A DOG BISCUIT FOR YOUR THOUGHTS…June 8, 2013
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:
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:
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.