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Pieces of the Puzzle
Short Essays by Stephen Gislason
Humans and Other Animals
The human brain is a wonder of computational ability and the brain initiates and supervises its own training. The foundation of intelligence lies in the tuning ability of the brain. Tuning circuits appear in the first animals alive on earth. Animals must tune into what is going on around them in order navigate through a world-space to find required materials such as water and food. An animal is more intelligent if he or she tunes accurately into what is going on and finds what is needed without injury or death.
Every educated person needs to know that the mind, spirit, soul, heart, personality, self, feelings, hopes, desires, values, preferences, personality all exist in the brain. We have old metaphors such as the “heart,” “spirit” or the “soul” that suggest otherwise, but the liberating truth is that it is all in the mind and the mind is all in the brain. All humans who survive are capable of tuning into the basic events that are occurring out-there. With a little help from friends, family and community, humans who survive and thrive have passed the intelligence test of life.
The evolution of intelligence has been gradual and conservative. The earliest solutions to tuning into relevant information have been retained by the latest brains. Humans, despite their pretensions to be better than other animals, are intimately related to all other creatures on the planet and use similar strategies to survive. Humans are more complex and more destructive than other animals, but otherwise are in the same business of getting food and surviving in a challenging, ever changing world. Human intelligence and animal intelligence are made of the same stuff.
There is every reason to believe that the conscious experiences of humans are continuous with and similar to, if not identical with the conscious experience of other animals. The best assumption is that the fundamental and pristine consciousness that lies at the core of humans experience is the same consciousness experienced by other animals.
There is no method of deciding how far back in time consciousness extends, but there is no reason to limit consciousness to primates or mammals, when birds and many other animals appear to be conscious. The degree of mindfulness ascends the evolutionary scale with insects and worms at the low end and primates at the high end. If you imagine visiting the mind of another animal, you could ask how familiar would this mind be and how comfortable would I feel? There is little doubt that the mind of apes would be very similar to our own and you would be familiar with most of the experiences.
Visiting a whale’s mind might be different, more like visiting an alien space ship in science fiction stories. You would recognize the same depth and complexity of consciousness and many of the same feelings but all the detailed information about the underwater world obtained by sonar and kinesthetic senses would not be familiar. Humans who live intimately with dogs will have little difficulty understanding that the dog’s mind has many common features with the human mind. Dogs adapt remarkably to human life and enjoy many of the same experiences the humans do.
My first dog friend, Pablo, a German Sheppard of impeccable breeding, sat in the passenger seat of my 1967 car as we traveled across Canada looking for a new home on the west coast. He enjoyed every moment of traveling and invented a repertoire of amusements and responsibilities which included singing, snapping at passing trucks, watching for girl dogs and wind riding. Wind riding consisted of sticking your head out the passenger window and mostly looking ahead with your ears back. For thrills, you would move your head up, down and sideways to feel the different pressures of the wind on your head.
For the rest of his life, Pablo would sit every day in that car, parked in the driveway waiting for the next ride. He would be inconsolable if I drove away without him. My next canine companion, Sonny was a good friend. Like Pablo, Sonny was a big dog with a wolf body and mind. I admired his athletic prowess, his enthusiasm and his skills navigating on planet earth. We are both survivors, but he would do better than I would if the supermarkets disappeared. I enjoy participating in his wolf ways more than I enjoy teaching him how to become human.
Stephen and Sonny
Experiments designed to test animal “self-awareness” as a feature of consciousness are based on the wrong premises. Animals are conscious, but there is no test. Just as humans are conscious, but no combination of human tests will ever prove that.
I watched a documentary on animal intelligence; the commentary was surprisingly ignorant. Film clips of baboons interested in mirrors were shown. Baboons are remarkably similar to us in their social habits and get quite excited when the find mirror pieces in a human garbage dump. They look at their reflections with great interest. One baboon was shown holding the mirror in different ways at different angles and passing his hand behind the mirror trying to locate the image. The commentator claimed that baboon did not recognize his own image and he was looking for another baboon and therefore was not conscious, a claim that should receive a dumb award (the human was dumb, not the baboon!)
The baboon was displaying all the intelligence of a conscious, smart animal and should receive a science award. He was trying to figure out where the image was located.
To a curious scientist, the puzzles of mirror images continue to intrigue and perplex. When I pass a mirror, I am not sure who or what I am seeing there. I do not always relate to the image as myself and whenever I do, I am still not sure who ”myself” is. For example, the guy in the mirror is much older than I am.
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