Thursday, 15 May 2008
A talk across the species border
My friend the oriole is back. I have missed him yesterday, and he did not respond my call. But today, on my morning jog, I heard him again, and I immediately responded. My oriolese (oriolic? oriolian?) has a terrible human accent, of course. I only manage a glissando but not his characteristic slip of tongue. Today, I had the impression that he mocked me, imitating my manner of oriolizing at the end of his call.
I may have misheard it or overrated my importance to him. Anyway, this cross-species talk is very fascinating. It leaves me with a number of questions.
The most important one is the question of empathy, that is, the ability to put oneself into the mind of someone else. Even between humans, this leaves a number of questions that are not easy to answer. But between species, the real hard to answer questions emerge.
We humans have the tendency to put ourselves at the top of the pyramid and look down to the so-called "lower" species. For instance, I know that my friend the oriole is not human, but does he know that I am not an oriole? I think I know and he doesn't. Yet my feeling of superiority gets a ticking off when I imagine him looking at me and seeing that I cannot fly. My oriolese is so bad that I never won't get a female. I cannot build a nest. I cannot catch flying insects. And let alone finding my way back from Madagascar every spring. Orioles have no mental pyramids, but if they had, they would find good reasons to put their species on the top and look down at us humans.
Obviously, the oriole does hear and respond to my whistled call. He is a perceiving subject, he knows his female personally, and therefore he must have something like a mind, even a conscious one. Some birds like ravens have proven to be intelligent, some even use tools to reach goals. It's very interesting to imagine non-human minds and trying to figure out the difference between them and us.
Another big question is cross-species qualia, in this case the perceived quality of the sound produced by the oriole and by me. Both sounds are quite similar to me, and obviously to the oriole, too. But the ear and the brain of the oriole is so different from mine that the sound quality that reaches the mind of the oriole, most likely, is very different from the sound quality that reaches my mind.
Last week, on a beautiful Sunday morning in the riverside forest, my wife was with me, and the oriole was there, too. But I cannot tell whether the sound quality reaching her mind is the same that is reaching my mind. I suppose it is, but qualia cannot be shared, they are stuck in every individual forever. It is hard to grasp, but the concept of qualia forbids any reasoning about similarity. Therefore, it cannot be said that the sound qualia of me and my wife are more similar than those of me and the oriole.
There is much food for thought in an oriole call. I've not got very far today, so I may come back to some of the questions in upcoming posts.
Photo credit: Wikipedia