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More on Animals and Their “Reasoning”

David Klinghoffer


Mathematician Jeffrey Shallit takes issue with neuroscientist Michael Egnor on whether animals can reason and whether reason “evolved.” He tries to settle the question by looking up “reason” in a dictionary. Whatever you want to call it, though, the capacity for thinking about abstract concepts is impossible without language. Egnor, responding at Mind Matters, points out that you can’t think about the idea of “mercy” without being able to put a name on it.

Language is essential to abstract thought. How can we think about an abstract concept if we have no word to name it? We can only think about “mercy” if we have a word for it. Try it: think about mercy, without thinking of either a concrete thing or of the word “mercy.” You can’t. Language is what makes abstract thought possible. Only humans have language, and only humans think in abstractions. Both are true, and they are intrinsically related. Language makes human thought — abstract thought and reasoning — possible.

Egnor poses a challenge:

So I have a challenge for Dr. Shallit, who claims that animals have the ability to reason and to think abstractly, without thinking about particular things. When an animal is “reasoning” about an abstract concept — number theory say, or financial markets — just what is in the animal’s mind, if not a thought of a physical object or a word? 

I would like hear to Shallit’s answer to that. Read the rest at “Can Animals “Reason”? My Challenge to Jeffrey Shallit.” Whether your dog can philosophize is not a puzzle you need to look to the Oxford English Dictionary to resolve. This too is clear: “Immaterial powers can’t ‘evolve,’ because Darwinian evolution, for what it’s worth, can’t act on anything that is not material.” As Egnor asks, “Why would an intelligent man like Dr. Shallit…not understand something so obvious?”

Photo credit: Charles via Unsplash.