A Philosopher's Blog

Canine Cognition

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2009

Descartes, most famous for writing “I think, therefore I am, also wrote about the minds of animals. Roughly put, his view was that animals lacked minds, at least as he saw minds (as immaterial metaphysical thinking substances). He had two main arguments for this: first, animal behavior can be explained without such minds using purely physical explanations. So, by Occam’s Razor, there is no need to accept that animals have minds. The second argument he have is that animals do not use true language and this is the surest sign that they lack minds.

Descartes was well aware that clever animals, like dogs and horses, could learn various tricks and that all animals can make noises to express feelings. However, he held that these facts did not show that animals think.

In recent years, researchers have begun to accept what dog folks have known since humans started having dogs as pets: dogs are smart. For example, research has revealed that dogs can recognize the use of a pointed finger. While recognizing what a pointed finger means (“that”) seems simple enough, it actually requires fairly advanced cognition. The intent of the action must be understood and the object of the action (what is pointed at) must also be recognized.  This sort of sign seems to be more abstract than a direct physical gesture, such as a display of anger or joy. As such, this sort of interpretation requires fairly impressive communication skills.

Dogs, as all dog folks know, are very good at conveying their feelings and desires. They are also quite good at understanding words and can have rather complex vocabularies. For example, my husky can distinguish between numerous words and phrases and react accordingly. She also has various vocalizations and behavior that make it clear what she wants or seems to be thinking at the time. While this might be dismissed as mere habituation, even habituation that complicated would require some significant mental horsepower.

While dogs do not use true language, they certainly seem to have a rather good grasp of our use of language as well as our gestures. Because of this, I am inclined to regard dogs as having minds, albeit less complex than those of most humans (of course, I believe that my husky is smarter than some humans). Unlike Descartes, my view is that having a mind is not a “you do or you don’t” sort of thing in all cases. Rather, minds seem to come in varying degrees. Of course, what the mind actually might be is something that is still under considerable debate.

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