Caturday felid: kittehs and epistemology

September 19, 2009 • 6:43 am

When I visited Greg Mayer last week, he explained that his cat Peyton was a “philosophical cat.” I naturally asked why, and Greg explained:

Cats are realists

One of the oldest philosophical debates is between realism and idealism. Both come in several flavors, but the basic difference is between their views of the external world: according to realists there is an external world, while according to idealists, there really isn’t an external world beyond our minds. If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to see it or hear it or smell it, does the tree fall? To a realist, obviously yes: just because an event or object is outside my (or anyone’s) perception has no bearing on whether or not the event occurred or the object exists. Scientists are almost invariably realists of one sort or another. But a much more important question is: what about cats?

My cat, Peyton is a realist. She unambiguously continues to believe in the existence of objects even when she cannot perceive them. I might have inferred this from her ability to get around the house, and to find places and things that are outside her immediate perceptual purrview. (For example, at night, she knows the beds are upstairs, even when she’s downstairs, and thus goes upstairs to sleep.)

But the most striking demonstration of her belief in the continued existence of objects that she can no longer perceive comes when playing catch and chase with her. She will run after, catch in the air, and/or bat around some toy (whether a store-bought toy mouse or a crumpled piece of paper). If I hold the toy out in front of her, she will follow the movement of the object in my hand. If I make a sweeping motion behind my back with the toy, as though I am going to throw the object from my right to my left, say, she will not follow the hand/object around my right side. Rather she darts to the left, anticipating the trajectory of the object, even though she can no longer see the object (or my hand) once it passes behind my back. She does this even if I do not complete the motion and release the object. She clearly continues to believe in the existence of the now-unperceived object; and even more, she is able to estimate where it will end up if it continues the motion it had when last seen. This is clearly an adaptive way to view the world, especially if you depend for food on catching small animals in the underbrush that are trying to run away from you. It’s pretty adaptive for idealist philosophers, too. Here’s an incident from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus.'”

And a video clearly demonstrating feline epistemology:

And don’t forget that there’s a golden cat below the fold!

11 thoughts on “Caturday felid: kittehs and epistemology

  1. Lovely cat.

    Reminds me of my painstakingly painting the first thin, inked, black line on rice paper to start a Chinese landscape, and then watching my cat try to play with it as if it was a three-dimensional object.

    1. That’s a term I haven’t heard in a long time (an early childhood development class in college maybe)…thanks for reminding me.

  2. Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus.’”

    Deutsch in “The Fabric of Reality” explains why it’s such a good answer.

    He can show why idealists (in his case, solipsists) are self-refuting without it. (Roughly, natural laws shows that the large external part of their “mind” behaves naturally – so why hark to idealism.)

    Stenger uses the same behavior to show what natural (material) systems are – as the stone they react on action.

    But Deutsch goes on to point out that the contingency of this action is what you expect from realism. I.e. in an idealist model the ‘ideal’ stone would kick back regardless of where you put your foot, or that regardless where you put your ‘ideal’ foot there isn’t any stone that it rebounds from.

  3. It’s interesting. I understoods Johnson’s refutation to be no such thing. By kicking something, he didn’t show that it existed without him there. After all, Berkeleys idealism was esse est percipere. And as God perceived everything, what we took to be real existed because of God’s perception of everything. Or something like that.

  4. Reading these comments I wonder if not a part of the refutation is the experiment? Johnson doesn’t look within himself for a reply; he directly queries the outside world.

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