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Can animals and plants think? Can animals and plants think?
by Joseph Gatt
2020-07-16 07:30:54
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Notes on whether animals and plants can think, in no particular order.

-If I were a dog (or bear or goat) observing human beings, I wouldn't think they are much different from my species. Human beings also walk around, sit, eat, drink, and do this thing where they emit incompressible sound. I would notice that human beings have all kinds of tools, and use objects they find in nature to build shelter and cook food.

-As a dog (or chimp or hermit or lion) I would perhaps notice that human beings are powerful “animals” and dangerous ones, with all kinds of tools to hunt, kill or harm other animals.

-And as a dog (or cat or mouse or horse) I would notice that human beings tend to be friendly and not to want to harm any other animal. Although humans do have a select group of animals that they breed and massively slaughter (sheep, oxen, chickens, turkeys, pigs, fish, shell fish and a few other animals) for food consumption purposes.

-Most human beings go through their daily routines without doing too much thinking. Human societies tend to be like a chain of individuals where each plays a rather specific role (making cheese, selling cheese, making furniture, selling furniture, making buildings and shelter, selling buildings and shelter) but that chain is rather flexible, and the links to the chain are interchangeable.

thin001_400-When this chain of human individuals weakens, or when too many individuals stop playing their role in society, that's usually when a lot of individuals start engaging in “abstract” thinking.

-That is, when what human beings took for granted (food and shelter) is no longer smoothly provided, or is provided in confusing ways, that when human beings usually get together and come up with solutions to make access to food, clothing and shelter more flowing and predictable ways.

-Human beings have the capacity to think in abstract terms. If I claim to have had “mashed potatoes and steak” for lunch to a friend, the claim is an abstract one (he didn't see me eat mashed potatoes and steak) but the other human being can picture what I had for lunch, albeit vaguely.

-When we go to school and study abstract topics like “geography” and learn about Asia, Africa or Latin America, despite never having been there or having no intention to go there, we know the abstract notion exists and that we could get to those places by booking flights. If we study Spanish, we know that a lot of people speak Spanish as their first language. If we study astrophysics, we assume that telescopes have observed those asteroids and comets, and that we could observe the planets, although we would have trouble visiting them.

-Some teachers (or interlocutors) like to make abstract knowledge “inaccessible” to their human audience. As in, they might teach you a thing or two about geography (lecture you on the geography of the United States) but during the lecture they will hint that you will never get there and that the abstract notion of US geography is only for them to understand.

-This “inaccessibility” is a trick a lot of language teachers use, for example. I noticed how a lot of language teachers (in the past, and to this day) start sulking when a student tells them that he/she interacts with native speakers of the taught language on a daily basis. For example, many of my English, Spanish, French or Korean teachers looked rather depressed when I told them I liked to drink (or interact) with native speakers of the language the teachers were supposed to teach me.

-That is a lot of language teachers (or other teachers) will make it sound like “here's what the language looks like, people speak it as their first language indeed, but here's the language in its abstract form, and don't ever use it, in its abstract or concrete form.” A lot of math and science teachers have the same attitude where they will throw abstract concepts and students while hinting at the students that those are concepts the students will never use in real life. 

-In sum, human beings can think in abstract forms, can interact in concrete forms using abstract notions, can organize around abstract notions that they turn into concrete knowledge whenever necessary. Accounting for example is an abstract subject, but once a year, or once a month, or once a week, many human beings will use that abstract accounting theory into practice when they budget, shop, or fill out balance sheets.

-Also, human beings have some abstract notions that have no real clear concrete meaning. What does a word like “many” or “lots” mean? If you say that you have “lots of money” do you mean a hundred dollars or a million dollars? Or what does “I'll give you my heart” mean? Or what does “life is a daily struggle” mean?

-Finally, on humans, some notions do not translate into language. A famous French comedian, Gad Elmaleh, moved to the US and made the following remark: in the US, when you go to the supermarket, and do a mixture of “window shopping” and “real shopping” they have a word for that, it's called “browsing.” Gad Elmaleh half-jokingly said that the French did not have a word for that. Now the French do have a word for that, they would say “scruter” but the word is slang and is rarely used, especially in this supermarket product browsing context. So in France, when you unconsciously “browse” a catalogue or items at a supermarket, you don't mention that to a friend, and the browsing remains in the subconscious realm. People do a lot of things in their daily lives that they don't bring out in writing or in conversation.

-Now on animals and plants. Animals and plants can not reason in abstract ways. Don't try to teach them to locate Estonia on a map, or to add numbers, or techniques to clean a coffee stain off a sweater.

-Some animals (like dogs or monkeys) are “social” animals while others (like cats or goats) are “solitary” animals. That is, dogs and monkeys will try hard to “define” social relationships with living beings surrounding them, either by “playing” with the animals surrounding them or threatening the animals surrounding them to get the food or shelter they need. Solitary animals however are more “adventurous” and like to roam the streets on the lookout for food (or shelter).

-That's all most animals can do. Social animals either play with or threaten other animals to group together and hunt for food together. Solitary animals spend most of their time alone hunting for food.

-We humans rely on a mixture of memory, abstract stories, and instinct to avoid danger. Animals usually rely on a mixture of memory and instinct to avoid danger. That is animals do have something of a memory that they put to good use, and can remember places, people (or other animals) or events, albeit vaguely.

-Animals rely on a little bit of instinct and a little bit of planning when hunting for food or socializing. That is a lot of cats (or bears or panthers) will usually identify a “path” or a “track” that they will follow in their hunt for food.

-Social animals have feelings, emotions, anger and empathy to those surrounding them. Social animals (dogs or penguins or badgers and so on) can develop very strong kin emotions and can be very depressed and mourn a loved one if the loved one disappears.

-Plants and solitary animals tend to be “reactive” that is they take action to prevent them from being attacked. Plants can try to grow longer if their leaves are constantly being eaten by other animals. Solitary animals can learn to run faster if they are constantly being poached for food.

-Most plants and animals have this ability that I will call “asymmetric information.” That is animals can hear or see things that their predators don't see or hear. Those plants of animals will know that their predators “don't know.” Foxes for example, when hunted for fur, often act and pretend they are dead before escaping. Tigers will often act “calm” and hope their predators give up on killing them, and then surprise their predators if their predators give up on shooting those dead and eating them alive.

-Finally, thinking certainly isn't a “recreational” activity among animals and plants, and among plants and animals, most thinking is done for food and shelter and defense purposes. That is we humans like to sit down and discuss philosophy over a couple of beers, and sometimes we humans think “just for fun.” Many animals, especially social ones, do like to “play” with each other (they can jump around or tease each other or chase each other and so on) but certainly wouldn't think about life or plan their day “just for fun.” 

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