Descartes mindless animals: Wrong conclusion but right science!

Cartesians had an idea about animals. They believed that animals were machines without minds. Here’s the story:

They believed in the mechanical philosophy. Everything could be explained in mechanical terms. But Descartes (being the genius that he was) felt that human creativity, the highest embodiment of which he considered the human language, could NOT be explained in mechanical terms. That led him and his followers to come up with the (at that time) scientific hypothesis of mind body duality. There is the body, which is basically everything in this world, and then there is the mind, which is human creativity.

Now Descartes noticed that animals could be trained to perform different tasks. At the same time, many Cartesians were building amazing robots (automatons to be exact) which could do all kinds of tasks. But Descartes noticed that no matter what, animals simply couldn’t be trained to have a language!

So Cartesians leapt to the straightforward, scientific (according to the science of the day) conclusion that animals were machines with no minds. See the connection?

It all fits in doesn’t it? History of science is truly fascinating!!

(Endnote: Mind-body dualism has rightly been debunked, even since Newton destroyed the mechanical philosophy)


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I am interested in understanding the links between science models and engineering models, and whether we can design a "science" for fields that require interdisciplinary research. Specifically, my field is the design of techno-social systems. Such systems are not traditional computing systems and require an inter-disciplinary approach for their design. Generally, I am interested in modeling and simulation, and seek to apply my knowledge of the same in various domains including arts, politics, science and engineering You can reach me at Rameez Rahman

4 thoughts on “Descartes mindless animals: Wrong conclusion but right science!”

  1. Hi there, you mention that ” animals cannot be taught to have language”
    However you may have forgotten to mention that the language you refer is “within human conventions of the concept of language” you also disregard that animals have their own codes of expression, that although NOT the same as HUMAN codes, they are still language. Consider that vocalizations and gestures are also language ( since language is symbolic , a relationship between a symbol and meaning) . think for a moment that different cultures around the world have different languages, as other non human species have cultures of their own and thus have their own linguistic codes. Let me expand.

    Language, in humans is a “potential that is taught”
    Humans are animals as well in a taxonomical and biological convention
    language = symbolic representation of vocalization and meaning

    So, animals, for instance chimpanzees, have their own, culture and language that includes vocalizations and sign language to communicate to others as wel las humans.

    For instance, a chimpanzee named NIM was *TAUGHT* a human language mode of sign language in which he was able to express though and interaction with humans *Since sign language* wa sthe TAUGHT convention

    Thus, when you mention that “no matter what, animals simply couldn’t be trained to have a language” you fail to realize that LANGUAGE is a potential in all animals and that it is taught. Non human animals have their own language and symbolic interactions to interact with others.

    Let me give you a simple example, your dog can be taught to communicate by specific gestures or even vocalizations if you BOTH negociate a code of symbolism. The same is true if you DONT teach your dog ANY codes of language so you can both communicate. in hat context you might believe dogs are dumb and cannot learn language.

    in essence Language is a potential! And all animals have their own codes of language that cannot be judged in a REDUCTIONIST way by saying ” a dog can’t vocalize in an exact human, I want o go to the bathroom” . However the dog can be TAUGHT to vocalize a certain way ( within its morphological capacities, long snout, short snout,tongue placement” to learn through symbolic interactionism the relationship between a bark or even a body gesture ( like sign language in humans) that such vocalization or sign means bathroom.

    1. Hi Laurie,
      Thanks for your long comment. First of all, notice that I said it
      was Descartes impression (not mine). Whether or not animals can be “taught” a language, i don’t know. its still an open question. Just FYI recent research has shown human sign language is the same as any other human language. About animals having their own code of communication, sure, all of them, perhaps even bacterium have that. But communication is not language. language goes far beyond communication. About animals being dumb, on the contrary we know that many animals are spectacularly intelligent, and even those who we in our arrogance might not deem to be intelligent perform feats which are simply beyond our grasp, e.g., a pigeon’s homing capability, bee dance etc, etc. But being intelligent and having language (not communication code) are two very different things.

      About NIM, in fact NIM was a spectacular case of failure for the entire “taught” paradigm. Later analysis showed that he would sign for things, and in between those signs, in order to fool the experimenters, he would make other superfluous signs, to pretend that he was using a language. All he had learned was signs for things, not language. But he was intelligent enough to know what the experimenters were expecting, and provided them with it.
      And in fact this brings me to your point about language being symbols and meanings. If by meaning you mean something out there in the world: E.g. the symbol “A” represents “bathroom” or to take your words a dog learns a sign for a bathroom is a bathroom–fine. But this is not how human language works at all. In fact Wittgenstein begins “Philosophical Investigations” with a very similar example by St Augustine. St Augustine like you was under the impression that this is what language is. My mother taught me that this is a cow, by saying cow. And I learnt what a cow is. and so on. Wittgenstein argued, conclusively in my mind, that this is simply not the way how language operates. Wittgenstein’s mentor Bertrand Russell (a personal hero of mine) and Frege were also both under this mistaken impression, and indeed had a whole program whereby symbols could represent entities in the world. Wittgenstein (in my mind) demolished all that. If you are interested, you might care to read my post for a more detailed analysis of the above points:

      Thanks for commenting

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