What makes human beings different from other animals?

Obviously not: dogs don't cheat at cards because they don't play cards, and they don't play cards because they can't And the reason why they don't play cards is not because they're too clumsy in dealing. Dogs' minds can't get round the concepts or ideas in playing cards. Dogs do have quite a lot of concepts - mostly concerned with food, sex, and status - and they show a lot of intelligence in using them. Dogs can see threats or smell threats or sense threats in some way which we are quite incapable of - in those ways dogs are smarter than we are. And dogs aren't the smartest animals on earth by any means. But we can use symbols, representations, and especially words, in a way that other animals can't. I think it was Wittgenstein again who said "Maybe my dog might be expecting me to come home around now - but he can't be expecting me to come home next Tuesday". That is, there's no way the dog can handle or express the concept of next Tuesday. We know what it's like for a dog to be expecting his mistress or master home at a certain time: she normally comes home around this time, the dog is a bit restless or excited, whining or yapping a bit, scratching at the door. And perhaps before any human being hears or could hear the footstep outside the dog sets up a torrent of happy barking. We can only imagine a dog expecting its mistress home next Tuesday if we imagine the dog at the usual time going through the restless, yapping routine, then carefully going to the door and making five scratches. Then every night it goes through the same routine, but carefully erases one of the scratches, right up till Tuesday night when it goes through the whole routine right up to the joyful barks when it hears its mistress's footsteps. Clearly this is fantasy -- but any of us can do things like that. We can do them in our head, or we can talk about them, or we can write them down - we could even do exactly the routine the dog performs in the fantasy. I would want to say that our concepts are linguistic concepts, are not tied to the here and now as the dog's seem to be, can range over the whole of what is real and what isn't - including, in this case, the future, which of course isn't yet real. Another time I want to talk about how this shows itself in a very particular way: that while all of us, like other animals, are going to die, only we are conscious - or can be conscious or should be conscious - that we are going to die. Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas. Email: martincf(at)stthom.edu


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  • Christopher Martin