Herb Terrace about the chimpanzee Nim – do you see the contradiction?

March 23, 2020

Pär SegerdahlHave you seen small children make repeated attempts to squeeze a square object through a round hole (plastic toy for the little ones)? You get puzzled: Do they not see that it is impossible? The object and the hole have different shapes!

Sometimes adults are just as puzzling. Our intellect does not always fit reality. Yet, we force our thoughts onto reality, even when they have different shapes. Maybe we are extra stubborn precisely when it is not possible. This post is about such a case.

Herb Terrace is known as the psychologist who proved that apes cannot learn language. He himself tried to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim, but failed according to his own judgement. When Terrace took a closer look at the videotapes, where Nim interacted with his human sign-language teachers, he saw how Nim merely imitated the teachers’ signs, to get his reward.

I recently read a blog post by Terrace where he not only repeats the claim that his research demonstrates that apes cannot learn language. The strange thing is that he also criticizes his own research severely. He writes that he used the wrong method with Nim, namely, that of giving him rewards when the teacher judged that he made the right signs. The reasoning becomes even more puzzling when Terrace writes that not even a human child could learn language with such a method.

To me, this is as puzzling as a child’s insistence on squeezing a square object through a round hole. If Terrace used the wrong method, which would not work even on a human child, then how can he conclude that Project Nim demonstrates that apes cannot learn language? Nevertheless, he insists on reasoning that way, without feeling that he contradicts himself. Nor does anyone who read him seem to experience any contradiction. Why?

Perhaps because most of us think that humans cannot teach animals anything at all, unless we train them with rewards. Therefore, since Nim did not learn language with this training method, apes cannot learn language. Better methods do not work on animals, we think. If Terrace failed, then everyone must fail, we think.

However, one researcher actually did try a better method in ape language research. She used an approach to young apes that works with human children. She stopped training the apes via a system of rewards. She lived with the apes, as a parent with her children. And it succeeded!

Terrace almost never mentions the name of the successful ape language researcher. After all, she used a method that is impossible with animals: she did not train them. Therefore, she cannot have succeeded, we think.

I can tell you that the name of the successful researcher is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. To see a round reality beyond a square thinking, we need to rethink our thought pattern. If you want to read a book that tries to do such rethinking about apes, humans and language, I recommend a philosophical self-critique that I wrote with Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleague William Fields.

To philosophize is to learn to stop imposing our insane thoughts on reality. Then we finally see reality as it is.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language. The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. Palgrave Macmillan.

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What shall we eat? An ethical framework for food choices

March 16, 2020

To reflect ethically on what we eat has been part of Western culture for centuries. In pre-modern times, the focus was mainly on the consumption of food, although it varied whether the emphasis was on the amount of food one should eat (as in ancient Greece) or on what kind of food one was allowed to eat (as in the Old Testament).

Modern food ethics has instead focused on the production of food, emphasizing aspects of animal ethics and environmental ethics. In a new article, I take a broader perspective and discuss both the production and consumption of food and further incorporate the meal as an important part of my food ethics analysis.

I identify four affected parties in relation to the production and consumption of food, namely, animals, nature, producers and consumers. What ethical values can be at stake for these parties?

For animals, an important value is welfare; not being exposed to pain or stress, but provided opportunities for natural behavior. For nature, important values are low negative impact on the environment and sustainable climate. For producers, ethical values at stake concern fair salaries and safe working conditions. For consumers, finally, important values are access to healthy food and the right to autonomous food choices. Apart from that, food can also be seen as an important value in pursuit of a good life.

Evidently, several ethical values are at stake when it comes to the production and consumption of food. Furthermore, these values often conflict when food choices are to be made. In such situations, a thorough weighing of values must be performed in order to find out which value should be given priority over another.

A problem with today’s food debate is that we tend to concentrate on one value at a time, without putting it in the perspective of other aspects. The question of how our food choices affect the climate has gained a lot of interest, at the expense of almost all other aspects of food ethics.

Many have learned that beef production can affect the climate negatively, since grazing cattle give rise to high levels of methane. They therefore choose to avoid that kind of meat. On the other hand, grazing animals can contribute to biodiversity as they keep the landscape open, which is good for the environment. Breeding chickens produces low levels of methane, but here the challenges concern animal welfare, natural behavior and the use of chemicals in the production of bird feed.

To replace meat with vegetables can be good for your health, but imported fruits and vegetables can be produced using toxins if they are not organically farmed. Long transports can also affect the climate negatively.

For these reasons, it can be ethically problematic to choose food based on only one perspective. Ethics is not that simple. We need to develop our ability to identify what values are at stake when it comes to food, and find good reasons for why we choose one sort of food instead of another. In the article, I develop a more comprehensive food ethical outlook by combining four well-known ethical concepts, namely, duties, consequences, virtues and care.

Duties and consequences are often part of ethical arguments. However, by including also virtues and care in my reasoning, the meal and the sense of community it gives rise to appear as important ethical values. Unfortunately, the latter values are at risk today when more and more people have their own individualized food preferences. During a meal, relations are developed, which the ethics of care emphasizes, but the meal is also an arena for developing virtues, such as solidarity, communication and respect.

It is hard to be an ethically aware consumer today, partly because there are so many aspects to take into account and partly because it is difficult to get reliable and trustworthy information upon which we can base our decisions. However, that does not mean that it is pointless to reflect on what is good and right when it comes to food ethical dilemmas.

If we think through our food choices thoroughly and avoid wasting food, we can do a lot to reach well-grounded food choices. Apart from that, we also need brave political decisions that can reduce factory farming, toxins, transports and emissions, and support small-scale and organic food production. Through such efforts, we might all feel a little more secure in the grocery shop, when we reflect on the question: What shall we eat?

Anna T. Höglund

Höglund, Anna T. (2020) What shall we eat? An ethical framework for well-grounded food choices. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. DOI: 10.1007/s10806-020-09821-4

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Artificial intelligence and living consciousness

March 2, 2020

Pär SegerdahlThe Ethics Blog will publish several posts on artificial intelligence in the future. Today, I just want to make a little observation of something remarkable.

The last century was marked by fear of human consciousness. Our mind seemed as mystic as the soul, as superfluous in a scientific age as God. In psychology, behaviorism flourished, which defined psychological words in terms of bodily behavior that could be studied scientifically in the laboratory. Our living consciousness was treated as a relic from bygone superstitious ages.

What is so remarkable about artificial intelligence? Suddenly, one seems to idolize consciousness. One wallows in previously sinful psychological words, at least when one talks about what computers and robots can do. These machines can see and hear; they can think and speak. They can even learn by themselves.

Does this mean that the fear of consciousness has ceased? Hardly, because when artificial intelligence employs psychological words such as seeing and hearing, thinking and understanding, the words cease to be psychological. The idea of computer “learning,” for example, is a technical term that computer experts define in their laboratories.

When artificial intelligence embellishes machines with psychological words, then, one repeats how behaviorism defined mind in terms of something else. Psychological words take on new machine meanings that overshadow the meanings the words have among living human beings.

Remember this next time you wonder if robots might become conscious. The development exhibits fear of consciousness. Therefore, what you are wondering is not if robots can become conscious. You wonder if your own consciousness can be superstition. Remarkable, right?

Pär Segerdahl

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