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Nonhuman empathy

Matt Jones jonesmat at ohsu.edu
Fri Feb 12 20:31:29 EST 1999


In article <36C48ECF.C9B504C8 at mich.com> Michael Edelman, mje at mich.com
writes:
>Matt Jones wrote:
>
>> In article <36C4373F.A466D92D at mich.com> Michael Edelman, mje at mich.com
>> writes:
>> You say I can "safely assume that being human they share...certain
>> But I would go further and say that being animals
>> with a lot of shared biochemistry and evolutionary history, we all share
>> certain states.
>
>How far down the tree can you assume that? And on what do you base your opinion?
>Surely we have shared biochemistry and evolutionary history with fish, but do fish
>feel jealosy?

Well, do you think that jealousy is something other than the product of
neuronal activity? If so, we need to end our discussion here, because we
will never find any point of connection. If not, then what is it that
makes you think that we can experience it but fish can't? Most likely,
it's because you think our brains are "organized" differently, which is
obviously true. But what's not necessarily true is that we have some
specific organizational feature, like a "jealousy" nucleus, that fish
just plain don't have. I'm arguing that we differ from fish by a matter
of degree, both chemically and organizationally, and that we do not
differ in any rigidly defined way.  Farther down in your post, you ask
"where do you draw the line?". I'm saying, there isn't any good place to
draw the line. Drawing lines in a case like this is an arbitrary decision
that you make, and may not be all that helpful in the long run.

>But- we assume that being human, they have certain states in common with us, and
>by observation and more importantly, communication, we can not only verify the
>existence of these states, we can also assign common labels to common states. So
>if you say you're sad, assuming you're not using some non-standard label, I know
>what you're feeling. If I see you and you look sad, I can verify that through
>interrogation.

That's all fine until you have to interrogate someone who doesn't speak
your language, like a baby or a Norwegian (assuming you don't speak
Norwegian). Then the whole "inferring internal states by inerrogation"
thing breaks down completely. Do you assume that Norwegians and babies
don't feel jealousy because they can't tell you what they're feeling in a
common language? You probably think that's an absurd scenario. OK, what
about someone with a handicap that prohibits speech or language. Would
you hesitate, even briefly, to admit that these people can feel jealousy?
Interrogation is just a convenience, it is not the final test
(obviously). It's also quite prone to error, as people can always lie. 

>Doesn't matter for the reasons outlined above- the common language. But that
>reinforces my point about non-human species- what is the justification in
>assigning a specific internal state to some behavior?

>> states with external ones, then we must admit to a similar leeway when
>> translating across species.
>
>Except for the common language and common experience. That common experience is
>what makes language translation possible.


Common language is nice if you can get it. But as I pointed out, you
can't always get it. And when you can't, you should rely on common sense. 

>> Yes, there is a spectrum of nervous system sophistication. A spectrum,
>> not discrete categories. This is a consequence of us having evolved from
>> simpler ancestors.
>
>So where do you draw the line, and more importantly, how do you make that
>determination?
>

Why this insistence on having a "line".  

>> Do people get jealous? I'm not sure how you could divine that. Oh, I
>> know. You look at their behavior and infer an internal state.

>In this sense there is: You're using a behavioristic definition of jealosy, i.e.,
>a set of specific behaviors that correlates to a set of inputs- bringing home the
>new daughter. But here you're assigning a state bbased on human behavior.

I'm assigning a state based on ANIMAL behaviour. It just happens that
most of my experiences with that state come from observing human animals.
But in my opinion, those experiences generalize quite smoothly to closely
related non-humans too.

>Cats are not social animals in general. They are solitary hunters. There are
>always exceptions, of course; perhaps you have a jealous cat. But it is as likely
>that the cat was reacting not to something that would take attention from it, but
>to a new threat to its territory. 

That's pretty much what I mean by jealousy.  Territory, attention, what's
the difference? We respond similarly to a threat in either area. If a
human 2 year old started to piss on the floor when the new baby came
home, you'd probably attribute that to jealousy. But when a cat does the
same thing under the same conditions, it's a response to a territorial
dispute? Not the simplest explanation, if you ask me.


>You're confusing intensity of sensation with the actual experience of pain. Say we
>both go to the dentist, and he hits a nerve root. I scream and hide in the corner,
>whimpering. You say to the dentist "uh, that was rather painful". Different
>intensity, but we both experienced pain. Recoiling from stimulus is not the same
>as experiencing pain.

I'm not confused about it.  Are you?  Pain is all about intensity. A
mechanical pressure (for example) will either be or not be "painful"
depending on its intensity. The psychophysical response, whether
ascertained by gesture or interrogation, also depends on the intensity. 

>
>No, and that was never as issue. I assume many animals have conciousness, and I
>assume many can feel pain, anger and so forth. But- I am very careful about how
>and when I assign those emotions to organisms I cannot communicate with.

As you should be. But that doesn't mean that people who adopt broader
criteria are wrong or are committing a fallacy. It just means you are
being conservative. Which is wise.

>Complexity of behavior is no indicator of higher levels of conciousness. 

What is? The reponse to your interrogation? This is sort of a "Turing
test" criterion. It's an OK first pass approach, but it's not the whole
shebang.

Cheers,

Matt



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