Nate Smith

Units & Animals

21 posts in this topic

This is the key, the entrance to the conceptual level of man's consciousness. The ability to regard entities as units is man's distinctive method of cognition, which other living species are unable to follow.

A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members.

Animals do seem to have some ability to view different existents as separate members of a group of similar members. An example I was thinking about was viewing dogs and their reactions to people. Whenever someone comes over to my parents' house, their dog gets very excited and runs up to the new person, even if they haven't met before. The dog has distinguished man from other existents and regards certain existents (other men) as members of that group.

Similarly, once a monkey discovers a banana, he will recognize other bananas and know what to do with them. He won't have to learn all over.

I'm not claiming that these animals have formed concepts, but they do seem to be able to regard certain entities as units. Can they do this in a limited respect, and are they halted when it comes to conceptualizing entities?

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I'm not claiming that these animals have formed concepts, but they do seem to be able to regard certain entities as units.

Units of what?

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Whenever someone comes over to my parents' house, their dog gets very excited and runs up to the new person, even if they haven't met before.

That is what is observed.

The dog has distinguished man from other existents and regards certain existents (other men) as members of that group.

That is one possible conclusion, but there is a much simpler explanation.

Dogs are perceptual creatures and the perceptual level includes association and memory. Pavlov's dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with food and began to salivate every time they heard a bell whether there was food present or not. In this case, the dog can remember past associations between human-smelling things and getting petted and fed and that's why he runs up to the human-smelling thing here now.

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That is what is observed.

That is one possible conclusion, but there is a much simpler explanation.

Dogs are perceptual creatures and the perceptual level includes association and memory. Pavlov's dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with food and began to salivate every time they heard a bell whether there was food present or not. In this case, the dog can remember past associations between human-smelling things and getting petted and fed and that's why he runs up to the human-smelling thing here now.

Reading your post, Betsy, it struck me how so many people seem to forget how important the sense of smell is to a dog, even though we're reminded of it all the time with stories of drug-sniffing dogs.

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This question brings up something that I've wondered about for some time: what are the limits of a perceptual consciousness? I've never seen a study of this question. Usually, animal intelligence is equated to human intelligence and it is explained that, while it is more primitive, it isn't necessarily different in kind than human intelligence. The line is hopelessly blurred on almost all of today's premises. It is undeniable that some animals are possessed of a complex perceptual intelligence and are able to do some amazing things. If you call it human, however, you miss what is remarkable about a perceptual consciousness, and you end up conflating the perceptual with the conceptual.

Of course, the same people don't understand a conceptual consciousness anymore than they do a perceptual one, and they work diligently to deny any important difference, except, perhaps, in the way humans use of language. I watched a four-hour series on the rise of man on the Science channel recently. In four hours the word reason was never mentioned. The purpose of these animal studies does not seem to be to gain an understanding of how a perceptual consciousness operates, or even to raise the intellectual status of animals to that of humans, but to make sure that we humans don't dare think we're any different, or that we might have different needs in order to survive.

I would be interested if anyone can point to any study on the limits of perception.

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This question brings up something that I've wondered about for some time: what are the limits of a perceptual consciousness?

It is quite amazing to see all that an animal can do strictly by perceptual integration, association, and memory. In fact, those people who rarely make the effort to conceptualize, who pick up language by word-association and ethics by associating "good" and "bad" with the approval and disapproval of others, daily demonstrate just how far a creature can go "running on automatic."

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I would be interested if anyone can point to any study on the limits of perception.

Perception is best measured quantifiably by the ability to isolate individual existents and to discriminate the differences between them. A great deal of work has been done on the perceptual limitations of various sense modalities of many animals, including man. There are neuro-physiological limitations to perception (neurons, synapses, action potentials, neurotransmitters, etc.) as well as limitations due to the physiology and physics governing the sense organs. But the perceptual capacity to discriminate has evolved by serving a biological function, and the fact that a conceptual consciousness exists seems itself to imply a natural limit on the overall biological usefulness of the perceptual level.

Nature continues to develop, where appropriate, species with a finer capacity to discriminate, but these exist within a narrow range of sense modalities. It is conceivable, or, at least, metaphysically possible, that the neuro-physiology of the brain can expand its general capability for non-conceptual animals, and the structure of their sense organs can likewise develop on a grand scale. However, it seems that the power of a conceptual consciousness is so great, and of such enormous biological value, that a quantum leap in the capacity to discriminate by non-conceptual animals is, in all likelihood, of limited probability. Diversity seems to be of some good.

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--------

Similarly, once a monkey discovers a banana, he will recognize other bananas and know what to do with them. He won't have to learn all over.

I'm not claiming that these animals have formed concepts, but they do seem to be able to regard certain entities as units. Can they do this in a limited respect, and are they halted when it comes to conceptualizing entities?

How is the monkey regarding the banana as a unit? He is simply observing the similarity among bananas.

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Would the ability to use language (or more generally symbols, like certain gestures that have meaning) to convey something be limited to a conceptual consciousness, or is it possible that some of the higher animals also do this on a perceptual level?

Usually when I discuss this issue with others they bring up this particular point, and I don't know how to explain it to my satisfaction. Could anyone help with this?

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Would the ability to use language (or more generally symbols, like certain gestures that have meaning) to convey something be limited to a conceptual consciousness, or is it possible that some of the higher animals also do this on a perceptual level?

Animals can associate words as perceptual cues. That is how we teach dogs to respond to "sit" and "heel." We can even train them to respond vocally to "speak," but that's not the same thing as language.

Language involves abstraction and integration and not mere association. A sign of conceptualization would be an original verbal identification or formulation of an idea in words that were not previously heard from others.

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Maarten: Many people mistake animal communication for language, or they attempt to conflate the two. Animals communicate on several levels; chemically, for instance, or calls that announce their territory, etc. This is not like human language, however, and is comparatively very limited.

I always say that when I see another group of animals sending rovers to Mars, we can talk about a conceptual consciousness in a species other than Homo sapien.

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Maarten: Many people mistake animal communication for language, or they attempt to conflate the two. Animals communicate on several levels; chemically, for instance, or calls that announce their territory, etc. This is not like human language, however, and is comparatively very limited.

I always say that when I see another group of animals sending rovers to Mars, we can talk about a conceptual consciousness in a species other than Homo sapien.

Or, when I see Rover send a group of animals to Mars then I'll really pay attention. :unsure:

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Would the ability to use language (or more generally symbols, like certain gestures that have meaning) to convey something be limited to a conceptual consciousness, or is it possible that some of the higher animals also do this on a perceptual level?

Usually when I discuss this issue with others they bring up this particular point, and I don't know how to explain it to my satisfaction. Could anyone help with this?

The most important point is to first make clear what is meant by "language." In this regard, Ayn Rand's definition of "language" in ITOE, and her subsequent exposition on the subject, is, paramount.

Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of convening concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts.

Ayn Rand makes so very clear in ITOE that the primary role of language is cognition, not communication, the former preceding the latter. The mating call of a male frog may be a signal to be tracked down by a female frog, or a warning call from a bird may signal the presence of an enemy, or an orangutan may signal for attention by hurling branches to the ground. There is adaptive benefit to the development of these automatic processes, some of which can become quite sophisticated in higher animals. But this form of signaling is automatic for the perceptual consciousness of animals other than man. Language, as properly understood, is the province of man, an essential tool for the development of a conceptual consciousness.

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How is the monkey regarding the banana as a unit? He is simply observing the similarity among bananas.

I guess I'm still trying to grasp the difference between seeing simililarity and regarding existents as units.

A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members.

Unless I'm missing something, Ayn Rand's definition of a unit seems to fit the monkey and banana example perfectly. This definition, as far as I can tell, could be taken as synonomous for a description of perceiving similarity.

There are some useful comments in this thread, so I'll keep thinking about this. If anyone has any clarifications, please add them. Thanks.

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I'll use the example that Ayn Rand used:

When a child observes that two objects (which he will later learn to designate as "tables") resemble each other, but are different from four other objects ("chairs"), his mind is focusing on a particular attribute of the objects (their shape), then isolating them according to their differences, ...

So far, this seems to be exactly what animals do. The sentence continues:

... and integrating them as units into separate groups according to their similarities.

I think this step is unique to humans. Could someone elaborate on what she means by "integrating"? This might help me understand where humans part ways with animals.

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I guess I'm still trying to grasp the difference between seeing simililarity and regarding existents as units.

[bold added for emphasis.]

Units of what? Regarded by whom?

Seeing is perceptual. Regarding is conceptual.

Units do not exist outside and independently of consciousness. Units are things regarded as instances of of a certain kind of thing. But "kind" is an abstraction formed by a certain type of consciousness, the conceptual type. "Regarding" is a mental function characteristic of a conceptual consciousness. See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 7: "With the grasp of the (implicit) concept 'unit' man reaches the conceptual level of cognition ...."

I am not certain, but I suggest that your original question, in post 1, begs the question of the nature of the consciousness of a dog.

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I'll use the example that Ayn Rand used:

So far, this seems to be exactly what animals do. The sentence continues:

I think this step is unique to humans. Could someone elaborate on what she means by "integrating"? This might help me understand where humans part ways with animals.

Let's remember what Rand is doing in this section. She is breaking down or reducing back to perceptual reality higher level concepts to implicit concepts of existent, entity, and unit. She is identifying what goes on inside the mind of a conceptual consciousness. So the entire issue of seeing tables as existents, entities, and units is only applicable to conceptual consciousness and not to an animals perceptual awareness. An animal does not perceive tables and distinguishes them from chairs. He simply perceives things. I believe that Rand may be the only philsopher who holds that similarity is perceived, not conceived. Animals simply perceive that this thing looks like that thing. The attribute (which they cannot grasp conceptually) may be shape, length or other factor. An animal does not "focus[] on a particular attribute of the objects (their shape), then isolating them according to their differences," perceive the object as a banana.

When human looks at an object and grasps that it is a banana, it is because he regards the object as a unit of banana. A human is doing this and everything else needed to formulate the concept. What she means by "integrating them as units into separate groups according to their similarities" is that the units are interchangeable when forming the concept. To a monkey, one banana is different from another banana which is different from another banana. For humans, all bananas are identical because the specific measurements have been omitted. In other words, all instances of banana have been integrated into one concept, and each banana is a unit of that concept, not a separate thing to be considered apart from the others.

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Seeing is perceptual. Regarding is conceptual.

That formulation is very helpful. I think I'm starting to see your point. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far.

I am not certain, but I suggest that your original question, in post 1, begs the question of the nature of the consciousness of a dog.

I think you are correct. Let me try and get a better grasp of the conceptual vs. perceptual with another example:

When my son was very young, I remember when he first encountered light switches. He wasn't tall enough to reach them, but when he was held, he was enthralled by the ability to make the lights go on and off. (I don't believe he was speaking by this time.)

Now compare this child's experience to a primate that learns to open a coconut with a rock (I think some primates do this).

Is the child still acting solely on the perceptual level? Is it even possible for a conceptual being to act completely perceptually? I don't think so.

When my son encountered other light switches, he would indicate the desire to flip the lights again. Therefore I think that he viewed the switchs as units of some concept, since he regards them in a similar manner.

So judging by the comments in this thread, I think these scenarios would be summarized thusly:

The child does view the switches as units of some kind (while there may be no word given to the concept yet), since he regards them as similar to each other and distinct from other things.

The primate only perceives the similarity between the rocks and the coconuts and by memory can replicate the behavior to achieve an end. He doesn't regard the rocks or coconuts as members of a group of similar things though.

Is this correct?

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That formulation is very helpful. I think I'm starting to see your point. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far.

I think you are correct. Let me try and get a better grasp of the conceptual vs. perceptual with another example:

When my son was very young, I remember when he first encountered light switches. He wasn't tall enough to reach them, but when he was held, he was enthralled by the ability to make the lights go on and off. (I don't believe he was speaking by this time.)

Now compare this child's experience to a primate that learns to open a coconut with a rock (I think some primates do this).

Is the child still acting solely on the perceptual level? Is it even possible for a conceptual being to act completely perceptually? I don't think so.

A young child hasn't yet developed his conceptual faculty (especially one that can not talk yet), so why would you believe that he can't operate solely on the perceptual level.

When my son encountered other light switches, he would indicate the desire to flip the lights again. Therefore I think that he viewed the switchs as units of some concept, since he regards them in a similar manner.

I'm not so sure. He seems to be simply observing the similarities as well as learning that he can control the off-on of the lights.

So judging by the comments in this thread, I think these scenarios would be summarized thusly:

The child does view the switches as units of some kind (while there may be no word given to the concept yet), since he regards them as similar to each other and distinct from other things.

The primate only perceives the similarity between the rocks and the coconuts and by memory can replicate the behavior to achieve an end. He doesn't regard the rocks or coconuts as members of a group of similar things though.

Is this correct?

Seeing things as similar to each other and distinct from other things is a property of perceptual awareness. The primate doesn't view have the concepts 'rock' and 'coconut'; he simply observes that this thing (the coconut), when acted upon by this other thing (the rock), results in this (splitting). The primate certainly can remember and learn from his experience, and repeat the action when he needs to.

I think the child is beginning to form the basis for grasping that switches turn things on and off. But he is not regarding them as units. When he plays with other types of switches, such as vacuum cleaners, garage door openers, radio buttons, and other types, then he can begins to regard them as units for the concept "switch." I think the process is complete when he learns the word 'switch' and when he knows that he doesn't have to flip the switch to know that the light will go on or off.

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A young child hasn't yet developed his conceptual faculty (especially one that can not talk yet), so why would you believe that he can't operate solely on the perceptual level.

I guess the question is does this (let's say pre-verbal) child regard the light switches in some way, or is he functioning the same way as the primate? I suppose that's for scientists to determine exactly when the child is functioning conceptually.

Once a child does develop the ability to function conceptually, it would seem to me to be impossilbe to completely disregard this capacity and function solely on the perceptual level. I'm not sure though. Any thoughts?

So judging by the comments in this thread, I think these scenarios would be summarized thusly:

The child does view the switches as units of some kind (while there may be no word given to the concept yet), since he regards them as similar to each other and distinct from other things.

The primate only perceives the similarity between the rocks and the coconuts and by memory can replicate the behavior to achieve an end. He doesn't regard the rocks or coconuts as members of a group of similar things though.

Is this correct?

Seeing things as similar to each other and distinct from other things is a property of perceptual awareness. The primate doesn't view have the concepts 'rock' and 'coconut'; he simply observes that this thing (the coconut), when acted upon by this other thing (the rock), results in this (splitting). The primate certainly can remember and learn from his experience, and repeat the action when he needs to.

I didn't mean to imply that the primate had concepts or did anything other than view the similarity of certain existents. 'Rock' and 'coconut' are our words, not theirs.

I think the child is beginning to form the basis for grasping that switches turn things on and off. But he is not regarding them as units. When he plays with other types of switches, such as vacuum cleaners, garage door openers, radio buttons, and other types, then he can begins to regard them as units for the concept "switch." I think the process is complete when he learns the word 'switch' and when he knows that he doesn't have to flip the switch to know that the light will go on or off.

Does the child really need to experience all these different types of switches to regard them as units? Perhaps his word will not be as comprehensive as it someday will be, but I think he still has the ability to regard these things as separate members of a group of similar things. The rest of what you said I agree with.

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I guess the question is does this (let's say pre-verbal) child regard the light switches in some way, or is he functioning the same way as the primate? I suppose that's for scientists to determine exactly when the child is functioning conceptually.

If you're question is whether perceptual awareness operates the same for babies as it does for primates, I'd say "yes" in that both are made aware of reality by their perceptual means of awareness. The form of awareness maybe different.

The transitioning from a perceptual to a conceptual method can be observed in children as they get older but it is difficult to say exactly when this happens since one cannot directly observe their consciousness. One can clearly see the attentiveness and focus of babies/infants on things that animals simply do not have. But it is clear that once a child is using words, the development of the conceptual faculty is complete, at least with respect to the words that he has learned.

Once a child does develop the ability to function conceptually, it would seem to me to be impossilbe to completely disregard this capacity and function solely on the perceptual level. I'm not sure though. Any thoughts?

Yes, I agree that once the conceptual faculty begins functioning, it is impossible to function solely on the perceptual level. When looking at a banana, it is impossible to not view it as a banana, as a unit. One can conceptually break it down and refer to the banana as a thing apart from everything else, but that requires conceptual awareness, i.e., introspection.

I didn't mean to imply that the primate had concepts or did anything other than view the similarity of certain existents. 'Rock' and 'coconut' are our words, not theirs.

Does the child really need to experience all these different types of switches to regard them as units? Perhaps his word will not be as comprehensive as it someday will be, but I think he still has the ability to regard these things as separate members of a group of similar things. The rest of what you said I agree with.

I agree that a child doesn't have to experience all types of switches. The reason is that he usually learns his words from the adults around him. When he plays with a switch, the adult says the word to the child; the same when he sees the family dog or cat. Thus, he can learn words while only seeing one instance of the concept. The child has many experiences while growing up and assuming that he has only seen one instance of something may not be correct. There are many switches in the house; even though there is only one family dog, there are dogs in the neighborhood, on TV, in cartoons, etc.

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