Friday, July 16, 2010

On the differences between humans and other animal species...

So, I was having a fun discussion with a couple friends last night, and we got onto the topic of human/animal cognition. Yes, that's fun! :-) Anyway, I brought up the concept of "reflexive thinking" in humans, and I thought I'd post a bit about that here and see what sort of discussion it inspires (if any).

A quick online search finds a couple of definitions of "reflexive" or "self-reflexive" thought:

In sociology, reflexivity describes "an act of self-reference where examination or action 'bends back on', refers to, and affects the entity instigating the action or examination."

In literary theory, the term self‐reflexive applies to "literary works that openly reflect upon their own processes of artful composition. Such self‐referentiality is frequently found in modern works of fiction that repeatedly refer to their own fictional status."

The basic idea, philosophically, is one where thinking is reflecting upon itself; in other words, thinking about what we are thinking. My basic assertion is that, as far as we know from all available evidence, human beings are the only species that exhibits this sort of reflexive thinking.

Nearly everyone agrees that there is a big difference between the way humans think and the way animals think. But often this is described merely as a quantitative difference (humans have larger brain capacity, and so we have evolved more complex thought processes) rather than a qualitative one. I want to suggest that human beings actually possess a reflexive quality to our thought that is unique to humans. Whether it is an evolutionary development or divinely created is presently beside the point, though an important question (maybe it's both! ;-D). The main thing is that, for whatever reason, only humans have developed this quality.

Another way to say this is that only human beings ask of themselves, "Why did I do such-and-such?" Only humans apparently have the cognitive means at their disposal to question their own motivations, and reflect upon the concepts/ideas that guide their actions. For example, though an ape or elephant may paint (after being guided by a human, of course), only humans give expression to what may be called the concepts of "art" or "beauty." Why is this? Can it really just be shrugged off by the explanation that our brains are a bit larger and more developed? Or is there something more taking place?

Notice that I am NOT saying humans are necessarily superior to animals. There are, it would seem, still many humans who spend most of their time thinking and acting in ways that are no different from other animals. Humans do have all the animal traits consistent with higher mammals, but it would seem that humans also have something else, the potential for reflexive thought which, I would suggest, may provide a key to understanding ethics and other philosophical systems.

Of course, perhaps I am biased in this whole discussion, due to my belief in God. But, even without a belief in God, it seems reasonable that the view I've outlined might be a valid explanation of the cognitive faculties in human beings versus cognitive faculties in other animals, specifically the apes and other intelligent species.

Clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg and I am a neophyte in this area with lots of research still to examine. But, these are some initial speculations on my part. For a rather developed article on several facets of this topic, check out this entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


BenMc said...

Have you read Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter? It's a big, strange, readable book that won the Pulitzer, it's about artificial intelligence, but a lot of it centers around these same concepts. I recommend it.

Geoff said...

No, I'll have to check that out! Thanks Ben!