This July we were invited to join 13 young, inquisitive minds in a debate about animal minds at Kingsbarns Primary School.
We started the afternoon with a more general debate about what Philosophy is, and what kind of questions we are asking with when we do Philosophy, and that answers are often a grey area.
Derek introduced us to some philosophers who thought about animals – he talked about Descartes, Peter Singer, Thomas Nagel, Dan Dennett, Donald Davidson, Jose Bermudez, and Dorit Bar-On. This also showed us a broad spectrum of what abilities other thinkers assign to animals – and whether we would agree with them or not.
We then debated what abilities would make an animal smart, or would show that they are capable of thought. We talked about wolves and pack-hunting, cows who recognise the vet, chickens who go to bed on time and have alarm calls, pets that can remember owners and places, and many other examples.
Having collected lots of examples, we went to work on our sticker task: everyone got to pick their favourite animal, and decide whether it has a ‘mind like ours’, ‘no mind at all’ or maybe something in between (and whether this difference is by degree or kind). Primates tended to be placed on the higher end of the spectrum, and insects and fish at the lower end. We had a lively debate about where chickens,sheep, and big cats should go – encountering the grey areas we talked about earlier.
We ended the afternoon by talking a bit more what kind of evidence would convince us that animals have a certain ability. So for example, could we invent a translator for “dog-language” or can we show that dogs understand a lot of human language? Can we find (behavioural) definitions of concepts such as “friendship” that can be applied to animals?
A big thank you to all Kingsbarns Philosophers and Miss Spark – we had a wonderful time!