Friday, January 27, 2017


Tuxie, a formal cat with a soul patch.

Observing these nearly-grown kittens who bounce around me, I see that they are conscious, able to form a purpose and pursue it, even if I try to discourage them.  How many times did I have to throw Tuxie off my keyboard so far — I don’t mean how many occasions, I mean one after another after another.  25 in a row, so far.  But she has no interest in my opinion of her actions, just which ones might hurt her.  Or be good to eat.  Nor does she wonder why I don’t want her on my keyboard.  Or what a keyboard is anyway.  She does have a passing interest in the little cursor arrow, thinking it’s a bug, but no interest in the "mouse" whatsoever.  It’s just a lump to her.  She doesn't do metaphor.

So that’s consciousness, but not self-consciousness.  She doesn’t ponder what sort of kitten she is or where she came from, she simply performs her life as she has evolved to do.  It happens to be quite a successful strategy for survival, since part of that evolution is to be cute, but that’s only as an individual cat.  Taken on the whole, cat mortality is high.  Their strategy for group survival is to make lots more kittens.

This is a town loaded with cats: pets, ferals (entirely wild but in town), satellites (come and go around households), mousers, field cats — all opportunists, just taking the path of least resistance.

The people in most places are pretty much like that as well, but they watch each other, and most wonder what the other guy is doing.  It can be competitive, or it can be meant to help.  They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what each other are doing and why and whether it will really work or not.  If results are good, they might try the same thing.  In terms of cats, today they discovered how to get on the roof by climbing a tree.

A cat tries to figure out what a mouse will do, both in the sense of hot pursuit and in the sense of lying in wait at likely places.  I watch them play and realize they take their toys into the bathroom because the room is small and there’s not much to hide behind.  When I move big pieces of furniture, there are often little caches of toys just beyond the reach of the cat, because cats don’t think of using a stick to knock it out of there.  A monkey would.  But they have a constant itch to go behind, to tip over, to knock stuff off heights, to pounce on any lump of cloth — like my slippers.  Also built in is the thing about the leopard dragging off a dead gazelle, except that it’s a washrag.

One of the early consciousness “raising” events decades ago was a male and female biology team that went out with clipboards to observe herds in Africa.  They watched and noted every small meme performed by the ungulates.  At the end of the day, the woman’s notes were all about protecting babies, nursing, calves getting lost, and other domestic acts.  The man’s notes were all about sparring, scanning the horizon, making bluff attacks on possible predators.  They weren’t ASSIGNED this difference in gender roles — it’s just what they noticed, what got into their consciousness.

I don’t know whether the team went back and consciously tried to note the actions of the animals that were opposite their own gender.  The tendency in experiments now is not to be so free-form, to set up events that will show what the animals are thinking as demonstrated by their behavior, and then to videotape them so they can be observed and analyzed repeatedly by different people with different interests.

A recent experiment showed the usual suspects (university undergrads) a little vid about eating.  Then they were asked to complete this word:  SO_P.  The students supplied:  “soup.”  Then they did the same thing but with a vid about showering. They asked SO_P and they got soap.  That’s sort of trivial but it shows how much context and mind-set control what we think.

When I first moved to Valier in 1999, one of my best Browning Blackfeet friends stopped by.  My neighbor immediately rushed over, using the pretext of bringing me some garden truck: two potatoes and a turnip.  She believed she was protecting me from a home invasion.  My visitor was Darrell Kipp, an internationally valued educator with a Harvard degree, a person I’d known since he was in high school in 1961.  He knew what my neighbor was thinking: she was demonstrating it.  She thought she knew what Darrell was thinking, but she had no idea.  She didn’t even have a concept of what a Harvard education was.

The theory of mind is the superficial noting of how an individual acts and how one interprets it.  A cat has a theory of mind about a mouse: it will run along a wall, it will dodge under spaces too small for a cat, double back, flatten out or narrow up to get through small apertures.  And the cat develops a repertoire of responses and predictions that help it catch that mouse.  Mammals and reptiles have brains that grasp a theory of mind.  It’s an open question whether bugs do, but they seem to know when and how to jump on prey.  Under a microscope one can see the microbes “eat” each other —the big ones just en-glob the little ones — but more than that it sure looks as though the big ones know how to chase and the little ones know how to evade, so is that mind?

Humans — at least SOME humans have the capacity to empathize.  This is not the same thing as sympathize, which means sharing the pathos of what has befallen others.  A little kid who sees you crying will come and put his arms around you, try to comfort you, but they probably won’t feel or even grasp what a grieving person knows and feels.  Even more dismaying, if a little kid is crying, people snap at them, “Stop crying!” instead of asking to be told all about it, enough to feel it in their own bodies, to share the burden of the feeling.

Many think that empathy is what makes humans able to work together, to share values, even to love each other.  This is a key to art and civilization.  But now, in a time when not so many people can even “feel” each other, some thinkers are trying to understand what is beyond empathy — a Spockian shared minds sort of thing, maybe.  Our insistence on rationality and logic may have gone as far as it can go.  Maybe it’s causing us to miss a lot of useful phenomena that would make life better for us all.  We need to throw aside a lot of old tired assumptions, like the idea that those who are different are a threat.  Maybe they’re a salvation.

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