Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

A Dog’s Life

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.

Thank you.

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.

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18 Responses to “A Dog’s Life”

  1. Dena says:

    This essay has a defensive tone. Whatever cruelty the author has been guilty of, he will not atone by asserting argumentatively that dogs have no personality/identity/(soul?). I’ve owned dogs for forty years, and know from direct, close, and very long experience that this is nonsense.

    • Two observations:
      First, I think it’s probably unwise to publicly speculate about the personal lives of those you disagree with. It’s usually a sign that you don’t have much in the way of a rational case, forcing you to resort to ad hominems (and, in this case, an ad hominem that’s pure guesswork on your part).
      Second, I find it remarkable that in the same comment you would say a) that dogs basically amount to persons; b) that you’ve owned dogs for forty years. If dogs are equivalent to people in some significant moral sense, then owning them would be like owning people, which means that in some significant moral sense, you’d be as reprehensible as a slave holder. No, either dogs are not like persons in any significant moral sense, or you’re guilty of participating in a terrible violation of personal dignity. You can’t have it both ways.

  2. Kelso says:

    Very Good article, Mr. Miravalle, and much needed. I can tell you have studied perennial philosophy. I was taught that sensate animals that have a brain also have sense memory and the three other inner senses of imagination, common sense or instinct, and estimative sense (such as sensing danger, as with thin ice, for example). Of course, without the spiritual faculties of intellect and will, they cannot self “reflect,” i.e. think. Hence their memory is totally a sense function, as in remembering where they buried a bone. Dogs, obviously, experience sense imagery, again totally non-spiritual, as in their dreaming. Your explanation of the pain experience was very helpful to me. For, I find this the hardest thing to explain to people who think animals experience pain to the same degree man does. I am of the opinion, which I do not broadcast, that we should not say we “love” an animal. Rather we should say we “like” them. No one is going to give their life for a dog, or I hope not. Nor does God “love” animals; He loves man and the angels, whom He made in His image and likeness. The created world was made for man, for man’s contemplation and enjoyment, and of course, for his physical needs. Now let me excuse myself for I can sense some strong retorts coming. There is one and only one exception to my not loving animals: I do love my dog Huan.

  3. Jeff says:

    I think you’re right on all counts. You’ve spelled out, in modern terms, what humanity has intrinsically known for our entire pre-Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Flipper, existence. The anthropomorphization of animals has certainly gotten out of hand in the last century.

    When it comes to pets, it can run the gamut from cute, to silly, to outlandish. When it comes to a craze, like PETA, or “meat is murder” claims, you reach levels that run from outrageous to clear societal detriment.

    Of course we love our pets, and that is great. But rather than presuming that they love us back, I think it’s more apt to say that they enjoy our company.

  4. Proteios1 says:

    I guess I thought this was going to emphasize the uniqueness of man amongst Gods creatures. We are clearly made unique by God. There’s no doubt. But I’m not sure this negates anything of interest or substance from his other creatures. They have gifts and some amazing skills, yet clearly they are not humans.
    In fact I thought this was going to intellectualize the cross stupidity of organizations like PETA trying to empower animals and, yes…fish with rights. The folly of living in a world that routinely kills, directly or in portrayal (TV), humans with such disregard, yet we should consider animals with rights.
    But alas the article took a different and to me a confusing direction.

  5. Manny says:

    I disagree. What you’re confusing is a dog’s inability to communicate or express the nature of his being with an absence of being. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one. It is my experience, and I would say most dog owners would agree, that a dog has a personal sense of being.

  6. Jen says:

    I guess the whole question depends on how you are defining “Memory”. If you mean an awareness of self and the way that past experiences accumulate and become a defining part of us, then I agree, there is no self-definition in the past for an animal. However, in many animals, especially prey animals like horses, deer, sheep, etc, their entire existence is dependent on a memory that, in a sense, becomes “hard-wired” almost instantly. It is not a reasoning ability, but it is an almost perfect memory, perhaps more like a computer. It is the thing that makes them avoid the path where they saw the mountain lion, or the part of the hill that fell off when they were passing. Domestic sheep are incredibly stupid, but a flock develops almost a collective memory that allows them to avoid predators and recognize and follow the Shepherd. These things aren’t habits that develop over time. Horses can have one bad experience in a trailer, or with a person, and they are never the same. It’s about survival.
    Just observations, in response to your reflections.

    • Yeah, I think that’s right. I like the analogy with computers and “hard-wiring,” because it doesn’t imply consciousness or continual subject with accumulating experiences — although, as I wrote, I think we have to add that unlike computers animals express feeling-states like pleasure and pain.

  7. Howard says:

    So, plausible assertion + plausible assertion + plausible assertion = proof? Sorry; this is a great example of why I tend to distrust so much of even classical philosophy. Your casual observations of dogs may make a nice story, but in the end you are just saying, “Nah, I don’t think dogs have real memory.” This is met by equal rigor by the pet lover who says, “Yeah, I think they do.”

    Worse than that, to argue that animals are not persons because they may be like humans with mental illness is to make a very problematic implication — that humans with mental illness are not persons. Of course you can’t *prove* that; you have never been a person with a short-term memory loss.

    • I think probably it’s not a very good approach to either “trust” or “mistrust” philosophy; I think the best approach to philosophical claims is to examine the evidence and the arguments involved.
      As I said, I don’t claim to be able to prove that animals don’t have an awareness of the past; my point is that the burden of proof seems to be on those who believe in things (in this case, an animal’s conscious memories of the past) for which there seems to be little or no evidence. As to the short-term-memory-loss example, that’s meant merely as a counter-example — and, I think, an very strong one — against the principle that conditioned behavior requires an awareness of the past.

      • Howard says:

        It’s too strong by half. It’s true that our sole basis for judging the mental state of an animal is its behavior; it is also true that a human is an animal. It is possible to believe that human beings have no spiritual part — at least it is conceivable that everyone other than the observer is a kind of biological robot. The kind of observations you make are simply UNABLE TO DETECT A SPIRITUAL COMPONENT. Since your method ALWAYS returns the result “not able to detect anything spiritual”, it is useless.

        • I think you make a valid point, but then the question becomes WHICH behaviors tell us something about internal experience? As I said in the post, it seems to me that only those behaviors which are dedicated to the purpose of internal expression should be indicative of inner experience.

  8. Jett says:

    All I know is that my cat remembers the things I’ve done for him and it shows it to me, in contrast with certain human beings for whom I have some more care than my cat, and they don’t even say: “Thank you”

  9. Diffal says:

    By “great philosophers” I take it you mean Descartes et al? Because you seem to set up a cartesian dualism of body(my body) and soul(me).

    Indeed animals as machines is likewise straight out of cartesian philosophy. Just because an animal lacks the ability for rational abstraction does not necessarily mean it lacks memory, certainly we can say that the estimative power of a dog does not allow abstraction and apprehension of universals(such as “dogness” for want of a better word) but that does not exclude the possibility for memory, indeed in a certain sense, memory of actions is necessary for movement from A to B, and for gaining an estimation of (interpreting in the loosest possible sense) the world around it. The ability to train a dog likewise indicates some degree of memory(even if it only allows skinnarian operant conditioning).

    I fear that you are mixing up knowledge of particulars in memory(individual and simple things) which allow habits to form, with the human capacity for memory and experience of multiple events. This expereince (knowledge of several similar events) allow us to abstract from our surroundings to aprehend universals(i see several chairs and so can grasp the concept of “chairness”) and so carry out the thinking and functions proper to our natire as rational animals.

    • I’m not really sure why distinguishing between the body and the soul in the human being amounts to a problematical dualism. Also, I didn’t argue that a dog’s inability to abstract proves its lack of memory. Seems to me those are separate questions. Can a dog abstract? I don’t think so. Does a dog have an awareness of the past? Again, I don’t think so. I don’t see any evidence for dog abstraction or for a dog’s awareness of past events – that doesn’t mean I argue from one doubt to the other, as you seem to be suggesting. Of course, as I acknowledged, a dog’s behavior is largely conditioned by past events, but why does that prove a mental awareness of the past? Why not just a susceptibility to changes over time? (Also, incidentally, I don’t see why there’s anything particularly Cartesian about my views on animal memory. I don’t know what Descartes thought about animal memory, but CS Lewis, Nietzsche, William Lane Craig, and Michael J. Murray all seem to have a view similar to mine).

  10. Laura says:

    I agree to a point. I have parrots, and they are sensate, learn, interact and remember. They use tools. They are certainly much more advanced in intelligence than dogs. I suggest you glance at Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s studies of Alex the African Grey and the books she wrote about his intelligence and learning and memory, which are tested at about the age of three-year-old toddlers.

    Now, that being said, I don’t know if they possess that ineffable something that makes up man. I doubt it. I do not think they contemplate the future nor their own demise. However, I think their intelligence is much more than commonly accepted.

    I’m sure I’m not expressing myself well, but you get the drift. There are also dogs that mourn their master’s passing. There is something much more there. Elephants are also another interesting subject. How can they only live in the moment when they remember, and mourn, lost members?

    The study of the human brain/mind is a great, unexplored territory that we have only begun to understand. For instance, the subject of brain death as a definition of death. How do we know what is going on in the mind of the person who is classified as “vegetative”?

    Who says that ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, as science and medicine advance and develop diagnostic tools and tests much more advanced than we have now, that we will discover that there is much more going on and being experienced, even intellectually, in that “vegetative” brain than we even realize? That is why I think heart death should be the standard for death. In the distant future, we may look back and find out we unplugged people who were still very much alive in their minds, but we just didn’t have the instruments to measure it.

  11. socialwork77 says:

    What about the dog that remembers her master after she has been away for a long time, like in the service? To me that implies some recall of the past.

    Some of your article I can understand. The rest of it seems terribly narrow to me. Other animals, besides humans, are God’s creatures and created by God. Does God love other creatures less?

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