Universals in non-human animals: a comment that turned into a post

“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.



  1. Syphax said,

    November 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    So in a psychology experiment done on pigeons (Wright, Cook, Rivera, Sands, & Delius, 1988), the authors claim that the fact that pigeons can be trained to peck at novel pictures that represent categories based on previous pictures, that “The research reported in this article clearly shows that pigeons can learn an abstract concept, in this case the concept of matching-to-sample, This finding is in stark contrast to previous claims that pigeons learn only item specific, absolute stimulus properties, and “if … then” associations.”

    So would you say that there is some kind of equivocation or misunderstanding regarding “abstract concepts” going on here? That the process of comparing two visual stimuli or even building a tentative amalgam of mental images that represent a class is a different sort of thing than grasping a concept, the latter being a rational (and immaterial) process?

    • November 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm

      “Abstract” in this sense means “taken from a particular thing sensed here and now, and differing from it”. A memory is an abstraction, so far as it is not a thing sensed here and now, and a memory would not be of much value unless an animal could compare it to things more or less like it in the present. This means that anything with memory has to be able to compare a bunch of sensations more or less similar, which means it has some sort of paradigm image. This is also an abstract idea in a real sense. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Imagination is very helpful here: animals have a generic image.

  2. Still curious, also grateful said,

    December 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Wow, I really appreciate this. When I asked about animals, I was thinking about a claim Mortimer J Adler made during a television appearance.
    Adler says the mind is the organ of thought (not the brain). We, human beings, can apprehend immaterial universals. A computer will never be able to do this. Naturally, I wondered about the lower animals. Thank you kindly for an excellent explanation

    • Leonhard said,

      December 8, 2012 at 6:36 am

      So if I build a computer who can apprehend universals I would have defeated Thomism?

      Anticipated response: The computer would only look like it could anticipate responses.

      But on the contrary, we are able to recognize the ability to apprehend universals in each other. Any entity that can abstract universals from empirical observations can only do so if it has the ability to apprehend them.

      • December 8, 2012 at 9:17 am

        If I build a computer who can apprehend universals I would have defeated Thomism?

        Well, I’ve made three children that can apprehend universals; did doing this have no relevant difference from making computers that could do so?

        What exactly (in the context of these questions) is the relevant difference between persons and computers? If we assume there is no relevant difference, then all we’re doing is assuming is that persons are (in all relevant senses) just computers, from which it follows that we’ve already made computers that apprehend universals (I’ve made three!). But it would be odd to say that a theory of knowledge – thomistic or otherwise – was undermined by noticing that human beings are made.

      • December 8, 2012 at 9:57 am

        we are able to recognize the ability to apprehend universals in each other. Any entity that can abstract universals from empirical observations can only do so if it has the ability to apprehend them

        Before Cyrus McCormick, reaper was the name of a person and after him it was the name of a machine. This sort of extension of naming happens all the time (mower, feeder, teller, counter, eye) and it happens on the basis of identical effects. Now it has happened to computer (which, even in living memory was the name of a person) and has taken with it terms like memory and smart. In many instances, the memory is more perfect and the smartness is much smarter, just as McCormick’s reaper was much more of a reaper than a peasant with a scythe and an ATM is a much more efficient teller than a bored 23 year-old who hates his job. But, for all that, it’s not as if we have to see no essential and relevant differences between the sources or intrinsic realities of all these various things.

  3. Leonhard said,

    December 8, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I can’t reply directly to your posts James Chasted for some odd reason, so I’ll just post here.

    You being able to make childrens who are humans, don’t tell me anything about whether I can or can’t build a computer with sentience on the same level as us. Someone who can derive laws of physics from empirical observations, look at observations of specimens and name them into new species, and do all the things you’re attributing special intelligence to.

    If all humans are computers, that wouldn’t mean that all computers are human. All the computers we’ve built so far don’t possess rationality in the sense that I’m talking about. You can’t build a computer that can talk to you about a programming language ought to be built. There’s no computer that can recognise things with the confidence and fidelity that my little nieces can. Or learn like they do. There’s no computer that I can show a story it has never seen, and watch it gain an understanding comparable or better than my own of it and allow me to discuss characters with it. There’s no computer that I can show a class of pictures of a made up animal, and have it recognize it, give a name to it and abstract a class of that animal and attribute instances of that animal to that class. There’s no computer that I can discuss different kinds of logic with, paradoxes with, in a way that conveys sentience. However if a computer like that could be built. A computer that was like a human. Would that defeat Thomism?

    I’m asking because Thomists seem to have it against artificial intelligences for some strange reason I can’t fathom. If you meet a person one day, who informed you that over the years his ailing brain had been replaced with various prosthetics slowly in small steps. That he had a completely electronic brain sitting somewhere and transmitting signals to an antenna mounted on his spinal cord. That you’d regard him as a non-person. Just a funny tinker toy? Even if you could have an intelligent conversation with him, testing him on all the aspects of human rationality you could think of?

    • December 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      You’ve asked twice about “defeating Thomism” but I’m not sure exactly what you mean. I’m guessing that you are talking about the Thomistic claim that “Only human beings are rational”, and you see this as refuted by the possibility of a rational computer. This means you are appealing to some essential difference(s) between computers and humans, but you give no indication of what it might be. If you don’t have any relevant difference between human beings and computers, then it’s no more odd to say “human beings and (some possible) computers both think” than to say “Africans and Cubans both think”. Of course they do – they’re the same sort of thing! So what is the difference? Is it that a computer is a machine while a human being is not? Then again, if you mean by “a machine” simply something that uses energy to perform tasks, then human beings are “machines” on this account too, and so the looked-for difference disappears. Is the difference that a human being is alive and a computer is not? If you said this, and further conceded that anything with immanent activity was alive, then it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that even the most advanced computer imaginable lacked rationality – it wouldn’t even have sensation. Forget being equal to man, it wouldn’t even be equal to a mosquito (and yes, I’m thinking about your computer one could have a conversation with). For that matter, it wouldn’t even have the intrinsic dignity of a plant.

      “Human being” can mean more than one thing, not only in Thomism but in any philosophy. If by “a human being” you mean any rational being with life and sensation, then space aliens would be human beings. If you mean by “human being” a biological species (in the sense of a reproductive island), then the aliens might be human or not. Similar sic et non considerations apply to computers, though it’s hard for me to overlook the fact that computers are machines, machines are instruments for human use, and human beings are not instruments for human use. This difference is relevant to the question of rationality: rationality is self-activity and the lordship over ones own affairs, i.e. not being an instrument of another’s use.

      Your example of the man with the replaced brain is evocative, but not decisive. Men think, not brains. The brain is an organ and thus an instrument, and no one doubts that the same action can sometimes be done with different instruments. I would like brain nano-bots helping me out for the same reason that I like to wear my glasses, but this does not lead me to wonder whether lenses can see.

  4. Anon said,

    December 8, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    I’m not a Thomist, but I don’t see how a “silicon brain” would undermine Thomism at all. What Thomists are averse to is not the possibility of AI, but the possibility of explaining rationality, intentionality and consciousness solely in terms of material and efficient causes (I tend to agree with them).

    • Curious about Thomism said,

      December 10, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      I just read a short blog post on why Thomists ought to have no problem with the creation of artificial life. Aquinas (and Aristotle) believed the soul of a plant/animal to be its matter and form. Human beings have intentionality, which makes us different from a computer, or a dog, or a Chinese Room. I like the “lenses can’t see” analogy. WE see.

      In the spirit of our technological age, which we all seem to be excited about regardless of our philosophical orientation, here’s another great internet Thomist with some thoughts on Mind/Brain

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