Intelligent Design

The Myth of the Continuum of Creatures: A Reply to John Jeremiah Sullivan (Part 3(b))

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In my previous post on John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, One of us, I exposed the numerous factual errors in its depiction of how people’s attitudes to animals have changed over the course of time. My expose stopped at the end of the Middle Ages; today, I’ll be talking about Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza and the physiologist Haller (who influenced Voltaire’s thinking on animals).

A short summary of Sullivan’s errors

Sullivan is a great admirer of the humanistic scholar Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who argued eloquently for the existence of rationality in animals, in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”. Sullivan’s essay contains villains too: one of these is the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who described animals as “natural automata”, which Sullivan interprets to mean that on Descartes’ view, animals “desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” But as we’ll see, this construal of Descartes’ views is almost certainly a caricature; what Descartes denied to animals was not feelings, but thoughts. (By the way, it may interest Sullivan to know that the first person to compare animals to “automatic puppets” was not Descartes, but the philosopher Aristotle.) Sullivan waxes lyrical about the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), whom he commends for recognizing that not only humans, but all kinds of animals, have souls – apparently unaware that Aristotle had affirmed that all living organisms have souls 2,000 years earlier. Sadly, Sullivan manages to completely misconstrue Spinoza’s views on animals, attributing to him the view that animals differed from human beings only in degree. In fact, Spinoza believed that human beings alone possessed the ability to regulate their passions through the use of reason, which meant that only human beings were fit to live in a society governed by laws. Spinoza systematically excluded animals from his sphere of ethical concern: he asserts that we may “use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours,” and he scornfully declares that “the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason.” Finally, Sullivan skips over the two centuries following Spinoza’s death, and extols Charles Darwin (1809-1882) for taking the popular discussion of animal consciousness “away from the salon and into the lab.” In fact, as we’ll see below, it was the laboratory research of the Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) that was responsible for convincing many scientists, and the populace at large, that animals did indeed have feelings. In declaring animals to be sentient, Darwin was saying nothing new. What was new was Darwin’s attempt to build a systematic scientific (as opposed to philosophical) case in support of his claim that man and the other animals differed only in degree.

Chapter 18 – Animal automata: Who originated the metaphor, Aristotle or Descartes?

A postulated interior of the mechanical “Digesting Duck”, created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, by an American observer. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to Sullivan, it was the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who first propounded the novel and disturbing view (which, he says, “drew immediate controversy”) that animals were automata:

Descartes’ term for them [animals – VJT] was automata – windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants. This is how it was with animals, Descartes held. We look at them – they seem so full of depth, so like us, but it’s an illusion. Everything they do can be attached by causal chain to some process, some natural event. Picture two kittens next to each other, watching a cat toy fly around, their heads making precisely the same movements at precisely the same time, as if choreographed, two little fleshy machines made of nerves and electricity, obeying their mechanical mandate.

Gomez Pereira and Aristotle likened animals to automata, long before Descartes

Sullivan appears to be unaware that Descartes was not the first person to put forward this claim: some 80 years before Descartes, the Spanish philosopher Gomez Pereira had already argued that animals are true machines, prompting a reply by the physician Francisco de Sosa, whose polemical work, Endecalago against Antoniana Margarita, in which is treated many and very sensitive reasons and authorities of the proofs of the feeling and movement of brutes, was published in 1556.

In fact, the philosophical analogy between animals and automata is a surprisingly old one: it goes back to Aristotle, who first likened animals to “automatic puppets” in his work, On the Movement of Animals, Part 7. Aristotle noted a key difference between animals and the automata of his day: the latter were moved by parts that remained constant in size, whereas in animals, the parts causing motion did so by expanding and contracting, under the influence of the senses. But Aristotle also anticipated that automata could (in principle) be built that were moved by “the same circular movement” as animals’ body parts:

The movements of animals may be compared with those of automatic puppets, which are set going on the occasion of a tiny movement; the levers are released, and strike the twisted strings against one another; or with the toy wagon. For the child mounts on it and moves it straight forward, and then again it is moved in a circle owing to its wheels being of unequal diameter (the smaller acts like a centre on the same principle as the cylinders). Animals have parts of a similar kind, their organs, the sinewy tendons to wit and the bones; the bones are like the wooden levers in the automaton, and the iron; the tendons are like the strings, for when these are tightened or leased movement begins. However, in the automata and the toy wagon there is no change of quality, though if the inner wheels became smaller and greater by turns there would be the same circular movement set up. In an animal the same part has the power of becoming now larger and now smaller, and changing its form, as the parts increase by warmth and again contract by cold and change their quality. This change of quality is caused by imaginations and sensations and by ideas. Sensations are obviously a form of change of quality, and imagination and conception have the same effect as the objects so imagined and conceived.

Why did Aristotle ascribe sentience to animals but not to automata?

A modern reader might ask why Aristotle did not conclude (as Descartes is widely supposed to have done) that animals were utterly devoid of sentience, like the automatic puppets whose movements so closely resembled those of animals. From an Aristotelian perspective, the critical difference between an automaton and an animal is that the former embodies extrinsic finality, whereas the latter instantiates immanent finality. This distinction is explained at further length by philosophy professor Edward Feser in his thoughtfully argued post, Nature versus Art (30 April 2011). Feser’s argument may be summarized as follows: the parts of an automaton have no inherent tendency to function together: their purpose is wholly extrinsic to their natures, and is imposed on them from outside. By contrast, in living things such as animals, the parts have an inherent tendency to function together for the good of the whole: they possess dedicated functionality, from the atomic level up.

Aristotle also believed that for a living thing, having the power of sense automatically entailed having an appetite of desire for objects perceived as pleasant, and of desire to avoid objects perceived as painful. As he puts it in his De Anima Book II, part 3:

If any order of living things has the sensory [power], it must also have the appetitive; for appetite is the genus of which desire, passion, and wish are the species; now all animals have one sense at least, viz. touch, and whatever has a sense has the capacity for pleasure and pain and therefore has pleasant and painful objects present to it, and wherever these are present, there is desire, for desire is just appetition of what is pleasant.

I have to say that this strikes me as a question-begging argument. Sensitivity does not equal sentience; and an organism’s ability to respond to the touch of an object by moving towards or away from that object need not imply that the organism subjectively experiences the object as pleasant or unpleasant. In modern parlance, nociception (or the ability to react to noxious stimuli) is not the same thing as pain (which the International Association for the Study of Pain defines as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage,” which is “always subjective”).

However, in his De Anima Book I, part 1, Aristotle puts forward a different argument, to the effect that while the passions of the animal soul can be described in third-person terminology when we describe the movements of their related body parts, the “concurrent affection” of the body needs to be described in first-person terms, as a conscious feeling. In Aristotle’s words: “all the affections of soul involve a body – passion, gentleness, fear, pity, courage, joy, loving, and hating; in all these there is a concurrent affection of the body.” He then goes on to say that the feeling of anger might be defined differently, depending on whether we look at its formal character (“the appetite for returning pain for pain”) or its material manifestations – thus a physician might define it as “a boiling of the blood or warm substance surrounding the heart.” But all this proves is that a subjective feeling is capable of having a physical manifestation. What it fails to explain is why that physical manifestation should invariably be accompanied by a subjective feeling, in a living body.

If he were questioned on this point, Aristotle (who was a thoroughgoing teleologist) would probably argue that anger must have a biological purpose, and that where the biological circumstances calling for a reaction of anger on the animal’s part were present, it would be intellectually perverse not to assume that the subjective feeling was not also present. This argument assumes, however, that the conscious feeling of anger would be biologically useful to the animal. This is not always the case, as Professor James D. Rose et al. explain in their article, Can fish really feel pain? (Fish and Fisheries, 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010):

Then there is the question of the utility of consciousness or pain to a fish. Most fishes fail to reach adulthood and predation is the greatest reason for this. Those that do survive must react to attacks by predators within milliseconds (Helfman et al, 1997). Rapid reactions are best performed unconsciously, even in humans. Adding additional processing time with consciousness would likely prove fatal. The same considerations apply to predators, which must react to prey capture opportunities faster than the prey can escape. Furthermore, many predators are simultaneously prey, especially as juveniles, so escape and attack behaviors must be instantaneously ready at all times. Where is the value of consciousness here? (2012, p. 26)

To sum up: while Aristotle makes a valid teleological distinction between living and non-living things, a critic could argue that he has not convincingly shown why living things – even if they are animals with senses and passions – require conscious feelings, in order to act in the way in which they do. The biological value of consciousness needs to be explored further.

Chapter 19 – Did Descartes really deny that animals were sentient?

Portrait of Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Oil on canvas. Louvre Museum, Richelieu, 2nd floor, room 27. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

Was Descartes really a Cartesian? Sullivan’s simplistic characterization of Descartes’ views

One of the cardinal villains featuring in Sullivan’s essay on animal consciousness is the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), whose mechanistic views on animals he presents in his worst possible light:

The modern conversation on animal consciousness proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of Rene Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”

The foregoing description is an example of what might be called the “standard interpretation” of Descartes. On this view, “mind” – which for Descartes includes not only thoughts, but all conscious states, such as aches and pains, sensations and emotions – belongs to the soul, which is immaterial, while the body is nothing but an unconscious, insentient piece of clockwork. Because Descartes held a mechanistic view of life, rejected final causes, and denied the Aristotelian claim that animals possess a sensitive soul, it seems to follow that on his view, animals could not possibly feel anything: they are insentient.

Sullivan appears to be completely unaware of a scholarly debate which has been raging in philosophical circles for the past few decades, regarding Descartes’ views on animals. Recently, a number of scholars have cogently argued that the traditional interpretation of Descartes is open to challenge, on several grounds.

(a) Descartes never said that animals aren’t sentient

First, nowhere in Descartes’ writings does he say that animals eat without pleasure, or cry without pain, or that they know nothing. Instead of quoting the man himself, Sullivan chooses to quote a paraphrase of his views, written by another French philosopher, whose thinking was profoundly influenced by that of Descartes: Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715). However, Malebranche never even met Descartes; he was a boy of twelve when Descartes died, and he didn’t read Descartes’ Treatise on Man until 1664, when he was 26. By then, Descartes had been dead for fourteen years.

(b) Descartes might well have regarded automata as capable of having subjective feelings

Second, as the philosopher John Cottingham argues in an article entitled, ‘A Brute to the Brutes?’: Descartes’ Treatment of Animals (Philosophy 53 (1978), pp. 551-559), the fact that Descartes described animals as “natural automata” (e.g. in his letter to Henry More of 5 February 1649) does not entail that he regarded animals as beings devoid of feeling:

It is Descartes’ use of the term ‘automaton’ more than any other that has led critics to convict him of holding the monstrous thesis (thus, Kemp Smith speaks of the Cartesian view that animals are ‘mere automata … incapable of experiencing the feelings of well-being or the reverse, hunger or thirst … ‘).[10] But the inference from ‘x is an automaton’ to ‘X is incapable of feeling’ is a mistaken one. Webster’s dictionary gives the primary meaning of ‘automaton’ as simply ‘a machine that is relatively self-operating’; and neither this nor the subsidiary meaning (‘creature who acts in a mechanical fashion’) automatically implies the absence of feeling.[11] Even today, then, to regard total insensibility as part of the meaning of ‘automaton’ would seem to be an error; and this seems to have been even more true in the seventeenth century, where ‘automaton’ probably carried no more than its strict Greek meaning of ‘self-moving thing’. (1978, p. 553)

(c) Descartes ascribes fear, hope and joy to animals

Third, as Cottingham also observes in his 1978 article, Descartes made some statements about animals having feelings which appear, on the face of it, to completely contradict Malebranche’s paraphrase of what he believed Descartes had taught. Thus in his letter to Henry More of 5 February, 1649, Descartes explains that the sounds made by horses, dogs and other animals are not genuine language, but are ways of “communicating to us … their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger and so on.” In a similar vein, in his letter to the Marquess of Newcastle of 23 November 1646, Descartes writes:

If you teach a magpie to say good-day to its mistress when it sees her coming, all you can possibly have done is to make the emitting of this word the expression of one of its feelings. For instance it will be an expression of the hope of eating, if you have habitually given it a titbit when it says the word. Similarly, all the things which dogs, horses, and monkeys are made to do are merely expressions of their fear, their hope, or their joy; and consequently, they can do these things without any thought …
[Ch. Adam and P. Tannery (eds), Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913), vol. IV, p. 574; A. Kenny, Descartes’ Philosophical Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), p. 207.]

Cottingham comments:

‘Impulses of anger, fear, hunger’; ‘expression of one of its feelings’; ‘expressions of fear, hope and joy’. These are quite extraordinary phrases to use for a man who is supposed to believe animals are ‘without feeling or awareness of any kind’… If this were not enough, in the letter to More, Descartes specifically separates cogitatio (thought) from sensus (sensation), and states that he denies the former, but not the latter, to animals: ‘I should like to stress that I am talking of thought, not of … sensation; for … I deny sensation to no animal, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ’.
[Ch. Adam and P. Tannery (eds), Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913), vol. V, p. 278; A. Kenny, Descartes’ Philosophical Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), p. 245.]
(Cottingham, 1978, pp. 556-557)

Now, it is possible to read the above passages in a minimalistic sense: perhaps Descartes is using the words “sensation” and “passion” to denote mere bodily sensitivity and built-in drives, unaccompanied by any phenomenally subjective conscious states. However, Cottingham points out that Descartes also ascribes fear, hope and joy to non-human animals – terms which in normal parlance refer to conscious, subjective feelings.

(d) Descartes ascribes common sense, imagination and memory to animals

But even if we were prepared to suppose that Descartes was referring only to the bodily manifestations of these emotions and not the psychic states that accompany them in human beings, the following passage, taken from his Treatise on Man, which was posthumously published in Paris in 1664, in which Descartes ascribes not only external senses but also common sense, imagination and memory to the human body, which Descartes regards as being a machine which functions much like the body of a non-human animal:

“I should like you to consider, after this, all the functions I have ascribed to this machine — such as the digestion of food, the beating of the heart and arteries, the nourishment and growth of the limbs, respiration, waking and sleeping, the reception by the external sense organs of light, sounds, smells, tastes, heat and other such qualities, the imprinting of the ideas of these qualities in the organ of the ‘common’ sense and the imagination, the retention or stamping of these ideas in the memory, the internal movements of the appetites and passions, and finally the external movements of all the limbs (movements which are so appropriate not only to the actions of objects presented to the senses, but also to the passions and the impressions found in the memory, that they imitate perfectly the movements of a real man). I should like you to consider that these functions follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels. In order to explain these functions, then, it is not necessary to conceive of this machine as having any vegetative or sensitive soul or other principle of movement and life, apart from its blood and its spirits, which are agitated by the heat of the fire burning continuously in its heart — a fire which has the same nature as all the fires that occur in inanimate bodies.”
(Descartes, Rene. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothof, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.)

If Descartes was willing to ascribe “common” sense, imagination, memory, and “the internal movements of the appetites and passions” to the human body, then presumably he must have been willing to ascribe the same to the bodies of non-human animals.

The point that Descartes is making in the above passage is an anti-Aristotelian one: he is arguing that it is quite possible for a physical entity (such as an animal) to have external senses (such as sight and taste), internal senses (such as common sense, imagination and memory) and passions, without the need for any mysterious “soul.” (Aristotle had ascribed a sensitive soul to animals.) What Descartes is not saying is that because these powers of animals are physical, they are therefore devoid of any kind of subjectivity.

Why, then, does Descartes appear to say that “thoughtless” brutes are incapable of having feelings?

As we have seen, the key features of the traditional “standard” reading of Descartes are firstly, that Descartes equated mind with consciousness, thereby expanding the definition of “mind” to include anything with a subjective aspect – aches and pains, sensations and emotions as well as thoughts – and secondly, that the body is nothing but an unconscious, insentient piece of clockwork. Defenders of the “standard view” of Descartes commonly cite passages in his writings in which he appears to describe all mental states as forms of thought, placing them in the mind rather than the body. On this view, animals, lacking a mind, will enjoy none of these states.

At first blush, the textual evidence seems to support the view that Descartes regarded sensations and feelings as forms of thought, as illustrated by the following quote from Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1644), seems to support such an interpretation:

By thought I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us. And that is why not alone understanding, willing, imagining, but also feeling, are here the same thing as thought (Haldane and Ross, 1970, I.222).

In another passage, Descartes appears to equate the terms “thought,” “perception” and “consciousness”:

[T]here are … characteristics which we call mental [literally cogitative, or relating to thought] such as understanding, willing, imagining, sensing, and so on. All these are united by having in common the essential principle of thought, or perception, or consciousness [conscientia, a state of being aware] (Descartes’ Reply to Hobbes’ Second Objection, translation and footnotes by Ross, 1975-1979).

According to Descartes, sensations in human beings have a propositional content, which is lacking in animals

This “standard” interpretation of Descartes has been vigorously challenged by G. Baker and K. Morris, in their book, Descartes’ Dualism (1996, London: Routledge), and more recently in their reply to Nadler’s review (“Descartes’ Dualism?” in Philosophical Books, 38, 3, July 1997, pp. 157-169). Baker and Morris (1996) argue that the foregoing account overlooks an ambiguity in Descartes’ usage of the term “sense” or “feel” (sentire): the term may refer to a bodily process involving sense organs, or it may signify our cognitive apprehension or judgement that we are undergoing such a process. The authors argue that for Descartes, “sensing”, defined according to the latter, more restricted meaning is inherently propositional. Having a sense-perception (defined as a mental event) does not involve introspecting a qualium, as many modern commentators suppose, but having a thought with a particular propositional content (e.g. “There’s a dog standing in front of me”), which relates to a process occurring in one’s body. Thus mental events are inherently cognitive. The real dichotomy in Descartes is not between conscious and unconscious, but between rationality (a moral and intellectual capacity) and bodily sentience (an animal capacity, which, when activated, gives rise to a subjective feeling, but which is devoid of propositional content). Only cognitive events qualify as mental events, and the Cartesian mind, Baker and Morris argue, is simply intellectus, or the rational soul.

Baker and Morris make a powerful case that the popular notion that Descartes regarded animals as inert, insensate automata is a total misrepresentation of his views. Such a view implicitly assumes that Descartes regarded the mind alone as active, and the body as purely passive – a legend which the authors challenge on scholarly grounds. Additionally, it overlooks the extensive textual evidence showing that Descartes attributed not only external senses but also internal senses to animals:

The first internal sense apprehends pain and pleasure, hunger, thirst, and other bodily appetites or needs; the second the emotions such as fear, anger, joy and wonder. Both are essentially concerned with the preservation of animal welfare (Baker and Morris, reply to Nadler, 1997).

On Baker and Morris’s reading of Descartes, animals can feel pain with their internal senses – in modern parlance, they are phenomenally conscious. What animals cannot do is think that they are in pain. Because animals are sentient, they also have the capacity to anticipate things and pursue goals (imagination), and to initiate and sustain movement (locomotion).

According to Descartes, the capacity for propositional thought is what distinguishes us from the beasts

According to Baker and Morris’s reading of Descartes, it is the capacity for propositional thought that makes human beings unique. Thus a dog who is being beaten can certainly feel the pain of its cruel master’s whip, but it is incapable of formulating the thought, “My master is hitting me.” In order to have thoughts of this sort, it would need to possess a language which is capable of expressing not merely cries of pleasure or pain, but propositions. According to Descartes, language, defined as the capacity to express propositions, is the capacity which, more than anything else, distinguishes man from the beasts. Descartes elaborates on this distinction his Discourse on the Method, Part V:

For it is a very remarkable thing that there are no men, not even the insane, so dull and stupid that they cannot put words together in a manner to convey their thoughts. On the contrary, there is no other animal however perfect and fortunately situated it may be, that can do the same. And this is not because they lack the organs, for we see that magpies and parrots can pronounce words as well as we can, and nevertheless cannot speak as we do, that is, in showing that they think what they are saying. On the other hand, even those men born deaf and dumb, lacking the organs which others make use of in speaking, and at least as badly off as the animals in this respect, usually invent for themselves some signs by which they make themselves understood. And this proves not merely animals have less reason than men but that they have none at all, for we see that very little is needed to talk (Descartes, 1637/1960, Discourse On Method And Meditations. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, p. 42.)

Descartes appears to provide further support for Baker and Morris’s reading of his views, in his Letter to the Marquess of Newcastle of 1646:

‘I should like to stress that I am talking of thought, not of … sensation; for … I deny sensation to no animal, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ’.
[Ch. Adam and P. Tannery (eds), Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913), vol. V, p. 278; A. Kenny, Descartes’ Philosophical Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), p. 245.]

Additional support for this reading can be found in Descartes’ letter to the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, dated 5 February 1649, where Descartes makes it clear that in referring to animals as automata, he simply intends to deny them the power of thought:

…it seems reasonable since art copies nature, and men can make various automata which move without thought, that nature should produce its own automata much more splendid than the artificial ones. These natural automata are the animals.

Finally, in his posthumously published Treatise on Man, Descartes elaborates on his mechanical conception of the human body:

I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us. Thus God not only gives it externally the colours and shapes of all the parts of our bodies, but also places inside it all the parts required to make it walk, eat, breathe, and indeed to imitate all those of our functions which can be imagined to proceed from matter and to depend solely on the disposition of our organs.

“We see clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other such machines which, although only man-made, have the power to move of their own accord in many different ways. But I am supposing this machine to be made by the hands of God, and so I think you may reasonably think it capable of a greater variety of movements than I could possibly imagine in it, and of exhibiting more artistry than I could possibly ascribe to it.”
(p. 99) (Treatise on Man, published in Paris in 1664. http://metaphors.lib.virginia.edu/metaphors/9411)

“Now I maintain that when God unites a rational soul to this machine (in a way that I intend to explain later) he will place its principal seat in the brain, and will make its nature such that the soul will have different sensations corresponding to the different ways in which the entrances to the pores in the internal surface of the brain are opened by means of the nerves.”
(Treatise on Man, published in Paris in 1664. Cited in Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothof, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Cited online at http://metaphors.lib.virginia.edu/metaphors/19555)

To sum up: in describing animals as automata, Descartes was not denying them subjectivity, but rational thought. On his mechanical conception of life, it would be possible (in principle) to build a sentient machine. What the machine could never do, however, is entertain propositions. Lacking this rational capacity, it would be unable to have a sustained conversation with us.

Postscript: Descartes on animal experimentation

Gareth Southwell, in a March 2012 update to his online article, Talking Clocks and Deranged Springs – or, Did Descartes Really Nail Cats to Trees?, mentions that Descartes did indeed practice vivisection: chillingly, he describes how, if you whip a dog whilst playing a violin, it will whimper in time to the music, and elsewhere, he writes: “If you cut off the end of the heart of a living dog and insert your finger through the incision into one of the concavities, you will clearly feel that every time the heart shortens, it presses your finger, and stops pressing it every time it lengthens” (Oeuvres de Descartes edited by Adam and Tannery, vol. XI). In his letter to Plempius of 15 Feb 1638 (which can be found on pages 79-85 of Vol. III of the Cambridge Philosophical Writings, edited and trans. by Cottingham, et al.), he describes how, in the course of a medical experiment, he “opened the chest of a live rabbit and removed the ribs to expose the heart and the trunk of the aorta.”

At this point, readers might be tempted to regard Descartes as an amoral monster. However, Descartes was not alone in his eagerness to perform medical research on animals: it was William Harvey, not Descartes, who initiated the practice of performing medical experiments on animals for the sake of acquiring medical knowledge, as Anita Guerrini points out in her essay, “The Ethics of Animal Experimentation in Seventeenth-Century England” (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 50, No. 3, July – September 1989, pp. 391-407):

Harvey bequeathed to his successors not only new concepts but also his experimental approach to physiological research. The pivot of his research was thorough investigation of anatomy, both human and animal, via dissection, vivisection, and embryology. Animal vivisection was especially prominent in his research program.

Harvey’s successors in England – men such as Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Richard Lower, John Mayow, and a host of lesser figures – embraced wholeheartedly his experimental approach, as Robert Frank has detailed in his Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists. (p. 391)

Guerrini goes on to argue that Descartes was able to rationalize his experimentation on animals with the thought that they don’t feel anything, anyway. As we have seen, this wasn’t what Descartes actually believed about animals. But more importantly, Guerrini adds in her essay that William Harvey did not share this mechanical conception of animals, but nevertheless enthusiastically promoted the practice of animal experimentation as a means of acquiring medical knowledge of how the human body works. By the same token, Descartes’ endorsement of animal experimentation does not necessarily make him inhumane; rather, what it makes him is a human exceptionalist, who believed in putting the needs of people first.

Chapter 20 – Descartes’ reply to Montaigne’s arguments for animal consciousness

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, and the father of modern skepticism. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his article, after criticizing the mechanistic views of Descartes (1596-1650) on animals, Sullivan gives the last word to the skeptical French essayist Montaigne (1533-1592). Not only is this absurdly anachronistic – Montaigne died four years before Descartes was born – but it overlooks the fact that Descartes believed that he had successfully refuted Montaigne’s arguments for the rationality of non-human animals.

Descartes responded to Montaigne’s arguments in his famous Letter to the Marquess of Newcastle, dated 23 November 1646. He began by pointing out that passions often occur in human beings, even in the absence of thought. Consequently, the existence of passions in animals does not establish that they can think:

I cannot share the opinion of Montaigne and others who attribute understanding or thought to animals. I am not worried that people say that men have an absolute empire over all the other animals; because I agree that some of them are stronger than us, and believe that there may also be some who have an instinctive cunning capable of deceiving the shrewdest human beings. But I observe that they only imitate or surpass us in those of our actions which are not guided by our thoughts. It often happens that we walk or eat without thinking at all about what we are doing; and similarly, without using our reason, we reject things which are harmful for us, and parry the blows aimed at us. Indeed, even if we expressly willed not to put our hands in front of our head when we fall, we could not prevent ourselves. I think also that if we had no thought we would eat, as the animals do, without having to learn to; and it is said that those who walk in their sleep sometimes swim across streams in which they would drown if they were awake. As for the movements of our passions, even though in us they are accompanied with thought because we have the faculty of thinking, it is none the less very clear that they do not depend on thought, because they often occur in spite of us. Consequently they can also occur in animals, even more violently than they do in human beings, without our being able to conclude from that that they have thoughts.

Next, Descartes argued that the way in which animals (and humans) behave under the influence of their passions could be explained in mechanical terms, by viewing an organism as “a self-moving machine.” Indeed, the only external actions performed by human beings which could not be explained in this way are the words we use to communicate our thoughts. Descartes contended that animal communication did not meet the same standard, as it appeared to function primarily as an expression of the animal’s passions, rather than the propositional content of its thoughts. Descartes anticipated Montaigne’s objection that maybe animals were actually trying to communicate their thoughts, but that we were simply incapable of understanding them. Nonsense, replied Descartes: animals were perfectly capable of conveying the objects of their passions to us (think of a hungry dog alerting its master that it wants to be fed), so why shouldn’t they be able to communicate what they are thinking?

In fact, none of our external actions can show anyone who examines them that our body is not just a self-moving machine but contains a soul with thoughts, with the exception of words, or other signs that are relevant to particular topics without expressing any passion. I say words or other signs, because deaf-mutes use signs as we use spoken words; and I say that these signs must be relevant, to exclude the speech of parrots, without excluding the speech of madmen, which is relevant to particular topics even though it does not follow reason. I add also that these words or signs must not express any passion, to rule out not only cries of joy or sadness and the like, but also whatever can be taught by training animals. If you teach a magpie to say good-day to its mistress, which it sees her approach, this can only be by making the utterance of this word the expression of one of its passions. For instance it will be an expression of the hope of eating, if it has always been given a titbit when it says it. Similarly, all the things which dogs, horses, and monkeys are taught to perform are only expressions of their fear, their hope, or their joy; and consequently they can be performed without any thought. Now it seems to me very striking that the use of words, so defined, is something particular to human beings. Montaigne and Charron may have said that there is more difference between one human being and another than between a human being and an animal; but there has never been known an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which expressed no passion; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so, since even deaf-mutes invent special signs to express their thoughts. This seems to me a very strong argument to prove that the reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other and that we cannot understand them; because since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had any.

Third, Descartes responded to the argument that even if we were better than animals at talking, they were better than us at lots of things, like running, fighting, or even clever-sounding tasks such as keeping track of time. He freely acknowledged that animals performed many tasks better than we could, but said that these tasks could be explained mechanically.

Finally, in response to the argument that animals might still possess a very limited degree of rationality, Descartes employed a devastating rhetorical argument that St. Augustine had also invoked 1,200 years before him, when against the vegetarian Manichees: where do you draw the line? If we allowed that some animals might possess rational to a limited degree, surely the same could be said for any animal. Since it was wildly implausible to say that sponges possess rationality (and consequently, an immortal soul), Descartes concluded that it was more prudent to say that none of the animals can think, and that man alone is rational:

I know that animals do many things better than we do, but this does not surprise me. It can even be used to prove they act naturally and mechanically, like a clock which tells the time better than our judgment does. Doubtless when the swallows come in spring, they operate like clocks. The actions of the honeybees are of the same nature, and the discipline of cranes in flight, and apes in fighting, if it is true that they keep discipline. Their instinct to bury their dead is no stranger than that of dogs and cats who scratch the earth for the purpose of burying their excrement; they hardly ever actually bury it, which shows that they act only by instinct and without thinking. The most that one can say is that though animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their body are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to those organs some thoughts such as we experience in ourselves, but of a very much less perfect kind. To which I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible. But I am afraid of boring you with this discussion, and my only desire is to show you that I am, etc.

Descartes’ mature thinking on animal rationality

In his letter to Henry More, dated 5 February 1649 (written one year before his death), Descartes put forward three brief arguments against the existence of rationality in animals, the last of which he regarded as the most decisive. In the passage below, Descartes freely grants that animals have sensations like our own. What he opposes is the popular prejudice that these animals’ sensations are accompanied by thoughts on their part. First, he argues that a mechanical account of animal behavior explains everything that they do. Next, he argues that since we can construct automata, why shouldn’t they exist in Nature too? Finally, Descartes contends that animals appear to be incapable of “using real speech, that is to say, of indicating by word or sign something pertaining to pure thought,” when interacting with human beings, strongly suggests that they lack rationality altogether:

{T]here is no prejudice to which we are all more accustomed from our earliest years than the belief that dumb animals can think….

But when I investigate what is most probable in this matter, I see no argument for animals having thoughts except the fact that since they have eyes, ears, tongues, and other sense-organs like ours, it seems likely that they have sensation like us, and since thought is included in our mode of sensation, similar thought seems to be attributable to them. This argument, which is very obvious, has taken possession of the minds of men from the earliest age. But there are other arguments, stronger and more numerous, but not so obvious to everyone, which strongly urge the opposite. One is that it is more probable that worms and flies and caterpillars move mechanically than that they all have immortal souls.

It is certain that in the bodies of animals, as in ours, there are bones, nerves, muscles, animal spirits, and other organs so disposed that they can by themselves without any thought give rise to all the animal motions we observe. This is very clear in convulsive movements where the machine of the body moves despite the soul, and sometimes more violently and in a more varied manner than when it is moved by the body.

Second, it seems reasonable, since art copies nature, and men can make various automata which move without thought, that nature should produce its own automata, much more splendid that artificial ones. These natural automata are the animals. This is especially likely since we have no reason to believe that thought always accompanies the disposition of organs which we find in animals. It is much more wonderful that a mind should be found in every human body than that one should be lacking in every animal.

But in my opinion the main reason which suggests that the beasts lack thought is the following. Within a single species some of them are more perfect than others, as men are too. This can be seen in horses and dogs, some of whom learn what they are taught much better than others. Yet, although all animals easily communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger, and so on, it has never yet been observed that any brute animal reached the stage of using real speech, that is to say, of indicating by word or sign something pertaining to pure thought and not to natural impulse. Such speech is the only certain sign of thought hidden in a body. All men use it, however stupid and insane they may be, and though they may lack tongue and organs of voice; but no animals do. Consequently it can be taken as a real specific difference between men and dumb animals.

For brevity’s sake I here omit the other reasons for denying thought to animals. Please note that I am speaking of thought, and not of life or sensation. I do not deny life to animals, since I regard it as consisting simply of the heat of the heart; and I do not deny sensation, in so far as id depends on a bodily organ. Thus my opinion is not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to men – at least to those of us not given to the superstitions of Pythagoras – since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat or kill animals.

Descartes’ arguments against the existence of animal language in his Treatise on Man

Finally, in his posthumously published Treatise on Man (1664), Descartes provides three reasons for rejecting the proposition that animals have – or could have – the power of speech. Descartes’ arguments are handily summarized by Gareth Southwell, in his online article, Talking Clocks and Deranged Springs – or, Did Descartes Really Nail Cats to Trees?:

“It is not the want of organs” [15] that is the reason animals have not developed human-like speech, for certain birds (such as parrots) can copy human words, and human beings born ‘dumb’ may still communicate intelligent ideas by other means. Therefore, if animals did have thoughts, they would have found a way to communicate them – or we would have found a way to understand them – by now.

If the difference between humans and animals were merely one of degree (and that animals merely possess a more rudimentary language than us), then a parrot or a monkey would surpass “the stupidest child to be found” [16] in linguistic skills – but this has not proven to be the case; even ‘stupid’ humans (he implies) are more advanced than the brightest animal.

Nor must we think, “as did some of the ancients, that brutes talk, although we do not understand their language.” [17] For if they indeed have their own language, then they have the potential to learn ours (just as English speakers have the potential to learn French) – or we might even learn theirs (a la Dr Doolittle).

Whatever the reader may think of Descartes’ arguments, one thing is very clear: Descartes was thoroughly familiar with Montaigne’s arguments for the existence of rationality in animals, and he took great pains to carefully refute them. A fair-minded judge would conclude that Descartes had the better of the debate.

Descartes and Montaigne: poles apart on animal consciousness, but united in faith

Finally, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to one very interesting fact: although they were poles apart in their views on animals, Montaigne and Descartes were both devout Catholics, and their faith was genuine. According to his biography in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Montaigne went through a mid-life skeptical crisis but remained a Catholic, even after several members of his family converted to Protestantism. Of Descartes’ faith there can be little doubt: Stephen Gaukroger’s biography of Descartes reports that “he had a deep religious faith as a Catholic, which he retained to his dying day, along with a resolute, passionate desire to discover the truth” (Descartes, an Intellectual Biography, Oxford University Press, 1995), and R. E. Langer’s biographical article, “Rene Descartes” (American Mathematical Monthly 4, no. 8 (October 1937): 495-512) also states that throughout his life, Descartes attempted to uphold all aspects of his Catholic faith, that he had a life-long respect for the Jesuits who tutored him at school, and that he would have regarded excommunication as a terrible disgrace. (I owe this last point to a valuable research essay by Sarah Venable.) Despite his run-ins with philosophical opponents who were convinced that his new system pf philosophical inquiry was at odds with the tenets of the Catholic faith, what he really wanted was to see his philosophy adopted as standard Catholic teaching. (For comments on the recent outlandish theory that Descartes was poisoned by a Catholic priest, see here, here and here.) Since they were bold thinkers for their time, it is hardly surprising to learn that both of these men had some works of theirs placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by their political enemies; however, neither man was threatened with excommunication or asked to recant their views by the Inquisition.

The fact that two men, whose philosophical convictions were wide apart, nevertheless shared a common faith, is a testimony to the intellectual tolerance of the Catholic Church at that time.

Chapter 21 – What Spinoza really thought about animals, and why he excluded them from his moral circle

Spinoza’s house in Rijnsburg from 1661-1663, now a museum. Picture courtesy of Albeiro Rodas and Wikipedia.

In his essay, One of us, Sullivan portrays the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) as disagreeing with the view held by Thomas Hobbes, that human beings alone, of all the animals, possess the divine spark of self-consciousness. Spinoza, claims Sullivan, “hesitated to make even that kind of essential distinction between us and them.” He then proceeds to cite a passage from Spinoza’s Ethics, which at first glance appears to place man and the beasts on a continuum:

Hence it follows, that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational (for after learning the origin of mind we cannot doubt that brutes feel) only differ from man’s emotions, to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation; but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human.
(Ethics, Part III, Proposition LVII, Note. Translated from the Latin by R.H.M. Elwes (1883). MTSU Philosophy WebWorks Hypertext Edition, 1997.)

Sullivan then expresses his great surprise that “these thoughts did not lead Spinoza to a recommendation of total empathy with the animal kingdom”: as he correctly notes, Spinoza defends the right of human beings to slaughter the beasts in another passage (Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVII, Note II), declaring that we may “use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

Why Spinoza held that pity is a vice, not a virtue

The depth of Sullivan’s misunderstanding here is staggering. First of all, Spinoza despised the emotion of sympathy, even when it is directed at human beings: according to him, sympathy is indistinguishable from pity (Ethics, Part III, Proposition XVIII, Explanation), and as he affirms in his Ethics, Part IV, Proposition L, “Pity, in a man who lives under the guidance of reason, is in itself bad and useless“:

Proof.–Pity (Def. of the Emotions, xviii.) is a pain, and therefore (IV. xli.) is in itself bad. The good effect which follows, namely, our endeavour to free the object of our pity from misery, is an action which we desire to do solely at the dictation of reason (IV. xxxvii.); only at the dictation of reason are we able to perform any action, which we know for certain to be good (IV. xxvii.); thus, in a man who lives under the guidance of reason, pity in itself is useless and bad. Q.E.D.

Spinoza then proceeds to explain why he regards the emotion of pity as irrational, in a world subject to the universal sway of cause and effect. A rational man grasps that whatever comes to pass in this world ultimately arises from the necessity of God’s nature, and therefore should not excite pity on our part:

Note.–He who rightly realizes, that all things follow from the necessity of the divine nature, and come to pass in accordance with the eternal laws and rules of nature, will not find anything worthy of hatred, derision, or contempt, nor will he bestow pity on anything, but to the utmost extent of human virtue he will endeavour to do well, as the saying is, and to rejoice. We may add, that he, who is easily touched with compassion, and is moved by another’s sorrow or tears, often does something which he afterwards regrets; partly because we can never be sure that an action caused by emotion is good, partly because we are easily deceived by false tears.

Spinoza on the virtue of selfishness

In some ways, Spinoza’s ethical philosophy bears a striking resemblance to the rational egoism espoused by Ayn Rand. For Spinoza, a virtuous action was one motivated by self-love, acting in accordance with reason:

To act absolutely in obedience to virtue is in us the same thing as to act, to live, or to preserve one’s being (these three terms are identical in meaning) in accordance with the dictates of reason on the basis of seeking what is useful to one’s self.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXIV)

In Spinoza’s ideal moral community, people would be governed by reason, enabling them to live in harmony and be content with their lot, helping one another not out of pity, but enlightened self-interest. However, because some people are given to acting under the influence of their passions, and cannot be restrained by appeals to reason, it is necessary for everyone’s security that they band together and form a State, which is capable of using force to bring errant individuals to heel:

Now, if men lived under the guidance of reason, everyone would remain in possession of this his right, without any injury, being done to his neighbour (IV. xxxv. Coroll. i.). But seeing that they are a prey to their emotions, which far surpass human power or virtue (IV. vi.), they are often drawn in different directions, and being at variance one with another (IV. xxxiii. xxxiv.), stand in need of mutual help (IV. xxxv. note). Wherefore, in order that men may live together in harmony, and may aid one another, it is necessary that they should forego their natural right, and, for the sake of security, refrain from all actions which can injure their fellow-men.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVII, Note II, Conclusion, point 3.)

On this law society can be established, so long as it keeps in its own hand the right, possessed by everyone, of avenging injury, and pronouncing on good and evil; and provided it also possesses the power to lay down a general rule of conduct, and to pass laws sanctioned, not by reason, which is powerless in restraining emotion, but by threats (IV. xvii. note). Such a society established with laws and the power of preserving itself is called a State, while those who live under its protection are called citizens. We may readily understand that there is in the state of nature nothing, which by universal consent is pronounced good or bad; for in the state of nature everyone thinks solely of his own advantage, and according to his disposition, with reference only to his individual advantage, decides what is good or bad, being bound by no law to anyone besides himself.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVII, Note II, Conclusion, point 3.)

This doctrine [of mine] raises social life, inasmuch as it teaches us to hate no man, neither to despise, to deride, to envy, or to be angry, with any. Further, as it tells us that each should be content with his own, and helpful to his neighbour, not from any womanish pity, favour, or superstition, but solely by the guidance of reason, according as the time and occasion demand, as I will show in Part III.
(Ethics, Part II, Proposition XLIX, Conclusion, point 3.)

Why only rational beings can live together in a society governed by law

Reason thus plays a vital role in Spinoza’s Ethics, for without reason, it is impossible for human beings to live together in a moral community where everyone is content with what they have. Men governed by their emotions, contends Spinoza, would be continually at odds with one another, and hence incapable of pursuing the common good.

But reason does more than merely allow human beings to co-exist. Reason is what gives us all a common human nature. Without reason, human nature would be splintered by the diversity of goods that appeal to different people, and there would be as many species of human beings as there are human ends:

In so far only as men live in obedience to reason, do they always necessarily agree in nature.

Proof.–In so far as men are assailed by emotions that are passions, they can be different in nature (IV. xxxiii.), and at variance one with another.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXV)

The highest good of those who follow virtue is common to all, and therefore all can equally rejoice therein.

Proof.–To act virtuously is to act in obedience with reason (IV. xxiv.), and whatsoever we endeavour to do in obedience to reason is to understand (IV. xxvi.); therefore (IV. xxviii.) the highest good for those who follow after virtue is to know God; that is (II. xlvii. and note) a good which is common to all and can be possessed by all men equally, in so far as they are of the same nature.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVI)

Reason, then, is not merely a social glue, or even a moral one: it literally binds human beings together in an ontological sense.

Why Spinoza held that animals aren’t members of our moral community

And now, at last, we can see why Spinoza had such little regard for the beasts: despite their sharing emotions with us, they are incapable of reason, and hence incapable by nature of belonging to our moral community. In the passage below, Spinoza begins with a discussion of the emotions, which we share in common with other animals:

Note.–Hence it follows, that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational (for after learning the origin of mind we cannot doubt that brutes feel) only differ from man’s emotions, to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation; but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human. So also the lusts and appetites of insects, fishes, and birds must needs vary according to the several natures. Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual, and hence the joy of one only differs in nature from the joy of another, to the extent that the essence of one differs from the essence of another. Lastly, it follows from the foregoing proposition, that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher, as I just mention here by the way.
(Ethics, Part III, Proposition LVII)

At first sight, Spinoza appears to be arguing in the foregoing passage appears for a continuum between man and the other animals: each creature experiences joy in its own distinctive way. Far from placing man in a special category of his own, he appears to be saying that even different human beings (e.g. a drunkard and a philosopher) are species apart from one another. But then immediately afterwards, Spinoza writes:

Thus far I have treated of the emotions attributable to man, in so far as he is passive. It remains to add a few words on those attributable to him in so far as he is active.

PROP. LVIII. Besides pleasure and desire, which are passivities or passions, there are other emotions derived from pleasure and desire, which are attributable to us in so far as we are active.

Proof.When the mind conceives itself and its power of activity, it feels pleasure (III. liii.): now the mind necessarily contemplates itself, when it conceives a true or adequate idea (II. xliii).

(Ethics, Part III, Propositions LVII and LVIII)

Two things are noteworthy here. First, Spinoza classifies desire as a passive emotion, which sounds odd to our modern ears. Second, Spinoza says nothing about animals in his discussion of the active emotions; it is only man who is said to possess these active emotions, which come from the mind’s conception of “a true or adequate idea.” Animals, who lack the notion of “truth,” are automatically excluded by this definition.

In Proposition LIX, Spinoza goes on to argue that since pain diminishes the mind’s power of thought, “therefore, no painful emotions can be attributed to the mind in virtue of its being active, but only emotions of pleasure and desire, which (by the last Prop.) are attributable to the mind in that condition.” He then proceeds to explain why all actions following from emotion must be based on understanding, or reason:

All actions following from emotion, which are attributable to the mind in virtue of its understanding, I set down to strength of character (fortitudo), which I divide into courage (animositas) and highmindedness (generositas). By courage I mean the desire whereby every man strives to preserve his own being in accordance solely with the dictates of reason. By highmindedness I mean the desire whereby every man endeavours, solely under the dictates of reason, to aid other men and to unite them to himself in friendship. Those actions, therefore, which have regard solely to the good of the agent I set down to courage, those which aim at the good of others I set down to highmindedness. Thus temperance, sobriety, and presence of mind in danger, &c., are varieties of courage; courtesy, mercy, &c., are varieties of highmindedness.

(Ethics, Part III, Propositions LIX)

Now, at last, we can make sense of Spinoza’s disparaging remarks about drunkards. These individuals have forsaken reason for a life wholly given over to passive pleasures; in Spinoza’s estimation, such people are little better than beasts, being largely unfit for human society, as they are incapable of regulating their passions.

For Spinoza, the fact that human beings possess the active power to regulate their emotions means that in a very important sense, our emotions are fundamentally different from those of the beasts. It is for this reason that Spinoza declares that we should not pity the suffering of beasts:

Note: … Such are the matters which I engaged to prove in Prop. xviii. of this Part, whereby it is plain that the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason. The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellowmen, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is, that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours, and their emotions are naturally different from human emotions (III. lvii. note).
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVII)

In his essay, Sullivan presents his readers with a paradox in Spinoza’s thinking about animals: despite affirming that “we cannot doubt that brutes feel,” he also declared that “their nature is not like ours, and their emotions are naturally different from human emotions.” By now, the solution to this paradox should be readily apparent: while the brutes possess emotions, they (unlike human beings) are unable to regulate their emotions in accordance with reason, since they are “irrational.” That is what makes their emotions “naturally different from human emotions”: the fact that they are incapable of being regulated.

Sullivan’s mis-reading of Spinoza

Sullivan attempts to gloss over Spinoza’s disregard for animals by interpreting him as saying merely that humans have the “natural right,” or power, to eat animals simply because they are higher up the food chain:

Spinoza isn’t trying to argue that we shouldn’t act kindly toward them, when we can, but he does imply that we needn’t feel guilty about it, when we treat them violently.

On this point, Sullivan’s interpretation of Spinoza on is overly charitable, as can be seen from the following passage:

Hatred can never be good.

Proof.—When we hate a man, we endeavour to destroy him (III. xxxix.), that is (IV. xxxvii.), we endeavour to do something that is bad. Therefore, &c. Q.E.D.

N.B. Here, and in what follows, I mean by hatred only hatred towards men.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XLV)

According to Spinoza, then, we are permitted to hate animals.

Animals lie outside our moral circle, for Spinoza

Animals are specifically excluded from the scope of Spinoza’s ethical injunction that we should hate no-one. Animals are not “others”; hence they are not our “neighbors.” Why not, one might ask? Spinoza appears to provide two answers to this question. The first one, which we have discussed above, is that animals, lacking reason, have no conception of the common good: they are incapable of making a decision to regulate their actions, in order to co-operate in some project that will ultimately benefit society as a whole. The second and more philosophically interesting answer is that animals are naturally incapable of partaking of the highest human good, which is the knowledge and contemplation of God.

PROP. XXXVI. The highest good of those who follow virtue is common to all, and therefore all can equally rejoice therein.

Proof.—To act virtuously is to act in obedience with reason (IV. xxiv.), and whatsoever we endeavour to do in obedience to reason is to understand (IV. xxvi.); therefore (IV. xxviii.) the highest good for those who follow after virtue is to know God; that is (II. xlvii. and note) a good which is common to all and can be possessed by all men equally, in so far as they are of the same nature. Q.E.D

… For it belongs to the essence of the human mind (II. xlvii.), to have an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVI)

PROP. XXXVII. The good which every man, who follows after virtue, desires for himself he will also desire for other men, and so much the more, in proportion as he has a greater knowledge of God.

Proof.—Men, in so far as they live in obedience to reason</font<, are most useful to their fellow men (IV. xxxv; Coroll. i.); therefore (IV. xix.), we shall in obedience to reason necessarily endeavour to bring about that men should live in obedience to reason. But the good which every man, in so far as he is guided by reason, or, in other words, follows after virtue, desires for himself, is to understand (IV. xxvi.); wherefore the good, which each follower of virtue seeks for himself, he will desire also for others. Again, desire, in so far as it is referred to the mind, is the very essence of the mind (Def. of the Emotions, i.); now the essence of the mind consists in knowledge (II. xi.), which involves the knowledge of God (II. xlvii.), and without it (I. xv.), can neither be, nor be conceived; therefore, in proportion as the mind’s essence involves a greater knowledge of God, so also will be greater the desire of the follower of virtue, that other men should possess that which he seeks as good for himself. Q.E.D.
(Ethics, Part IV, Proposition XXXVII)

Note 1. …I have also shown in addition what are the foundations of a state; and the difference between true virtue and infirmity may be readily gathered from what I have said; namely, that true virtue is nothing else but living in accordance with reason; while infirmity is nothing else but man’s allowing himself to be led by things which are external to himself, and to be by them determined to act in a manner demanded by the general disposition of things rather than by his own nature considered solely in itself.

Such are the matters which I engaged to prove in Prop. xviii. of this Part, whereby it is plain that the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason.

Spinoza elsewhere explains that “It is in the nature of reason to perceive things truly (II. xli.), namely (I. Ax. vi.), as they are in themselves” (Ethics, Part II, Proposition XLIV).

In conclusion: according to Spinoza, animals share passive emotions of desire, pleasure and pain with us, but they don’t see things for what they really are. Indeed, they are ignorant of things, recognizing only appearances. Consequently, their minds are incapable of penetrating to the very heart of reality, and of discerning that there is a God. Lacking reason, they are also incapable of regulating their actions. Since Spinoza teaches that there can be no duties within a state of Nature but only within a community, it follows that we can have no duties towards animals. We are not even bound to refrain from hating them.

It is therefore a genuine mystery to me why Sullivan, in his essay, One of us, chooses to depict this cold-blooded philosopher as an exponent of the “continuum of consciousness” thesis. As we have seen, Spinoza did indeed ascribe passive feelings to animals, just as he did to human beings, but the fact that animals lacked reason and were consequently unable to regulate their feelings constituted a sharp mental and moral discontinuity between humans and other animals.

Chapter 22 – Did the science of animal consciousness slumber in the 17th and 18th centuries?

Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), a Swiss anatomist, physiologist, naturalist and poet and the founder of the science of physiology. Portrait by Johann Rudolf Huber. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his essay, One of us, Sullivan makes the astonishing claim that the science of animal consciousness languished for two whole centuries following the death of the philosopher Spinoza in 1677:

The whole “animal consciousness” problem remained more or less static for the next two hundred years. Which is to say, it remained philosophical, and retained more or less the contours of the dispute as it had existed among Descartes and his contemporaries, one side arguing that animals did not possess reason or the capacity for meaningful self-awareness, the other countering that we really have no idea what they think, and given that they often seem to undergo states equivalent to our own, why shouldn’t we assume that they do? After all, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. But it isn’t proof of presence, either, and that’s what science wants.

There were flashes. Scattered experiments on animal behavior began to occur around the 1780s, and, of course, throughout the nineteenth century an enormous amount of direct observation was taking place… But mostly it was like arguing about the existence of life on other planets.

It’s Darwin who finally wrenches these questions away from the salon and into the lab, where they’ve mostly stayed.

Why the real credit for making people aware of the scientific evidence for animal consciousness belongs to scientists who lived long before Darwin

In fact,the scientific recognition of animal awareness wasn’t triggered by Darwin’s theory of evolution, but by developments in comparative anatomy and physiology: since their body parts, functions and pain behavior are relevantly similar to ours, biologists reasoned, it was rational to infer that they have feelings like ours, too. It follows that the real heroes of the crusade to make animals’ feelings a legitimate object of scientific study are the biologists who lived long before Darwin – men such as John Ray (1627-1705), Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) and Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) – who chronicled the extensive anatomical and physiological similarities between animals and ourselves. However, the most valuable contribution to the scientific study of animal consciousness in the eighteenth century came from a man whom most of my readers will not have heard of: Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), the father of physiology.

Albrecht von Haller: Who was he and what did he accomplish?

Judging from the foregoing passage which I quoted from his essay, Sullivan seems to believe that until the 1780s, scientists lacked experimental evidence for consciousness in animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sullivan is evidently unaware of the pioneering work of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), the father of modern experimental physiology and the author of De Partibus Sensilibus et Irritabilibus Corporis Humani (1752) and of the highly acclaimed eight-volume Elementa physiologiae corporis humani (1757-1766). Haller’s contribution to science is described by Dr. Henry Smith Williams M.D. LL.D. in Volume 4 of his acclaimed five-volume work, A History of Science (1904):

An epoch in physiology was made in the eighteenth century by the genius and efforts of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), of Berne, who is perhaps as worthy of the title “The Great” as any philosopher who has been so christened by his contemporaries since the time of Hippocrates. Celebrated as a physician, he was proficient in various fields, being equally famed in his own time as poet, botanist, and statesman, and dividing his attention between art and science…

Haller’s greatest contribution to medical science was his famous doctrine of irritability, which has given him the name of “father of modern nervous physiology,” just as Harvey is called “the father of the modern physiology of the blood.” It has been said of this famous doctrine of irritability that “it moved all the minds of the century — and not in the departments of medicine alone–in a way of which we of the present day have no satisfactory conception, unless we compare it with our modern Darwinism.“[1]

The principle of general irritability had been laid down by Francis Glisson (1597-1677) from deductive studies, but Haller proved by experiments along the line of inductive methods that this irritability was not common to all “fibre as well as to the fluids of the body,” but something entirely special, and peculiar only to muscular substance. He distinguished between irritability of muscles and sensibility of nerves. In 1747 he gave as the three forces that produce muscular movements: elasticity, or “dead nervous force”; irritability, or “innate nervous force”; and nervous force in itself. And in 1752 he described one hundred and ninety experiments for determining what parts of the body possess “irritability”–that is, the property of contracting when stimulated. His conclusion that this irritability exists in muscular substance alone and is quite independent of the nerves proceeding to it aroused a controversy that was never definitely settled until late in the nineteenth century, when Haller’s theory was found to be entirely correct. (pp. 73-75)

[1] Baas, History of Medicine, p. 692

In his pioneering work, Haller carefully distinguished between two fundamental bodily qualities of animals: irritability, or the tendency of muscles to contract upon stimulation, which is an unconscious response of the organism that in no way involves the nervous system; and sensibility, or the nervous system’s ability to transmit impressions which are experienced as sensations of touch or pain in humans, and which also generate signs of pain in animals. Haller’s animal experiments were replicated all over Europe, on a scale never before seen.

Stephanie Eichberg has chronicled the valuable medical research performed by Haller in her excellent article, Constituting the human via the animal in eighteenth century experimental neurophysiology: Albrecht von Haller’s sensibility trials (Medizinhistorisches Journal 44 (2009) 274-295).

How Albrecht von Haller revolutionized the science of physiology

In her essay, Eichberg explains the significance of Haller’s pioneering approach to the science of physiology. What distinguished Haller’s approach was its emphasis on animal sensations (as opposed to animal locomotion), its willingness to impute the feeling of pain to all animals possessing a nervous system capable of transmitting sensations to the brain, and its use of (at times painful) experiments on living animals, as a way of learning more about human bodily functions:

Research on the brain and nervous system raised unsettling questions about … the alleged difference between humans and animals… Once the brain became the acknowledged site of mental processes and the nerves the carriers of sensation, physiology struggled with the need to extend the human-animal analogy to incorporate an affinity of nervous functions, and yet maintain a crucial distinction to the human mind and bodily feelings.[10] (p. 278)

Albrecht von Haller is a key figure in this development because, firstly, his research on sensibility represents the eighteenth-century shift from motion to sensation as the most fundamental property of living bodies. Secondly, Haller’s experiments set the standard for conceiving the physiological mechanisms of feeling (sensation) which, in an experimental context, translated into an analysis of pain expressions in animals. And thirdly, he referred to his experiments as an indisputable proof for illuminating human bodily functions. (pp. 278-279)

How did Haller view the method of experimentation as part of a physiological investigation? In his foreword to the Elementa Physiologiae, Haller maintained that the ‘Art of Dissection’ is the only means to understand the physiology of the body properly, lamenting at the same time the separation of physiology from anatomy.[18] (p. 280)

As the dissection of dead animals was not sufficient for elucidating function, one had to ‘open up’ the living ones. His emphasis on the need to ‘sacrifice’ the lives of many animals seems to display an in-built defence against moral accusations, as he speaks of it as “a cruelty that has so far brought more advance to the true and established physiology than all the other arts that are part of our science.”[21] (p. 280)

In her essay, Eichberg depicts Haller as a kindly individual who felt distressed by the painful experiments which he performed on animals, as part of his scientific work. For Haller, performing these experiments was a scientific duty, which had to be carried out in order to advance our medical knowledge of how the human body works. As he put it in his Treatise on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals (London, 1755), 1:

I have examined several different ways, a hundred and ninety animals, a species of cruelty for which I felt such a reluctance, as could only be overcome by the desire of contributing to the benefit of mankind, and excused by that motive which induces persons of the most humane temper, to eat every day the flesh of harmless animals without any scruple.

Eichberg also argues that Haller’s work was important for another reason: it prompted a revision in the scientific definition of life:

“Whereas in 1700 life was equated to motion, with heart and muscle as its organs, in 1800 life was envisaged as sensibility, a quality inherent in the nerve and the nervous system.“[30] Haller represents or might have even induced this eighteenth-century shift from motion to sensation as the most fundamental property of living bodies, although he was certainly not the first to show an interest in sensation… (p. 282)

This shift in emphasis from motion to sensation had far-reaching consequences: it led to an interest in animals’ sensitive behavior, especially the behavior associated with the feeling of pain.

How Haller’s experiments reframed the terms of the scientific debate about animal suffering

Haller’s experiments on living animals – in which he irritated their various body parts and looked for signs of physical discomfort on the animal’s part – left him in no doubt that the creatures he was experimenting on were genuinely suffering. He reasoned that if the animals showed external signs of unrest which were similar to those found in suffering human beings, then they were probably caused by the same mental states. In her essay, Eichberg describes how Haller’s experiments changed the terms of reference for the ongoing debate about animal suffering: since animals could now be shown to display similar reactions to those of human beings when irritated, the onus of proof now fell on those who would deny the existence of suffering in animals:

In his orations, Haller mentions a total number of 190 animals of various kinds that he experimented upon since 1751 and devoted a short paragraph to his mode of experimenting.[40] Assuming he must have instantly recognised the alleged nervous property ‘sensibility’ once it was before him, what signs in the animal body did he expect to see?

I exposed the parts in question in living animals of several kinds and of varied age; I waited till the animal had ceased to struggle and complain. I then irritated the exposed part by blowing, heat, spirit of wine, the knife, lapis infernalis, oil of vitriol, and butter of antimony. Then I observed with care whether the animal upon being touched, lacerated, cut, burned, and torn, would loose its calmness and composure; whether it would throw itself from side to side, pull the limb towards it and whether its wound was twitching, or the limb twitched convulsively – or if nothing of the sort would happen.[41]

…The quote reinforces the notion that sensibility is taken for pain or rather the bodily signs that are associated with it. (p. 285)

Haller’s experimental or rather behavioural criterion for sensibility – the feeling of pain – rested on the inference that external signs of unrest in animals were caused by the same mental states which caused corresponding movements in humans. Although Haller never openly affirmed an analogy of human and animal minds, his insistence on the conscious perception of sensation left no other conjecture. Thus, in assessing sensibility, an analogy to the human experience of pain was necessary to ascertain not only the physiological but also the psychic functions in animals. (pp. 287-288)

… Haller associated sensibility with the transmission of sensations through the nerves but – influenced by sensationalism – also with their reception in the brain. This conception of life forces, together with the experimental approach to the material and metaphysical concepts related to the nervous system, also indirectly changed the conception of the human-animal boundary. As Roselyne Rey aptly stated, the major conclusion drawn by Enlightenment physiology was “that everything that lives and feels is capable of suffering.“[60] (p. 292)

Today’s scientists would point out that the notion that every organism that feels is capable of suffering is somewhat anthropomorphic: after all, virtually all species of animals possess sense organs and avoid noxious stimuli (sharks and sponges being the only exceptions), but only a relatively small percentage of these animal species are thought to be capable of experiencing pain. While valid, this criticism in no way undermines the value of Haller’s work. According to Eichberg, before 1750, when Haller began his experimental investigation of irritability versus sensibility, he used mainly frogs in his experiments, but from then on he mostly worked on cats and dogs (Eichberg, 2009, p. 285). The points of similarity between pain behavior in a cat or dog and that in a human being are obviously much greater than the corresponding similarities for a frog and a human.

How Haller influenced Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire

Haller’s work had a powerful influence on Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire. In his Philosophical Dictionary (entry: “Animals”), Voltaire appealed to recent findings in anatomy – the discovery that animals had nerves like those found in human beings – to argue that they had feelings like ours. He also ridiculed the Cartesians’ contention that only language use warrants the ascription of consciousness to an individual:

Is it because I speak to you, that you judge that I have feeling, memory, ideas? Well, I do not speak to you; you see me going home looking disconsolate, seeking a paper anxiously, opening the desk where I remember having shut it, finding it, reading it joyfully. You judge that I have experienced the feeling of distress and that of pleasure, that I have memory and understanding.

Bring the same judgment to bear on this dog which has lost its master, which has sought him on every road with sorrowful cries, which enters the house agitated, uneasy, which goes down the stairs, up the stairs, from room to room, which at last finds in his study the master it loves, and which shows him its joy by its cries of delight, by its leaps, by its caresses.

Barbarians seize this dog, which in friendship surpasses man so prodigiously; they nail it on a table, and they dissect it alive in order to show the mesenteric veins. You discover in it all the same organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel? has it nerves in order to be impassible? Do not suppose this impertinent contradiction in nature.

Scientific observations of animal behavior in the wild, prior to Darwin

In the 19th century, valuable work on animal behavior in the wild was done by scientists such as the Swiss naturalist Francois Huber (1750-1831), author of the acclaimed two-volume work, New Observations on the Natural History of Bees (Vol. I published 1792; translated into English in 1806), and his son Pierre Huber (1777-1840), whose work, The Natural History of Ants (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820) was cited by Darwin in his 1871 treatise, The Descent of Man.

I shall say more about Sullivan’s treatment of Darwin in a future post. In my next post, however, I’d like to focus on a much-overlooked period in the history of ideas: the history of the animal welfare movement prior to the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Utilitarians are apt to claim the credit for nineteenth century legislative advances in the prevention of cruelty to animals, and Darwin, who endorsed the utilitarian “greatest happiness principle” in his Descent of Man (1st edition, 1871, London: John Murray, Vol. I, p. 98), is considered by Sullivan to have greatly assisted the cause of animal welfare. However, as I’ll show in my next post, the utilitarians were Johnny-come-latelies, who only came to prominence within the animal welfare movement long after the key legislation had already been framed – and passed in Parliament – by evangelical Christians whose humane views clearly owed nothing to Darwin, or to any secular humanist ethic.

4 Replies to “The Myth of the Continuum of Creatures: A Reply to John Jeremiah Sullivan (Part 3(b))

  1. 1
    Mark Frank says:

    VJ

    This might seem slightly obsessive on my part – but I have spent much of my life struggling to be concise and to get others to be concise. You have now written (or quoted) well over 50,000 words in response to an essay that was less than 4,000 words long. I have no doubt it is beautifully written and thoroughly researched and there will be a few people on UD that will read it and get value from it. But it seems an enormous effort for such a small return.

    I have great admiration for your stamina and scholarship – but what are you trying to achieve? And where do you get the time?

  2. 2
    nightlight says:

    Very nice and useful collection of writings on mind-stuff at your site. You may wish to fix a technical glitch with images in the pages of your e-ebook, most of which refer via img tag to long vanished web pages, leaving just empty rectangles. It would help if you can refer to local copies of the images rather than to external image files.

    I was also pleasantly surprised that someone else here at UD appreciates Wolfram’s NKS contribution. A somewhat different (than yours) placement of NKS within natural science is suggested in this post.

    You may also want check his article “My Hobby: Hunting for Our Universe”, which provides his more recent thoughts than the NKS book on the modeling of fundamental physics via Planck scale networks.

    The interesting implication is that once you allow for adaptable networks (hence distributed, self-programming computers) at the foundation of our physical reality (including of time-space), the problem of fine tuning of physics for life opens up to the “intelligent design” perspective in a more constructive and scientific way than simply as a detection of the design (which is the present reach of the ID argument aiming at philosophical & theological aspects only). The second half of this post contains hyperlinked TOC for the series of posts sketching implications of the above for the problems of fine tuning and origin and evolution of life.

  3. 3
    vjtorley says:

    Hi nightlight,

    Thanks for the tip. It’s been a few years since I updated my e-book, so I shall try to remedy the problem with images that you mentioned.

    I’ve just been looking through a few of the comments you compiled in your TOC. I can see that you have thought long and hard about the issues involved, and I shall attempt to digest your views over the next few days. Like you, I think Wolfram’s work is very important, and cannot be ignored.

  4. 4
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Mark Frank,

    Thank you for your post. I quite understand that the length of my reply might seem disproportionate to that of the original essay by Sullivan. However, what I’m trying to do is (a) identify a scientific basis for human exceptionalism and (b) uncover the true history of philosophical thinking on the subject, which means demolishing the myths that have come to be popularly accepted over the course of time. What I hope is that my lengthy essay will ultimately serve as a handy scientific, philosophical and historical reference work for other people with similar research interests to mine. I have chosen to refute Sullivan’s work, partly because it makes a useful foil, and partly because it led me to uncover some “lost chapters” in the history of our thinking about the relation between humans and animals.

    If you’d like a brief summary of what I’ve found, I’ll try to include one at the end of my series on Sullivan’s essay. Cheers.

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