A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, July 22, 2011

Talk to the Animals

When Helen Keller Became Human

One of the confusions between human beings and other higher animals is that between training animals to recognize and respond to signs and the human ability to conceive of symbols.  The former can be accomplished by sensation and perception (including memory and imagination).  But there is a world of difference between the imagination and the intellect.  The confusion stems from the fact that human beings are also animals, and so all those things that are true of animals are true of human beings. 

We can be trained, for example.  Though you may prefer to call it "conditioned."  A fighter pilot is trained to operate his 'chine literally without thinking.  To pause for thought could be fatal.  And so the "body" remembers all the right moves.  The same is true of a gymnast or ice dancer or other athlete, of musicians playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A, or even of that so-despised rote-memorization of the multiplication tables.  The whole point is that these are things that we don't want to waste time thinking about. 

And we can respond to signs.  If someone cries, "Watch Out!!!" we tend to duck, not open a debate about what it is that we should watch out for.  Walker Percy, in The Message in the Bottle, mentions that when island fishermen are in their boats, and one cries out, "Mackerel here!", the other boats paddle in that direction.  Reaction to a stimulus, just like any "animal in an environment."  If that was all there is, there would be nothing further to say.  In particular, we would be unable to say anything further. 

Helen Keller was able to tell us what it was like to be an animal in an environment:

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour I was. "Light! give me light!" was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
When Helen Keller Became Human

Unlike most of us, Ms. Keller was able to tell us of the day she first became fully human, became a symbol-monger rather than a sign-responder. 

She [Miss Sullivan] brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation might be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.  [Sign-responder.] 

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken [earlier that day, in a tantrum]. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them--words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child that I was as I lay in my crib at the close of the eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
Like her remotest ancestors, she had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and like them she felt repentance and sorrow over her literally thoughtless acts of disobedience.  She had been moved from potentially rational to actually rational.  She had received the "word" and the word had set her free. 
A Symbol Fetched by a Dog

In the same book, Percy illustrates the difference between a sign and a symbol with the following parable.
But what is a symbol? A symbol does not direct our attention to something else, as a sign does. It does not direct at all. It "means" something else. It somehow comes to contain within itself the thing it means. The word ball is a sign to my dog and a symbol to you. If I say ball to my dog, he will respond like a good Pavlovian organism and look under the sofa and fetch it. But if I say ball to you, you will simply look at me and, if you are patient, finally say, "What about it?" The dog responds to the word by looking for the thing: you conceive the ball through the word ball. (Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, p.153)
IOW, he says, you expect a meaningful statement about balls or a ball - a coupling of the word and the concept such as Helen Keller experienced one fine spring day in - not simply the sound "ball."  Concepts are the product of the intellect, just as images [percepts] are the product of the imagination.  Rover knows this little blue bouncy ball, but he does not know ball, as such.   At best, being color-blind and mostly scent-driven, he might fetch the little red bouncy ball instead. 

Chewing the Fat Over the Campfire

long time ago in a land far far away, a band of creatures who are not quite human are huddled around a campfire.  They are chewing the fat -- literally.  The bison hunt went well and they are chowing down on precious carbs.  One of them -- let's call him Adam just for slaps and giggles -- is remembering the bison hunt, recalling the excitement of it, the moment of discovery.  He wants to share this remembered pleasure with his compadres.  He experiences a Helen Keller moment and utters the hunting cry that they use when a bison is spotted.  Let's say the cry is "BISON! HERE!" 

One of his fellows -- call him Bubba -- is startled and turns about, looking for the bison, perhaps hefting his spear.  But the others, knowing there are no bison nearby, listen to what Adam says and then one-by-one they begin to nod.  They are remembering the bison-then through the cry for bison-now.  Something has come over Adam that is much like what came over Helen and his friends are catching some of it.  There is no Annie Sullivan to teach them the words for things.  Most of those words do not yet even exist and must be coined.  What took Helen one fine spring day will take Adam and his band many years -- or even generations.  But we can only imagine the same sort of excitement that Helen experienced: that white fog of animal sign-response had parted and the way was now clear.  Now the bison is in his mind as well as on the plain.  He can think about not only the bison being chased in the here and now, but also about the spirit of bisons-past and the spirit of bisons-yet-to-come; and one day his progeny will draw pictures of bisons on the walls of caves and imagine things they have not yet seen. 

Alas, poor Koko!  All she knew was that if she pressed these keys after seeing those images she would get a treat.  She did not even know that the treat-giver was so anxiously reading into the sequence of keys pressed intimations of rational thought, interpreting them as once the oracles of the Delphic priestess were interpreted, transforming gibberish into meaningful statements about balls. 

Annie Sullivan's Perspective

Now, Helen Keller was always human because she always had the capacity for language, even if the capacity was undeveloped.  A human is two-legged, even if some have lost a leg to accident or genetics.  So the gulf is a bit wider than we suppose.  She had been asking the signs for things before the breakthrough, but had not connected the sign with the thing with the concept, the three-legged relationship that Percy called "the Delta Factor."

In her letters, Ms. Sullivan recounts from the outside the same episode with the water pump:
 In a previous letter I think I wrote you that "mug" and "milk" had given Helen more trouble than all the rest. She confused the nouns with the verb "drink." She didn't know the word for "drink," but went through the pantomime of drinking whenever she spelled "mug" or "milk." This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for "water." When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it and pats my hand. I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed in straightening out the "mug-milk" difficulty. We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled "water" several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled "Teacher." Just then the nurse brought Helen's little sister into the pump-house and Helen spelled "baby" and pointed to the nurse. All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she had added thirty new words to her vocabulary. Here are some of them: Door, open , shut, give, go, come, and a great many more.

P. S.--I didn't finish my letter it time to get it posted last night; so I shall add a line. Helen got up this morning like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got in bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy.
-- 5 April 1887


  1. I really like how you balance your posts with humor. This one was especially good. I did have a question on this topic though:

    I follow the distinction between animal and human knowing, but I've read that animals have the ability to generalize according to their perceptions; a sort of perceptual abstraction. How is this different from human abstraction and how do animals not have to have an immaterial power to "abstract" from percepts?

  2. Aristotle compared it to seeing flesh and seeing what flesh is. It is one thing to perceive this apple and that apple and so to recognize other apples when smelled or seen. One may even imagine other apples, since imagination is simply memory-with-a-twist. But it is quite another thing to know apples as a concept. There is a distinction between the practical intellect and the speculative intellect.

    I would also be wary of what animals can do and what their enthusiastic handlers think they can do. Chastek put it this way:

    The critical refutation ... (at least ... to dethrone the Aristotelian-thomistic account of the difference between men and animals) is one denying the difference between reason and imagination, for if one is prepared to call imagination deliberative he opens up a whole universe of possible animal behaviors that will transcend anything like computer programming and which will, in fact, have an immense amount of overlap with the sorts of behaviors which feel like they are uniquely our own. The distinction between reason and imagination, however, rests on a mode of analysis that is not metrical and therefore not open to analysis by the scientific method. It rests on our experience of a universal term which transcends any object given by a sense power.

  3. So, to see if I understand this correctly:

    Say a sheep encounters a wolf. It can take that percept and "compare" it to an imagined wolf, and will "recognize" it as a wolf, and act accordingly? I think I understand that the sheep doesn't "understand" that the wolf it sees is of the class "wolf," which is of the class "enemy," because that would require reference to universals, right? So is the sheep limited to perceptual similarity?

    Also, where is that Chastek quote from? It looks interesting...

  4. Funny you should use sheep and wolf.

    "in other animals the sensitive appetite is naturally moved by the estimative power; for instance, a sheep, esteeming the wolf as an enemy, is afraid."

    "For in other animals movement follows at once the concupiscible and irascible appetites: for instance, the sheep, fearing the wolf, flees at once, because it has no superior counteracting appetite. On the contrary, man is not moved at once, according to the irascible and concupiscible appetites: but he awaits the command of the will, which is the superior appetite. For wherever there is order among a number of motive powers, the second only moves by virtue of the first: wherefore the lower appetite is not sufficient to cause movement, unless the higher appetite consents."

    Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia q.81 a.3

    Chastek is here:

  5. "Sensitive appetite" and "estimative power"...I need a basic primer on the powers of man and animal. That flow chart you had in "Attack of the Brain Atoms!" was very helpful...ah damn. I just found a great chart on p.114 of Sullivan's Introduction to Philosophy. Anyway, love the blog and I may try a hard SF book someday soon. Is there a foundational work of that genre that would be useful as an introduction?

  6. I could, with appropriate blushes, suggest my own FIRESTAR books, if you can find them. They're a bit off-date, since 1999 was still the future when they came out. If you mentally update all the years, maybe....

    Much depends on the definition of "hard" SF, though. In the sense of working all the equations and so forth, there probably isn't as much out there as some think. Technically, time travel, faster-than-light travel, and suchlike things are thought impossible under current science, and so are not "hard." I may give it a thought and perhaps blog on the matter at some point.


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