Chimpanzees can’t talk, therefore God?

February 2018

Dennis Bonnette, emeritus professor and former chairman of the philosophy department at Niagara University, has contributed several articles to the only apologetic forum, Strange Notions, that I spend much time in these days. I like him, for the same reason I like to hang out at Strange Notions. Like most of the contributors there, he talks way more sense than the believers in most of the forums where Christians try to defend their ideas.

During an exchange we had about his latest posting, Bonnette referred me to an article on his “Evidence for God” website claiming that unsuccessful efforts to teach apes to talk constitute, if not a proof of God, at least a refutation of naturalism. Specifically, he claims in the introduction:

The purpose of this article is . . . to refute the claims of the sensist philosophers who would reduce all human knowledge and activities to the level of mere sensation and sense appetite.

The word “sensist” was new to me, so I had to look it up. According to Merriam-Webster, sensism is “the philosophic doctrine that sense perceptions furnish the sole data of knowledge.” If that is what it is, then I am not a sensist. But neither, on my understanding of his work, was David Hume, who according to Bonnette was a sensist. What I believe is that both our senses and our reason give us knowledge. Whether Hume would actually say, “Yes, I believe that, too,” I won’t try to guess. It seems to me that he would, but I can’t ask him and I won’t try to put words in his mouth.

What I will readily admit to being, though, is a reductionist of a certain kind. I believe that our knowledge and activities are explainable in materialist terms. Our sensations, our sense appetites, and everything else about us can be explained in terms of the activities of our physical constituents and the natural laws governing the activities of those constituents. I do not believe it follows, however, that we are just those constituents. That would be what Daniel Dennett calls “greedy reductionism,” and I agree with him that that is not a good kind of reductionism. To say that X is fully explicable in terms of Y is not to say that X is just Y and nothing else. Most non-materialists seem to think we might as well say so for all the difference it makes, and if that is Bonnette’s position, so be it. In what follows, I will defend the kind of reductionism that I do accept.

Bonnette’s specific thesis is that “even the most sophisticated sensory activities of animals bear no legitimate threat to the radical superiority of the human intellect—an intellect whose spiritual character is rationally demonstrable.” This raises some more semantic issues. I do believe that the human intellect is radically superior in some respects to that of any other animal—emphasis on “other.” I believe that we are animals. I believe that everything about us, including every characteristic unique to our species, is explicable in terms of our evolution by natural selection from species ancestral to ours, without the intervention of any supernatural activity. As to whether anything about us is spiritual, I never know for sure what people mean by that word, but it seems invariably to involve something supernatural, and I do deny the existence of anything supernatural. With that covered, we can proceed.

According to Bonnette, “psychologists, zoologists, biologists, anthropologists, etc., tend to view human behavior as nothing but an extension in degree, not in kind, of lower animal behavior.” I’m not siding with anyone who says there is no difference in kind between us and other animals. I maintain that a difference in degree can become a difference in kind. The issue is whether naturalism can suffice to explain whatever difference in degree and consequent difference in kind there is between us and other animals.

After his introduction, Bonnette reviews the history of the debate about experiments purporting to show that some apes can learn a rudimentary kind of language. I read a few news articles and other commentaries about the experiments when they were initially publicized but did not pay close attention. I also knew about Clever Hans years before any of this happened. Bonnette presents more details about the debate than I was aware of, and I appreciate his thoroughness. He has not changed my mind about the scientific implications, though. The position I have long held is well summarized by Bonnette himself:

In a word, what the Sebeoks describe is the infamous anthropomorphic fallacy, that is, the error of attributing human qualities to animals based upon our nearly irresistible temptation to put ourselves in the brute’s place, and then, to view his actions in terms of our own human intellectual perspectives. The universality of this human tendency is such that even experts in animal behavior frequently fail to avoid its pitfalls.

So I agree: No, the apes in these experiments have not been learning language, at least not language that is in any useful sense like human language. And that is because natural selection has not wired their brains in whatever way would have been necessary for them to use language as we use it. Our linguistic capabilities require certain intellectual skills that we, and no other species, managed to acquire as we evolved. Our intelligence is different from that of other apes to such a degree as to make it a difference in kind. We can use our brains in ways that they cannot, and one of those ways is the way we can use language, primarily for communication but also and indispensably for just thinking. As Bonnette remarks: “careful natural scientific observers remain convinced of essential differences still remaining between ape and human capabilities.”

Those who disagree will ask: How else can we explain the experimental results? Bonnette summarizes a few responses, and while I don’t agree with all his comments about them, I agree that plausible alternative explanations are out there. For the purpose of this discussion, that is all we need to agree on. But, are those remaining differences anything but a difference in degree of capabilities? That they are more than that is what Bonnette was trying to demonstrate, and I don’t think he succeeded.

What is unique to human cognition, the cognitive ability on which language depends, is what Bonnette calls “intellectual knowledge.” This ability, he says, “penetrates beyond the sensible appearances of things to their essential nature.” In so doing, he says, “the intellect ‘reads within’ the sensible qualities of an entity—thereby grasping intelligible aspects which it raises to the level of the universal concept.” Yes, our minds can form universal concepts, and as far as we can tell, ape minds are incapable of any such thing. And so are computers, which Bonnette gets to in due course.

Having brought them up, he says among other things:

The force of much of the above argument from analogy will be lost upon those who do not understand why we state that computers possess neither substantial existence and unity nor any sentient or intellectual knowledge. Our claims may seem especially gratuitous in an age in which various computer experts proclaim the imminent possibility of success in the search for artificial intelligence through the science of cybernetics.

OK. I agree that at this stage of our technological history, computers are not sentient. Not even close. Whether they ever will be or even could be remains hotly debated, but in that debate, I’m on the affirmative side. Bonnette thinks I shouldn’t be. And why not? Because, he says, “no non-living substance—whether it be an atom, a molecule, a rock, or even an electronic chip—is itself capable of sensation or intellection.” And this is true. But neither is a transistor, capacitor, or any other electronic component capable of word processing. They become capable, though, if enough of them are connected in a certain way and the entire assembly is then connected to a proper power source. The whole can do things, under certain conditions, that none of its parts can do.

Bonnette’s argument is clearly grounded in an Aristotelian metaphysics. He goes on to speak of potentialities and substantial forms, and finally he quotes the man himself: “Moreover, Aristotle defines nature as ‘a source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily....’” I will happily stipulate that if Aristotle was right, then my worldview is nonsense, but whether he was right seems now to be the issue on which this whole debate rests.

Sensibly enough, Bonnette does not ignore the objection about parts and wholes:

It is a perennial temptation to engage in the metaphysical slight of hand of suggesting that somehow the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts, that the total collectivity can exhibit qualities of existence found in none of its elements.

But the point of the objection was not about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It was about the whole having capabilities not to be found in any of its parts. This involves no slight of hand, metaphysical or otherwise. It involves nothing but observation. If that observation contradicts Aristotle’s metaphysics, then that’s just too bad for Aristotle’s metaphysics. His thinking might arguably have made sense two and half millennia ago, but the Western world has moved past it, and with good reason.

Bonnette says my objection commits “the fallacy of composition—to attribute to the whole qualities found in none of its parts.” But no, because “qualities” in that sense is an Aristotelian notion. There is no “essence of computer” that any part of a computer must have in order for the entire assembly to be a computer. A computer is just anything that computes, and computation is just what we English-speaking humans have decided to call the activities that we designed them to perform. And after we built the first ones, it occurred to many people that what we had designed them to do was a lot like what we ourselves have been doing with our brains for quite a few thousands of years. That is exactly why, as some of us are old enough to remember, the first computers were sometimes called “electronic brains.” Bonnette subsequently remarks: “The fundamental obstacle to all such speculation is the principle of sufficient reason.” This just begs the question of what makes a reason sufficient. Ask the right person “How can a computer do that?” and you’ll get a reason why it can do that. If the reason doesn’t satisfy Aristotelians, that’s their problem.

Then he gets to Godel, surely the transcendentalists’ favorite mathematician. “What Godel’s theorem simply implies,” he says, “is that men are not machines.” No, it does not imply that. Or rather, the arguments that it does include some assumptions, usually unstated, that a naturalistic worldview can reject without contradiction.

Bonnette then discusses an argument by Austin M. Woodbury, a philosopher and theologian, that apes “lack the intellectual faculties which we possess.” I’ve already stipulated that they do, if we allow for some quibbles over what constitutes an intellectual faculty. I have stipulated that we have some faculties that apes don’t have. And so we get to Bonnette’s concluding paragraph:

In the course of our examination of the question under investigation we have distinguished man from lower animals in two ways: First, we have demonstrated that the presently available natural scientific evidence regarding lower animal behavior, including the recent ape-language studies, constitutes no legitimate challenge to the essential superiority of the human intellect. Second, we have presented briefly Woodbury’s positive demonstrations for the non-existence of intellect in lower animals. We have also noted many of the unique capabilities and accomplishments of man—both individually and collectively considered—which bespeak his possession of intellectual faculties which utterly transcend the world of brutes.

In general, I have no quarrel with any of that, depending on exactly what he means by that word “essential.” But absent some Aristotelian assumptions that I think it reasonable to reject, none of it demonstrates that our cognitive abilities—unique though they be in the animal world—could not have been the result of natural selection working on our ancestors without any need of divine intervention.

(This page last updated on Feb. 3, 2018)

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