‘There is none of your opinions that my soul, gentle and tender as it is, shrinks from as much as that murderous and cutthroat view you maintain in the Discourse, that deprives the brutes of all life and sense’ (quoted by Wilson 1999, p. 495). As we shall see, it is not quite right to say that Descartes denied life to animals; that he denied them ‘sense’, however, is virtually beyond debate, and shows that the distinction between animals as sentient and plants as non-sentient has been disputed. Let us assume, with commonsense, that More is right against Descartes and note that while Descartes and his ancient and medieval predecessors disagree about whether animals are sentient they all agree that they are not sapient. This by itself may seem enough of an affront to commonsense. Animal lovers, however, may take some comfort in the fact that not all philosophers deny reason to animals. The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) roundly declared that ‘no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as men’ and that ‘the arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant’ (Hume 1978, p. 176). Evidently, the arguments Hume has in mind may nevertheless escape great geniuses, such as Descartes. Not only did these alleged arguments escape Descartes, but he thought he had other arguments that pointed to the opposite conclusion, that animals lack all reason and thought, though he admitted they fell short of conclusively establishing this: ‘I do not think it can be proved that there is [no thought in animals] since the human mind does not reach into their hearts’ (Descartes 1985, vol. III, p. 365). His central argument for the conclusion that it is overwhelmingly likely that animals do not have thought is that language use is the only sure sign of rational thought and no animals other than humans use language. Indeed, many people think that the only known sapient creatures are also the only known language users and that this strongly suggests that only language users are capable of having real thought – despite the anthropomorphising of some pet owners. On the other side, one may reply that given the truly remarkable things that some languageless creatures are capable of, only absurdly strong or unreasonably stingy notions of belief, thought and knowledge could be used to deny them these capacities. Consider Wolfgang Kohler's (1887–1967) celebrated studies of the mentality of apes (Kohler 1925). He placed bananas out of reach of his chimpanzees but supplied them with boxes and sticks that would enable them to obtain the fruit if used in the right way. The chimps proceeded to stack boxes to climb in order to reach the fruit with the long sticks. It is very hard not to think of the chimps as solving a problem by thinking and planning in some sense. The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) expresses a typically cautious view (with a parenthetical remark probably directed at Descartes):

if they have any ideas at all, and are not bare machines (as some would have them) we cannot deny them to have some reason. It seems as evident to me, that they do some of them in certain instances reason, as that they have sense; but it is only in particular ideas, just as they received them from their senses. They are the best of them tied up within those narrow bounds, and have not (as I think) the faculty to enlarge them by any kind of abstraction.

(Locke 1975, p. 160)

An animal may reason about particular things, such as the boxes and bananas in its cage, but it cannot employ the abstract concepts box and banana. Moreover, those with certain religious beliefs may very well want to point out that admitting non-human animals into the club of thinkers is not perforce to admit that they have souls. Only humans have souls. But what is it about us, that mere animals lack, in virtue of which we have souls and they do not? Some might say our possession of free will and moral responsibility. No matter how intelligent the chimpanzee may be, it cannot be said to act freely and morally. 'Soul' and 'mind' undoubtedly have different connotations, as do other terms in the lexical neighbourhood, such as 'psyche', 'subject', 'spirit', 'consciousness', 'ego', 'self', 'agent', 'person', 'cognitive system', and so on. There are important differences between the meanings of these terms and their exact meanings are not very clear. Moreover, their relations to the concepts of life, sentience and sapience are matters of intense debate, as is the relation between life, sentience and sapience themselves. Indeed, each single term, for example 'soul', may mean different things to different people and has meant different things to different ages. The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales thought magnets had souls. It is unlikely that he meant the same by 'soul' as, say, later Christian philosophers. Some of these different meanings will be discussed later. For now, let us set aside these issues and assume that there is sufficient overlap between the various terms, as well as a certain degree of univocality among the uses of each term, and provisionally designate this overlap and univocality 'mind' or 'mentality'. In the rest of this course, we shall consider, in a preliminary fashion, the kinds of things that might have minds, the various kinds of mental phenomena that exist, and the relation among these various mental phenomena.