Category Archives: philosophy of mind

Conference abstract, “Politics and the animal imagination: biosemiotics, Aristotle, and human-animal relations”

I will be presenting papers at three or four conferences in Europe this summer, one or two in Oxford, one in Stavanger (Norway) and one in Sicily. Here is the accepted abstract submission for the Norwegian conference, “Animals in the anthropocene: human-animal relations in a Changing semiosphere.”


“This paper presents an Aristotelian biosemiotic symbiopolitics beyond the human. From the Greek bios and semeion, biosemiosis looks at meaning-making and sign-relations among living systems. A biosemiotic epistemology best accounts for the nature of animal life in the world, and this implies an ethics of animal flourishing and a politics of trans-species symbiosis. In light of the “animal turn” and what could be called the “critical hyphenated humanisms,” the time for this project is ripe.

This framework views evolution and emergence as semiotic generals, patternings in the world that result from the interaction between physical forces and the self-organizing features of living organisms in given selection environments. The convergence of complexity theory and systems dynamics with neuroscience and biological anthropology provides an explanation for the end-directedness of living systems. In Peircean terms, icons, indices, and symbols are hierarchically organized and operate at an increasing level of abstraction between signifier and signified.

Language provides humans with access to levels of abstract reference which broaden our conceptual horizons and contribute to our narrative sense of self. In Uexküll’s terminology, it changes our umwelt, the perspectival bubble we call our world. But we still share with other animals our basic sense perceptions, embodied vulnerability, core emotions and moral instincts. (And whether we share some of these ‘higher’ faculties with cetaceans, corvids, and other primates remains an open area of inquiry.)

What kind of ethics and politics follows from this this biosemiotic epistemology and the ontology of being-together it entails? Because nonhuman animals are more semiotically constrained in the horizons of their umwelten, biosemiotic analysis reveal what it means for a given animal to flourish, and whether and how that flourishing interacts symbiotically with other kinds of organisms. This approach builds on—and modifies—Nussbaum’s (2007, 2013) understanding of human-animal politics.

Returning to Aristotle reveals a deep irony in the canonical treatment of other animals. It is a commonplace in the literature to mark the beginning of a long history of human exceptionalism and animal marginalization with Aristotle’s dictum, “(rational) man is by nature a political animal.” Many thinkers in this tradition, however, overlook Aristotle’s rich treatment of sense perception and animal imagination in De Anima, De Partibus Animalium, and elsewhere. This loses sight of the broader conceptual unity between his philosophies of life, nature, and politics. I look to biosemiotics, animal phenomenology, and “multispecies ethnography” to propose a revived Aristotelian politics of human-animal relations.”


The moral brain conference

I went to this conference at NYU a few weeks ago, and was thoroughly fascinated all the way through. It was a merger of two conferences – the first on ‘The Significance of Neuroscience for Morality’ and the second on ‘moral enhancement’ – and part one, in particular, was mostly new terrain for me. It was also the first time I used my new iPad/bluetooth keyboard/Evernote combo, which worked really well – and all of my notes are here. Hughes and Dvorsky (from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which I follow on Reader) were also posting updates here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I just sat and listened, absorbing the approximately 25 hours of talks. My general impression is that neuroscientists sure do like fMRI’s; I actually learned a good deal about the different parts of the brain and the different chemicals that affect our moral (and other) behavior. It was also interesting to see Knobe, Greene, and Haidt in person.

Topically, discussions were all over the place – see the links above – but focused on: experimental studies of the effects of seratonin, etc. on empathy and related behaviors, whether it makes sense to talk about a ‘morality pill’ (probably not), and what we’re talking about when we’re talking about moral enhancement.

My only real gripe is that the conference was so strictly anthropocentric. As usual, I saw lots of room for fascinating engagement with the nonhuman animal mind – we could, for example, use fMRI studies of neurotypical humans to assess emotional and maybe even moral states in other primates. Instead, the only discussion of other animals was as ‘animal models’, with a few very minor exceptions. It’s my own fault for not asking a question, though…but hopefully animal studies folks can bone up on this literature and have an overlapping conference of their own!



Paths to caring, ctd.

Peter Singer and Agata Sagan’s recent Opinionator piece Are We Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’? raises important issues, but is insufficiently nuanced (they have another piece on robot rights, which follows logically from Singer’s version of consequentialist utilitarianism). If and when–probably just when, really–we become able to tinker with our brain chemistry to alter our ability for compassion and empathy, these kinds of questions will be unavoidable. In the meantime, though, it seems odd that we don’t focus instead on those tools which can demonstrably improve both how we care for others and who counts as an other; the short film No Robot provides a good example.

Upcoming conferences

The PhD application and grading marathon is winding down, and I’ve been remiss in posting recently–so here are some of the upcoming events that will be on my radar in the Spring.

Call for Papers and/or Abstracts

Minding Animals – Utrecht, 4-6 July 2012. Abstracts open until Jan. 15. I’ll probably be traveling with family in Spain during this conference, but it looks interesting, especially to the critically minded animal studies folks (as in, it’s sponsored in part by the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, and as such is less welfarist in scope than, well, me.)

-Also due Jan 15 are abstracts for general-audience-ish papers on Planet of the Apes and philosophy. Cool…if only our separation-anxiety beagle would let me and my wife out to see movies in the theater, I wouldn’t have to wait for Netflix on this one.

-Partially coterminous with the Minding Animals conference is a conference at the Central European University on the scope of distributive justice. Abstracts due Jan. 30.

Other Conferences

-NYU is having a Conference on the Moral Brain from Mar. 30-Apr. 1. that looks super-interesting. Registration is free but full; I’m on the waitlist, and am kicking myself for not signing up when I first heard about it.

-The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s “The Nonhuman Turn in the 21st Century” looks broad-ranging and fascinating, and it will be running from May 3-5. Technically the call for abstracts is still open until Monday, but I don’t have enough expertise in any of the mentioned topics to submit anything. I’d love to go, if I can swing it, though.

[edit] This upcoming University of Tennessee symposium, “Animals, Ethics, and Law” also looks really good. I’d be especially interested in hearing Clare Palmer’s talk on the scope of our ethical obligations to wild animals. Hopefully I can make the longish trip down there after class on March 2-3.

And now for something completely different: “I hate balls”. Lots of fascinating gender politics going on here. Huh. . .And this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey”, is pretty great. Enjoy.

Oh, and this is Rodney, who we adopted as a retired research dog – he’s got the tat, neuroses, and sweetness to prove it.

An empathic and nonzero civilization. . .but for whom?

This video by Cambridge’s Simon Baron-Cohen does a good job introducing the relation between empathy, pathology, and social trust (and see here for a good RSA Animate on Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). Baron-Cohen’s done a lot of interesting work on empathy and the male/female brain and empathy and autism/asberger’s, and on measuring empathy. I was immediately struck, however, by the way he chose to define empathy: “the drive to identify (cognitive) and appropriately respond to (affective) another person’s feelings.” Further into the talk, some of the research he draws on implies that “persons” and “objects” are the only relevant categories under discussion. I guess this is what makes me an ‘animal rights activist’ (as Wikipedia’s definition of empathy puts it), because I think the natural extention of Baron-Cohen’s argument–that answers to questions about empathy have right and wrong answers, and one of the jobs of psychology is to figure out how to get more people to answer ‘correctly’–is far more radical than even he may acknowledge.

What distinguishes empathy from sympathy, compassion, and pity? This is a difficult question to answer concretely, but links like this have me thinking that the reason empathy might be so commonly perceived as ‘person-oriented’ rather than ‘sentient-or-semi-sentient-being-oriented’ is because of the distinction that empathy, unlike the other words, involves literally feeling the other’s mental state (this is where the much-hyped ‘mirror neurons’ come in). It could follow, I suppose, that this requires a certain level of similarity with the other’s mental state, such that this would work best with other members of our species. Keeping in mind that this might be a semantic quibble, I don’t buy this argument. I could as much “feel” my dog’s pain when he slipped a vertebra last year as I could my wife’s when she tore her ACL.

To return to the radical implications of a high-empathy society: I strongly believe that such a society would treat nonhuman animals in a fundamentally different way than we do today, and that such a shift would entail a range of social, political, and economic reforms with far-research consequences. While it’s easy to speak of expanding the domain of the nonzero (as against zero-sum)–and I’m all for this kind of policy…indeed, only a fool or an IR realist would be against it!–but introducing nonhuman animals into the moral calculus with anything less than a high discount rate will change the game in a basic way. And it should, because the level of structural violence that exists against nonhumans animals in the world today is only ignored because of a conditioned moral blindness that would wither in the face of an empathic civilization.

So how to go about this? There are many possible routes, but I think one of the strongest when it comes to empathizing with nonhuman animals is the priming of our moral sensibilities through art (sometimes called the sympathetic or aesthetic education) is marvelously fecund, as Nussbaum and others have argued. Others argue that fostering nonzero relationships tends to result in increased empathy, and this makes sense too, as long as the in-group/out-group distinction doesn’t stop at the species line. A range of other options exist, of course, all the way from the work in studying pathology by psychologists like Baron-Cohen to essentially sociobiological proposals that we engineer aggression out of our gene pool. The bioethics of the latter are troubling, obviously, but they do reflect a trend towards revived sociobiology in the guise of neuroscience. This takes many forms, though, and each needs to be addressed on its own merits.

If nothing else, Baron-Cohen’s research goes a long way in explaining why I was the only male in my Animals and Public Policy class. This needs to change, but it seems the change can only go so far if he is right about the ‘male brain’.

Animalism and philosophy

(Images source) The recent piece “The animal you are” by UCL philosophy prof. Paul Snowdon was most striking to me for what it left out; for a piece on animality, there sure was a lot of focus on one particular animal. None of the arguments for or against “animalism” (the idea that the human animal is the same thing as the person, or self) even began to engage with nonhuman animal cognition, let alone the people calling for nonhuman animal person for great apes and/or cetaceans.

Setting aside whether ‘person’ is the right word for chimps and dolphins, who clearly have at least some level of self-consciousness and use of reason (these are the criteria listed by Locke and repeated by Snowdon), I think any discussion of mind/body dualism has to seriously engage with the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman animal minds (the Sapolsky video in my first blog post is a good example of this). Snowdon writes that “if we are prepared to allow there might be entities which merit being described as persons who are not human – say God, or angels, or Martians, or robots, – then animalism should not rule them out.” It’s disturbing to me that hypothetical and probably fictional characters are presented to play the role of potential nonhuman persons, when actual, existing animals aren’t even granted a mention in passing. (I’m reminded here of the common line in popular bioethics where human genetic chimeras are abomination–but hey, do whatever the heck you want with other animals–or of the fetishization so common in Japan and elsewhere of robot intelligence and of drafting declarations of the rights of robots, with the irony of cetacean slaughter of existing sentient life continuing unchecked.)

I enjoyed reading this piece, and my comments here aren’t getting into the merits of any of the substantive questions raised, but still: for a piece called ‘the animal you are’, I was expecting more animals. I need to learn more philosophy of mind, if only to unmask some anthropocentric shibboleths.