Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Gem of a Book 4

Answering His Critics

Labrador, Howth Summit, Feb, 2007
Professor Rowlands does answer his critics well – that is, those critics who accuse him of taking a wild creature out of its habitat. Firstly, he tells us that his wolf, whom he named Brenin, was not born in the wild, but rather in captivity. Also he is quite adamant that he gave the creature far better care and attention than he had had heretofore. Also, as a passionate animal and dog lover, having been reared in a family that owned two great danes, he knew that he was more than capable of training the young wolf and rearing him effectively and sympathetically. This wee memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf, testifies more than adequately to his success in this matter.

I am quite at one with Rowlands where he criticizes his would-be critics as being for the most part “middle class liberal academics with green pretensions.” (Ibid. p.36) Better to “walk the walk than talk the talk” as the cliché rightly puts it. This memoir is primarily about “walking the walk,” with the philosophical musings coming by way of reflection on those lived experiences.

What Nature Intends

I am also singularly at one with Professor Rowlands also where he states that “what nature intends” is very far from a closed question. In fact, it is so open that it admits of many possible answers. Therefore, those who throw off opinions as to what nature intends need to be wary and to have questioned what they mean by this statement in the first place. Now, that is true philosophy – the heart of which is a radical questioning of assumptions, presumptions and presuppositions.

Demeaning Animals

Many years ago I attended a debate between liberal theologians and scientists (biologists, geneticists and physicists) on the topic of evolution. One of the theologians was personally known to me and a brilliant liberal theologian he was and is. However, on this occasion, the biologist got the better of him in a certain argument about whether apes can love or not. This theologian had fallen captive to the categories of his own discipline and his lack of experience of working with animals. As an animal lover I know “on my pulses,” as the Romantic poet John Keats so aptly put it, that animals can love not alone one another but us as well. Every farmer knows that. However, on this occasion the theologian was simply wrong. In other words, I completely concur with Professors John Gray and Mark Rowlands that we have over-estimated our human worth to the sheer disadvantage of our brother and sister animals. That foxes, wolves, dogs, horses and dolphins are both clever and capable of love virtually goes without saying today. As Rowlands wittily puts it: “Try telling the urban fox that it should be engaged in its natural behaviour of hunting mice. Try telling the fox that its essence precedes its existence, and that, unlike me, it doesn’t have its being to be.” (Ibid, p. 39) [Rowlands is here referring to existential categories, especially those invented by Jean-Paul Sartre, that ultimate existentialist, who described that particular philosophical view as the contention that existence precedes essence for all humans and that essence precedes existence for everything else including animals].

I’m totally in agreement with Rowlands here that this is the height of human arrogance. It is interesting for this writer to note the almost totally unconscious acceptance by these so-called modern philosophers of many of the presuppositions made by more orthodox Christian philosophers before them, e.g., that humankind stands at the pinnacle of creation and can lord it over other creatures as a result. Sartre argued that humans were beings-for-themselves or pour-soi, while lowly animals were mere beings in themselves or en-soi. In other words the human being can define himself or herself, create their own project in life or choose a particular path or vocation of their own. In other words humankind is essentially free – or condemned to be free as Sartre would put it – while the mere animal is anything but free. Once again this is a very arrogant and condescending view of animal life by humankind.

The Hand of Cards

I have always loved a good image or a good metaphor. Here is another good one – the hand of cards. That life is a game or at least is composed of people who play psychological games as well as the more common ones, I have discussed in these pages before with reference to the brilliant book The Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne. (See here) On a similar note I remember reading a biography of Stephen Hawking written by two of his early Ph.D. candidates and later collaborators where he the world-renowned theoretical physicist uses the same metaphor for life. He told his interlocutors that he never felt a shred of self-pity because he was burdened with such a catastrophic disease that left him wheelchair-bound and voiceless relatively early in life, quite simply because as a physicist he understood the sheer chance that is nature. He simply believed that there was no use in getting upset by something which he could do absolutely nothing about. He also spoke about playing whatever hand of cards fate dealt you in life to the best of your ability. That is all we can do, all that is humanly possible. Rowlands is in agreement with this and uses the very same metaphor for the parts we ourselves can play in life. It is the same, our philosopher argues for dogs, wolves, foxes and more intelligent animals. In short, our esteemed Professor writes, and I am in agreement here: “A wolf, no less than a human, can play the hand it has been dealt. And what is more, you can help it to do this. As it becomes better at playing this hand, it becomes more confident. It enjoys what it’s learnt and wants to learn more. It becomes stronger and consequently happier.” (Ibid, p. 41)

That Rowlands is using a metaphor, and using it in its anthropomorphic sense to boot, goes without saying. One must allow for leeway here, dear readers, if not for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge so perspicaciously called “a suspension of disbelief” if we are following the professor’s reasonable argument in this short memoir.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A Gem of a Book 3

A Timely Lesson

Friendly Labrador, Howth Summit, Feb 2007
As well as philosophical insights, Mark Rowlands offers us insights into how to train dogs and, indeed, how to remain safe in their company. The most typical reason for a dog to bite, he informs us, is when they lose track of your hand. People reach around to pat the back of the dog’s head or neck. When it loses sight of your hand, the dog becomes nervous, suspects you might be attacking it and consequently bites. Also, he tells us to never pick the alpha male in any litter of dogs as one could expect trouble taming him. We also learn that wolves have yellow eyes. Rowlands also informs us about the laws with respect to owning wolves – pure bred wolves are illegal to own while you can buy, sell and own wolf-dog hybrids, and the highest ratio of wolf to dog allowed is 96%.

Battle of Wills

Our author goes on to inform us that good dog training is never a battle of wills, as it simply has nothing to do with the ego. Training a dog can never be seen as anything too personal – indeed, it is not personal at all, and he recommends the animal training manuals of the expert William Koehler. His key piece of advice was always to get the animal to watch you, the trainer.

Canine Intelligence

Dogs, as man’s best friends, are often seen as very intelligent, and indeed they are. Psychological tests show that wolves do better than dogs on problem tasks while the latter beat the wolves on training tasks. The reason for this difference is that wolves need to be quick and sharp at problem solving as they must learn swiftly to avoid trouble and danger on an hourly basis in their lives in the woodland, mountains and forests. Therefore, the environment of the wolf selects for mechanical intelligence.

Rowlands’ Contribution to Philosophy

Our author informs us that he is professionally probably most known for being one of the architects of a view of the mind that sees it as essentially embodied and embedded in the world around it (see ibid., p. 30ff.). As he explains lucidly himself:

Mental activities do not just take place inside our heads – they are not just brain processes. Rather, they also involve activities we do in the world: in particular, the manipulation, transformation and exploitation of relevant environmental structures... The forerunner of this view was the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who, with his colleague Anton Luria demonstrated just how much processes of remembering and other mental activities had changed with the development of the external device for storing information. The outstanding natural memory of primitive cultures gradually withers away as we relay more and m9ore on written language as ways of storing our memories. (Ibid., p. 30)

Unlike the wolf, the dog, who is a close relative and descendant of the wolf, has learnt to rely on the human animal. More than that, still, the dog has developed the ability to use us to get his needs met. In short, we are the information-storing and processing devices that the dog has. In other words we humans are part of the dog’s extended mind. When a dog wants to go out to the garden it will stand by the closed door till we open it, or bark if we are not looking in that direction.

A Final Note on Training a Dog

Training dogs, even wolves, is never cruel, Rowlands argues, in the hands of qualified and humane trainers. Animals need to be disciplined if they are to live somewhat freely with us humans. Indeed young, and sometimes not so young, humans need to be disciplined if they, too, are to live in human society. After all, that’s why we have prisons – to incarcerate those who cannot live in society without wreaking havoc on themselves and others through their crimes. However, we would all be at one with Professor Rowlands where he argues that we must discipline our animals, but never ever break their spirit. The same apples to our human offspring. To really appreciate our freedom we have to have learnt good discipline in our lives. The exercise of real freedom requires real discipline. I’ll finish this post with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Those who cannot discipline themselves will quickly find someone else doing it for them.”