Clearing the Heart to See the Truth
Personal identity is a strange thing; great philosophers have spent a lot of time puzzling over the essence of human personality. These days, though, plenty of people are puzzled just by animal identities. What about the identity of dogs and cats and dolphins? I mean, they have inner experiences too, right? They aren’t just robots. So are they persons, the same as we are? And is their personal identity as hard to define as ours? Take the Dog. Is the Dog as mysterious as the Man?
First, let’s review why the Man is mysterious. He’s mysterious because he can’t seem to get at his identity. His identity isn’t his body – in fact, the Man even uses phrases like, “My body,” which imply that he’s different than his body; he’s something that has a body. Also, we couldn’t say that the Man is identical to his body because the Man has a number of experiences which go beyond his biological parameters. The Man innovates, the Man has abstract beliefs, worldviews, conceptual definitions. The Man makes inferences which go beyond his immediate bodily experiences, and performs mathematical calculations without checking to see if they hold in the physical world. Now all these experiences need a single thing to connect them, some binding cord to tie them all together as “The Man’s Experiences.” But that binding cord can’t be the body, since the experiences I’ve mentioned deal with non-physical stuff, and body just deals with physical stuff, stuff you can see and touch. It would be like trying to get a bunch of mathematical-realization-experiences into a glass jar. Not going to happen. So there has to be a non-material reality – the Person that is the Man – connecting all these trans-body experiences.
None of that is true of the Dog. The Dog would never say, “I hate my body,” or “My body’s looking just the way I like it.” The Dog doesn’t make a linguistic or conceptual distinction between self and body, since the Dog doesn’t make linguistic or conceptual distinctions at all. He doesn’t innovate, doesn’t do math, doesn’t theorize.
Does the Dog have memory? I think almost everybody would say he does. Well then, doesn’t he need some sort of mysterious personal identity to link those memories, just like the Man? No, because all of the Dog’s memories have to do with physical experiences. The patterns, formed by physical experience – stimulas-response, really – can be kept in a physical storage unit like a brain. The Man’s experiences, which go beyond the physical, require something beyond the physical to keep them connected. So the Man is way more mysterious than the Dog, because with the Man you can’t just explain who he is by pointing to his brain, or to his bodily structure.
Okay, even though we could leave the matter here and be done with it, I want to talk a bit more about the Dog having memory.
Why? Haven’t you already proved your point about the differences between people and animals?
Yes, I think so.
So why beat a dead horse?
An apt metaphor.
Because I think it’s interesting and because it’s my post so I can write about what I want and because I don’t think animals actually do have memory.
What????!!!! You don’t think animals have memory?????!!!!!
No I don’t, and I don’t care how many question marks or exclamation points you use. After all, what evidence do we have that animals have memory? The main proof seems to be that they acquire new behaviors based on experiences in the past. But in fact it’s quite possible to acquire new behaviors without remembering anything at all about the past. A perfect example is anterograde amnesia – also known as short-term memory loss – a disability which makes it impossible to form new and lasting memories. When people with anterograde amnesia reenter a learning environment, they have no recollection of having been there before. They just can’t “remember” anything, but, they can be trained to perform certain specific behaviors, like how to tie their shoes (the ability to acquire new behaviors and skills is called procedural memory). So mere conditioning doesn’t depend on memory, i.e., an awareness of the past. You don’t have to have a present experience of the past for your behavior to be affected by the past. Consequently, conditioning is no argument for making memory a part of an animal’s experience.
How should you decide what a thing is capable of experiencing? Well, it seems to me that you have to look at behaviors which are devoted to internal expression. We humans do lots of internal expression. We say, “I’m thinking about it,” or “I’ve made my decision,” or, “Oh sure, I remember him.” The main purpose of each of those behaviors is to express our inner experiences. Also, we have internally expressive behaviors which don’t involve words: a smile, a laugh, tears, howling, etc… But all the non-verbal, internally expressive behaviors just express feeling-states. Right? A smile or a laugh indicates “She’s happy,” while tears and howling indicate “Sad, in pain.”
The important point is that non-verbal, feeling-state expressions are the only things we get with animals. Jake’s tail-wagging just expresses “At this moment, I’m happy.” When a horse puts its ears back, it seems to just express “At this moment, I’m upset.” When a rabbit screams, it expresses “I’m in pain.”
That doesn’t express a complicated inner life. So all the Dog expresses is his feeling-experience at the moment, which, of course, is constantly changing. Seems to me that would mean that the Dog doesn’t have memory, at least not in the sense of an awareness of the past. It would mean there’s no unity or continuity of experiences which build up in the Dog over the course of a lifetime. There’s only this experience, which then disappears and is replaced by that experience. In other words, time doesn’t enrich an animal’s inner life.
Now in people every moment of pain is added to the moment of pain that went before, so that the longer pain endures the greater the pain becomes. It’s a cumulative effect. But, if animals don’t have memory, then they can only ever suffer one single moment of pain.
I like that conclusion, because the practical result is that when you kill an animal, it doesn’t end a psychological life; it doesn’t end a history, a train of experiences which have bonded together over the years in this chicken or cow. It only ends a momentary experience which would have ended anyway, to be replaced by a different, separate, momentary experience. Also, it would mean that however badly an animal was mistreated, that animal would only feel the suffering of this particular moment – all the other suffering would vanish into the past. This is no excuse for needlessly torturing animals, but it does make things like experiments on rats much more palatable.
Obviously, I can’t prove this is the case. I’ve never been a dog, so I don’t know for sure what it’s like. And I realize most people, especially pet-owners, are going to disagree with me on animal memory. “Of course Fifi has memory! She’s so happy to see me every time I come home, and she also remembers the handyman who stepped on her paw five years ago. Every time she sees him, she still barks and growls like a fluffy little lunatic.”
Again, my point is that Fifi doesn’t quite say, “I remember you, paw-stepper!” She just manifests antagonistic behavior, which seems to express some sort of displeasure at the handyman’s presence. And to me, although it’s obvious the past has left its mark on Fifi, that doesn’t seem sufficient evidence to give her memory.
But getting back to what we should all be able to agree upon: the Dog is his body. He makes no distinction between himself and his body, and none of his experiences go beyond the physical – they are all tied to his body as effects to cause. Consequently, there doesn’t seem to be any mysterious Person which is different from both the Dog’s physiology and the Dog’s experiences. And, since the Dog is completely determined by physical factors, he has no more freedom than any other physical object (i.e., a rock).
The Man, on the other hand, does have experiences which go far beyond the physical, experiences which do need some mysterious Personality to unite them. The Man is not his body, and not his experiences. The Man is something else.
John-Mark Miravalle, S.T.D.