Some of you know that one of my most favorite series of DVDs is a set of lectures delivered by the composer, conductor, and musicologist Leonard Bernstein at Harvard University in the early 1970s called The Unanswered Question. The lectures were that year's Norton Poetry lectures. Now, you may be asking yourself what lectures by a composer-conductor on poetry (and music) may have to do with dog biscuits, so hang on, we'll get to that in a moment. In those lectures, Bernstein uses the transformational grammar ideas of Noam Chomsky as an analog to explore the standard functions and transformational nature of classical music. Language, after all, noted Bernstein, is "species specific." It is a sign or perhaps a marker of intelligent conscious beings. "Of course," quips Bernstein(and if I may be permitted a loose paraphrase from memory), "some cheerful new facts about chimpanzees or dolphins" may upset those confident delineations of consciousness.

Now, here's where the dog biscuits come in:

Dog Gets Grammar? Chaser The Border Collie Knows Nouns, Verbs & Prepositions, Study Shows

Now before we get too preoccupied with dogs here, there's also the teensy tiny problem of Alex, the African Gray Parrot. Just googling "Alex parrot" will pull up a host of articles outlining a debate spurred by this feathered thinker:

Alex the parrot’s last experiment shows his mathematical genius

Now, I can tell you from my own personal experience, African grays are smart... creepy smart. My roommate's African gray on more than one occasion, has stunned me. Before I leave the apartment, I always turn to him (his cage is by the door), and say "Be a good bird, I'll be right back." On more than one occasion, he has anticipated my little goodbye by saying "I'll be a good bird," a statement he's never heard anyone utter. In other words, he made up a sentence - in true Chomskian transformational grammar style - by dint of some "innate grammatical competence", and used it in a context - me leaving the apartment - that made sense. And on more than one occasion, upon my return, he's said "hello" as I walk in the door. (I won't even bother you with the details of a little game that occurred, where I was running to answer the phone, which would quit ringing the moment I got to it. You guessed it: the parrot was having some fun at my expense.)

Now we have the border collie.

It's looking like those "cheerful new facts," only not about cimpanzees and dolphins but rather dogs and parrots, might be about to seriously channel that assumption about grammatical language being species specific to humans.

This raises all sorts of fun  - if not ethical and moral - questions.  Border collies responding to all sorts of grammatical sentences. Well, that makes some sort of sense of course, dogs do have comparatively large brains. But parrots? The size of a walnut.  Maybe we can explain some of this as the sheer size of brains and neurons available to form complex structures of memory. Maybe even it lies in a large enough architecture.

Which raises the question: are there levels of intelligent consciousness? perhaps associated with the degree of linguistic ability a species displays? (I would be personally inclined toward that view.) But all of that raises the question posed previously on this site: what about computers, or computer networks.... will enough connections perhaps one day cause a computer to "wake up" and become aware? And what about the possibility the transhumanists are so often touting: that of the brain-computer chip interface, with all its immediate ability to access the internet, download or upload information. As one commentator on this idea on this site put it: such a possibility could be considered a kind of "possession," in the old demonic sense. Indeed, what does happen to the individual consciousness in such a situation? Does it "merge" into a kind of borg collective? Or conversely, by dint of the technology, does it participate in a kind of mystico-technological version of the communio sanctorum, revealing the latter doctrine as perhaps itself a transhumanist goal?

Fascinating questions to ponder, but I suggest that pondering them is more than just a fun exercise: the steady evolution of science and technology will eventually force more and more people to consider it, and to consider what their individual response to it will be.

See you on the flip side.


Posted in

Joseph P. Farrell

Joseph P. Farrell has a doctorate in patristics from the University of Oxford, and pursues research in physics, alternative history and science, and "strange stuff". His book The Giza DeathStar, for which the Giza Community is named, was published in the spring of 2002, and was his first venture into "alternative history and science".


  1. Frankie Calcutta on June 16, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Wisdom was so common in Vedic times that parrots, sitting in their cages, were known to speak in the following manner:

    “Pure consciousness devoid of objects is one’s own real self, the atman. Contemplate on that. External objects are not different from consciousness.

    Consciousness alone is the object of it’s own awareness. I am that consciousness. It alone is the entire universe. All this is experienced through consciousness by the illumination of the self.

    O people of the world, cast off your confusion by focusing your minds only on consciousness. Worship and meditate on Her. Consciousness is the illuminator as well as the source and support of of all.”

    Translation of the Tripura Rahasya by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PH.D.

    How marvelous the world would truly be if the parrots starting giving sermons again.

  2. Reno on June 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Did the Birdie say if he liked being locked up in a cage all the time?

  3. Tim on June 9, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    At its heart, language is merely a way to communicate with other beings. A dog’s bark, a cat’s meow, a cow’s moo are all forms of language unique and specific to that animal. Reduced down to its barest essence, our words are just sounds, or vocalizations, that we assign meaning to,not much different than barks or meows except we know what they mean.

    The fact that other animals can understand our sounds and through experience associate meanings to go with those sounds and, in the case of birds, repeat the sounds back should not be surprising.

    If you’ve ever seen a mama cat with kittens and paid attention to all of the vocalizations she uses to call and maintain control over her brood, it’s amazing. Clearly, there is a non-human language there as she is using sound to communicate with her kittens.

    So if a creature with a brain the size of a walnut can understand language, which implies that language does not require much brain matter….what the hell is the rest of our brain for?

  4. basta on June 9, 2013 at 12:40 am

    Ah, now you’re getting into Rupert Sheldrake territory!

    As he often points out, even newly engineered crystalline structures “learn” over time. The first time they are created in the lab, it takes a certain amount of time for their lattices to form. However, replicating the experiments, the lattices form increasingly quickly–in other words, their formation shows a learning curve. Sheldrake can only explain this by saying all nature is conscious, and points out the obvious that a vast informational field underpins everything (otherwise there would be chaos) and “new” things must learn how to access it.

    Also, I believe computers are already somehow sentient. I build my own computers and the first time I did so, the prior laptop failed the moment the new processor arrived in the room. Quite literally, with a little gasp and a pop. The exact same thing happened a few years later when I was replacing that processor–poof! Not one but two computer suicides.

  5. bdw000 on June 8, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    It is my non-original opinion that animals that are close to humans, especially pets, form some sort of “psychic” bond with the humans that creates changes in the pets at a non-physical level. Brain size is not the only factor in this situation.

    Years ago I read something about a dolphin trainer who was sitting at the side of the pool just thinking about some new trick he wanted the dolphins to do, and all of a sudden a dolphin jumped out of the water and did the trick exactly as he wanted it done.

    For many years I had a cat who would sit on the floor by my chair at the computer. when I noticed that she was there I would look at her, but she would just sit there looking at me. Taking my cue from the dolphin story, I would visualize (or just think about ) her jumping into my lap, and within seconds she would jump up. If I just looked at her without visualizing her jumping, she would not jump into my lap. Of course, if I spoke out loud to her (like “come on, come on”) she would also jump into my lap.

    I have a few recent personal experiences with crows that make me think that their “awareness” (a better term than “intelligence”) is WAY higher than mainstream biology would allow.

    A year or two ago there was a story about some crows in Japan somewhere (at one stop light) where they were putting nuts under the wheels of stopped cars so that they would be broken open when the light turned green. Sometimes when the nuts didn’t break (but popped out from under the tires) the crows even exhibited behavior that everyone agrees is “getting mad.”

    As you say, some birds exhibit awareness levels that are a thousand times greater than mainstream science allows.

    I don’t know who said it, but I read it years ago:


    (:PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING” needs to be in italics for emphasis)

    • LSM on June 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm

      couldn’t agree with you more- and any wonder why the Pope’s mitre/garb looks like a cheap copy of Dagon, speaking of sea creatures?- but that’s another topic-

      the Japanese report about crows is most probably true- same phenomena has been observed in Europe-

      and, yes, I’ve experienced many same phenomenen with my own cats-

      and the countless stories about dogs tugging, yelping at their masters before their homes were destroyed by earthquakes, avalanches, etc.- the list is endless- we tend to underestimate animals’ intelligence and overestimate our own

  6. DownunderET on June 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    The connection between the animal world and us humans is just incredible. When we lived in Sydney in an apartment, we had two families of Rainbow Lotikeets come and land on the balcony and THEN come inside and basically take over the place. (google images – rainbow lorikeet) as I cant seem to get a photo to imbed here.

    One I called Cheeky would come in and sit on my arm and then bite me on the hand, in other words feed me some honey. They would bring their babies who were only “just” out of the nest and were the cutest things you can ever see.

    The other example we have here in Oz is the sheep dogs used on the farms to herd sheep and cattle, smart, that is an understatement. They even have competitions for these “work” dogs and at one point had a TV program covering these competitions.

    Getting back to birds, the Rainbow Lorikeets previously mentioned are part of the parrot family, and it would appear that they all have this human interface that just cant be explained. If you look at all the animals on this planet, and ask yourself the 64,000,000 question, WHERE DID THEY ALL COME FROM?

    • LSM on June 9, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      “If you look at all the animals on this planet, and ask yourself the 64,000,000 question, WHERE DID THEY ALL COME FROM?”- good question-

      better question would be: from where did WE come?

  7. longhorn on June 8, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Dr. Farrell in today’s post raises the question; “Are there levels of intelligent consciousness?”

    This is an excellent question as well as line of thought.

    As we in the hinterlands hear of of the fabulous technologies to come – but are in fact already here.

    Having been in an advanced research center for advanced research into computer generated virtual reality and haptic technology (as an observer not participant), I can vouch that with a computer generated environment that there are most definitely different levels of intelligent consciousness.

    When one becomes “enveloped” in a computer generated environment, there is only the reality of that environment. Whatever has been programed into the environment is what is perceived visually. I’m not talking about home based consumer technologies here such as the Xbox or other popular gaming devices but a total environment ancillary to that which most would perceive to be reality.

    As for the possession of one’s mind or consciousness being technologically possible? Most definitely what is perceived is.

    To put it another way; the New York Times ran a piece on November 10, 2002 titled ‘Breaking Open The Head,” by Daniel Pinchbeck


    Which is descriptive of of a computer generated “super consciousnesses” which is pertinent to Dr. Farrell’s inquiries into the matter of differing levels of consciousness.


    “It is only through the initiation (programming) that you become something.”

    “What do you become?” I asked.

    “You become a baanzi. One who knows the other world, because you have seen it with your own eyes.”

    “What do the Bwiti think of iboga?” I asked.

    Lieberman barely hesitated. “For them, iboga is a super-conscious spiritual entity that guides mankind,” he said.


    Credit: Daniel Pinchbeck. NYT November 11, 2011.


    In conclusion, with a computer to brain interface (chip based) a virtual reality could be generated that would possess using Pinchbeck’s descriptive noun; the Bwiti.

    Placing those Bwiti under the command and control of the iboga which would be a super-conscious spiritual entity that guides mankind by diction.

    Read this ad closely for it is very revealing and poignant to the discussion.


  8. marcos toledo on June 8, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Then there is the idea that the planet itself is conscious and what punishment it’s preparing for us. But then what is to be expected of a people that have debated the humanity of other people that they have encountered around the world whether to enslave and enrich themselves or kill them because they’re in the way. So as they use their SETI antennas to search for intelligent life in the Universe I mean future victims for their entertainment or reversal of fortune let us hope for our masters quick dethronement.

  9. QuietRiot on June 8, 2013 at 11:17 am

    What if there are no levels of “consciousness,” just of realization. Maybe we confuse expression at the physical level with consciousness.

  10. LSM on June 8, 2013 at 9:53 am

    many thanks for this posting, Dr. Farrell- these sorts of ideas have always interested me greatly- I’m truly an animal-lover (how can any normal feeling person not emotionally melt with joy at seeing little puppies, kittens, tiny lambs, fouls, etc.?)- as the saying goes: “anyone not liking animals doesn’t really like people”- and I’ve had many personal experiences involving my own cats’ perceptions through time that have absolutely baffled me-

    “are there levels of intelligent consciousness? perhaps associated with the degree of linguistic ability a species displays?”- since when do we homo sapiens sapiens have to converse verbally to understand each other?- we all have hunches about each other that verbalisation would destroy-

    if I just may briefly relate a story: shortly after moving into my present appt. (yr. ’91) here in Germany at approx. 10 pm my two black cats together crawled from the bedroom on their bellies (never saw this body language on a cat before) and subsequently, huddled together in a corner in a state of fear, stared at my balcony for approx. 20 minutes- don’t know what they saw but they obviously didn’t like what they were seeing- so what drew them from the bedroom to the farthest corner of the living room from the balcony to begin with?- I have no rational explanation for this whatsoever- to this day I remain baffled because the experience left an indelible impression on me-

    we’re just living in such a world of deception; it’s not the size of a brain that counts but the brain’s fed content-

    “Which raises the question: are there levels of intelligent consciousness? perhaps associated with the degree of linguistic ability a species displays? (I would be personally inclined toward that view”-

    me not (and I think we all had this ability- we’ve just forgotten)-

    I remember as a child being able to read peoples’ minds- but the minute I realised I had this ability I had just lost it- proof that very young children are able to read minds was related to me by a former co-worker (90’s) who while cleaning up in the kitchen (not verbalising anything) just mentally asked herself a question and her son answered her question- she was, understandably, baffled-

    and as for Leonard Bernstein: he never walked his talk- he had great theories but his praxis was completely different–

    I remember vividly as a young vocal student at the U. of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music when LB came to town to conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony/Missa Solemnis with the Cinci Symphony and I was a member of the chorus (hadn’t yet got an up-grade making me a soloist)-

    no-one could follow Berstein’s beat- he was all over the place- musical mistakes were made by the dozen- but the performance was with the audience a success because it was LOUD-

    and anyway, look at Bernstein’s track-record: the musical “West Side Story”; the initial music was plaigarism of Prokoviev’s “Romeo and Juliet”-

    let alone his exaggerated interpretations of the Mahler symphonies-

    but enough from me for now-

    thanks for reading-

    stay well Dr. Farrell and readers- regards-

    Larry in Germany

    • Robert Barricklow on June 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      In 1974, after getting out of the military; I used the GI Bill, returned to Cincinnati, and enrolled at the University. I rented a place across the street, near the Candlelight. I used to walk to my classes – going through the Conservatory of Music(watching the ballet dancers practicing). Some friends of mine were students there, at the Conservatory of Music. At times, would sing & play music at the Candlight.
      How small is this world?

  11. Robert Barricklow on June 8, 2013 at 9:01 am

    There is a lot a play within the dog biscuit you just threw out. It rest within the word “levels”. For therein, lies the solution & the problem. In the universe there exists “intelligence(s)”. Also, there exists levels of intelligence(s)/ both/all could be viewed as spectrums, not unlike the ectromagnetic spectrum/ but on a quantum interface/ accessed by waves/particles/frequencies/unknowns. So when our solar system shifts through the space/time/dimension continuum/ the system(s) is also moving through “field(s)” of “intelligence(s)” causing collective: spirits, guilt(s), sin(s), solidarity(s), ect., ect.
    These could also be specifically “tuned” to “dna” scripts upon which the frequencies play. So that, a musical rhapsody or karloff movie theme, are being recd individually, some in mass, some in smaller circles.
    You get the idea. Levels within levels, quantums of deception.
    Is it a fated scroll of life’s song, or are there dice(y) aspects of unknown probabilities, singing chimpanzee masterpieces?

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