“Unlike animal knowledge, mature human knowledge is not a natural phenomenon.”
— Michael Williams (2015), philosopher
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
There are pet therapists (Levine, 2023), and you can imagine what they do: behavioral training. It’s not what I do for people, but it might not be so different either.
There have been many discussions about what makes humans different from other animals, and most of these proposed differences have not stood up. Humans make tools, and so do animals. Animals have self-awareness, and several species can recognize themselves in a mirror.
Animals certainly have complicated societies in which they recognize their place and the expectations of others. And up until the recent past, geologically speaking, humans lived nature-based lives, and had no special impact on anything.
Knowing and Learning
Primatologists are getting serious. All those interesting documentaries about primate society (Nicholson, 2023) have only made it clear that biologists and filmmakers have been serving us the low hanging fruit. Scenes of animal working collectively, raising families, and fighting wars are interesting because they resemble human behavior, but they tell us little. What we really want to know, and what we’re inferring from these movies without real evidence, is whether animals think like us.
Chimpanzees are our closest living relative. We had closer relatives, the Neanderthals, but they went extinct. No one knows why. Chimps share 95% of our DNA, but given how complicated we are, that’s not surprising. It’s not even clear whether DNA has anything to do with how we think.
Animal behaviorism is interesting, but it’s an indirect path to understanding. Primatologists are now studying the psychology of primates, and now we’re getting some insight.
“The last few decades have seen a huge leap forward in our understanding of non-human culture, with a particular intensity of research on primates. Phenomena once thought to be uniquely human have been found again and again amongst primates and, indeed, across the animal world. It seems that the more we examine social learning in non-human animals including our fellow primates, the less we find it to be limited to humans.”
— Stuart Watson, et al. (2018, p. 224)
Two aspects of primates that notably differ from humans are how we learn, and how we think. Language is a big part of this, but it’s not as clear as one might suspect. Primates have language, but their language is notably different. What they can’t do in language matches what they don’t do in thinking, but which comes first, the language or the thinking?
Primates don’t learn like we do. They do learn from each other, and this go beyond mimicry. They’re not just copying each other, they’re actually gaining insight from each other. Human learning involves gaining insight, but an uncomfortable amount of our learning is little more than mimicry. Most schooling is little more, which is why it contributes nothing to a person’s development.
Conceptual breakthroughs are rare in primate societies, at least it appears so. And when such a breakthrough occurs, such as developing a new way to find food, its adoption is slow. There is no formal animal school of learning, and there are no group discussions. Well, maybe there are, but we would don’t see them as creative.
There is a difference between primate and human thought that is subtle and uncertain, but I think it’s crucial. It’s the ability to understand a false belief.
To understand a belief is to understand that you think something. To understand thinking is metathinking; it means you can understand thinking as something beyond what’s in your mind at the moment. Understanding a thought as a thing means you can understand a thought as something that others might have.
Chimpanzees have this kind of metathinking, they understand:
“… both the goals and intentions of others, as well as the perception and knowledge of others… in terms of a relatively coherent perception–goal psychology in which the other acts in a certain way because… of how she wants the world to be.” — Josep Call and Michael Tomasello (2008)
We do this too, and we do something more: we judge this knowledge. For us, judgement is part of thinking. We cannot conceive of thinking without reflecting on the validity of our thoughts. For humans, whether or not a thought is true makes all the difference. On the other hand, it seems that chimps don’t judge. Although it may be stating too much, it seems that chimps think all thoughts are true.
“The current proposal is that understanding false beliefs requires understanding that another person and I share attention to or knowledge of one and the same reality (which we know together), while at the same time having different perspectives on it.” — Michael Tomasello and Henrike Moll (2013)
What are we doing that chimps are not doing? We can think a thought is true, and we can also think a thought is not understandable. We can think a thought is false, wrong, ill-conceived, or misguided. But to assess a thought as wrong, we have to have some criteria for rightness, like logic, reason, or circumstance.
A wrong thought is not the same as an idea that doesn’t work, it’s more conceptual. A rock that won’t open a coconut is not necessarily a bad idea, it might be a soft rock or a hard coconut. For a thought to be wrong, it has to make some sense as a thought, but fail on some other criteria.
This is a step beyond recognizing a thought as a thing. It requires distinguishing thoughts into different kinds of thoughts, and this is what chimpanzees may be unable to do. For them, a thought is either true, or it’s not a thought.
I cannot understand being able to have a thought without appraising it and, it appears, no one else can either. As I search the academic and popular press for insights into the origins of conflict, no one seems to recognize that it’s the ability to judge thoughts that lies at the root of it. If you can’t judge a thought to be wrong, then you can’t create physical conflict from conflicts of thought.
Chimpanzees will fight each other over power, territory, and resources, but they will not fight over issues, thoughts, or beliefs. In contrast, humans fight more over thoughts than anything. Society exists mostly to mitigate conflicts over resources, but does little to resolve conceptual conflicts.
Separate societies persist mostly because of different ideologies, and one of their main reasons for existence is to fight ideological wars, to defend such ideas as freedom, family, free enterprise, and democracy.
In order to fight ideological wars you must have ideological differences. You must believe that some beliefs are right and others are wrong. Chimpanzees don’t fight these kinds of wars, the question is whether they could.
“Theory of mind is central to our social functioning as humans, but scientists have long wondered whether it is, in fact, a uniquely human trait. There is evidence that apes can understand other’s mental states when they match up with reality, but apes have consistently failed tests of false belief—the idea that someone else may act according to a belief that is untrue.” — Catherine Caruso (2016)
“Using one of the new interactive behavioral infant false-belief tests with apes, we found evidence that apes may have a basic understanding of others’ false beliefs.”
— David Buttlemann et al. (2017)
“Chimpanzees probably do not understand others in terms of a fully human-like belief–desire psychology in which they appreciate that others have mental representations of the world that drive their actions even when those do not correspond to reality…”
— Josep Call & Michael Tomasello (2008, p. 191)
For chimps, it seems, an idea is either right or it’s not understandable. For us, ideas can be right, wrong, inchoate, nonsensical, self-serving, insane, or something else. In other words, we live in a categorical sea while chimpanzees live in a categorical puddle.
It’s still unclear what our nearest relatives think. It’s difficult to determine from observation, and it’s logically unclear. Can you have objective thought without discerning true from false? Is there another way of thinking in relation to which our way of thinking is superior? Are there other ways of thinking that are superior to ours? How would we know?
“The uniquely human ability to understand others in terms of beliefs which may contrast with objective reality has no direct evolutionary bases, only indirect ones. The key is the evolution of humans’ remarkable cooperativeness.” — Michael Tomasello (2018)
It seems to me that there exists another evolutionary step beyond ours. A step that retains the distinctions of true and false, but sees the fundamental similarity of the two. After all, truth is judged on an abstract basis, and abstraction is a concept, not a reality. You must have a theory of truth if you’re going to categorize attitudes as true or untrue.
Nondualists argue that duality is the problem, but as I’ve said before, without duality you cannot have distinction. It’s dichotomy that is the source of conflict, not duality. Yet today’s great nondualists don’t seem to appreciate the distinction.
Buttelmann, D., Buttelmann, F., Carpenter, M., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2017 Apr 5). Great apes distinguish true from false beliefs in an interactive helping task, PLoS One, 12 (4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173793 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5381863
Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (5): 187-92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2008.02.010
Caruso, C. (2016 Oct 6). A gorilla-suit experiment reveals our closest animal relatives may possess “theory of mind”, Scientific American, Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chimps-may-be-capable-of-comprehending-the-minds-of-others
Fumihiro Kano, F., Krupenye, C., Hirata, S., & Call, J. (2019 Sep 30). Great apes use self-experience to anticipate an agent’s action in a false-belief test, PNAS 116 (42): 20904-20909. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910095116
Levine, H. (2023). Does your pet need therapy? WebMD. Retrieved from: https://pets.webmd.com/pet-behavior-21/does-your-pet-need-therapy
Nicholson, R. (2023 Apr 19). Chimp Empire review – this epic tale of betrayal is like Succession, but with apes, The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2023/apr/19/chimp-empire-review-this-epic-tale-of-betrayal-is-like-succession-but-with-apes
Tomasello, M. (2018 Aug 13). How children come to understand false beliefs: A shared intentionality account, PNAS 115 (34): 8491-8498. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804761115
Tomasello, M., & Moll, H. (2013). Why don’t apes understand false beliefs? In M. R. Banaji & S. A. Gelman (Eds.), Navigating the social world: What infants, children, and other species can teach us (pp. 81–87). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199890712.003.0016
Watson, S., Botting, J., Whiten, A., & van de Waal, E. (2018). Culture and selective social learning in wild and captive primates, in L. D. Di Paolo et al. (eds.), Evolution of primate social cognition, Interdisciplinary Evolution Research 5, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-93776-2_14
Williams, M. (2015 Jun). What’s so special about human knowledge?, Episteme 12 (2): 249-68. https://doi.org/10.1017/epi.2015.14
If you struggle with distinguishing true and false beliefs, maybe you need to evolve your thinking.
Call me and we can talk about it.
Enter your email for a FREE 1x/month or a paid 4x/month subscription.
Click the Stream of the Subconscious button.