Animal Rationality Essay, Research Paper
I bark, therefore I am: The question of rational animals
Many individuals look at their dog or cat and wonder what the furry little creatures are thinking or question the reasoning behind a particular action. Here is encountered a very large debate in the philosophical and psychological world. Are certain animals, other than humans, rational creatures? Of course, there are people who sit on both sides of the fence on the rationality issue. Donald Davidson, author of “Rational Animals”, proposes that no other creature on the face of the earth has the ability to rationalize, besides the human. Mr. Davidson derives a particular formula for proving, in his mind, that his hypotheses are correct. I, however, differ with Davidson s views and even question his logic at points. Throughout the course of my essay, I will describe Davidson s progression of thought as well as confirm his theory unworkable. By proving against Davidson s theory, I hope to undoubtedly show that there are, in fact, certain rational higher-level animals.
Donald Davidson attempts to beat down any arguments for animal rationality in his essay, “Rational Animals”. Davidson does do a relatively good job of convincing the reader of his notions. By proposing a progression of four interlocked steps, which condenses to only two later in the essay, Davidson hopes to dissolve any doubt that animals do not have rational minds.
First, Davidson proposes that animals do not have a network of beliefs. Both Davidson and I agree on our definition of what a belief is. A belief is the knowledge of a certain idea, object, or concept. In regard to describing the term “network of beliefs”, a quotation from Davidson s essay works the best: “One belief demands many beliefs, and beliefs demand other basic attitudes such as intentions, desires, . . . ” (Davidson, 473). Therefore a network of beliefs is one or many deeper beliefs about a particular belief. This step lays the foundation, the ground work, for Davidson s following three points.
Beliefs are a part of a rational network is the crux of Davidson s second step. By making this statement, Davidson attempts to get across the idea that his theory of a “network of beliefs” is necessary to rationality. For the purposes of this essay along with Davidson s, I will propose that rationality means the ability to have a network of beliefs, basic attitudes, and a rudimentary language. Once again, the word “network” that is linked with “rational” necessitates the deep belief network described in step one.
Thirdly, Davidson claims that to have any belief requires a concept of beliefs. A concept of beliefs is the understanding of what, exactly, one actually believes. However, there is no particular list of items one must believe in order to have a concept of that belief. According to Davidson, “There is no fixed list of things someone with the concept of a tree must believe, but without many general beliefs there would be no reason to identify a belief as a belief about a tree” (Davidson, 475).
Finally, to have a concept of beliefs requires a language. Now this is the point where Davidson and I differ greatly on our definition of what is language. To Davidson, language requires the use of a developed verbal language, capable of conveying high-level thinking. However, my denotation requires a form of communication, be it verbal or bodily, that has the ability to convey more than just basic needs and desires such as hunger, thirst, danger, and sexual interest.
Despite this very deep process that Davidson puts forth in the beginning of his essay, he goes on to minimize it to only two later in the essay. Davidson completely removes the first two steps in his plan and makes the premises that: “First, it is necessary to have the concept of belief. And second, in order to have the concept of belief one must have language” (Davidson, 478).
Now I will proceed to prove both the extrapolated and condensed versions of Davidson s theory wrong by falsifying one statement he makes. Davidson claims that animals are incapable of having a network, or concept, of beliefs. Yet there is one weak spot that Davidson opens up in the latter part of his essay. This element is surprise. In his essay, Davidson claims that in order to experience surprise, an animal must have a network of beliefs. Of course, Davidson says that animals, other than humans, are incapable of having a network of beliefs and, therefore, incapable of surprise. This is where Davidson is wrong.
Now, I cannot name for you every animal I consider to be a “higher-order” creature. Obviously some of these animals include dogs, chimps, dolphins, and possibly even cats (although I am not a big fan of them). However, I am going to focus on dogs in my proof. Now, in order to justly prove that dogs are capable of experiencing surprise, I must define that term. In both Davidson’s and my own view, surprise “requires that (one is) aware of a contrast between what (one) did believe and what (one) comes to believe” (Davidson, 479). I will present one particular situation that I have indirectly witnessed, which shows that dogs are capable of undergoing surprise. Therefore, canines do have a network of beliefs, and are rational animals in turn.
Now, one may say that nothing good can come from prime time television in the world today. Yet I have found a wonderful piece of evidence that supports my point on a seemingly worthless show: America s Funniest Home Videos. In this particular clip, which I witnessed, A dog is seen chasing a small cat into a barn. Now the inside of the barn is hidden to the viewer of the home-video, so no one knows what lies inside. Moments following the dog s zealous entry into the barn, he is seen running out at top speed with a giant tiger lazily ambling after him. Despite the fact that the inside of the barn is out of sight of the human observer, one can easily deduce what transpired indoors. The dog was expecting to pounce upon a helpless cat when a giant tiger appears directly in front of him. The dog immediately switches from attack to defensive mode and flees from the barn.
In examining the underlying belief structure to this situation, one will see that surprise does play a significant role. Dogs have a basic belief network for both the cat and the tiger. The cat is seen as a victim that is smaller, less powerful, and afraid of the dog. Even if never seen before, a tiger is viewed as being a more powerful, predatory creature that can cause the dog severe bodily harm. When the transition in stimuli from the cat to the tiger occurs, the dog cannot help but be surprised. As a result of this surprise and mental adaptation, the dog must physically adapt. Obviously this occurs, seeing that the dog runs away, whimpering. This example sufficiently proves that dogs, and other higher-order animals are capable of experiencing surprise. In accomplishing this, Davidson s whole premise that animals are not rational creatures is false.
However, there are some responses Davidsonian thinkers could muster to the objection I have raised. These individuals could claim that in the cases I have presented, the dogs are not truly surprised. The animals are merely adjusting to a new set of sensory stimuli. One particular method that a Davidson-like thinker could map out in order to display that surprise is not experienced by higher-order animals involves a simple two step process. People who are refuting my proof could claim that stimuli the dogs expected to encounter is not present, therefore they must quickly adapt and react to a new set of stimuli. Yes, this might be the actual answer to my problem. However, how can these individuals prove that there is not a contrast in beliefs that takes place when the dichotomy of stimuli occurs?
Throughout this essay, I have analyzed Donald Davidson s work “Rational Animals” and proceeded to refute the theories he presented. Davidson s claim that animals are not rational creatures can be proven false by showing that animals are capable of experiencing surprise. The topic of animal rationality, which I have chosen to investigate, along with many other philosophical questions are very hard, if not impossible, to prove true or false with today s technology. However, with future advances in technology and methods of thought, scientists could possibly understand and describe the process of animal cognition. Until that day, no one theory on animal rationality can be considered wholly true or false, including that of Davidson and my own.