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Nonhuman Animals are not Agents: Language Sets Humans Apart from the Rest of the Animal Kingdom

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To be an agent is to be a being with the capacity to act. To be able to act one must be able to intend. To be able to intend one must have a mind. But nonhuman animals lack minds. So nonhuman animals don’t act, they merely behave. This does not mean that nonhuman animals should not be treated with any value, indeed since we are moral beings and act morally, we should treat non-minded organisms as best we can. In my view, the capacity to act is what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. That is, humans are the only animals with minds and the capacity to act and reason, and this is because humans are the only animals with language. So this is what makes humans special and unique—it is what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the conclusion that I will mount this in this article.

Language and propositional attitudes

Perhaps the most well-known philosopher to deny agency to animals is philosopher of mind Donald Davidson (1975, 1982). In his paper Rational Animals, Davidson (1982) basically argued that no organism can think or have a reason to do X if they have no concept of belief, so nonhuman animals are incapable of thought or reason, therefore nonhuman animals lack minds and they do not act. Davidson’s argument is a modern-day Descartes “animals are automata” argument.

Davidson argues that in order to have a belief, the organism needs to have a concept of belief and that in order to have a concept of belief then the organism must have language—they must be able to state their intentions, beliefs, and desires. Davidson (1982: 322-323) puts this well:

The version of the thesis which I want to promote needs to be distinguished from various related versions. I don’t, for example, believe that thinking can be reduced to linguistic activity. I find no plausibility in the idea that thoughts can be nomologically identified with, or correlated with, phenomena characterized in physical or neurological terms. Nor do I see any reason to maintain that what we can’t say we can’t think. My thesis is not, then, that each thought depends for its existence on the existence of a sentence that expresses that thought. My thesis is rather that a creature cannot have a thought unless it has language. In order to be a thinking, rational creature, the creature must be able to express many thoughts, and above all, be able to interpret the speech and thoughts of others.

If a thing is said to have propositional attitudes, if a thing lacks language, how can it be said to have propositional attitudes, where a propositional attitude is an intentional state “about” something? Language is important here because the contents of intentional states are propositions. So if an organism can’t talk, then it can’t have propositional attitudes, that is it can’t have intentional states.

I think Davidson’s argument in Rational Animals successfully shows that animals lack minds and therefore do not act. I have reformed it:

If X is to have a belief, then X has to have the concept of belief. If X has the concept of belief, then X has language. If X doesn’t understand or speak a language, then X cannot have beliefs. Belief is necessary for thought/reasoning. So nonhuman animals don’t think/reason. So nonhuman animals lack mind.

The argument can also be put into premise and conclusion form like this:

(1) To be able to think, an organism must have a full range of propositional attitudes (PAs). (2) Having a full range of PAs rests on having language. (3) Nonhuman animals lack language. (4) So nonhuman animals lack PAs. (5) So, nonhuman animals don’t think. (6) So nonhuman animals lack mind.

The argument as formulated is valid and, I think, it’s obviously sound. Since animals lack language and this is an empirical fact, then they cannot have PAs so they therefore do not think. Nonhuman animals do not utter words, since they lack language.

Action and behavior

What nonhuman animals DO is behave (Stroecker, 2009)—where behavior is due to antecedent conditions. I have made the distinction between “action” and “behavior” quite simple. Goals and reasons distinguish action from behavior. Action is goal-oriented and done for reasons, whereas behavior is a reaction due antecedent conditions—the organism behaves due to causal stimuli. This can be said to be a form of Descartes’ view of animals as automata—that they are material beings without minds. Humans, he held, are both material and immaterial—the mind being immaterial and the body being material. Descartes showed that nonhuman animal behavior is akin to the automatic behaviors in humans—where “behavior” is a result of antecedent conditions and not goal-directed. This argument by analogy from Descartes shows that nonhuman animal behavior is reflexive, and so they cannot think and they can be rightly said to be automata (Thomas, 2020).

Brenick and Webster (2000: 147) wonderfully articulate the distinction between action and behavior, and once this distinction is made clear, it is quite obvious that the claim “animals don’t act, they merely behave” is true.

Teleology, the reader is reminded, involves goals or lures that provide the reasons for a person acting in a certain way. It is goals or reasons that establish action from simple behavior. On the other hand the concept of efficient causation is involved in the concept of behavior. Behavior is the result of antecedent conditions. The individual behaves in response to causal stimuli or antecedent conditions. Hence, behavior is a reaction to what already is—the result of a push from the past to do something in the present. In contrast, an action aims at the future. It is motivated by a vision of what can be.

The best example is being hit with a mallet in the knee by a doctor which tests the L2, L3 and L4 segments of the spinal cord. Try as they might, if the doctor hits them in the right spot—assuming they have no issues with their L2, L3, and L4 segments of their spinal cord—the knee will jerk up which indicates no issues with those spinal cord segments. The knee jerking is due to an antecedent condition. Now think of that same movement being done as an exercise, the knee extention on an exercise machine. There is conscious thought to be the knee in accordance with the exercise to work the targeted muscles. This, therefore, is an action, since there this is goal-driven and performed for a reason—to work out the specified muscles of the exercise. This of course occurred for a reason, but it was an intention by the doctor, not the individual who was getting his patellar reflex tested.

(1) If nonhuman animals had the capacity to act, then they could make decisions based on their own preferences, goals, and beliefs.

(2) Nonhuman animals cannot make decisions on their own preferences, goals and beliefs (they don’t have a concept of BELIEF).

(3) Therefore nonhuman animals can’t act.

I can also make the claim and give an argument that animals aren’t moral agents and so they cannot be concerned with “right” or “wrong” since they lack language and thusly a mind.

For X to be moral, they need to be concerned with “right” or “wrong.” For X to have those concepts, they must have a language and therefore a mind. Nonhuman animals lack language. Nonhuman animals lack mind. Therefore nonhuman animals lack morals.

For animals to be said to have thought, they must be able to think about words using a language, but they cannot do so since they lack language and so they lack propositional attitudes. So animals lack the ability to intend to do things, they merely react to what occurs to them (they “behave”).

Human language is compositional and referential (Pagel, 2017). Humans (and Neanderthals) also share a derived TF (transcription factor) of FOXP2—FOXP2 has been claimed to be a “language gene”, though, as Mason et al (2018: 403) rightly state, “FOXP2 is likely needed in the neuromuscular pathway to make sounds.” But in 2018, a paper was published—No Evidence for Recent Selection of FOXP2 among Diverse Human Populations (Atkinson et al, 2018)—where the authors show that “natural selection” can’t be attributed to FOXP2 and therefore the development of human language, meaning it’s a just-so story. So there is no support for positive selection of the FOXP2 locus.

Apes like Koko and Nim Chimpsky, it is claimed, can use sign language and construct sentences using sign language when they want something. However, it is now known that 92% of Ally’s (Nim’s brother) and all of Koko’s signs were signed before they signed their “thoughts” (Terrace et al, 1979: 899). Thus, these apes don’t understand what they’re doing, they don’t have the desire for what they are claimed to be signing, they are just doing what their handlers tell them to do. And there is still no evidence that nonhuman animals possess a theory of mind (ToM) (Penn and Povinelli, 2007).

I would say that in order for nonhuman animals to have a ToM, they must have the concept of belief. But, as Davidson (1982) has shown, they can’t have a concept of belief since they lack language so they can’t have a ToM. There is, furthermore, no good evidence that human babes under the age of 3 and nonhuman animals cannot attribute beliefs or mental states (Burge, 2018). Though, of course, human babies grow and eventually do acquire this ability, they are not born rational, they need to acquire it through experience. They can do this because they have human brains which is a necessary pre-condition for mindedness. The same cannot be said for nonhuman animals, though.

My view that animals don’t act and they merely behave may be a fringe one, but one author holds this view, too. In Why Animals Can’t Act, Stroecker (2009) argues that animals don’t act, but they do behave. Agency, to Stroecker (2009: 267):

is a skill that is dependent on a highly sophisticated, social practice, the practice of public practical deliberation. Only because we are raised in this practice and moreover because we have internalized it can we be expected to do whatever it is that is arguably the best and in turn can our doings be explained on the basis of this particular skill.

Conclusion

The argument that has been mounted here shows that for an organism to be able to think, it must have propositional attitudes and therefore language. The claim that one must possess language in order to have beliefs and thusly propositional attitudes is the strongest claim against animal minds and rationality. This view I articulated is called “lingualism”—the claim that agency is confined to language utterers, thusly agency is confined to humans since to be an agent one must have a mind and humans are the only animals with minds.

The discussion here shows that since nonhuman animals lack language, they lack belief and they ability to have beliefs about beliefs. And since they lack language, they lack propositional attitudes. So nonhuman animals aren’t moral agents, they lack minds, and since they lack minds they cannot think and so they cannot be rational and cannot be said to be agents.

So what sets humans apart from the animal kingdom—that is, what makes humans special and distinct from the animal kingdom—is the capacity for language, and along with it thought, action, and agency, that is, the ability to act intentionally and not merely due to antecedent conditions. Language, action, and mind are what makes us unique and special—but this is not a theistic claim. So, at the end of the day, the ultimate claim is that our minds are what make us unique in the animal kingdom, since other animals lack mind.

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