Animals and abstract thought

by Neil Rickert

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.

Abstract thinking

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.


One Comment to “Animals and abstract thought”


    An interesting article released on July 15th in Science journal about ducklings shown to have abstract thought of some form, to distinguish between “same” and “different” sets of objects.

    In general, yes, I think many animals are capable of at least some forms of abstract thought. At the very least, we can be confident that their pattern recognition capacities allow for abstraction of certain higher level patterns, whether conscious of it or not. In the case, of the above mentioned article, it could be that the ducks aren’t conscious of the abstraction that they’ve used to modify their behavior, but they nevertheless had the capacity for abstraction, even if they don’t have the kind of meta-awareness that we do when thinking the same kind of abstraction.

    As for your comments on reading a story such as “Little Red Riding Hood”, I think that imagination by definition requires abstract thought, because in order for a mind to imagine anything, it has to have abstract concepts at its disposal for some arrangement made in the mental simulation. If I’m told that “little red riding hood was walking through the forest”, I am likely to use the abstract concepts of “little”, “red”, “girl”, “walking”, “riding hood”, and “forest”, to use a few examples, when configuring the imagined scene. If one didn’t do this, my guess is that they didn’t actually listen to and understand the story being read to them. As such, I think that any animals that are capable of imagination would also be de facto capable of abstraction.

    Additionally, I think that language also requires abstraction, for when a person uses language, they are using concepts that are themselves abstractions with semantic content. If I ask you “What’s your name?”, I am communicating a set of abstract concepts to you in the form of a question which is itself a concept that implies I desire a reply to my communicated concepts. One of the main differences between math and ordinary language, is that even though they are both abstract (in my opinion), only one of them is always unambiguous and doesn’t make use of particulars (math). So I would also say that any animals capable of language would also de facto be capable of abstraction. My two cents anyway.

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