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Seeing Mindedness in Cats

We need to learn to see mindedness in the animal kingdom.

Key points

  • Just as flowers and trees are alive, animals like cats and dogs are well-described as being "minded."
  • Mindedness refers to the way animals exhibit functional awareness and responsivity to their surroundings.
  • Mental behaviorism resolves the longstanding divide in scientific psychology between the behaviorists and the mentalists.

Last night I watched the Netflix documentary, Inside the Mind of a Cat. It was a good show that demonstrated cats are thoughtful creatures and amazing predators and that they may have intellectual capacities on par with dogs.

In addition to learning about the research, I watched the show from my perspective as a mental behaviorist. A mental behavioral position is one that bridges and resolves the old divide in psychology between the behaviorists (who say that the mind is not a scientific construct and thus they just study behavior) and the mentalists (who say they study overt behaviors and then infer mental processes that are presumed to cause the behaviors).

The mental behavioral view says that animals like cats are “minded” creatures, and that they exhibit mental behaviors. To see this, imagine three cats in a tree; one is dead, one is anesthetized, and one is alive and well. Now drop the cats. The mental behaviorist says all three cats behave, but they exhibit different kinds of behaviors as they fall. The first cat falls through the air and lands on the ground. Its behavior is “physical” in that it is caused by the laws and forces of the material world as mapped by the physical sciences. The second cat also falls much like the first. However, if we were to peer inside the cat, we would see that its physiology is very active in maintaining its complex organization. The behaviors of the cat’s cells and organ systems that keep it alive are living behaviors studied by the biological sciences.

The third cat rotates, lands on its feet, and takes off. This is a different kind of behavior that cannot be well-described as either physical or biological. Rather, the proper description is mental. Mental behavior is a particular kind of functional awareness and responsivity that animals exhibit. Such behaviors are actions mediated by the brain and nervous system and the complex active body of the cat. More specifically, mental behaviors are a pattern of activity that emerges as function of a complex adaptive, sensory-motor looping system.

Just as we consider entities like cells that exhibit living behaviors to be alive, we should consider creatures like cats that exhibit mental behaviors to be “minded.” The mental behaviorist argues that mindedness is one of the most important concepts that both science and most modern people are blind to. I say “modern people” because, historically, most cultures have seen clearly that animals behave very differently when compared to plants or bacteria, and most cultures have had some kind of category for specifying this difference. For example, Aristotle divided the "soul" into the vegetative, animal, and human layers. In addition, the Great Chain of Being differentiated animals from the rest of the living world. However, our modern scientific system does not have a word for the way animals are in the world that makes them so different. We just call it "animal behavior." And this gap is a major blind spot in our grammar for understanding the world around us.

Returning to the documentary, if we did not really look inside "the mind" of cats, what did the documentary actually show? It showed the mental behavioral investment patterns of cats. That is, it showed how cats demonstrate functional awareness and responsivity to various kinds of situations and stimuli. For example, it showed they clearly recognize and respond to their names, it showed they prefer their owners to strangers, and it showed they really do have a unique skill set in their capacity to land on their feet. In other words, it showed cats are minded creatures that exhibit complex adaptive patterns of mental behavior.

Although it becomes obvious when you know how to see the world this way (i.e., when I go for a walk in the woods, the mindedness of the squirrels, birds, and bees is as blatantly apparent to me as the living behaviors of the trees and mushrooms), it nevertheless takes practice to learn how to see mindedness in the world. However, we need to make the effort because failing to see mindedness in the world results in much blindness.

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