What Is It Like to Be a Dog?

“Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.”   —Tom Nagel

One of the most influential and widely cited short works in philosophy of the last century is Nagel’s 1974 paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” http://www.philosopher.eu/others-writings/nagel-what-is-it-like-to-be-a-bat/  He argued that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” This essential subjectivity cannot be captured fully by any objective description of the organism. “If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery.” Nagel chose bats as his example because their sensory system is so different from ours that our imagination is strained to grasp their inner lives, if indeed they have any.

Do non-human animals have minds? To grant consciousness to our fellow mammals, at least, seems obvious (see John Searle, “Animal Minds” (1994) Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIX), even if we do not know enough about the micro-biology of consciousness to determine how far down the philogenic scale to push it. (Mammals are solid, birds good, likewise reptiles and fish, which  gets us most of our own phylum Chordata. Beyond that, intuitions will differ.) So most will agree that dogs have consciousness. It must be different from our own: less introspection, no language, no linguistic stream-of-consciousness, less sophisticated, but perhaps blissfully less burdened. However, the most basic mental processes—thoughts, intentions, feelings, beliefs and so on—must be shared between dogs and us, and guide their actions just like ours. In general, biologists would note the vast genetic and neurological similarity between humans and much of the animal world. Anyone trying to grant special powers solely to humans without relying on God has a tough evolutionary road to hoe. It’s hard to come up with any human ability, even language, which doesn’t exist in an incipient form in the natural world. Some might even contend that if humans have free will, dogs must too.

Focusing on the minds of dogs rather than humans has its advantages for philosophy. No one is likely to be too worried about God, the soul, and immortality when discussing dogs. If bats are an alien consciousness among mammals, dogs may be the most readily understood minds of any species. Since canine consciousness must be simpler and more elemental than human, it should be a little easier to sort out. So could we have a complete science of dog consciousness?

Imagine in the future we have a new kind of high-tech electronic dog collar. It is just as comfortable, unobtrusive and safe as a regular collar (no brain stabbing lab experiments), but it can scan a dog’s brain in real time with great precision and detail (maybe a PET scan, but surely not a CAT scan). It sends a signal to a super-computer and allows scientists to monitor each of the billions of neurons in the dog’s brain and to understand how all canine mental activity is created. The computer is massive since it would have to be many orders of magnitude more powerful than any currently existing, and so is in a basement of, say, a building at Stanford. So the scientists cannot see the dog wearing the collar, who is going about his day in his normal enjoyable way. The science is so good, however, that the scientists, supervised by Mary, can describe everything the dog, say it’s your dog Frege, is doing, experiencing and perceiving based  solely on this very detailed view of his brain activity. They can note the moment he wakes up and accurately describe his breakfast with only the information about what his neurons are doing. They can tell when Frege runs after a ball, and whether it’s an old one or a new one, based on the neuronal activity for taste and smell. If you were to forget to fill his water bowl, the crew at Stanford could call you up, “Dude, some water please,” even before Frege got around to alerting you to the problem. Since his mental states cause and precede his actions, they would be able to predict his behavior the instant he formed an intention-in-action.  All Frege’s perceptions– sights, sounds, smells— would be available to the researchers, who would have nothing better to do than monitor this info 24/7. So to have any privacy at all, you’ll need to take Frege’s collar off occasionally. And for god’s sake, don’t put it on yourself.

This would be great science, to put it mildly, with impressive powers of prediction and verification. These scientists would have penetrated deeply into canine consciousness. They would have the full functional story and could explain how any mental state is realized by its underlying brain state. Can we ask more of the science than this?

Is anything still left out?

Yes, the experience itself. Sitting in a basement in Palo Alto monitoring the computer is not the same as being a dog. Therefore the science, no matter how good, fails to capture the experience itself. The functional story encompasses all possible causal relations in either brain or mind. Evolution can only work on aspects of minds that function causally.

Anything that is left over, the being the dog part, is outside evolution, outside causation, outside science. It’s almost hard to believe it still exists.  For the actual experience of consciousness, for the phenomenal sense, for the actual texture of the experience, you must be that organism. Brain states are conscious states, so long as it’s your brain.



  1. I ran into this quote from Alan Watts yesterday that mirrors what you are getting at here:

    “To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.”

    I liked your discussion. It has been ages since I read the Nagel, but what you describe I think relates to my current obsession. Lately I am wondering how influenced we (our general culture) are by a ‘scientific’ seeming attitude where to understand something means to subject it to some sort of analysis. That is, the presumption seems to be that you can only understand things from a distance, that you have to step outside to be able to properly make sense.

    I think that an unfortunate move on a number of levels. It prioritizes an ‘observer’ over participants. And if there is a conflict of views, it seems more often that the folks standing on the inside only have their subjectivity and biases to lean on while folks on the outside can be dispassionate in their remove, objective. As worthy as science is in what it does for explaining the world to us, to make this the default model for understanding in ALL cases seems a huge overreach…..

    A slight tangent, but I was curious if you were familiar with ‘The Illusion of Explanatory Depth’? The notion is that everyone knows what a zipper is, we zip things open and we zip them closed throughout our normal daily lives. So the assumption is that we understand what we are doing, how zippers work, and that we rightly have confidence in saying we know these things. But the strange thing is that few people can actually correctly explain the mechanism when asked. And these instances of false (mistaken) confidence are rife throughout our lives.

    I need to go back over my notes on this, but I think the conclusion drawn is that we necessarily are missing things, that our knowledge is somehow *deficient*, if we cannot come up with the correct explanations. This may be difficult to tease out, but the assumption is that what we know is on a scale of degrees and that we are simply far lower on that scale than we think we are. ‘True understanding’ is represented as the extreme end of that continuum of possible explanations.

    Why I bring this up is that the emphasis is on being able to explain, as if that were *the* correct measure of understanding. As if an explanation were *necessarily* a more full picture of what is really going on. That you don’t really understand things until you can explain them. And you can easily see why we think this. It IS the view of science. Being able to explain is the most valued aspect of scientific type understandings. But sadly it does not give the proper depth to human activities and practices….

    My sense is that explanations are not always necessary components of understanding what humans do. They can be useful at times, they are of course one way we manifest our understanding, but their absence does not mean something is lacking. In other words, a practice that involves explanations and one that does not are different in *kind* rather than degree. I think that is important. Sometimes those explanations are vital to what we are doing, but they are not necessarily an ‘improvement’ on the practices that don’t use them. Not being able to say how zippers work does not mean I have a lesser understanding, merely a different use for what things I know. There are different games being played.

    Did that make sense? There are so many instances where we discount the internal point of view, and it seems worth exposing the limits on some external ‘objectivity’ as our sole ideal.

    Let me leave you with two quotes I ran across recently:

    “This is all that “ordinary” in the phrase “ordinary language philosophy” means, or ought to mean. It does not refer to particular words of wide use, nor to particular sorts of men. It reminds us that whatever words are said and meant are said and meant by particular men, and that to understand what they (the words) mean you must understand what they (whoever is using them) means, and that sometimes men do not see what they mean, that usually they cannot say what they mean, that for various reasons they may not know what they mean, and that when they are forced to recognize this they feel they do not, and perhaps cannot, mean anything, and they are struck dumb.”
    ― Stanley Cavell

    “Faced with questions about the nature of dance and about the nature of our understanding of dance, many writers —especially students— often begin their efforts by attempting to define key terms. So they search set texts for accounts of what dance is, or what understanding is. Again, a typical response to the question ‘What is the difference between dance and gymnastics?’ would have one group of people trying to say what dance was/is, another trying to sort out gymnastics in the same way—the thought being that putting together these accounts would answer the question. Both of these procedures are based on two assumptions: first, that definitions of such terms are possible; second, that these definitions are helpful—that having a definition of a term shows that you understand that term and, more importantly, that not having the definition implies that you do not understand. I shall urge that both of these assumptions are unjustified.”

    — Graham McFee (from a book I seriously need to read from cover to cover)

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  2. Your point about obsever vs. participant deserves thought.

    Does science overreach? How science ought to affect our understanding of the world is a major theme here at BQTA. How much of what we believe is mere wishful thinking? What is the underlying reality? We start with the hypothesis that religion is the wishful thinking and physics the reality. Where would that leave morality, free will, value, consciousness—to name a few of the items other than religion that seem to be obliterated by science. How would art fit in?

    I think we should try to figure out what’s what, and then decide how we feel about it.

    Currently, my favorite representative of the scientific worldview is Sean Carroll, in his blog Preposterous Universe and especially in The Big Picture. He calls his worldview ‘poetic naturalism’, which sounds nice and seems to include art. He really tries to fit it all together—science and philosophy. He does not quite succeed. And that means that science does not have all the answers, even if it has a lot.

    Alex Rosenberg pushes the scientific worldview harder than almost anyone in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. I share the his goal of no illusions (and enjoying life). So which parts of what we take for granted are illusions? He bravely puts morality into the illusion wastebasket. He adopts the normally pejorative term ‘scientism’ and declares it proudly. I plan to write soon about how he does not quite make it all work. It’s an important attempt, I think.

    A wild review of Rosenberg was in The New Republic by literary critic Leon Wieseltier https://newrepublic.com/article/98566/science-atheism-meaning-life#.

    “the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.”

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    1. This response makes me even more eager to see what gets written in your upcoming blog posts!

      I suppose some folks react to the overreach of science by trying to undercut the efforts of all science, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That’s not me. I think I have a healthy respect for science, for the advantages it has made in the human world, but I also like to think that it is merely one of the many tools humans bring to bear in making meaningful lives. If we are interested in tracing out cause and effect, science is you friend! Where truth and logic are important, talk to science.

      But human lives are generally so much larger than these specific concerns, and we need to take our eyes off science to see in what ways they might require different forms of understanding. Being force fed the scientific world view is as bad as having an unwavering diet of hamburgers every day every meal. If we can get good and important nutrition from hamburgers, that is not an argument for its lone contribution to our sustenance. No matter how well science does what it does, we have not yet proved that it is a tool for *all* occasions nor that it is our *only* useful tool. If science is the winner in a truth-finding beauty pageant (contest), the runners up are not necessarily dog meat, and there might be other contests where other contestants have their moments in the sun….

      I find I am more and more interested in why science is being taken as this ‘best available tool’. Maybe it is less important where our obsession came from than analyzing what it means to us, the role it performs in our lives. If we are interested in a case of overreaching, it is one thing to look at where it started, another thing to look at the tool itself, and yet another thing to look at what we are doing when we take our tools from one area of justified use and apply them wholeheartedly in other areas.

      My suspicion is that we have a story we’ve become invested in believing, namely how important truth is. And of course it is! And yet, is it important enough to crowd out all other human capacities and functions? This is not a contest between science and superstition as much as between truth and *meaning*. In the embrace of science, meaning is like the fledgling bird that is kicked from the nest while the loudest remaining chicks get fed all the worms.

      A related story is that truth can be measured. Facts. And if those twin things (truth and measurement) are set deep in our minds science seems like a straightforward tool, both for truth exploration and for methods of measuring. So it perhaps seems as though science has this priority for us. Science *is* the measure, and all else becomes subject to it’s scrutiny. We assume science, and the rest is an open question. We frame the world as a question of truth and how it will be measured.

      So one question seems to be the contradictory evidence that not everything in human lives falls out as *empirical*. Not everything IS measurable. And if we invent some way that it *could* in fact be measured, the question becomes whether it necessarily *should* be measured. What kind of value is even revealed in the measurement? Do we even have the right measures? Because, the assumption behind overreaching science seems to be that everything gets measured, one way or another….

      One of the great things about science is that it figures out connections between cause and effect. And on one level ends and means seem to operate similarly. Means can support ends much as causes support effects. They seem to be the same sort of bouncing billiard balls, the same mechanical clockwork that science peers at so deeply. But we make a grave mistake in assuming reasons *are* simply causes of some sort. Causes necessarily appeal to truth, but reasons, whatever else they appeal to, also appeal to *meaning*.

      The difference I am trying to point to is that we often see science as the lens we need in looking out at the world. It gives us truth and it gives us cause and effect. It gives us facts about the world. But it is almost impossible to come at meaning just from the lens of science. And it is a false move to put meaning as a merely mental property of individual minds (the current neuroscience fantasy). Rather, meaning is invented IN human *practices*, in living human *lives*. We have to look *through* those lives and practices to make proper sense of meaning. If we leave that out, facts can take the place of meaning, causes can take the place of reasons, and that is an impoverished form of understanding rather than an enlarged one……

      Last points. It is not so much the subject matter as the framework and practices we are using that determines the type understanding we put into place. Science isn’t simply the study of the physical world but a way of looking at the physical world. The physical world can be seen as various matters of fact, but also as meaningful in a human life. Those are not the same thing.

      As British philosopher Barry Smith said in a talk on Wittgenstein for the BBC,

      “Science has got a perfectly good job of trying to describe the way the world is and how things work. Now what about all the things that we can’t put into scientific speak? We might want to say that the world has a certain meaning for us or that things are valuable. And when we say that life has a value or a meaning, as Wittgenstein points out that’s not just one more fact. Its not going to be found in the world alongside water boiling at 100 degrees Celsius and certain facts about chemical substances.

      So what are we to make of that idea that the world has value or that there’s a meaning to our lives? Instead of it being something that we state in a another proposition or that scientists investigate it’s not a part of the world, it’s an attitude to the world. It’s a way that we regard the world. So if you’ve got the facts in front of you, there’s something else you can do other than just list them. You can take up a stance in respect of what you find there, and that’s what gives the world its ethical value, that’s what we have over and above.”

      At least, that’s how it seems from my little corner of things 🙂

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  3. Carter makes great points. Don’t human values have a higher priority than facts, even scientific ones? Aren’t human values the point of any kind of scientific endeavor? A major theme here at BQTA is that science cannot be the whole truth. Morality seems not to be grounded in science—you can’t derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’— so if morality is more than just a description of behavior, it must lie outside science.

    Yet making values trump science can lead to trouble. What if someone values their religious faith more than the theory of evolution? We would want to say to him that evolution is true and that creationism is false. Could he respond, “Science is just one way of looking at the world; religion is another. You have yours, I have mine. My religious values transcend mere facts. You can list your facts, but I have taken up a stance in respect of what I find there, and that’s what gives my world its ethical value, that’s what I have over and above.”

    “Facts are the enemy of truth.”
    ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

    We would want to say: it is what it is. Values—whether religious, political, commercial or anything else— don’t change the facts.

    Which brings us to today’s Paul Krugman column in the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/11/opinion/columnists/climate-rush-limbaugh-hurricanes.html

    On Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh accused weather scientists of inventing Irma’s threat for political and financial reasons: “There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it,” he declared, adding that “fear and panic” help sell batteries, bottled water, and TV advertising.

    He evacuated his Palm Beach mansion soon afterward.

    …The important point is that he’s not an outlier. True, there weren’t many other influential people specifically rejecting warnings about Irma, but denying science while attacking scientists as politically motivated and venal is standard operating procedure on the American right. When Donald Trump declared climate change a “hoax,” he was just being an ordinary Republican.

    And thanks to Trump’s electoral victory, know-nothing, anti-science conservatives are now running the U.S. government… Almost every senior figure in the Trump administration dealing with the environment or energy is both an establishment Republican and a denier of climate change and of scientific evidence in general.

    And almost all climate change denial involves Limbaugh-type conspiracy theorizing.

    There is, after all, an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are warming the planet. When conservative politicians and pundits challenge that consensus, they do so not on the basis of careful consideration of the evidence — come on, who are we kidding? — but by impugning the motives of thousands of scientists around the world. All of these scientists, they insist, motivated by peer pressure and financial rewards, are falsifying data and suppressing contrary views…

    So as I said, when people like Limbaugh imagine that liberals are engaged in a conspiracy to promote false ideas about climate and suppress the truth, it makes sense to them partly because that’s what their friends do. [Krugman means that the right wing regularly conspires to promote ideas they know to be false, such as that there is a vast conspiracy among scientists to falsify data. Or Trump’s birther pitch.]

    But it also makes sense to them because conservatives have grown increasingly hostile to science in general. Surveys show a steady decline in conservatives’ trust in science since the 1970s, which is clearly politically motivated — it’s not as if science has stopped working. [I trace this partly to the increasing pressure science puts on values in general]

    It’s true that scientists have returned the favor, losing trust in conservatives: more than 80 percent of them now lean Democratic. But how can you expect scientists to support a party whose presidential candidates won’t even concede that the theory of evolution is right?

    The bottom line is that we are now ruled by people who are completely alienated not just from the scientific community, but from the scientific idea — the notion that objective assessment of evidence is the way to understand the world. And this willful ignorance is deeply frightening. Indeed, it may end up destroying civilization.

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