Tell One, Tell All

Dogs are undeniably brilliant. They can communicate (some of) what they want and what they know, and they can perceive (some of) what other dogs as well as humans want and know. Stella is especially brilliant.

But neither Stella, nor any other dog, nor any other animal other than human, has language. They cannot communicate linguistically, which means propositionally

Here is the simple reason why. (This example is just theoretical: I love to have my cat on my bed!):

A “sentence” is not just a string of words.

Pick the simplest of simple sentences: “The cat is on the bed”

If you have a cat and you have a bed, Stella can learn to “call” them “cat” and “bed by pressing a button that says “cat” and “bed.”

And Stella is definitely smart enough to learn (from your behavior) if you don’t want your cat to go on your bed. (You speak sternly to your cat when he goes on your bed, and you shoo him off.)

So, knowing that, Stella is definitely smart enough to go get you and bring you to the bed when she has seen that the cat is on the bed. She knows you don’t want him to do that, and maybe she also likes to see you shoo him off the bed.

All that is really there: She really does know all that; and she is really communicating it to you, intentionally.

And no doubt she can also learn to communicate it to you by pressing the buttons “cat” “on” “bed” (in place of herding you to the bed the old way).

All of that is incontestably true.

But Stella cannot say “(The) cat (is) on (the) bed.” — And not because she does not yet have a button for “the” and “is.” You could train those too.

The reason Stella cannot say “The cat is on the bed” is that “The cat is on the bed” is a subject/predicate proposition, with a truth-value (true). And if Stella could say and mean that proposition, then she could say and mean any and every proposition — including this very sentence, which is likewise a subject/predicate proposition, with a truth-value (true).

But she cannot. And if she cannot make any and every proposition, then she cannot make a proposition at all.

You will want to reply that it’s just because she doesn’t yet have all the necessary vocabulary (and, for the more complex sentence, she also does not have the interest).

But being able to say and mean any and every sentence is not just a matter of vocabulary. It is a capacity that comes with the territory, if you can really say and mean any proposition at all.

“(The) cat (is) on (the) bed” is not a string of words that you say whenever the cat is on the bed, any more than “bed” is just a sound you utter whenever you are looking at a bed.

Nouns are not just proper names of individuals. A bed is a kind of thing, a category of which all beds are members. So if the word “bed” refers to anything at all, it refers to a category, not an individual.

But dogs can categorize too. To categorize is to do the right thing with the right kind of thing (lie on beds and not-lie on thumbtacks). Dogs (like all mammals) can categorize — and learn to do the right thing with the right kind of thing.

One of the things we can learn to do with a category is name it: “ (a) bed.” 

But “bed” is not just a sound we make whenever we see a bed. It is a sound we make whenever we have a bed in mind. Whenever we wish to refer to a member of the category “bed.”

Another thing we can do is to describe a bed: “(a) bed is soft” (not true, but ok for an example). 

But “bed is soft” is not just a string of sounds we make whenever we see or have a soft bed in mind. It is a subject/predicate proposition, stating something to be true about the members of the category “bed”: that they are soft.

Now you may think that Stella can say and mean a proposition too. 

How could that be tested one way or other?.

We have the cue in a property of human language (the only kind of language there is: the rest is just intentional communication capacities, which Stella certainly has): There is no such thing as a “partial language” — one in which you can make this proposition but not that. 

If you have any language at all, you can make any proposition. Vocabulary and prior knowledge are not the problem. You can in principle teach Quantum Mechanics to any member of an isolated Amazon tribe that has had no contact outside his own community and language for thousands of years. You just have to teach the vocabulary and the theory, starting with the words they already have — which means through recombinatory propositions.

This kind of teaching is not training to “name” kinds of thing by their category names; nor is it training to “name” certain states of affairs (involving things and their properties) by certain strings of category names.

Teaching is using propositions (subject/predicate combinations of existing words) to communicate further categories (by defining and describing new categories, which may in turn have their own names. If you know the category to which “bed” refers and you know the category to which “soft” refers, you can communicate that beds are soft by just stating the proposition — if, that is, you have the capacity to express and understand a proposition at all.

There are deep unanswered questions here: Why is our species the only one that can communicate propositionally? Dogs (and apes and elephants and whales and crows) all seem brilliant enough to do it. Why don’t they? What do they lack? Is it specific cognitive capacity? Is it Chomsky’s Universal Grammar? Or is it just a motivational gap?

I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that no other species has propositionality, otherwise some of them would be discussing it with us by now.

Harnad, S. (2011) From Sensorimotor Categories and Pantomime to Grounded Symbols and Propositions. In M. Tallerman & K. R. Gibson (eds): Handbook of Language Evolution, Oxford University Press.

Vincent-Lamarre, P., Blondin Massé, A, Lopes, M, Lord, M, Marcotte, O, & Harnad, S (2016). The Latent Structure of Dictionaries  TopiCS in Cognitive Science  8(3) 625–659

The Specious Present

The vast, expanding portion of the universe
that is inanimate
has neither a past nor regret.
Entropy is inexorable and oblivious.

Only the biosphere has a past,
but it has passed
the instant it has been.
Regret is in the present,
the specious present,
and it is more dread than regret.
And dread is for the future.

Let life go on.
Blot out only sentience.
Et nunc et semper.

Conflicts of Vital Interest

Re: Thagard, Paul: “Why Pets Are NOT People

(1) Calling non-human animals “people” is the same as calling them human (members of our species), which is of course nonsense. But seeking the legal (and technical) status of “person” for non-human animals if they are to be afforded protection in court is not nonsense.

(2) The analogy with slavery is not invalid, but the common point is not being human beings but being sentient beings (i.e., capable of feeling, suffering).

(3) Well-treated domestic pets are not the problem (if they are rescues and do not reproduce), but even they are in the tiny minority among domestic pets (most of whom are bought from breeders and not well treated, and some of whom reproduce). The problem is needless human-induced suffering in sentient beings, the amount and proportion of which is monstrously, obscenely, and increasingly enormous.

(4) People enjoy having pets, eating meat, wearing fur, going to rodeos, hunting: does this trump the needs and suffering of the countless sentient beings who are the victims of this human enjoyment?

(5) There are interests and there are vital (life/death/survival) interests. Obligate carnivores (like lions) in (what is left of) nature must kill and eat their prey to survive. That is a vital interest. The water-buffalo needs to try to kill or rout an attacking lion to survive. That is a Darwinian conflict of vital interests.

(6) But human interest in having pets, eating meat, wearing fur, going to rodeos, hunting… are not vital interests. (Notice that I skip over that deeply troubling conflict of vital interests that is the small minority of biomedical research that saves [human] lives.)

(7) To have a vital (life/death/survival) interest, a sentient being must be born.

(8) Purpose breeding of sentient beings by human beings to serve human non-vital interests is morally wrong, if anything is morally wrong.

(9) The only one entitled to judge whether it is better for a sentient being to be born is that sentient being — not the breeder.

Bull-Baiting in California Rodeo in 2019

Dear Governor Newsom and Attorney-General Becerra,

California has much to be admired for by the rest of the country and worldwide.

I hope very much that you will now do the right thing by condemning, punishing and enforcing the banning of rodeo cruelty, which has reached a wrenching new low in the bull-baiting reported, documented and now taken to court by Showing Animals Respect and Kindness.

Prompt, prominent and direct attention to this abomination will be greatly appreciated everywhere and another welcome sign of progressiveness in California.


Stevan Harnad
Editor, Animal Sentience
Professor of Psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal
Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science, McGill University
Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Southampton

Downgrading Hungary’s ’56 Uprising

Ervin Kulcsár of the Vitézi Rend delivered a xenophobic speech at HungaroFest in Toronto

H & H: Horthy had established the “Vitézi Rend” in 1920
Insignia of the “Vitézi Rend”

Well, well, a simple-minded bigot, and member of a fascistoid organization (Vitézi Rend) has been invited (by whom? why?) to give a talk at an event commemorating the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Apart from making some incoherent, triumphalist remarks about the “freedom fighters” (even then a mixed crew of genuine democrats alongside crypto- and overt fascists and xenophobes), this grateful “$5 immigrant” (whatever that means) — who in the ensuing 6 decades managed to earn a living in his new home, but not to learn its language — uses the occasion to malign subsequent generations of immigrants to the country that generously and humanely took him in, managing to insult Canada’s current Parliamentary Secretary of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Arif Vinari, in the process.

And this shameful spectacle was no doubt orchestrated and bankrolled by Hungary’s current fascistoid, anti-immigrant government. What an irony! Hungary has long lost whatever admiration it inspired in the rest of the world in ’56. Kulcsár is right that (some) Hungarians are different. But not in the way he imagines…

Tree Hugger (2)

“If you love trees, don’t read The Overstory: it will break your heart.  I kept having to put it down to read something else.”

Yes, I love trees, and, yes, it breaks my heart, whether or not they are sentient (or essential in the support of planetary life).

The wanton way we exploit and destroy trees, whether or not they are sentient, is of a piece with the wanton way we exploit and destroy animals (nonhuman and human) even though they are sentient.

We destroy art that way too (the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan) but there the only victims (if any) are the art’s creators and admirers, not the art.


Although I don’t think trees feel, I share your feelings about trees, Simon.

And whether or not they are feeling, plants are certainly living; and treating them like inert materials feels wanton.

Not to mention the dependence on them of all life — sentient and insentient.

Life is a product of evolution — Dawkins’s “Blind Watchmaker” — who is blind not just in the sense of lacking foresight and design, but in lacking moral sense (or any sense).

Evolution is merciless, psychopathic. Life feeds on itself, literally.

And although no one knows what the causal function of sentience is (the very query has been dubbed “the hard problem.” it is indisputable that sentience evolved, hence it must have conferred adaptive advantages.

The advent of sentience was also the advent of suffering.

But the advent also of compassion, at least in some sentient species — chiefly, I think, the mammals and birds and other species that did not just split in order to reproduce, like microbes, or lay and leave countless eggs, like turtles, but spawned only a few helpless (“altricial”) young that had to be cared for to survive. Thus was empathy born — and that “mind-reading” ability that is perhaps the most acute in our own species, paradoxically the most monstrous as well as the most merciful of them all.

So it’s a complex problem on which you are embarking, Simon, in pleading for mercy for trees. Not the “hard problem,” but a heart-rending one, coupled as it is with the fate of all living creatures, suffering or not.

Moral Necessity

“gastronomically necessary”? 
On Tom Nagel’s review of Christine Kosgaard’s book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.
Philosophers’ make commendable (but unavailing) efforts to rationalize (and even formalize) morality.
It’s all much simpler than all this, but I haven’t the time to sketch it long-hand.
The only biological necessity (vital interest) is survival and freedom from suffering.
it is sentient living organisms who have vital interests.
There can be conflicts between the vital interests of different sentients (e.g, predator and prey).
The only moral imperative is to not cause unnecessary suffering.
Taste is not a vital interest.


When I was 9 or 10, I used to feel sorry for bus transfers and candy-wrappers. I felt it was wrong to throw them in the garbage as if — as if they were just objects. So my mother kept a drawer in her office in which I could put them. They grew for several years, until I realized what I had really been feeling. I became a vegetarian when I turned 17, and told my mother she could empty that drawer now. But it was only in 2012, when I was 67, that I became a vegan and realized what I should be doing — and what I should really have been doing, all along.
Anthropomorphism — natural in children — is what makes humans humane. Easily cultivated, easily ignored, easily snuffed out.