Animal rationality



Consider my dog: Through habit and with repeatedly renewed rewards, the dog ‘knows’ (whatever that means for a dog) that when I open the refrigerator door, there’s a good chance food will come out of it, and so she wags her tail in expectation of some flotsam or jetsam that might come her way when it does.When I just check the refrigerator before shopping. and nothing food-like comes out, the tail gradually drops, along with her ears, and she lowers her head. I take these to be signs of disappointment. If so, they indicate that she considers the rate of incidental relationship between opening-refrigerator-door and food-taken-out-and-distributed to be very high. I think she over-estimates, since I take cold drinks out of my refrigerator more often than I take out food. But she does appear to recognize the sound of a can or bottle being opened, so I could be wrong.

My dog senses food, moves towards it, and, for all I know, never bothers to ask if she’s hungry. Yet she feeds until she needs no more, so apparently there is some measure to her eating, some ratio between hunger and satisfaction.

Food may not be god to my dog, but eating may be the holiest canine sacrament.

William James posited that when we humans notice a danger, we first move away from it and only secondarily feel fear. Our baseline responses to the world are fundamentally the same as those of other animals. Even our much vaunted powers of reasoning may be really an extension of what is most animal about us.

We can suppose that, in our over-complicated brains, our responses to experience include intellection; we should even allow that such intellection could be supplanted by, or coordinated with, imagination, such that conceptualization would emerge.  (Concepts are generalizations, and how can we generalize without imagination?)  And conceptualization necessitates language – There is no ‘all,’ some,’ or ‘none’ without these words to signify them.  We speak because it is the kind of animal we are.

As we all should know, the classical definition of the human species is ‘rational animal.’   I personally see nothing wrong with this; Aristotle liked the idea, and so did the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. The voices protesting against this definition, or offering touchy-feely alternatives, about our existence as spirits or embodiments of love, would leave us in a cloud of unknowing as to our own natures. Mysticism is often merely a kind of self-generated psychedelic trip.  (Oh, those wonderful endorphins!)

However, the term ‘rational animal’ has two words in it. To assume that, since rationality is what makes us special among all other animals, we must therefore concentrate our understanding of ourselves on reason itself, in order to know ourselves fully, is to make a similar error to redefining us as walking spirits or embodiments of love.  We are not programmed, we are not programming; neither is the dog.

Let us pay heed to one of the most impressive rational animals the West has produced, and a sometime mystic as well, Thomas Aquinas. No one could believe more fiercely in the spirituality of the human species; and, as G. K. Chesterton points out in his biography of Thomas, The Dumb Ox, no one could love more passionately as Aquinas loved his god. And was there ever another thinker who could construct a grander, more complicated, more subtle an artifice of reason than Thomas’ Summa Theologica? Yet his calls for a celebration of the body, as presumed gift from god – not our prison, but our enjoyment – are well known. So let us take anti-animal rationality into the court of Aquinas:

“(A)nimal is predicated of man essentially and not accidentally, and man is not part of the definition of animal, but the other way about. Therefore of necessity by the same form a thing is animal and man; otherwise man would not really be the thing which is an animal, so that animal can be predicated of man.” *

To think the human is to think the animal, first and primarily as a material entity. The notion, that we should understand human nature in its rationality as apart from its animality, is irrational. For Aquinas, human rationality derives from an infusing force which, following his tradition, he calls “soul.” But he also says, with Aristotle, that even metal has some ‘soul,’ so he cannot mean by this what we have come ‘spirit.’ Instead, it is a term for a principle of the rational ordering of the universe (which rationality, for Aquinas, would arise from the mind of the divine). Humans among all animals partake of a power of rationality that conceives, that articulates itself linguistically – an intellective soul; but nothing may exist that insults rationality as order. Nihil est sine ratione.

Here, consider a remark by Martin Heidegger:

“The path led through the tradition according to which ratio in the double sense of reckoning speaks in the words ‘ground’ and ‘Reason.’ But logos, when thought in the Greek way, speaks in ratio. Only when we contemplated what logos meant fro Heraclitus in early Greek thinking did it become clear that this word simultaneously names being and ground/reason, naming both in terms of their belonging together.  (…)  Nothing is without ground/reason. Being and ground/reason: the same. Being, as what grounds, has no ground; as the abyss it plays the play that, as history, passes being and ground/reason to us.” **

I have elsewhere rejected the ‘panpsychism’ implicit in Aquinas’ thought, and I don’t believe in god; but while denying that there is any ‘design’ to the universe, I also accept that our lives follow discernible rational pathways, however seemingly inarticulate, because there just is an ordering of the universe, and an ordering of our responses that are quite part and parcel with our animal being.

My point here is simple: The study of rationality as systematization of thought – logic, mathematics, etc. – can certainly be separated from the study of human being. The study of human being, however, cannot be separated out from the study of animal being. It is rationality itself that demands this of us. Order, measure, response – rationality was once a term for understanding the structure of being.  And if we have a hard time seeing this, we may need to redefine rationality itself so that we can; for it seems that the term was used somewhat differently, long ago, than how we use it today. And I for one will not say we use it any better.


* Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 76, Article 4, Answer, second argument; trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, rev. Daniel Sullivan.

** The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly; Indiana, 1991; pgs. 112, 113; slight modification for clarity.

Scooby Doo and the mystery of Scooby Doo (3)


Part 3:

–   In The Demon-Haunted World, “Science advocate Carl Sagan favorably compared the predominantly skeptic oriented formula to that of most television dealing with paranormal themes, and considered that an adult analogue to Scooby-Doo would be a great public service.” ( – Well, there you go.  We thought we were dealing with just a dumb kids’ cartoon.  Already we’ve discovered the myth behind the hound, now we have a well-respected educator of science remarking how important Scooby Doo is in promoting critical thinking.
–   When I write criticism, I often do so in an investigative manner.  When I write a question, very often, when I am writing that question, it is a real question to me, I am not writing it rhetorically.  So I was actually truly surprised that Scooby Doo himself could be seen as revision of the old Coyote myth of the native Americans.  Well, what does that mean?   Clearly none of the producers consulted Joseph Campbell before inventing the show.    But clearly one doesn’t need to be a Campbell or a Jung to recognize that themes re-appear in the arts and entertainments culture to culture at across time.  The native Americans used the Coyote stories to both entertain and educate their young.  Obviously such stories can still be used for entertainment, although their value as education in the world of today seems worth questioning….
–   Could Carl Sagan be onto something here?  Can the Scooby Doo show help children how to read the world in a more critical manner?
–   The answer I think is yes, but with some reservations and qualifications.  Until the 1980s, the plots of the stories were virtually ‘fill in the blank’ duplicates.  Scooby and the gang arrive at a mysterious someplace – haunted house, haunted vacation lodge, haunted airport – meet three or four people who don’t seem to be getting along, then a monster shows up and chases them.  Cue laughter.
–   But although Scooby and Shaggy believe in the supernatural and seem terrified by it, Velma has the expresses something of the attitude of a scientist; Fred is not quite as curious, but decidedly empirically minded; and Daphne is, as all young ladies should be (as understood in the culture), cautious and suspicious, especially around men and other women.    Consequently the gang – as a unit – does not react to the appearance of a monster as a phenomenon to treat with awe and unquestioning submission.   After the initial chasing around, the gang looks for clues, find them, set a trap, and, catching the monster, reveal it to be a human in disguise – almost always one of the first three people they met upon arrival at the mysterious location.
–   It must be admitted that the villain’s construction of and operation of the monster disguise often makes odd, improbable use of  available technology, or of technology not really available at the time: the robots, puppets, and optical illusions deployed would not be capable of the flexibility and maneuverability they often seem to have.
–   But, after all, they are the products of technology, and not of magic or the supernatural.  Their explanations are entirely naturalistic.  Although there are plenty of comedic violations of basic physics and biology of the kind we’ve been seeing in animated cartoons since they first hit screens in the 1890s, these are not integral to the stories.  The stories themselves are detective mysteries, and as such are committed to rational explanation of empirical phenomena.  Even the motives of the villains are usually down-to-earth in a blasé, common sense way – usually simple greed, envy, or revenge for some perceived slight.  Although the villains’ intended victims are usually rightfully grateful to the ‘meddling kids’ of Scooby’s gang, they ought also to feel down right embarrassed to be initially taken in by technological slight-of-hand masquerading as magical hocus-pocus.
–   As the series wore on (and occasionally wore out of ideas) over the years, supernatural elements were introduced into it, especially in the ’80s.  But by then the show had become pure farce.  It brought in real ghosts to the stories exactly because the producers knew the audience didn’t believe in ghosts anymore, thought they were silly, and laughed at the very idea of them.  There’s more than a trace of cynicism in this manipulation of the skeptical attitude of the audience, but at least there was no back-tracking into any glorification of  the supernatural.  the supernatural is baloney, the show reminds its audience, and only worth interest as an object of ridicule.
–   In the most recent, most innovative re-casting of the Scooby Do phenomenon, Mystery Incorporated, most of the individual stories remain in the classic mode, but with twists concerning the character development of the gang.  We won’t get into that, but we will note the twist that series as a whole takes.  The series is actually constructed around what is now known as a ‘story arc,’ a meta-narrative tying the individual stories together.  And here’s where things get a little strange:  The meta-narrative at last reveals what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon – the Evil Entity – motivating the series as a whole.  Most reviewers seem to agree that this is borrowed from the Cthulu mythos originating in the writings of fantasy cult figure, H. P. Lovecraft.  To be honest, I was never able to wade through Lovecraft’s dense and florid prose, so I don’t know this, but I do know that Lovecraft’s cult is fairly large for a writer unknown beyond the genre readership, and has always included many aspiring young fantasy writers.
–   It should be noted that, although I think most readers at least initially read Lovecraft as a fantasy/horror writer, and none seems to deny purely fantasy elements to his texts, there does appear to be a kind of science fiction element to the Cthulu mythos;  although the Old Ones appear to us as gods, or demonic forces, they are actually rather long lived aliens, possibly from another dimension or a parallel universe.
–   And, as it so happens, it is revealed in the final scenes concluding  the Mystery Incorporated series that the explanation of what the Scooby gang has experienced, and of its final, happy result, is to be found in the ‘alternative time-lines’ made possible thanks to the contemporary ‘multiverse’ theory!  And who should reveal this, but no less a respected a figure of real-world science fiction than writer Harlan Ellison – yes, himself represented in cartoon form, with his own voice dubbed over it. ( Fortunately, he remarks, he himself is such a genius that he has been able to remember all the different time-lines his alternative selves have lived through in their respective universes  This willing self-parody is apparently entirely in keeping with his public personality.)
–   So, we seem to have salvaged the essential rationality of the Scooby Doo phenomenon.  We began with a simple detective mystery, searching for empirical clues, and ended up in the realm of theoretical physics, searching for multiverses.  But it’s the same rationality after all, is it not.
–   I’m not so sure.  The world understood by the general culture of the first series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You? depended on a strictly empirical scientific methodology.  But the multiverse theories depend only on elegant mathematics, with some physicists – like Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind, or, in a different way, Max Tegmark – suggesting that this dependence is strong enough ground for incorporating such theories into our basic model of the universe.  These suggestions are offered at an odd moment of history, when the popularity of the irrational has risen frighteningly – and in certain regions of the globe, with horrifying violence – and when one senses a general response of fatalistic indifference to the confusions of ‘information overload’ provided by our various media.  In other words, just as the attack on the ‘hard sciences’ grows stronger, the ‘hard sciences’ may be going soft on us.  If this is the case, those of us who depend on it to frame our world view might find ourselves left to our own devices.
–   One can see the possible problems here in science fiction and fantasy entertainment everywhere: e.g., the superhero films, the Harry Potter series, the recent revisions to Doctor Who.  Time and again, empirical explanation is replaced with timey-wimey, spacey-wacey ‘it just sort of happens because …’ – and the because no longer seems to matter.    Left to our own devices, we non-scientists and non-philosophers may end up confabulating all kinds of irrational, or half-rational, or seemingly rational (but not) explanations – witness, for instance, the anti-vaccination campaigns.  Or we will simply abandon explanation all together, and give ourselves over – to what?  What replaces the explanations that give us a world picture, and infuse it with meaning?
–   Alas – religions have the answer, and have had such for some time – submission to the authoritative text and its interpreters.
–   Maybe, then, we need to start the Cult of Scooby Doo, and submit ourselves to the empiricism and reasoning of the Scooby gang.  That wouldn’t keep the monsters away, but at least we would be secure in the knowledge that they would always be revealed as fallible human machines and illusions.