A Simple Philosophical Conundrum Involving a Dog

My dog runs to me and drops the bone at my feet. She looks at me, then at the bone, paws at it as if to direct my attention to it, then picks it up and settles beside me, bone in mouth, seemingly making a mental note of what we both agree upon.

It’s a simple moment that masks a great mystery. When we “interact”, does she have a sense of herself, an awareness of her own character and desires, a ‘point of view’ that’s distinct from mine? Likewise, does she have a conception of who I am and what I might be thinking? Is she conscious of herself and able in some way to act purposeful toward me based on her understanding that I am conscious like she is?

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Descartes believed that ‘brute beasts,’ dogs among them, were insentient, unfeeling machines, automatons made of meat, their screams and cries of distress without meaning. You could cut them open while alive (vivisection), drill holes in their heads while they remained conscious, nail them to operating tables. Modern science still imposes this powerful myth on us via its use of sentient animals as experimental test subjects, in spite of the fact that no feeling person would accept this in relation to a creature they loved. A scream of pain is a scream of pain, period, and we all know it when we hear it, no matter how science might attempt to muffle it philosophically. One of my recurring fantasies is to nail Descartes to a board and drill a hole in his head and ask him how he feels. Certainly, under the same theory he employed to deny it to non-human animals, He’d agree with me that I have no articulable reason to think he has his own inner life. I’d like to know if his theory made his own pain any more bearable,

In thinking of the dog’s point of view, I’m thrown back on my own. Do I see the world, or simply ‘my idea’ of the world? What of the dog’s world? What does she think of me, and how would I know?

4 thoughts on “A Simple Philosophical Conundrum Involving a Dog

  1. Rob Campbell

    Having had several dogs – all bitches we loved – there is no question in my mind that not only are they sentient beings, but possessors of very distinct personalities.

    They understand a helluva lot, and most certainly have the emotion of jealousy, as distinct from envy, but then the latter’s really a call a bit beyond my ability really to tell. Our last one loved my wife: at the housewarming party celebrating our move to Spain, a venerable elderly gentleman (heysoos, he was probably younger than I am now – as most folks that I know these days are) gave my wife a hug as he was saying adios, and our pooch was instantly up on her hind legs, her front ones up on his back. I received exactly the same treatment one afternoon as we started to dance to one of our records… I had no fears of my wife’s safety whenever I used to have to go back and forth to Britain on business trips, leaving her here by herself. That dog was big: an Alsabrador; she had beautiful teeth that would have impressed Jack London.

    A Scottish girl who used to live here, married to a guy out on the oil rigs somewhere, had a pure Alsatian. He was beautiful, and always psyched me out whenever I’d bump into her and chat for a minute or two down in the town. He just stared, ears erect, eyes fixed on me. He was never on a leash, never more than two steps from her. I sometimes wondered how her husband got on when he came home on breaks. In contrast, our pooch would have run straight out onto the street, in front of the first car to come along, had she not always been on a lead when she left home. She died quietly lying across my lap as I sat on the kitchen floor with her; the vet was very kind and efficient, the syringe quite small. She told me my tears were normal. We could never bring ourselves to replace that dog, and now, though I’d love to have another, it’s too late: it simply wouldn’t be fair on the dog as nobody wants to take on large grown animals when they are orphaned.

    I never was able to get too fond of cats, even though at one time we were feeding twenty-something semi-wild ones that appeared in no time at all from two tiny kittens abandoned in front of our verandah by their mother. I do mean abandoned: she just left them and vanished. I guess that shows that even cats can figure people at a glance. They can even suss out dogs: ours was obviously going to be a soft touch. Oh well, the rat population in the field across from our hedge was kept in check.

    Even so, losing the last cat was a lump-in-the-throat moment as we left the vet’s clinic, but nothing as ravaging as the loss of any of the dogs.

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