Do animals think? I personally believe that they do, but it is really hard to back it up. What is thinking
like? and lastly, What is thinking?
I would recommend starting with the last question. Philosophers such as Wilfred Sellars define
thinking in such a way that animals can't. To my mind, they are wrong, because they equate thinking
solely with conceptual thinking. Nevertheless, whether and to what extent animals think clearly
depends on what thinking actually is.
If you do have a definition of thinking that is broad enough to allow that animals do think, then I would
think that it has to be accepted that animals are not capable of thinking in all the ways humans can.
They are not (with the possible exception of a few individual higher apes and, possibly, an African
Grey Parrot called Alex) capable of the sort of thought that depends on having language. So much
human thought depends on language, and/or is colored so strongly by linguistic thought, that it is nigh
on impossible for us to have any conception of what animal thought is actually like. See Thomas
Nagel's influential article 'What's it like to be a bat?'
Dogs certainly think. Well, at least big ones do. If you take thinking as the computational use of
linguistically defined concepts, then an animal cannot think because he doesn't possess a language.
But we can say that animals have practical reason, an example being the ape who picked up a stick
to knock down something out of its reach. An objection may be that the animal didn't consciously
think "Ah! This will do the trick", but then humans don't operate like either. The basic folk
psychological example of practical reasoning is that we have a desire and a belief, come to form an
intention and then act upon it. So if I desire a drink and believe there is something in the fridge, I form
an intention to go and get something from the fridge. But we don't consciously think "Ah, I desire a
drink and believe there is something in the fridge". It is more plausible to suggest that in the mind's
eye we visualise that carton of orange juice. There is no reason why an animal can't do this, and
there seems no other explanation for what would cause a dog to rise up and go outside to dig for a
bone he buried weeks ago. Of course, abstract thinking is different, but we don't believe that animals
have the capacity for abstract thinking. Their thoughts are environmentally and socially related.
It is held that animals don't decide or form intentions, but simply respond to environmental
stimulations and act on instinct. On this view, the dog instinctively gets up with a desire for a bone
and is environmentally stimulated by a bone buried a foot beneath the earth 100 yards away. To
support this stance, it has to be held that the dog can smell the bone. This seems unlikely and,
although it could be true, it is not the case. Our gardener once dug up and threw away our dog's
bone, but the dog still goes to search the spot from time to time because he remembers, indeed he
knows, that he buried a bone in this particular place. Not being an abstract thinker the dog can't
entertain states of affairs he hasn't encountered such the possibility of someone taking the bone
This is to deny that language is needed for thinking and knowledge, which is a difficult position to
defend, partly because concepts are now thought to fall within a conceptual scheme of beliefs, so that
to possess the concept of "red" is to possess the concept of "colour", of objects and externality etc,
the complexity of which seems to require language because of the involvement of definitional
relations. Secondly, a thought is held to be propositional, and it is from the proposition that we make
inferences and so the proposition needs the same logical structure as that of sentence and the user
of the proposition must be able to make inferences. You probably know all this and that these are
reasons why we do not ascribe thought to animals.
Language is held to be rule-governed and it is supposed that the use of concepts is also rule
governed so you can't think, or use concepts, without a language. Philosophy of language, heavily
influenced by logical considerations, has a strong hold in recent philosophy but if we look at times
past, those of the British Empiricists, for instance, a concept was an idea and not tied to language
and so it is necessary to return to this way of thinking if we are to claim that animals can think.
Language may be necessary for abstract thinking, for the freedom of thought, but not for thought
directed at states of affairs which are present or absent states of affairs which can be remembered.
The ideational description of thought doesn't just support the position that animals think, but seems
sufficient for the very basic practical reasoning of humans. The Wittgensteinian point that you cannot
follow a language alone doesn't apply to ideational concepts because these are not governed by
rules but by memory and association. There is room for error and false belief. When my dog sees a
person with a stick, he thinks it is someone well known to him, but as he gets nearer to sniff them, he
finds he is wrong. This is a first order form of thought. The dog is not aware that he is wrong, but he
changes his beliefs in accordance with the facts.
Those who support thought as language would question what sort of inferential relations would take
place between pictures in the mind. Although I can't answer this, such relations might take place in
fact. I came across something written by an autistic woman who claims she has no language and
thinks pictorially. Though how she could have written this or communicated what she wanted to say to
the person who did write it, again I don't know.
Let us begin with one of the earliest views on this issue. Descartes believed that animals are
machines and since, for Descartes, machines are not conscious, animals cannot think. Perhaps, we
would now regard this to be an extreme viewpoint and generally ignore it. But consider Leibniz and
his theory of Monads.He wouldn't say, like Descartes did, that animals are not conscious beings. For
Leibniz, everything is spiritual or mental. So, everything must have some sort of consciousness or
thought. Yet, he arranges monads into a hierarchical structure with man's soul at the highest level (of
course, after God), followed by the lower forms of life and down to stones, wooden things and the
like. So, even though Leibniz is willing to grant animals some sort of consciousness, he doesn't allow
them the capacity for thought quite in the same sense as humans. Leibniz is not alone in thinking like
this. The so-called modern (or rather, post-modern) society holds on to the same kind of belief — the
belief that animals do not have thought or do not have thought as developed as that of humans.
But that is the darker side of the picture. There is a brighter side for animal lovers like me (and
perhaps you?). Take, for example, the controversial claims of Peter Singer. Even though we may not
wish to agree with his assumptions or even with some of his conclusions, I personally like his idea
that even animals other than humans (like chimps, dolphins, cats and dogs) might be given the status
of a person— a thinking, self-conscious being. Of course, we must first decide what a person is. As
you have correctly emphasised, we need to know what thinking is. Do we know what it is? Well, I
would hesitate to say yes. The study of thought and consciousness is an inter-disciplinary one.
Scientists, philosophers, sociologists and others are putting their heads together to try and
understand the greatest mystery of all times — conscious thinking. At the personal level, we all
understand what it is to think. But at the theoretical level, it is extremely difficult to characterise this
peculiar capacity. And until and unless we know what thinking is like, how can we jump into any
conclusions about thinking animals?
However, I wouldn't hesitate to put my gut feeling before you — I believe like you, that animals can
and do think. Understanding animals depends on how we connect with them, how caring our attitude
is, whether we are willing to pay attention to the tiniest signals they send us through their own
peculiar expressions. Being with animals has taught me to appreciate this truth. Other types of proof
may be at hand soon. After all, if philosophers are willing to even consider the idea of thinking
machines(meaning, specialised computers), how long can they disregard the existence of thinking
animals? In the end, it's all a power-game. Humans beings are more powerful, so they twist and turn
stories in such a way that they appear in the lead roles. Animals are always left with the side roles.
What do you say?