There’s recently been something of an argument between Michael Egnor and Jeffrey Shallit, over whether animals can think abstractly.
Egnor’s most recent post is here:
and it contains (near the beginning) links back to he earlier posts on the topic. Shallit’s most recent post is here:
and the last line links to his earlier post in the dispute.
There is a simple answer to the question. Humans are animals, and humans can think abstractly. But that misses the point. The argument was really about non-human animals.
For myself, I don’t really have an answer. The problem that I see, is that we do not have a clear definition of “abstract thinking” that we could attempt to apply to animals. There’s a good chance that Egnor and Shallit are talking past one another, using incompatible meanings of “abstract thinking.”
Most people would agree that mathematics involves abstract thinking, and I agree. Some folk believe that ordinary language use is already abstract. However, I don’t think of it as abstract. Language is sometime described as using symbols to represent ideas. I lean more to the Wittgenstein view of language as a social/cultural practice.
If a child listens to the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, is that abstract? It does involve imagination, but I’m not inclined to think that enough for abstract thought.
Looking at the debate, it seems clear that Egnor has a narrow conception of what counts as abstract thought. His most recent post gives a test for whether animals can use the square root concept. That seems too strict. It is really a test of whether animals can emulate a very particular kind of human abstract thinking. But maybe square roots are not of interest to most non-human animals.
Shallit seems to take a broader view. Perhaps he would take any thinking to be automatically abstract, though I’m not sure if he is that broad. For myself, I don’t doubt that animals (at least mammals, and probably birds) are capable of something comparable to thinking. Whether or not that should count as abstract just does not seem a particularly important question.
Feel free to express your own opinion in the comments section.