We cannot control everything: the philosophical dimensions of life

April 9, 2020

Pär SegerdahlLife always surpasses us. We thought we were in control, but then something unexpected happens that seems to upset the order. A storm, a forest fire, a pandemic. Life appears as a drawing in sand, the contours of which suddenly dissolve.

Of course, it is not that definitive. Even a storm, a forest fire, a pandemic, will pass. The contours of life return, in somewhat new forms. However, the unexpected reminded us that life is greater than our ability to control it. My question in this post is how we balance the will to control life against the knowledge that life always surpasses us.

That life is greater than our ability to control it is evident not only in the form of storms, forest fires and pandemics. It is evident also in the form of nice varying weather, growing forests and good health. Certainly, medicine contributes to better health. Nevertheless, it is not thanks to any pills that blood circulates in our bodies and food becomes nourishment for our cells. We are rightly grateful to medicine, which helps the sick. However, maybe we could devote life itself a thought of gratitude sometimes. Is not the body fantastic, which develops immunity in contact with viruses? Are not the forests and the climate wonderful, providing oxygen, sun and rain? And consider nature, on which we are like outgrowths, almost as fruits on a tree.

Many people probably want to object that it is pointless to philosophize about things that we cannot change. Why waste time reflecting on the uncontrollable dimensions of life, when we can develop new medicines? Should we not focus all our efforts on improving the world?

I just point out that we then reason as the artist who thought himself capable of painting only the foreground, without background. As though the background was a distraction from the foreground. However, if you want to emphasize the foreground, you must also pay attention to the background. Then the foreground appears. The foreground needs to be embraced by the background. Small and large presuppose each other.

Our desire to control life works more wisely, I believe, if we acknowledge our inevitable dependence on a larger, embracing background. As I said, we cannot control everything, just as an artist cannot paint only the foreground. I want to suggest that we can view philosophy as an activity that reminds us of that. It helps us see the controllable in the light of the uncontrollable. It reminds us of the larger context: the background that the human intellect does not master, but must presuppose and interact with wisely.

It does not have to be dramatic. Even everyday life has philosophical dimensions that exceed our conscious control. Children learn to talk beyond their parents’ control, without either curricula or examinations. No language teacher in the world can teach a toddler to talk through lessons in a classroom. It can only happen spontaneously and boundlessly, in the midst of life. Only those who already speak can learn language through lessons in a classroom.

The ability to talk is thus the background to language teaching in the classroom. A language teacher can plan the lessons in detail. The youngest children’s language acquisition, on the other hand, is so inextricably linked to what it is to live as a human being that it exceeds the intellect’s ability to organize and govern. We can only remind ourselves of the difference between foreground and background in language. Here follows such a philosophical reminder. A parent of a schoolchild can say, “Now you’ve been studying French for two hours and need a break: go out and play.” However, a parent of a small child who is beginning to talk cannot say, “Now you’ve been talking for two hours and need a break: go out and play!” The child talks constantly. It learns in the midst of playing, in the midst of life, beyond control. Therefore, the child has no breaks.

Had Herb Terrace seen the difference between foreground and background in language, he would never have used the insane method of training sign language with the chimpanzee Nim in a special classroom, as if Nim were a schoolchild who could already speak. Sometimes we need a bit of philosophy (a bit of reason) for our projects to work. Foreground and background interact everywhere. Our welfare systems do not work unless we fundamentally live by our own power, or by life’s own power. Pandemics hardly subside without the virus moving through sufficiently many of our, thereafter, immune bodies – under controlled forms that protect groups at risk and provide the severely ill care. Everywhere, foreground and background, controllable and uncontrollable, interact.

The dream of complete intellectual control is therefore a pitfall when we philosophize. At least if we need philosophy to elucidate the living background of what lies within human control. Then we cannot strive to define life as a single intellectually controllable foreground. A bit of philosophy can help us see the interplay between foreground and background. It can help us live actively and act wisely in the zone between controllable and uncontrollable.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like broad perspectives : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


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.

This post in Swedish

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Teaching the child the concept of what it learns

April 21, 2015

Pär SegerdahlIt is natural to think that a child, who learns to speak, learns precisely that: simply to speak. And a child who learns addition learns precisely that: simply to add.

But is speaking “simply speaking” and is adding “simply adding”?

Imagine a very young child who is beginning to say what its parents recognize as the word “mummy.” The parents probably respond, enthusiastically:

  • “Oh, you said mummy!”

By repeating “mummy,” the parents naturally assume they support the child to say mummy again. Their focus is entirely on “mummy”: on the child’s saying of “mummy” and on their repetitions of “mummy.” By encouraging the child to say “mummy” again (and more clearly), they are teaching the child to speak.

No doubt their encouraging repetitions do support the child. However, the parents didn’t merely repeat “mummy.” They also said:

  • “Oh, you said mummy!”

From the very first words a child utters, parents respond not only by repeating what the child says, but also by speaking about speaking:

  • Say daddy!”
  • “Do you want to speak to mummy?”
  • “You said you wanted cookies”
  • “Which cookie did you mean?”
  • “What’s your name?”
  • “What you said isn’t true”
  • “Don’t use that word!”

Parents’ natural attitude is that they teach the child simply to speak. But, more spontaneously, without intending or noticing it, they initiate the child into the notions of speaking. One might call this neglected dimension of teaching: the reflexive dimension. When we teach the child X, we simultaneously initiate it into the reflexive notions of X: into the concept of what it learns.

This should apply also to learning addition, and I assume to just about anything we learn. There is an easily neglected initiation into a reflexive dimension of what is learned.

I suppose one reason why the reflexive dimension is neglected is that it is what enables talk about what the child learns. Reflexivity draws our attention away from itself, and thus from the fact that the child not simply learns what learns, but also the concept of what it learns.

If you want to read more about reflexive practices – how they are acquired, how they practically contribute to making language what it is (said to be); how they tend to be intellectually sublimated as theories of language – I want to recommend the writings of Talbot J. Taylor.

One article by Taylor that especially clearly demonstrates the early onset of reflexive language use in children  is:

Taylor’s work on reflexivity challenges me to reconsider the nature of philosophy. For philosophy seems to be concerned with the kind of notions we fail to notice we initiate children into, when we say, “You said mummy!”

Philosophy is “about” what we don’t notice we learn as children.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


Being humans when we are animals

March 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlMost people know that humans are animals, a primate species. Still, it is difficult to apply that knowledge directly to oneself: “I’m an animal”; “My parents are apes.”

– Can you say it without feeling embarrassed and slightly dizzy?

In a recent paper I explore this difficulty of “bringing home” an easily cited scientific fact:

Why does the scientific “fact” crumble when we apply it directly to ourselves?

I approach this difficulty philosophically. We cannot run ahead of ourselves, but I believe that’s what we attempt if we approach the difficulty theoretically. Say, by theorizing the contrast between humans and animals as an absolute presupposition of human language that science cannot displace.

Such a theory would be as easy to cite as the “fact” and wouldn’t touch our difficulty, the dizziness we feel.

Instead, I explore a personal experience. When I visited a laboratory for ape language research, an ape named Panbanisha told me to be QUIET and later called me a MONSTER. Being reprimanded by an ape made me dizzy about my humanness and about her animality.

How did the dizziness arise? After spending some time with the apes, the vertigo disappeared. How did it disappear?

That’s investigated in the paper by asking further questions, and by recollecting aspects of the meeting with Panbanisha to which those questions drew my attention. The paper offers a philosophical alternative to theory.

Trust your uncertainty and follow your questions!

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

June 12, 2013

In 2001 I travelled to Atlanta, where Sue Savage-Rumbaugh then worked with the language-competent bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha. A question I travelled with concerned the linguistic tests that I had seen in a TV-documentary, Kanzi, an ape of genius.

In these tests, the ape responds to requests in spoken English, uttered by an experimenter who – to avoid cueing Kanzi through extra-linguistic assists like gestures and gazes – stands behind his back, or sits in an adjacent room speaking through a microphone, or covers her face with a welder’s mask. The aim of this experimental design is to distill Kanzi’s comprehension of vocabulary and syntax, the essence of language.

What I wondered was this: how did the experimenters get the ape into the test situation?

In the documentary, Kanzi appears miraculously as if he were nothing but a brilliant subject of scientific experimentation, an ape genius. Sitting on a chair wearing headphones, he picks up photos of grapes, keys, potatoes, people… He responds perfectly reliably, hearing the verbal requests, “Kanzi, give Sue the picture of grapes,” and so on.

How did Kanzi become that brilliant research subject? What happened before the camera was turned on? Does Kanzi spend his days on a chair wearing headphones, just waiting for an experimenter? Probably not, but then what is the relation between his ordinary life and the test situation? Is it irrelevant, since the conditioning anyhow took place in the same kind of scientific situation?

My first question to William M. Fields, who invited me to Atlanta, was: How do you get Kanzi into the experiment? The simplicity of his answer stunned me:

  • “We ask Kanzi if he wants to work.”

In contrast to his half-sister, Panbanisha, who typically refused to play the research subject role, Kanzi usually is willing to work. Then follows negotiations about the food he will have access to during work and which activities and meetings he’ll be granted later because he admits to work.

The filmed tests have a context, but the context isn’t more science. It is Kanzi’s life with other bonobos and with the speaking humans who co-reared young bonobos together with their bonobo mothers. Kanzi is an adult, but a point can be made by comparing him with children who participate in controlled psychological experiments. These children are not raised in a lab. They have a home. Only occasionally are they taken into the lab to participate in science. This often requires quite a bit of negotiation and instruction.

Child participation in psychological experimentation exhibits home/lab duality. The child’s language develops at home and is only tested in the lab. The science that charts the child’s linguistic development doesn’t reflect the more significant context outside of the lab, where the child becomes the speaking being that is being tested.

The child’s life at home is primal. Science plays the second fiddle and doesn’t recreate the vitality that made what is scientifically tested possible.

Animal science rarely exhibits home/lab duality. The animals are conditioned in the same type of controlled situations as those in which they are tested. If an animal picks up laminated photos of keys, it is because it was trained to pick up laminated photos of keys. It doesn’t have a life with doors, cabinets and keys, independently of its scientific disciplining. But Kanzi does.

Like a child whose parents decided to contribute to psychological science, Kanzi is not disciplined as a pure research subject. He became a speaking being at home, in ordinary ape-human ways of life (in an ape-human culture). Only occasionally is he talked and instructed into the lab, to participate in activities that don’t reflect the vibrant home situations in which he became who he is.

Kanzi is no aberrant ape genius. He is just an ordinary talking ape. Home/lab duality enabled him to become one.

(Want to read more? Here are some books.)

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Panbanisha, 1986-2012

November 22, 2012

It saddens me to have to report that Panbanisha, the bonobo who understood more about humans than any other nonhuman – and more than most humans – died November 6, 2012, from respiratory illness.

Meeting her made it obvious to me that the world is more-than-human and that we have to rethink the inherited cosmology.

Pär Segerdahl


Project Nim: a tragedy that was interpreted as science?

October 12, 2012

Last week I wrote about the significance of negative results in science. This week I saw one of the saddest documentaries I’ve ever seen, featuring the tragic context of an often cited negative result in science.

The documentary, Project Nim (2011), was about the psychologist Herb Terrace’s attempt in the 1970:s to teach American sign language to a young chimpanzee, in a specially designed classroom at Columbia University in New York City. “Specially designed” here meant bare and small in order to avoid suggesting activities that are more exciting for a young ape than reproducing the teacher’s hand movements.

Terrace’s personal stance to the language project struck me as odd. Scientifically, he wanted to test the hypothesis that an ape can be taught to construct sentences. This would disprove Chomsky’s view that language is an innate and uniquely human trait. From a more “personal” point of view, what excited Terrace most was the prospect of experiencing a nonhuman animal communicate ape thoughts.

It would be like meeting an alien from outer space who miraculously communicated foreign thoughts to humankind. Treating young Nim as such an alien research subject strikes me opposed to the very idea of human language and communication.

The whole project was a mess, ill-planned and dysfunctional from the start. And yet there were happy moments where good relationships developed between Nim and responsible caretakers/teachers/surrogate parents outside the classroom.

In these more “distractive” real-life situations, where the point wasn’t about reproducing the teacher’s signs but about doing meaningful things together and communicating about them while doing them, it seemed Nim used signs to talk. The caretakers were optimistic, as was Terrace.

However, as Nim got bigger and stronger and approached adolescence, new problems appeared. He began to attack and bite his teachers, and Terrace feared being sued. These troublesome behaviors developed more rapidly than Nim’s signing abilities, and Terrace was worried.

One day, Terrace called his staff to a meeting and declared that the project was over. They had collected suffient data, and Nim could be sent back to the primate research center in Oklahoma where he was born.

The rest of Nim’s life was was awful, terrifying (although responsible caretakers did try to make a difference).

Simultaneously, Terrace started reporting the project; in a book as well as in an article published in Science. He sat down, watched videotaped interactions between Nim and his teachers, and came to the conclusion that Nim had not acquired the ability to use signs linguistically in genuine communication with humans. He was merely mirroring the teacher’s signs (or begging for things).

The negative result that Terrace published perhaps received more attention than any other scientifically published negative result. In spite of the fact that the project was dysfunctional from the start, Terrace’s publications were welcomed as presenting hard scientific evidence that apes cannot learn to communicate in language.

I’m not so sure what conclusions can be drawn from a research project that could just as well be described as a dysfunctional family history ending in tragedy. Moreover, as Peter Singer observed when he watched the documentary, Terrace could hardly end the project and send Nim away without reporting negative results.

Can we trust Terrace’s judgment when we watched the videotapes and decided that the ape he sent away did not speak with the fellow humans with whom he interacted?

Anyway, the book that Terrace wrote, Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (1979), is fascinating and well worth reading. It contains vivid descriptions of Nim’s life with humans; recollections that often seem to contradict the conclusions that Terrace finally reached.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


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