Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Verbal thinkers are biased towards verbal thinking

Ed Feser tries to refute the idea that animals think, but all of his arguments rest on mistaking abstract thought for thought itself. But as idealists, beginning with Hegel and especially with the British Idealists, showed us, abstract thought is derivative and concrete thought is primary. We could not abstract anything from a world of "primary sensations" or "pure sense data" where such worlds are supposed to exclude thought and be an "I know not what." It is nonsense to suppose that we can start with something about which we have no idea what it is and "abstract" from that incomprehensibility to produce useful concepts! It is as though I told you, "Take a gwefr of qtywe, a cbshfd of qweet, and a tfbkdl of fqgksf, and tell me what they all have in common." (You might answer, "They are all nonsense," but this just shows you already understood each separate bit as nonsense.)

Feser offers some arguments from Donald Davidson that thought requires language, but each of them simply equates thought with verbalized thought, and of course verbalized thought does require language. Feser (summarizing Davidson) writes:

"Consider first that for the dog to have a thought in the sense of an internal state with conceptual content, there must be some specific content that the thought has. For example, it will be a thought with the content that the master is home -- as opposed, say, to a thought with the content that the man who is the father of the children who live in this house is home, or a thought with the content that the man who goes to work for eight hours every weekday is home."

But the thoughts Feser mentions are abstractions: what the dog has is a concrete thought, certainly with very specific content... well, I could only state the thought here in writing with another abstraction, but it should be clear that the dog knows who is home (if he mistook his master for the postman, he would be barking angrily, not pleasantly excited), and that knowing who is home is a judgment, and that all judgment is thought.

Feser continues: "Crucial to having the capacity for thought is having the capacity for believing something -- for taking it to be true that the world is this way rather than that."

Once again, this simply asserts, without justification, that all thought is propositional thought. I was once presented, by a colleague, with the question, "Could you write a one-line Perl statement that would return the day of the week from the integer number of the days since day X?" (For instance, UNIX systems often represent time as a number of seconds since January 1, 1970, a number from which one can extract a number of days since that date.)

I thought about my friend's question for a few minutes, and then I saw a seven-spoked wheel spinning through this integer sequence of dates. This was certainly a thought, and, in fact, the key thought I needed to write the line of Perl code for him, which I then did. But it was entirely non-verbal. I did not "believe" this wheel, nor have the idea in my head, "I think this wheel is true." I simply saw that it solved the problem that I had been set: as noted earlier, all perception is itself a judgment, and therefore all perception is thought.

Similarly, Albert Einstein reported that he typically understood his physical theories first kinesthetically, and only with great effort translated what he understood in his natural mode of thinking into mathematical form. And the great animal scientist Temple Grandin contends that she understands animals so well because she thinks visually, just like they do. The position Feser adopts would imply she doesn't think at all, but just "responds" to "stimuli" that lead her to be one of the top livestock-processing consultant in the world.

Feser continues:

"Now, if to be capable of thought entails having beliefs, and if having beliefs entails having the concept of believing something, then to be capable of thought entails having the concept of believing something. And if having the concept of believing something entails having language, then being capable of thought entails having language. In that case, Davidson concludes, any creature that lacks language also lacks the capacity for thought."

Consider a nature documentary I just watched, that showed chimpanzees using two stones to crack open nuts, a mortar stone and a pestle stone. The film showed a female chimp who had a mortar stone and some nuts, but lacked a pestle. She walked over to a male chimp who had both stones, but was done with his nut supply, and quite explicitly pointed at the pestle stone. At the same time she gave the male a "hopeful" look, and then watched him for a moment. When he seemed to acquiesce, she picked up his pestle stone and brought it back to her mortar to process her nuts.

It is rather obvious that she "believed" that she needed a pestle stone, and that she "believed" the male might lend it to her. But the Feser/Donaldson position simply begs the question here, assuming that if creature X believes Y, then creature X can state in propositional form her belief Y. But besides mere assertion, there is nothing at all behind this contention.

If any of my readers have ever played improvisational music, you know that to do so, one must be intently, thoughtfully focused on the musical ideas arising from the interaction of what you are playing and what your band mates are playing. But such ideas are certainly not verbal propositions, are neither true nor false, and do not "assert" anything at all about the world. Was Bach not thinking when he composed "Air on a G-String"? Was John Coltrane not thinking when he played "A Love Supreme"? Yet none of the notes they wrote or played were a proposition, nor did any of them assert "that the world is this way rather than that."
Or check out this video. Jeff Teague is able to describe verbally the choice he made... but if he was actually verbalizing all that while playing, he would have lost the ball. He was thinking, but not verbally, while he made that play.

Language use is a form of thought. The claim that it is thought itself simply turns on arbitrarily rejecting all non-lingual thought as non-thought. The entire Donaldson/Feser case that thought requires language turns out to be:

1) We will only accept as thought verbal propositions that can be judged as true or false.
2) All proposed non-verbal forms of thought are not verbal propositions that can be judged as true or false.
3) Therefore, all thought is verbal.

It is hard to imagine a more circular argument!


  1. I agree with this. The whole MBTI model might or might not be the best way to get at what's going on, but I think it's useful.

    It seems like you almost have this situation where the INTJ personality type has taken over, and analytical type thinking has come to dominate everything -- even where it isn't appropriate -- and people just accept this. It is to the point that they pretty much get to set the terms of any sort of debate or inquiry, and if you fall outside of this, it isn't 'serious' or legit. They'll often even go so far as to attach it to you personally -- if you question their approach, or dare to defend some other approach, it's like you've committed a mortal sin or debased yourself out of your humanity. You're an animal!

    But as you point out, often it is other approaches which yield the most insight into situtions. At least in science, it seems like people have created this delusion that the way you do it is somehow 'logical' or deductive, when really what you're doing is imagining answers through your minds-eye -- just like in your example about solving the time problem. Yes, you can 'navigate' an abstract system and flesh it out logically *once you've got the system.* But you've got to imagine the system first!

  2. Indeed. It's so obviously false it's hard to take Feser's claim seriously. I feed a stray cat. When anyone approaches it runs, but when I call out it recognizes my voice and stops. Then it returns to the bowl. Is it that my voice is a cat magnet? It is impelled by Ken's Law of Cat Attraction? Or that the cat thinks?

    Pinker destroys the claim in detail in his Stuff of Thought book.


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