A piece of their mind

Addendum: Republished from NewAPPS. See there the informative comment by John Protevi on the substance of Balko’s column—the fallibility of drug-sniffing dogs (and their trainers), and the resulting miscarriages of justice.
My late cat Mr. H came to be very good at knowing when I was finished playing a piece on the piano. I have recordings in which, a second or two after the piano stops, Mr. H’s characteristic yowl supplies a coda. One might almost think he had a grasp of musical form, but I’m quite sure that his grasp was rather of my habits than of anything to do with music. He had likely picked up something in my posture that correlated with finishing a piece, something distinctive enough that he was rarely deceived by pauses during a piece.
I was reminded of this in reading first a column by Radley Balko on police dogs and then some extracts from a book cited by Balko, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a dog (the title alludes to a Groucho Marx joke, in case you’re wondering). Horowitz describes experiments in which domestic canines, when humans are present, tend to do much worse than their wild cousins.
Tested on their ability to, say, get a bit of food in a well-closed container, wolves keep trying and trying, and if the test is not rigged they eventually succeed through trial and error. Dogs, by contrast, tend to go at the container only until it appears that it won’t easily be opened. Then they look at any person in the room and begin a variety of attention-getting and solicitation behaviors until the person relents and helps them get into the box (180).
Anyone who has a dog or cat will recognize the phenomenon. Are dogs, then, dumber than wolves? Horowitz doesn’t think so.
By standard intelligence tests, the dogs have failed at the puzzle. I believe, by contrast, that they have succeeded magnificently. They have applied a novel tool to the task. We are that tool. […] The question of the cognitive abilities of dogs is thereby transformed: dogs are terrific at using humans to solve problems, but not as good at solving problems when we’re not around (181).
According to the extended mind hypothesis of Chalmers and Clark, any tool, any “local structure” “whose reliable presence drives our ongoing internal processes” can be regarded as part of our extended mind (§3). In particular, other people can become part of my extended mind.
Could my mental states be partly constituted by the states of other thinkers? We see no reason why not, in principle. […] What is central is a high degree of trust, reliance, and accessibility. In other social relationships these criteria may not be so clearly fulfilled, but they might nevertheless be fulfilled in specific domains. For example, the waiter at my favorite restaurant might act as a repository of my beliefs about my favorite meals (this might even be construed as a case of extended desire) (§5).
Nothing requires the part-whole relation to be asymmetric. The dog who helps a disabled person make their way from place to place is part of that person’s mind; but by the same token that person, the repository as it were of certain of the dog’s beliefs about food, doors, and other significant objects of canine interest, is part of the dog’s mind. That the person is more intelligent than the dog does not tell against that possibility. Not every boss is smarter than her secretary, after all.
Dogs can use humans to solve problems, as my cat uses me to obtain food, by knowing their habits well. That is a specialized skill, distinct from skills like box-opening and mouse-hunting. One might suppose that evolution could invent creatures whose brain-power was very nearly confined to the ability to analyze patterns in other creatures’ behavior and to alter their own so as to control all the capable organisms in their vicinity. Such creatures, left to their own devices, would be quite stupid, indeed hardly able to provide for themselves. But surrounded by the components of their extended minds—you and me, for example—they become masters of the universe…

LinkJanuary 7, 2012 in Cats · Jeux d’esprit · NewAPPS