Haugeland’s Essay and Understanding Animals
I don’t think that there’s much to say about most of Haugeland’s essay, as it is merely an introduction and overview to the rest of the book’s articles. As for the nature and meaning of “mind design” I’ve so far found it to be a study that uses philosophy to commune between psychology and computer science. Computer science was borne of philosophy and math, still tethered by the umbilical cord of logic; and psychology sprang forth from the same social and ethical philosophies that produced sociology and anthropology. It seems to me that one needs to be a philosopher in order to assimilate abstract concepts from psychology and mold them into concrete forms for computer science.
There is one section that’s worth mentioning, from the end of Haugeland’s piece. He writes,
“It seems to me that…only people ever understand anything—no animals and no artifacts (yet). It follows that…no animal or machine genuinely believes or desires anything either—How could it believe something it doesn’t understand?—though, obviously, in some other, weaker sense, animals (at least) have plenty of beliefs and desires.” (pp 27)
First of all, this seems like a completely disingenuous argument—he first makes a very strong claim about the intelligence of animals, and then backs off by supplying a “maybe it is so, but in a weaker sense.” How can we understand what he means when he gives such vague and slippery arguments? Furthermore, the bar he sets for understanding seems to be met by plenty of animals. In training chimpanzees to speak sign language, the chimps must have those proto-concepts, and they do indeed apply them correctly, as evinced by the fact that Washoe not only used words correctly and in appropriate contexts, but also taught her own children to sign. That “Not all psychologists agree that Washoe did acquire language” doesn’t seem to be detrimental to the fact that she had understanding, as “she had semanticity (understanding)” (see AS Psychology). If she was able to learn only 800 words or achieve only the grammar of a 3rd grader, it does not mean that she had no understanding or intelligence, rather that she had less of it then humans do.
Furthermore, primates are not the only animals that can learn language. Parrots are able to learn words, and will learn despite any active teaching by the owner or trainer. One parrot, trained to know the words “apple” and “banana,” became familiar with pears as well, but was not taught any words for them. On one occasion, the parrot pointed a talon at one sitting next to its trainer and cawed “banapple!” The trainer looked at the pear, knowing what the parrot meant, and proceeded to try to teach it the appropriate word. Yet the parrot insisted on using its own word, having apparently judged it so based on its qualities, being intermediate between bananas and apples. (In fact, it seems appropriate, considering a pear’s softer texture and less tart flavor in comparison to an apple.) If that is not understanding, than what is?
[PS: The parrot example comes from the Scientific American Mind magazine, which is not free, and I was unable to find the sources that the article uses.]