“Curious About Thomism” left a one-sentence comment, the response to which ballooned into what follows.
Do you think non-human animals can apprehend universals?
First, some preliminary clarifications:
-“Non-human animal” has fuzzy edges, and on a question like this we have to draw some lines that leave out some animals. The question probably isn’t asking about animals that can’t move around: coral, barnacles, starfish, etc.. It also probably isn’t asking about insects, reptiles, or other animals that can’t learn new tricks or be trained. So the question about universals arises with respect to animals that can move around and learn new tricks.
-Ramon Ruyer, who has done as much to develop Aristotelian ideas of nature as any of the great thomist disciples, was also a panpsychist, and so put intelligence in anything that has self-motion. There are elements in this account of nature that I like, but normally when one asks about the presence of universals in non-human animals he wants something other than the sort of intelligence that a panpsychist puts in everything. Still, what the Thomist tradition calls “the soul” has a real universal-quality about it: there is something in a living thing that is one in spite of the multitude of constantly changing material things that compose it. No cell or atom in your body was present in it a few years ago, and it will flush out and be replaced by another soon, and yet there is one you through all that. This is as remarkable as if a man was juggling lettered blocks in the air which, in spite of the juggling, showed a single, unchanging word across their arc. This is a “one over many” i.e. a universal idea of some sort. We can see this “soul” idea in more than just the living too: the same stability that we find in your body also exists in the atom – in fact, Bohr discovered the structure of the atom precisely by considering the sort of stability throughout change that it shared with the body. It is arguably the very definition of a natural substance to show this sort of stability throughout change – and so to have some idea in it that is one over the many: a universal.
-The power of sensation is universal so far as the eye can see all blues, reds, and even all colors; touch can feel all tactile bodies and imagine feeling all degrees of heat, etc. Therefore the power of the organ is also a one-over-many. But this is not the universal we tend to be looking for – we want the one thing over many to be something also known in itself. If we say that the one over many is taken from the various individual things sensed, the Thomist says that it is “abstract”, that is “drawn out of” something. Now it is reasonable to say that if one has an abstract thing, it is universal, and so any time some known object is taken from various things sensed, it can be called abstract and universal. But this occurs any time something retains sense images: which occurs in any animal that can remember. But all sorts of animals have memory, and so have abstract and universal ideas.
-Anything that can remember can link past experience to present experience, and so can experience things felt in the past as though they were happening again. It can feel fear by anticipation of attack and not only by being attacked, can anticipate pleasure before it has it, etc. Again, the animal can anticipate not only by the experience of seeing an attacker, but also by experiencing how others respond to the attacker. A monkey can respond to a shriek as easily as a tiger. This means a shriek counts as a sort of symbol. These are also abstract and universal ideas, so far as they are taken from tings known and are themselves known (abstract), but are one-over-many (universal).
-Anything with imagination and memory associates things that are analogous, and so can create an image which prescinds from the various differences among a multitude and yet can serve as a principle to identify all future phenomena of the same sort. Here we approach an idea of universality that has actually been advanced by some as being what human thought is. Hume, for example, thought that this sort of Gestalt association was all there was to human thought (at least human thought on anything other than moral questions). So taken, what we call human thought is completely shared with non-human animals, even if we have a bit more processing speed. There is no sense of an abstract universal idea that human beings have to themselves.
Now, to the question:
So there are many universals (unities throughout changeable multitudes) and of these, many are abstract (things known beyond the sensible thing that is known here-and-now.) But how do we approach the question whether there is anything to mind beyond what Hume says there is?
1.) There is interesting research by Daniel Povinelli on the fact that chimps don’t ask why questions about phenomena. It is peculiarly human to ask about causes behind phenomena. Now a cause is very much abstract and universal: it is behind a multitude of changeable phenomena, and, for human beings, it is abstracted from the particulars by an abstraction that no other animal appears able to make. So if we want a uniquely human universal, we can look for it in the line of causes.
2.) Causes can themselves be caused, and the peculiar abstraction and universality of causality tends to the theoretical point of a cause of causes – a first cause from which all subsequent effects arise, and which therefore contains all possible perfections within its causal power. Such a being verifies a strong sense of omnipotence, is by definition self-existent, and must either equal or transcend all perfections we find in nature (like being a person, being intelligent, being loving etc.). The peculiarly human awareness of causes gives the human person an ontological orientation towards God. St. Thomas argues that the only natural orientation a creature can have to God is by way of causality, and since causality is uniquely human, human beings have a unique ontological orientation to God; namely, for us, this orientation is cognitive. Even the highest of non-human primates (though they have an impressive awareness of abstract universals in the senses spoken of above) are not attuned to the casual field of reality. Their consciousness cannot have a divine orientation by nature, since this can only happen by causality and the abstraction from causality.
3.) Causality is anything responsible for existence, but existence arises from both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. So far as human beings are attuned to intrinsic causes, they see things like forms or natures, which are known through species and genera. This might be what we most of all mean by “universal ideas” and, in this sense (namely so far as these things are causes or arise from knowing causal realities) then they are uniquely human, and not shared even with the highest non-human primates.
I could say other things about this and have said them before. Briefly, for the Thomists, intelligence is first of all speculative, that is, contemplative and scientific. Whatever intelligence non-human animals have, it is not speculative – they do not write journals, argue over theoretical constructs, form research communities, etc. But even this seems to be to be based on the fundamental fact that it is peculiar to human beings to be attuned to the casual orders of things.