PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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How do we justify analogical inferences about the mental capacities of other animals?

Cognitive ethology often focuses on a few exemplary subjects of research. This is especially true with long-term studies of the kinds of complex cognitive capacities that animals possess. Consider two examples. Kanzi the bonobo can understand simple grammar in spoken English sentences. Alex the grey parrot can understand and use English words to communicate with humans. Neither Kanzi nor Alex are human, but they demonstrate communicative behaviours similar to humans. Given such behaviour, on what basis might we infer that the mental mechanisms involved in Kanzi’s and Alex’s behaviour are similar to the mechanisms at work in analogous human behaviour? In cases where we cannot collect direct evidence about an individual animal’scommunicative and cognitive capacities, we might try to impute similar mental mechanisms for similar behaviours on the basis of analogical inference. As noted by different thinkers, analogical reasoning is one of the main ways to establish claims about the complex mental states of nonhuman animals. In a typical case, we might observe a nonhuman animal exhibiting a behaviour B, which is also exhibited by humans. In humans, B is caused by some mental mechanism M. According to analogical reasoning, then, given that humans exhibit B because of M, we might infer that the nonhuman animal also exhibits B by an analogous mental process M.

In this poster, I investigate when and on what basis such inferences are justified. I analyse two plausible proposed justifications for arguments from analogy: Elliott Sober’s justification from a common cause and Sandra Mitchell’s justification from causal isomorphism. Both give similar results when we generalize from one individual to another of the same species. However, they work differently in interspecific inferences, especially between species that are phylogenetically distant. I assert that Mitchell’s approach provides useful guidance about the kinds of causal factors that may be relevant and worthy of further scientific investigation.

Author Information:

Shereen Chang    
University of Pennsylvania


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