On being simple minded
Carruthers (Peter)
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, 41 (2004), 205-220
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction (Excerpted)

  1. The question ‘Do fishes think?’ does not exist among our applications of language, it is not raised.
    —Wittgenstein
  2. How simple minded can you be? Many philosophers would answer: no more simple than a language-using human being. Many other philosophers, and most cognitive scientists, would allow that mammals, and perhaps birds, possess minds. But few have gone to the extreme of believing that very simple organisms, such as insects, can be genuinely minded. This is the ground that the present paper1 proposes to occupy and defend. It will argue that ants and bees, in particular, possess minds. So it will be claiming that minds can be very simple indeed.
  3. What does it take to be a minded organism? "Davidson (Donald) - Thought and Talk" (1975) says: you need to be an interpreter of the speech and behavior of another minded organism. Only creatures that speak, and that both interpret and are subject to interpretation, count as genuinely thinking anything at all. "McDowell (John) - Mind and World" (1994) says: you need to exist in a space of reasons. Only creatures capable of appreciating the normative force of a reason for belief, or a reason for action, can count as possessing beliefs or engaging in intentional action. And "Searle (John) - The Rediscovery of the Mind" (1992) says: you need consciousness. Only creatures that have conscious beliefs and conscious desires can count as having beliefs or desires at all.
  4. Such views seem to the present author to be ill-motivated. Granted, humans speak and interpret the speech of others. And granted, humans weigh up and evaluate reasons for belief and for action. And granted, too, humans engage in forms of thinking that have all of the hallmarks of consciousness. But there are no good reasons for insisting that these features of the human mind are necessary conditions of mindedness as such. Or so, at least, this paper will briefly argue now, and then take for granted as an assumption in what follows.
  5. Common sense has little difficulty with the idea that there can be beliefs and desires that fail to meet these demanding conditions. This suggests, at least, that those conditions are not conceptually necessary ones. Most people feel pretty comfortable in ascribing simple beliefs and desires to non-language-using creatures. They will say, for example, that a particular ape acts as she does because she believes that the mound contains termites and wants to eat them. And our willingness to entertain such thoughts seems unaffected by the extent to which we think that the animal in question can appreciate the normative implications of its own states of belief and desire. Moreover, most of us are now (post-Freud and the cognitive turn in cognitive science) entirely willing to countenance the existence of beliefs and desires that are not conscious ones.
  6. It isn’t only ordinary folk who think that beliefs and desires can exist in the absence of the stringent requirements laid down by some philosophers. Many cognitive scientists and comparative psychologists would agree …. this literature is replete with talk of information-bearing conceptualized states that guide planning and action-selection (beliefs), as well as states that set the ends planned for and that motivate action (desires).
  7. True enough, it can often be difficult to say quite what an animal believes or desires. And many of us can, on reflection, rightly be made to feel uncomfortable when using a that-clause constructed out of our human concepts to describe the thoughts of an animal. If we say of an ape that she believes that the mound contains termites, for example, then we can easily be made to feel awkward about so doing. For how likely is it that the ape will have the concept termite? Does the ape distinguish between termites and ants, for instance, while also believing that both kinds belong to the same super-ordinate category (insects)? Does the ape really believe that termites are living things which excrete and reproduce? And so on.

Comment:

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: So, maybe paradoxically, Carruthers occupies a very liberal position in the philosophy of mind, but a very conservative ethical position (whereby he denies that non-human animals have rights).


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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