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Are crows capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents? Five reasons for skepticism

There has been much discussion in the blogosphere about a recent study entitled, “New Caledonian crows reason about hidden causal agents,” in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1208724109, PNAS September 17, 2012) by Alex Taylor, Rachael Miller, and Russell Gray, demonstrating that crows have a tendency to attribute the movements of an inanimate object (e.g. a stick) to a causal agent whom they know to be in the vicinity, even when that agent is hidden from view, and that crows react with fear when they witness the movements of an inanimate object in the absence of any nearby causal agent. The authors of the study conclude that crows are capable of reasoning about a hidden causal agent. In their words:

Here, we show that tool-making New Caledonian crows react differently to an observable event when it is caused by a hidden causal agent. Eight crows watched two series of events in which a stick moved. In the first set of events, the crows observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide. In the second, the stick moved without a human entering or exiting the hide… [A hide is a camouflaged shelter used to get a close view of wildlife. - VJT]

The movement of the probing stick was a novel stimulus and, thus, likely to elicit neophobic responses from the crows. [Neophobia is the fear of new things or experiences. - VJT] The movement of the stick was also likely to be an aversive stimulus for the crows as it moved into the space where the crows would put their heads when they attempted to extract the food from the box…

If the crows could attribute the stick’s movement to the hidden human, they could infer that when the human left the room, the stick would not move again. In contrast, in the second, unknown condition, if the crows were capable of causal reasoning, they would predict that the stick might move again because they had not observed a potential causal agent leave the hide…

The crows inspected the hide and abandoned probing with a tool for food more often after the second, unexplained series of events. This difference shows that the crows can reason about a hidden causal agent…

[Humans] make such inferences from a very early age. Between 7-10 mo[nths] of age, infants begin to show surprise if a bean bag is thrown from behind a screen and the screen is then lifted to show an inert object, rather than a causal agent such as a hand. The use of such causal reasoning underpins not only scientific and religious thought but also our sophisticated tool-using abilities and understanding of social interactions…

Comparative studies with the methodology outlined here could aid in elucidating the selective pressures that led to the evolution of this cognitive ability.

Readers wanting to know more about the experimental set-up can watch this three-minute video here. Professor Jerry Coyne has an interesting article about the experiment here.

From a scientific standpoint, the latest study by Taylor et al. was well-designed and rigorous, as it tested the hypothesis that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents against an alternative hypothesis, that they learn to make predictions about novel stimuli simply by becoming habituated to them. As Taylor recently explained, in response to a question from a reader on Reddit:

…[T]he habituation hypothesis predicts a high level of neophobia (measured as abandoned probes and high numbers of inspections) when the crows first see the stick move (i.e. in the HCA [hidden causal agent] trials). We got the opposite pattern, the crows were calm in the HCA trials, but then became nervous in the UCA [unknown causal agent] trials. As you note there was still habituation within UCA trials, which is to be expected; the crows were observing that this initially scary stimulus of a stick moving on its own was not leading to any negative consequences for them. But they key aspect of our study is that the crows only became scared when there was no human around to attribute the movement of the stick to… (Emphasis and square brackets mine – VJT.)

The reaction to the study across the blogosphere to has been surprisingly uncritical. Bloggers have hailed it as proof that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents. In this post, I’d like to explain why I think the study’s findings should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Are the crows reasoning?

First, as the authors of the study note, the same ability that the crows possess is also found in seven-month-old human infants. Most people would say that children of that age are not yet capable of reasoning, as they haven’t acquired a language.

Some readers may be inclined to object: “Maybe the crows are capable of some kind of non-verbal reasoning. It makes sense to suppose that reasoning can occur even in the absence of language. After all, don’t some people think in pictures rather than in words? Why couldn’t crows do the same thing?”

I don’t buy that. Some people do think in terms of pictures, but there’s a difference between such “thinking” and abstract reasoning. The difference matters.

Eleven years ago, while I was training to be a mathematics teacher, I overheard a teacher explaining to a colleague of hers why she insisted that her students should show their workings when solving a mathematical problem. She remarked: “If they really understand how to solve the problem, then they should be able to explain why they solved the problem in that particular way. If they can’t, then they don’t really understand.” The teacher’s remark struck me as an insightful one. It encapsulates my reasons for being skeptical regarding claims that the tool-making abilities of crows demonstrate a capacity for reasoning on their part.

The crucial point here is that the crows are unable to explain the basis of their judgments, as a rational agent should be able to do. The tool-making feats of Betty the crow look impressive, but we cannot ask her: “Why did you make it that way?” as she is incapable of justifying her actions. The same goes for the extremely clever New Caledonian crows who are able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by science reporter Rebecca Morelle). Let us imagine an older crow teaching a younger crow how to use a tool. And now try to imagine the following dialogue:

Older crow: Don’t bend it that way. Bend it this way.
Younger crow: Why?
Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can’t.

The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The meaning of words like “if,” “why,” “but,” “can” and “can’t,” cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone. Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language containing words at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.

A second reason for skepticism is that although New Caledonian crows take care of their young for a period of two years (which is very long for a bird), the tool-making abilities of crows are not acquired through teaching from their parents. As Alex Taylor acknowledged in a response to a question from a reader on Reddit:

What we haven’t seen in crows is any kind of teaching, or the explicit copying of parents by juveniles (imitation).

Think about that. These crows supposedly learn how to reason without explicit instruction of any sort, and without even learning through imitation? I have t say I find that philosophically absurd. Reasoning is pre-eminently a social activity, because it is by its very nature open to challenge and criticism. Even solitary thinkers are expected to justify their claims in the court of public opinion, and if they cannot do so, they are rightly ignored. Reasoning that cannot be challenged, such as the kind that crows allegedly engage in, isn’t really reasoning at all.

Are the crows reasoning about causes?

My third reason for pouring cold water on the claim that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents is that in order to reason about causal agents in the first place, you need to be able to understand the notion of a cause, which is quite a sophisticated concept. Even eminent philosophers have a hard time explaining it.

The Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) famously defined a cause in terms of constant conjunction: a cause is “an object, followed by another, and where all objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second” and also as “an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other” in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748, 1777, pages 76-77). Many contemporary scientists and philosophers are happy to parrot Hume’s definition, paying no heed to its glaring inadequacies.

To begin with, there are numerous cases where we can confidently assert that X causes Y, even though we may have had only one experience of Y being followed by X. A single example will suffice to illustrate my point. How many times would you need to see an arrow fired at an animal from a hunter’s bow, in order to conclude that the firing of the arrow was the cause of the animal’s death? Examples like this show that Hume’s requirement for constant conjunction of cause and effect is too strong.

Hume is also wrong to insist that a cause must always be followed by its effect. But in everyday life, cause and effect are often simultaneous. One billiard ball collides with another ball, and we say that the collision causes the second ball to move, even though the two events are simultaneous. A stone hurled by a schoolboy breaks a window, and we say unhestitatingly that the stone’s impact caused the window to break. A fire heats a horseshoe in the blacksmith’s forge, from the very first moment that it comes into contact with the horseshoe. On a more philosophical level, human beings seem to have no trouble in believing that they are being continually maintained in existence by God, without the need to posit any temporal interval between God’s conservative action and their continuation in existence. It is therefore a myth to say that causes necessarily precede their effects.

Finally, I take it that most of my readers will be familiar with the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The fact that Y happens after X does not imply that X caused Y. Correlation does not imply causation. Even if we observe that Y always follows X, we cannot be sure that X is the cause of Y. There may be another agent, Z, which is responsible for both X and Y. We are forced to conclude that Hume’s definition of a cause in terms of constant conjunction is an inadequate one. Whatever the cause of an effect is, it must be something more than the event which it invariably follows.

The philosophical literature on the concept of causation is vast, and I have absolutely no intention of providing my own definition of a cause, in this short post. The point I want to make here is a very simple one. If even intelligent human beings, who are endowed with a language which allows them to refer to abstract concepts, have a hard time figuring out what a cause is, then shouldn’t we be just a teeny bit skeptical of the claim that crows, whose warblings lack the vital properties of productivity, recursivity, and displacement which characterize language as such, have a concept of causation?

Are the crows reasoning about causal agents?

A fourth reason for doubting the inflated claims made by Taylor et al. in their recent study is that even if we were to generously grant that crows can somehow grasp the notion of a cause, it is quite another thing to claim that they possess the notion of a causal agent – that is, a being who deliberately performs voluntary actions, such as pushing a stick from behind a curtain. In order to possess the concept of a causal agent, crows would need to possess what psychologists call a theory of mind – that is, an ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intentions and desires to other individuals. It is doubtful whether even human beings acquire this ability until they are three or four years old.

What’s more, there is good experimental evidence suggesting that even clever animals like chimpanzees (see this video) and elephants (see this one) lack a theory of mind. A chimpanzee, for instance, is incapable of realizing that a man with a bucket over his head cannot see anything, while an elephant can be easily fooled by a scarecrow. Indeed, primate researchers Derek Penn and Daniel Povinelli have written a paper entitled, On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’ (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 362, 731-744, doi:10.1098/rstb.2006.2023) in which they not only discuss the abilities of chimpanzees but also those of corvids (crows and related birds), and carefully explain why there is no reason to suppose that these animals have the capacity to impute mental states to others. At first sight, the evidence for a theory of mind in these birds looks convincing:

Corvids are quite adept at pilfering the food caches of other birds and will adjust their own caching strategies in response to the potential risk of pilfering by others. Indeed, not only do they remember which food caches were observed by competitors, but also they appear to remember the specific individuals who were present when specific caches were made and modify their re-caching behaviour accordingly (Dally et al. 2006).

However, the experiments performed to date suffer from a crucial flaw, as Penn and Povinelli point out: “Unfortunately, none of the reported experiments with corvids require the subjects to infer or encode any information that is unique to the cognitive perspective of the competitor.” The authors argue that simple rules can explain the birds’ behavior:

In all of the experiments with corvids cited above, it suffices for the birds to associate specific competitors with specific cache sites and to reason in terms of the information they have observed from their own cognitive perspective: e.g. ‘Re-cache food if a competitor has oriented towards it in the past’, ‘Attempt to pilfer food if the competitor who cached it is not present’, ‘Try to re-cache food in a site different from the one where it was cached when the competitor was present’, etc. The additional claim that the birds adopt these strategies because they understand that ‘The competitor knows where the food is located’ does no additional explanatory or cognitive work. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Penn and Povinelli also propose two carefully controlled experiments which could provide evidence of a “theory of mind” in non-human animals. Even adult chimpanzees who were used to interacting with human beings failed the first experiment proposed by the authors, while 18-month-old human infants passed the same test.

I realize that some readers will think that crows might be smarter than chimps, given their impressive tool-making feats. But I would ask them to ponder why these clever crows, despite their advanced facial recognition skills, are nevertheless capable of being fooled by simple decoys, such as scarecrows that spin around in the breeze and that make a noise? And why do crows consistently mistake S-shaped pieces of rubber hose for snakes, so long as the pieces of hose are moved to a new location at the end of every day?

Given the preponderance of negative experimental evidence for even the cleverest non-human animals tested to date, coupled with the anecedotal evidence that crows are not that smart at telling humans from straw men, it would be advisable to take the claim that crows possess the relatively sophisticated concept of a causal agent with a very large grain of salt.

Are the crows reasoning about hidden causal agents?

A fifth and final reason for being leery of claims that crows can reason about hidden causal agents is the absence of rigorous testing of the claim that hiddenness played any role in the “reasoning” of the crows in the experiment reported by Taylor and his colleagues. In the experiment, the crows “observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide.” They then inferred that the stick would not move again. I cannot help wondering what would have happened if the crows had merely observed the human leaving the hide, without observing the human enter? Would they still have been nervous about probing for food, after seeing the human leave? In other words, were the crows reasoning about a hidden agent that was capable of pushing the stick, or were they simply reasoning about the number of agents in the vicinity who were capable of pushing it? If they were reasoning about the number of agents, then merely seeing a human leave the hide without seeing him/her enter in the first place would not give the crows any assurance that there were no other human beings in the vicinity.

Relevance to religion? Zero.

Before I finish this post, I’d just like to make a brief remark on the claim made by Professor Jerry Coyne in his post, that the ability of crows to reason about hidden causal agents may help explain the origins of religion:

This notion of “hidden causal agency,” of course, has been suggested as a pivotal factor in the origin of religion. If you’ve read Pascal Boyer’s provocative book Religion Explained, you’ll remember his thesis that before humans understood natural phenomena (e.g., thunder, lightning, or tree rustling), it was natural for them to impute them to causal agents – supernatural ones.

In the experiment reported by Taylor et al., the hidden agent that the crows allegedly made inferences about was previously seen by the crows: they saw the human enter the hide. By contrast, the agents which religious adherents pray to are never visible. Philosophically, there is an ocean of difference between a hidden (but nevertheless material) causal agent, and an invisible, incorporeal causal agent. Belief in the latter cannot be reduced to belief in the former. I can only conclude that the relevance of Taylor’s experiment to the claims of religion is absolutely zero.

I should add that Coyne’s thesis on the origin of religion is self-refuting. At the beginning of his post, he writes that “[i]t would obviously be adaptive for some animals to be able to distinguish between natural phenomena, like wind, and phenomena that have similar effects but are caused by hidden agents like predators.” But if natural phenomena are conceived of as the effects of some supernatural hidden agent, then the distinction between the two cases collapses: in both, we have an agent causing the phenomena.

May I suggest that Coyne is a much better biologist than he is a sociologist?

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57 Responses to Are crows capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents? Five reasons for skepticism

  1. Here is a simple question about causality and hidden causative agents for both crows and philosophers:

    What causes two bodies in relative inertial motion to remain in motion?

    Physicists don’t know the answer and don’t care to know. Yet it is a question of supreme importance.

  2. I would add the strong omission in all things dealing with animal thinking is the issue of memory.
    There is no reason there memory is only as good as their intelligence.
    Memory is unrelated to intelligence .
    Animals can and do have great memories.
    These crows simply remember movement can be trouble and simply remember to address the trouble and so no evidence of who’s moving these sticks just keeps them attentive to more information.

    People are made in a God’s image and so we think like a God.
    Animals are not made so and so don’t think like we do or rather do any.
    Memory can explain most of animals seeming thoughtfulness.

  3. “Most people would say that children of that age are not yet capable of reasoning, as they haven’t acquired a language.”

    Interesting issues and I haven’t done a full review yet, but that sentence caught my eye. You seem to be conflating the ability to express, convey, teach one’s reasoning to someone else with the reasoning itself. As if the reasoning were somehow contained within the words, and that the reasoning doesn’t exist until the words exist, in the particular order and in the particular structure. But then where did that order and structure and particular set of words come from in the first place? Of course from the reasoning, which by definition must exist prior to and independent of the particular words that are used to express the reasoning (in whatever language we may choose and within our, sometimes limited, capability of expression).

  4. vtlorey posted this:

    Are the crows reasoning?

    First, as the authors of the study note, the same ability that the crows possess is also found in seven-month-old human infants. Most people would say that children of that age are not yet capable of reasoning, as they haven’t acquired a language.

    The study is about crows. Your speculations about human children are interesting but irrelevant to the study you quote.

    You then proceed to say:

    I don’t buy that. Some people do think in terms of pictures, but there’s a difference between such “thinking” and abstract reasoning. The difference matters.

    Yes, some humans do think in this way (the study does not address how humans think). If you want to explain the distinction between “thinking” (your term) and “abstract reasoning” (again, your term), please go ahead. I imagine one concept is a subset of the other.

    In any case, the study is about crows, and about how crows behave. Crows are not people. What difference are you talking about?

    And then:

    Older crow: Don’t bend it that way. Bend it this way.
    Younger crow: Why?
    Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can’t.

    The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The meaning of words like “if,” “why,” “but,” “can” and “can’t,” cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone. Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language containing words at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.

    Do you have any evidence from the study (or any other study) that crows converse in this way?

    And then:

    My third reason for pouring cold water on the claim that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents is that in order to reason about causal agents in the first place, you need to be able to understand the notion of a cause, which is quite a sophisticated concept. Even eminent philosophers have a hard time explaining it.

    The problem here proceeds from the previous part: it is the term “you” (the term that you use). Do you mean crows or humans? Why draw an equivalence between the two species? The study is examining crows. Are you are asking the readers to draw conclusions about human behaviour on the basis of a study of crows? Why? A study of crow behaviour is unlikely to be useful in that regard.

    And next:

    A fourth reason for doubting the inflated claims made by Taylor et al. in their recent study is that even if we were to generously grant that crows can somehow grasp the notion of a cause, it is quite another thing to claim that they possess the notion of a causal agent – that is, a being who deliberately performs voluntary actions, such as pushing a stick from behind a curtain. In order to possess the concept of a causal agent, crows would need to possess what psychologists call a theory of mind – that is, an ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intentions and desires to other individuals. It is doubtful whether even human beings acquire this ability until they are three or four years old.

    I don’t see that Taylor et. al claimed anything like your exegesis. What exactly do you think are their inflated claims?

    And then:

    A fifth and final reason for being leery of claims that crows can reason about hidden causal agents is the absence of rigorous testing of the claim that hiddenness played any role in the “reasoning” of the crows in the experiment reported by Taylor and his colleagues. In the experiment, the crows “observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide.” They then inferred that the stick would not move again. I cannot help wondering what would have happened if the crows had merely observed the human leaving the hide, without observing the human enter? Would they still have been nervous about probing for food, after seeing the human leave? In other words, were the crows reasoning about a hidden agent that was capable of pushing the stick, or were they simply reasoning about the number of agents in the vicinity who were capable of pushing it? If they were reasoning about the number of agents, then merely seeing a human leave the hide without seeing him/her enter in the first place would not give the crows any assurance that there were no other human beings in the vicinity.

    If you think this is a problem with the experimental protocol that Taylor et al followed, then feel free to carry out a similar experiment according to your preferred protocol. And then report your results.

  5. What is the issue with crows, or other animals, reasoning (about whatever)?

    Does it make us less special? Does it make them more special and perhaps we shouldn’t be eating animals that can reason?

    I basically live in the woods and I have been known to hunt. I watch animals (other than human) and they do some pretty amazing things- even insects.

    I don’t know if the crows were reasoning about unseen agencies or just reasoning that something strange is going on and we don’t want any part of it. But animals are not as stupid as we make them out to be.

  6. I find your attacks on Hume’s explanation of Cause to be silly.

    When non-European folk were first exposed to firearms, the non-Europeans had no idea what the things were or how they worked, even though they understood the effects caused by arrows and spears. So when they saw a musket puff smoke and a man or animal fall dead from an invisible bullet, there was clearly no link between the 2 events in their minds until they experienced repeated examples of the death ALAWYS following the puff of the musket. Digging a musket ball out of your friend Joe’s chest helped confirm the cause.

    Similarly, your citation of the Post Hoc fallacy makes it clear that you don’t understand the meaning of the fallacy. If a light ALWAYS comes on after I flip the switch, then it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that the switch turns on the light. The fallacy occurs when a speaker argues from a single example that “I ordered coffee and then there was an earthquake” (that’s what happened to me in Washington a year ago) to conclude that the act (ordering coffee) ALWAYS causes the result (earthquakes). Or that in a particular case that any chosen event (the 1929 Stock Market Crash) was the direct cause of some later event (the 1930 Great Depression).

    As for the crows, 8 samples are a darn some population. And the crows in question have apparently been dealing with the same group of odd humans for a long time. I’d want the experiments to be repeated cold (no previous interaction with a new set of crows) and I’d want at least 100 separate tests.

  7. timothya,

    Thank you for your post. I’ll tackle your criticisms one by one.

    Objection 1

    You wrote:

    The study is about crows. Your speculations about human children are interesting but irrelevant to the study you quote.

    You evidently didn’t read the first part of my quote:

    First, as the authors of the study note, the same ability that the crows possess is also found in seven-month-old human infants.

    If Taylor et al. see fit to mention seven-month-old children in their paper, then I think it is relevant to point out that seven-month-old children are not commonly said to engage in reasoning. The child-development theorist Jean Piaget famously asserted that children under 12 were not capable of abstract reasoning, while the Catholic Church considers seven to be the age of reason. If Taylor et al. want to define “reasoning” in a way that includes what seven-month-old children do, then I think they are using the term “reason” in a very elastic sense.

    Objection 2

    You wrote:

    If you want to explain the distinction between “thinking” (your term) and “abstract reasoning” (again, your term), please go ahead. I imagine one concept is a subset of the other.

    In any case, the study is about crows, and about how crows behave. Crows are not people. What difference are you talking about?

    In reply: the word “thinking” is terribly vague. Consider the following sentences:

    1. I’m thinking of you. (Written on the back of a vacation postcard)
    2. I’m thinking of a big hamburger.
    3. Tom thinks it’ll rain tomorrow.
    4. You need to think carefully, in order to solve this problem.

    In sentence 1, “think” means “wish someone well.” In sentence 2 it means “imagine.” In sentence 3 it means “believe.” In sentence 4 it means “reason.” These are all quite different mental operations.

    What I call “abstract reasoning” would therefore be a subset of what is popularly referred to as “thinking.” Someone who is engaging in “picture thinking” is simply imagining, or visualizing. That’s an activity which can assist reasoning, but it isn’t the same as reasoning. You want proof? OK. Try and form a mental image of a 1000-sided figure. Now try and form a mental image of a 999-sided figure. The two images you have are probably the same, and yet your mental concept of the first figure, which you use when engaging in reasoning, is altogether distinct from your mental concept of the second figure. To cite but on difference: the former is a concept of an even-sided figure, while the latter is a concept of an odd-sided one. The Humean equation of concepts with images is simply a case of sloppy philosophy on Hume’s part.

    You also ask, in connection with my remarks on thinking and reasoning: “What difference are you talking about?” It’s quite simple. As I go on to explain in the following paragraph, reasoning is an activity which is open to public criticism. That’s why, when a person is engaging in reasoning, it is always legitimate to ask that person to justify his/her conclusions: “Why do you think that?” But if I am engaging in “thinking” in the sense of sentences 1 and 2 above, the question doesn’t even make sense, as “thinking” here doesn’t refer to a proposition I that I believe or attempt to argue for, but to a wish (in sentence 1) or an image (in sentence 2).

    Furthermore, you object that “the study is about crows, and about how crows behave,” and you add that “Crows are not people.” That’s fine, but if you’re going to apply to crows a term like “reasoning” which is also applied to people, then you really should use it in the same sense that it’s used when predicated of people. Otherwise you’re just generating confusion, and you’re better off using another term altogether – call it “schmeasoning.”

    If Taylor et al. truly believe that crows are capable of reasoning, then they should use that word in the sense in which it is applied to people – in which case, the same distinctions apply. Reasoning is an activity which is by its very nature open to public criticism – e.g. “That’s not a valid argument!” If crows’ reasoning cannot be critiqued like this, then it isn’t reasoning. It’s something else. Taylor et al. can’t have their terminological cake and eat it too.

    Objection 3

    Referring to my humorous hypothetical dialogue between the older crow and the younger crow, you also wrote:

    Do you have any evidence from the study (or any other study) that crows converse in this way?

    No, I don’t, and that’s precisely my point. Crows can’t express terms like “if” using body language. As I wrote in my post, “Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language containing words at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.

    Objection 4

    Later on, you wrote:

    I don’t see that Taylor et. al claimed anything like your exegesis. What exactly do you think are their inflated claims?

    In their paper, Taylor et al. wrote: “The crows inspected the hide and abandoned probing with a tool for food more often after the second, unexplained series of events. This difference shows that the crows can reason about a hidden causal agent.” (Emphasis mine – VJT.) That’s their inflated claim.

    Why do I call it “inflated”? As I pointed out in my post, if crows are capable of reasoning about a hidden causal agent, then they have to be capable of reasoning about a cause, in the first place. Second, they also have to be capable of reasoning about a causal agent. But they can’t do that unless they have a theory of mind, and all the available evidence indicates that they don’t.

    Objection 5

    Finally, regarding my suggestion that Taylor et al. should have carried out an experiment in which the crows observed someone leaving the hide without seeing them enter it, you wrote:

    If you think this is a problem with the experimental protocol that Taylor et al followed, then feel free to carry out a similar experiment according to your preferred protocol. And then report your results.

    Tell you what. Send me some money for a net that will catch the crows in my neighborhood, as well as the experimental apparatus used by Taylor and his colleagues, and I’ll be very happy to perform the experiment that I suggested carrying out. But perhaps a more economical way to perform it would be to contact Taylor and politely ask him to perform it.

    Cheers.

  8. mahuna,

    May I politely suggest that you really shouldn’t accuse someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy of not understanding the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. “After this, therefore because of this,” remains a fallacy, even if the observation always happens to hold true. Yes, I’m quite aware that popular expositions of this fallacy tend to focus on the lack of repetition, as if that were the central problem with the fallacy, but they’re wrong.

    The central problem with the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy is not that the event in question is a one-off occurrence; rather, the problem is that a regular succession of two events, even an invariant one, isn’t the same thing as a causal connection.

    Look, if it helps, I’ll give a couple of illustrations. I believe that back in the 1960s, when evidence emerged that smoking was regularly followed by lung disease, the tobacco companies shot back with a counter-argument of their own. Persons with a predilection to smoke, they suggested, had a certain gene which predisposed them that way – call it the S-gene. The tobacco companies then suggested that the S-gene also caused lung disease. You may laugh, but my point is that even the observation that smoking is invariably followed by lung disease (which it isn’t) wouldn’t be enough to refute the tobacco companies’ outlandish hypothesis. To do that, you’d need to compare rates of lung disease in smokers and ex-smokers – but even then, it could still be objected that someone capable of quitting smoking may not be as strongly disposed to smoke in the first place. To really establish that smoking causes lung disease, you’d need to establish a causal mechanism, and then observe it in action – which is precisely what scientists have done (see here).

    Here’s another case: global warming. Al Gore famously pointed out that for the past 650,000 years, increases in CO2 levels have always been followed by temperature increases. As it happens, he’s wrong on that point, but let’s suppose he’s right. The point is that a more sophisticated model of global warming could be used to predict a more complex causal relationship. And this is now thought to be the case. It appears that insolation and solar effects drive temperature, which in turn drives CO2 levels upwards, which causes a small feedback that varies temperature. See here. Once again, constant conjunction does not equate to causation.

    You also wrote:

    When non-European folk were first exposed to firearms, the non-Europeans had no idea what the things were or how they worked, even though they understood the effects caused by arrows and spears. So when they saw a musket puff smoke and a man or animal fall dead from an invisible bullet, there was clearly no link between the 2 events in their minds until they experienced repeated examples of the death ALWAYS following the puff of the musket. Digging a musket ball out of your friend Joe’s chest helped confirm the cause.

    I would reply that seeing the death ALWAYS following the puff of the musket still wouldn’t be enough for me, if I were a non-European living in the sixteenth century. There’s still the problem of the lack of contiguity between cause and effect. At the very least, I’d need to dig the bullet out of a dead body before I’d believe that the firing of the musket was the cause.

    But once I had that evidence, it would no longer be a case of mere constant conjunction warranting a causal inference; rather, the inference would be warranted by a highly plausible causal mechanism: namely, the impact of a high-velocity projectile – a phenomenon which non-Europeans would certainly have been familiar with, from everyday observations (e.g. the fact that a stone dropped from a great height can kill).

    Finally, I’m not the only philosopher to argue that Hume’s analysis of causation is a poor one. Just for starters, you might to have a look at this article by Michael Lacewing, entitled, Hume on causation.

    I hope that helps.

  9. Is this proof against “created in the image of God”? If crows, monkeys and other animals can reason that shows that reason can be obtained without a mind. If there is no mind then there can’t be consciousness. If there is no consciousness, how does the above statement apply? If the animals also have a mind and consciousness, were they created in God’s image too? We can reason better than the other animals because of millions of years of accumulated mutations in our brain makeup allowing us to reason more and create the illusion of mind. I wonder if the crow brain was bigger in proportion to their body would they be sending crows to the moon?

    If animals can reason, what separates us from them? Is it our ability to communicate with God? What if our advanced brain created a presence in trees that it could not see and dubbed it God? We then started to communicate with something that’s not even there. I think this may be a side point the study. If crows can be cautious of an unseen presence, why couldn’t early humans?

  10. Some of the issues raised by JLAfan2001 in #9 remind me of the following issue:

    I have heard some people argue from a religious standpoint that humans are unique in that they have consciousness/reasoning/mind, whereas animals don’t. I am curious about the basis for this claim. What religious doctrine or scripture is the basis for the idea that animals don’t possess a form of consciousness or reasoning ability or mind?

    Note, I am not questioning whether there is a difference between humans and animals. There clearly is. There is a huge difference in degree — which everyone acknowledges. And I think there is good reason to suspect that there is also a difference in kind — which is a trickier question and is part of what the OP is trying to discuss. But I’m curious as to the basis for the idea that animals have no consciousness, reasoning ability, mind, etc. Why could they not have been endowed with a portion of these attributes?

    ——

    On a side note, JLAfan2001′s statement about being “created in God’s image” raises an issue of scriptural interpretation. Specifically, the “created in God’s image” language has been interpreted by some to mean something other than physical form in order to avoid conflicting with the idea that God doesn’t possess a physical form. (Therefore, it can’t mean His actual ‘image’ and must refer metaphorically to some other attributes — at least that is how the thinking goes.) It is worth noting that if we question the underlying assumption (i.e., God does not have a physical form/likeness/image), then the need to interpret the language of the scripture as meaning something other than what it appears to say on its face disappears.

  11. Joe,

    Thank you for your post. I have a healthy respect for crows, and I would be the last person to call them stupid. Even honeybees (which lack consciousness of any sort) are capable of sophisticated learning feats, which most people would swear that only conscious beings could accomplish. For instance, there is experimental evidence that they can acquire abstract concepts such as “same” and “different.”

    You ask why the question of whether crows are rational matters. I can think of two big reasons, right off the top of my head. One is religious and the other is political. First, a demonstration that non-human animals are capable of abstract reasoning of any sort – let alone reasoning about hidden causal agents – would discredit claims made by most adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that human beings alone are made in the image of God, thanks to their possession of reason (see here and here and here). After all, if other animals can reason too, then we’re obviously no longer unique, are we?

    Second, if other animals are considered to be capable of reasoning, then political rights for these animals are sure to follow. The recent Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness recently declared that “Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots” (italics mine) – an assertion that I criticized here. At the 2012 meeting in Vancouver, Canada, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, support was reiterated for a cetacean bill of rights, listing cetaceans as “non-human persons.”

    It is only a matter of time, then, before an army of unelected bureaucrats drafts laws recognizing some animals as persons. That’ll mean that killing them is tantamount to murder. The end result will be to paralyze human activities like farming or building a factory, so that they can only go ahead when some bureaucrat with an “ethics panel” has given the green light to the proposal.

    And why? All because of sloppy philosophy that wasn’t challenged vigorously at the outset.

    By the way, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, although I do eat fish and other seafood. Although I don’t consider mammals and birds as people, I regard them as sentient beings, and I have no desire to add to the suffering in the world by killing them for food. But that’s my choice – not some bureaucrat’s.

  12. VJT:

    After all, if other animals can reason too, then we’re obviously no longer unique, are we?

    That doesn’t stand to reason. :)

    I say we are very unique, regardless. But then again so are other animals, plants, fungi, blah, blah.

    But anyway in the Bible (Genesis) it says that humans were given dominion over the other animals. So doesn’t it stand to reason that God let all the animals know this so that they understand their places? And if they know this that would mean they would have to be able to reason, at least a little, in our presence and the presence of other animals- to behave accordingly.

    Our uniqueness could be our soul- perhaps other animals don’t have one. And their obvious technological limitations.

    By the way, I would be very happy if the entire population became vegetarian AND stopped thinking that the planet is ours to do as we want.

  13. I think this also proves that there is no afterlife. We have hundreds of near death experiences that suggest our consciousness continues to live on after death. If animals have consciousness, do they go to heaven? Does a lion commit murder and then go to hell when he dies? Did Jesus die for animal sins too? If “created in the image of God” doesn’t refer to the physical (because he’s immaterial) or the mental (because animals can reason too) or the spiritual (because science has proven that there is no soul) then what does it apply to other than Jewish/Christian/Muslim mythology?

  14. Hi JLAFan2001 and Eric Anderson,

    You raise some interesting points.

    Regarding the meaning of man being made in the image of God – you might like to check out the references I gave Joe in my reply above. In a nutshell: most Christians (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) have held reason to be what makes us to be in God’s image. There’s less unanimity among Jews, but as far as I can make out, the two main interpretations seem to be that the image of God consists in our possession of reason, or in our having free will. Personally, I can’t even imagine how a rational being could lack the ability to make free choices: for me, reason and free will go hand-in-hand.

    Eric Anderson writes:

    But I’m curious as to the basis for the idea that animals have no consciousness, reasoning ability, mind, etc. Why could they not have been endowed with a portion of these attributes?

    The seventeenth century Cartesian view that animals lack consciousness of any sort is utterly un-Biblical. If it were not, then the Noachide Laws (see here and here) would not forbid cruelty to animals, and Deuteronomy 14:21 would not contain the injunction: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” On the other hand, the ability to reason has been traditionally regarded as a unique characteristic of humans. Thus Psalm 32:9 declares: “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.”

    Eric also observes at the end of his post:

    It is worth noting that if we question the underlying assumption (i.e., God does not have a physical form/likeness/image), then the need to interpret the language of the scripture as meaning something other than what it appears to say on its face disappears.

    If God had a physical form then He would be composed of parts, and hence a contingent rather than a necessary Being, and hence no longer God.

    JLAFan2001 wonders what crows would be able to do if their brains were bigger. The short answer is that while they might have superior powers of memory and visualization, they still wouldn’t be able to reason about anything. I have argued previously that it makes no sense, on purely philosophical grounds, to attribute reasoning and rational choices to the brain. See here for the full argument. In a nutshell: materialism cannot explain the intentionality of human thought – that is, the fact that our thoughts are intrinsically meaningful.

    JLAFan2001 also asks how human beings acquired the idea of God, and you speculate that it grew from a belief in unseen agents. But as I pointed out in my post, there’s a world of difference between an agent which is material and hence visible, although currently hidden from view, and a Being Who is incorporeal and hence by nature invisible. Belief in the former does not equate to belief in the latter.

  15. JLAFan2001,

    Thank you for your latest post (#13). You write that science has proven there is no soul. That would be news to the late Sir John Eccles (d. 1997), a Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist who remained a staunch advocate of dualism (actually, trialism) all his life. I have previously blogged about Sir John Eccles here. If you are aware of any scientific disproof of the soul that has been formulated in the 15 years since his death, then please, let us know.

    You also write:

    I think this also proves that there is no afterlife. We have hundreds of near death experiences that suggest our consciousness continues to live on after death. If animals have consciousness, do they go to heaven? Does a lion commit murder and then go to hell when he dies? Did Jesus die for animal sins too?

    There are a lot of assertions mixed up here. First, only mammals and birds are likely to have consciousness. That’s about 12,000 species, in addition to Homo sapiens. That’s only 0.1% of the 10 million or so species of organisms existing on Earth today. For the remaining 99.9%, the issues of consciousness and an afterlife don’t even arise.

    Second, “consciousness” as such does not imply the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, let alone the capacity to commit a premeditated act of murder. Lions kill because it is in their nature to do so. They can’t help it. If non-human animals lack reason, then they are likewise incapable of free will – in which case, they didn’t need anyone to die for them.

    Third, the term “afterlife” doesn’t equate to “heaven,” let alone “hell.” I personally think non-human sentient animals (mammals and birds) may have some sort of afterlife, but I wouldn’t equate that to the Beatific Vision of Heaven. I might point out that C. S. Lewis (a former atheist) was sympathetic to the notion that some animals (especially pets) might enjoy some sort of hereafter. See his book, The Problem of Pain – in particular, this chapter.

    I hope that helps.

  16. Mapou,

    Thank you for your post. You ask: “What causes two bodies in relative inertial motion to remain in motion?” You might find this series of blog posts interesting: http://rebelscience.blogspot.j.....art-i.html . Cheers.

  17. VTJorley

    In another thread you had posted that you believe in common descent. At what point did God create man in his image while evolution was working? Homo Erectus, Homo Habilis, Homo Sapiens? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to think that man’s reasoning skills arose through evolution then a diety coming along and infusing a soul in us? It’s more plausible to think that a part of the mammal’s brain evolved reasoning skills when they first arrived on the scene and passed it on through to their descendants. From there, the brain continued to evolve through trial and error reasoning until modern man appeared.

    I also think that the idea of an afterlife for puppies sound far-fetched.

  18. Robert Byers,

    Thank you for your post. You make a very profound observation when you write: “Memory can explain most of animals’ seeming thoughtfulness.” I would also add imagination and animals’ built-in capacity for estimation. Food for thought, anyway.

  19. Hi JLAFan2001,

    Briefly, the point at which a human ancestor became a being in the image and likeness of God probably corresponds to either the appearance of Homo erectus about 1.8 million years ago, or the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis, 700,000 years ago. I’ll explain why in a future post. As for the infusion of the human soul: I can only repeat that material events, such as neural processes, are incapable of meaning anything in their own right, unlike our thoughts. Whatever we think with, it’s not with our brains.

  20. 20
    critical rationalist

    Are crows capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents?

    We need not be skeptical on this issue because we have a good explanation for the results of these experiments.

    IOW, we simplify the entire issue by asking the following question: what kind of knowledge did these crows create? Was it explanatory or non-explanatory?

    From another comment…

    …there are two types of knowledge: explanatory and non-explanatory. While people can create both kinds of knowledge, only people can create explanatory knowledge in the form of explanatory theories. This is because, as universal explainers, only people can create explanations. People create explanatory knowledge when they intentionally conjecture an explanation for a specific problem, then test that explanation for errors. If the theory is found to be internally consistent, it can [then] be tested via empirical observations.

    […]

    However, conjectures made in the absence of a specific problem result in non-explanatory knowledge. Specifically, it’s random in respect to any particular problem to solve. […] Furthermore, being non-explanatory in nature, its reach was significantly limited. This is in contrast to explanatory knowledge, which has significant and potentially infinite reach.

    While crows have “problems”, they do not conceive of them in the sense that people do because the knowledge they create is non-explanatory and lacks significant reach.

    For example, could they use the knowledge they created to solve the same problem, but by inverting its application? Can it be applied in significantly different environments with the same opportunities or with significantly materially different parts that have equivalent capabilities and properties? These are features specific to explanatory knowledge, which people create, yet are absent from the study.

    Since “reasoning about hidden causal agents” entails creating explanatory knowledge, we need not be skeptical about whether crows do not exhibit it. Rather crows are creating non-explanatory knowledge, which are essentially useful rules of thumb.

  21. Intelligence seems to be a built-in pre-programmed property of biological systems, whether built-in at the low-level DNA or transgressed to high-level thought processes.

    This seems as improbable as the same function arising through completely separate Evolutionary pathways, so how does this in anyway support the Darwinian mechanism? The answer is it doesn’t.

  22. In the ?rst set of events, the crows observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide. In the second, the stick moved without a human entering or exiting the hide…

    How do they know what the crow observed?

    The causal agent was hidden in both cases, right?

    Which of the four causes are they talking about, when they say a crow can reason about causes?

  23. JLAfan2001:

    I think this also proves that there is no afterlife.

    Not in the least. Regardless of whether animals have consciousness, it doesn’t mean that there has to be some heaven or hell for them. Also, on the other hand, why do you think there won’t be animals in the next life?

    It just doesn’t follow.

  24. vjtorley @14:

    If God had a physical form then He would be composed of parts, and hence a contingent rather than a necessary Being, and hence no longer God.

    Sorry, but this reasoning, which I have seen stated many times in one form or another, is not sound (and, apologies for being blunt, I don’t care how many old church scholars have tried to make this kind of argument).

    1. Are we simply a collection of particles or is our essence something apart from the actual physical configuration of atoms and molecules? In other words, do we have some kind of intelligence, consciousness, mind that exists apart from our bodies? If we are to take things like an after life, near death experiences, and the like seriously, then by definition our essence is not just the collection of atoms and molecules that make up our bodies. Indeed, there is something above and beyond the physical and the material to each of us. And yet, no-one denies that we have a body. There is a difference between saying “I am a body” and “I have a body.” Same goes for deity. There is simply no reason to dig in our heels and take a position that God cannot have a material body. (No valid logical reason, that is; of course we might run the risk of offending some particular religious dogma. :))

    2. Was the resurrection of Christ a reality? Some may not believe in the resurrection, but at least for those who accept the resurrection as a reality, then Christ-God (regardless of whether you view the Trinity as one being or separate beings) has a body. Again, this doesn’t mean His eternal essence is his body; just that he has one. Unless of course, we layer on an additional, unscriptural, ad-hoc proposition to the effect that the resurrected body was later jettisoned for some reason, all in an effort to maintain our view that deity cannot have a body . . .

  25. If animals can reason, what separates us from them?

    They’re food.

    We can reason better than the other animals because of millions of years of accumulated mutations in our brain makeup allowing us to reason more and create the illusion of mind.

    The earliest corvid fossils date to the mid-Miocene, about 17 million years ago

    I wonder if the crow brain was bigger in proportion to their body would they be sending crows to the moon?

    Their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than in humans.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvidae

  26. …at least for those who accept the resurrection as a reality, then Christ-God (regardless of whether you view the Trinity as one being or separate beings) has a body. Again, this doesn’t mean His eternal essence is his body; just that he has one.

    Or had one. Did Jesus have any sort of existence apart from his physical body between the time of his burial and the time of his resurrection?

    Unless of course, we layer on an additional, unscriptural, ad-hoc proposition to the effect that the resurrected body was later jettisoned for some reason, all in an effort to maintain our view that deity cannot have a body . . .

    Or perhaps it was no longer a physical body.

    And there’s reason to think that the view that Christ is not at this moment in a physical body isn’t just an ad-hoc effort to maintain a deity cannot have a body.

    1. Did Jesus have a body prior to His incarnation?

    2. What does the word incarnation mean?

    3. Did Jesus stop being God once he was in the flesh?

    You’ve got a little work to do yet on your reasoning.

    :)

  27. Did Jesus have any sort of existence apart from his physical body between the time of his burial and the time of his resurrection?

    Yes.

    Did Jesus stop being God once he was in the flesh?

    No.

    You’ve got a little work to do yet on your reasoning.

    That is a logical possibility of course. But you haven’t yet pointed out anything that needs work. :)

  28. Unless of course, we layer on an additional, unscriptural, ad-hoc proposition to the effect that the resurrected body was later jettisoned for some reason, all in an effort to maintain our view that deity cannot have a body . . .

    Hi Eric,

    Jesus was God in the flesh.

    So there is no ad hoc proposition to maintain a view that deity cannot have a body. Agreed?

    So while the view that Jesus is not currently clothed with a body of flesh (I just love the language we need to use to even talk about this, lol) may be ad hoc (I’m not granting that it is), it’s not for any reason you’ve given.

    regards

  29. Hi Eric,

    Thank you for your recent posts (#24 and #27). You are quite right when you point out that according to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, God (or more precisely, God the Son, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity) assumed human nature – which implies that He assumed a human body. Hence for Christians who believe in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the sentence, “God the Son has a body,” is now true. However, I’m afraid that won’t help your case.

    First, the sentence, “God the Son has a body” was not true before the Incarnation. The first human beings existed long before the Incarnation, and according to Genesis, they were made in the image and likeness of God. Since God did not even have a body at the time when they were made, then God’s declaration in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” could not possibly have referred to man’s physical form, as God had no physical form at that time.

    Now you might object that God might have been talking about His future physical form when He said, “Let us make man in our image.” But that won’t wash. For He does not say, “Let us make man in our future image, in our future likeness”, but simply, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The statement is clearly present tense.

    Second, even if the foregoing argument does not convince you, there is another argument that should. By your own admission, a body is something that God has, rather than something God is. Hence if God has a physical form, then that form is not God, as such. It’s something that God has, but it’s not Him as such. Hence it follows that if man was made in the image and likeness of God’s physical form, then man was not made in the image and likeness of God. But 1 Corinthians 11:7 says clearly that a man “is the image and glory of God” (emphasis mine). Genesis 5:1 also declares that “When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God” – in the likeness of God, in other words, and not in the likeness of something that God has.

    A third argument against your claim that the term “image and likeness” refers to a physical form is that the Bible states that man was made in the image and likeness of God – and not in the image and likeness of any particular Person of the Blessed Trinity. But the sentence, “God has a body,” is not true as such, even now. We can legitimately say that God the Son has a body, since Jesus Christ is a Divine Person, even though He has both a Divine Nature and a human nature. Hence the Person to whom Jesus’ body belongs is God the Son, even though the nature to which it belongs is Jesus’ human nature. But God the Son is a distinct Person from God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Neither of these Divine Persons has a body. Hence it is false to say that God as such has a body. Hence the term “image and likeness” cannot refer to man’s physical form, since God as such is not a physical form, and moreover does not have one.

    A fourth and final argument is that even if we were to suppose (as Mormons do) that God the Father also has a body, that body is nevertheless distinct from the body that God the Son now has. If man is made in God’s image and likeness, then we can legitimately ask: in the image of which body was man made? God the Father’s or God the Son’s?

    I’d like to leave you with a final thought. Regarding the meaning of the term “image,” The Broadman Bible Commentary has this to say:

    It describes an exact resemblance, like a son who is the very image of his father. Ancient kings would place such effigies of themselves in cities they ruled. (The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol.1, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1973, p.125.)

    The conclusion I draw is that what the author of Genesis intended to state was that man was originally created to be God’s viceroy on Earth.

    I hope that helps.

  30. Hi critical rationalist,

    I enjoyed reading your post (#20 above), and I totally agree with the careful distinction you drew between explanatory and non-explanatory kinds of knowledge. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote in your final paragraph:

    Since “reasoning about hidden causal agents” entails creating explanatory knowledge, we need not be skeptical about whether crows do not exhibit it. Rather crows are creating non-explanatory knowledge, which are essentially useful rules of thumb.

    My sentiments exactly.

    Thanks again.

  31. Mung @28:

    Excellent. So you’ve come to express my very point. God can have a body and did have a body. (I should also point out that in the latest historical experiences outlined in Biblical scripture He still had one; and He apparently will have one when He visits again.)

    Thus, the whole point of this present aspect of the discussion (“made in God’s image” can’t refer to an actual image because God can’t have a body; and, therefore, it must not be taken literally, but instead should be understood as an abstract reference to some other attribute of deity) is based on reasoning that is, at the very least, highly questionable.

    So while the view that Jesus is not currently clothed with a body of flesh (I just love the language we need to use to even talk about this, lol) may be ad hoc (I’m not granting that it is), it’s not for any reason you’ve given.

    If you mean that it is not based on the idea that God can’t have a body, then we are in complete agreement. So I’m still waiting to hear a good reason . . .

  32. vjtorley@29:

    Thanks for the detailed reply and for taking time to lay out the thinking that some would take with respect to deity having a physical body. Just a couple of quick responses and then what I think is the takeaway of the discussion.

    As to your first point, the lack of a body before the incarnation is true for God the Son, but not necessarily God the Father. Note that Genesis says “let us make main in our image, plural. Also, even if we grant a noncorporeal form, apparently that form looked essentially like the corporeal form. There are instances in scripture (prior to the incarnation) where God is seen and conversed with as a man. One can argue that those instances are just visions, or symbolic, or that God assumed the human likeness in order to appeal to the listener and so on. However, that argument is itself a questionable interpretational gloss. Finally, you seem to be straining the interpretation of Genesis by focusing on the absence of the word “future” in the scripture, particularly when we are talking about a being outside of time and for whom all things (past, present and future) are present before Him.

    The second argument you lay out completely fails. Scripture refers to God’s image, which is just a possessive form. If God possesses a body and possesses that image then it is certainly “God’s image” and can be plainly stated as such. Additionally, I think you will agree that we are not our bodies, but that we have bodies. Thus if we are made in God’s likeness, as you strongly assert, perhaps that should teach us something about God’s makeup.

    Third:

    But the sentence, “God has a body,” is not true as such, even now.

    That simply doesn’t follow. We have established that at least God can have a body and did have a body, last we heard from the New Testament writers, and at His return apparently will have a body then as well. I’m still waiting for a good reason to think that He can’t have a body now.

    Fourth:

    If man is made in God’s image and likeness, then we can legitimately ask: in the image of which body was man made? God the Father’s or God the Son’s?

    Yes we can legitimately ask that question, and the answer, although interesting, could be either or both, so not really germane to the point at hand.

    Finally, you quote the Broadman Commentary regarding the word “image”:

    [Image] describes an exact resemblance, like a son who is the very image of his father.

    I think that is an excellent definition and one with which I would heartily agree. An exact resemblance, like a son to a father.

    ———-

    Well, we won’t resolve everyone’s viewpoints on whether God has a body on this thread, but I just want to summarize the reason for me pushing on this issue and what (I believe) has been established. Hopefully the discussion has been instructive for future times when we are tempted to rest a proposition on something that is up for debate.

    1. Part of the discussion on what makes us unique from animals centered on the idea that man is made in God’s image. It was suggested by JLAfan2001 that this might be a theological problem if animals are seen to have consciousness/reasoning (as JLAfan2001 understands “God’s image” to mean not “image” but something more akin to consciousness/reasoning/free will).

    2. It was argued that this definition of image was perforce correct because God can’t have a body (and, therefore, “image” must be understood figuratively, rather than literally). Yet we have established that God the Son can have a body, did have a body, and will have one again at some future point. Further, I have not seen any valid reason for concluding that God the Father could not have a body.

    3. Thus, it remains entirely possible that man is in fact made in God’s image (physical likeness). That alone would give man a unique position within creation. Note, I am not suggesting that this is the only unique attribute; there is clearly a vast difference in degree of other attributes (reasoning, language, consciousness) between us and the animals.

    4. Thus, even if we discover through scientific research that there is not a difference in kind between us and the animals in our reasoning/consciousness, we need not think that this upsets any theological apple cart, if we are careful about the theology and don’t assume things that are questionable. Further, I do not see any valid theological reason why the animals cannot have been endowed with a lesser portion of the divine attributes of reasoning/consciousness that man was endowed with.

    In summary, I agree there are significant open questions about animals’ reasoning capabilities (and free will, consciousness, etc.). We should remain open, however, to what is discovered over time and not paint ourselves into an a priori corner that precludes the possibility of animals having some of these attributes, due to unclear (and questionable) theological assumptions.

    ——-

    Well, that is too long already. I’ve probably said my piece and taken too much of the thread. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss. Good stuff.

  33. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your courteous and thoughtful response. It appears you favor the view that God the Father has a body of some sort. Here’s my question: does He need one?

    If the answer is “No,” then it is hard to see how our being made in the image and likeness of God the Father’s corporeal form could “teach us something about God’s makeup,” as you suggest, when this corporeal form is something God can happily do without.

    But if the answer is “Yes,” then I put it to you that a Being Who is incapable of existing without a body must be composite, rather than simple. But if God were composite, then He would be contingent – in which case, He wouldn’t be God.

    I will concede that there are Scriptural passages which do seem to impute some kind of corporeal form to God (e.g. Genesis 3:8, Genesis 19:1-13, 33; Exodus 33:18-23). For an explanation of what these passages might mean, you might like to look at these articles: here, here and here.

    Regarding animals’ cognitive abilities: for my part, I’m inclined to think that there are non-human animals which are capable of genuinely loving human beings for their companionship, and not just for the food they provide. I also think that there are non-human animals which are capable of loving other animals of their own species, simply for their companionship.

    One might then argue that if humans are capable of loving certain kinds of animals as companions in their own right, and if these animals are genuinely capable of loving their human owners, then these animals could be said to be eligible for some kind of immortality, since the act of loving someone is not a bodily operation as such but a spiritual one. The same argument would apply for animals which are capable of genuinely loving each other.

    Granted that non-human animals are incapable of forming a concept of God, or of abstractions such as truth, love and immortality, could they nonetheless be spiritually “hard-wired” with a very small number of basic abstract concepts, even if they are incapable of articulating them? For instance, could some animals have the concept of an individual, a “significant other,” or an agent, implanted into their psyches by God, as a basic concept?

    Finally, the unanimous Christian theological tradition that only human beings are capable of enjoying the Beatific Vision (and conversely, capable of suffering the perpetual deprivation of this Vision, in Hell) does not rule out the possibility that some animals may be allowed to enjoy some kind of non-beatific natural happiness in the hereafter.

    My two cents. Take it as you wish. Cheers.

  34. Hence for Christians who believe in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the sentence, “God the Son had a human, fleshly body,” is now true.

    Is it part of the doctrine of the Incarnation that Jesus Christ is still in the same body he occupied at the time of his death?

    Eric:

    I should also point out that in the latest historical experiences outlined in Biblical scripture He still had one

    Such as the encounter with Paul on the road to Damascus?

    And the evidence he was embodied is?

    and He apparently will have one when He visits again.

    He did visit again, and it was without a body.

    :)

    Also, see Hebrews 5:7

  35. vjt,

    Thanks for the links. That third one reminds us of a few things:

    “We are told that God is a Spirit (John 4:24) and thus invisible (I Tim. 1:17).”

    “Jesus came to “make him known” to us (John 1:18 RSV). When we behold Jesus we “have seen the Father” (John 14:9).”

    But someone can argue:

    See, that means God (the Father) has a body :)

  36. Robert, I don’t mean to demean the intelligence of unworldy people, who tend to have a far sounder spiritual intelligence, a better grasp of spiritual priorities, but that memory process you speak of can be seen in our pubs.

    An old boy who was, perhaps, very poor at his sums in his primary school, will immediately tell you what permutation of numbers you need to get out – singles, doubles, trebles, as he has come to remember occurrences of the same score many times over the years, and the ‘getting-out numbers required.

    The memory is connected to the intelligence in human beings by way of the soul, which is constituted of the memory, will and understanding. Animals, we know have a different kind of soul, presumably in terms of the limitations on their will and understanding.

  37. I think the processes of reasoning and that of reflecting, pondering, wondering, are indissolubly tied, and some thoughts, perhaps the original ones, infused whole, and others conjured up by association. I believe, if my memory serves that is, that St Theresa of Avila, referred to ‘lights’, knowledge directly infused by the Holy Spirit.

    I can remember wondering, as a six-year old, what thoughts had led to my cuurrent thoughts, and I expect such musings are quite common in children – who, as Joe intimated about animals, are not as dumb as they are cabbage-looking.

  38. Eric, Mung, VJ, let me tug away at this issue if I may. We must be careful to distinguish between Biblical metaphors, which express truth in picturesque language, and the truths themselves. Surely, no one thinks, for example, that God has wings or feathers simply because he may, in a sense, take us under his wing. It is the same with metaphors of bodily existence. The defining passage, I think, is John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

    According to Jesus Christ, the Father doesn’t “have” a spirit, the Father “is” a spirit, which means that God, as God, has no body. There were many things that the early Church fathers disagreed about, but on this subject, they were unanimous in their conviction: God is an unchangeable, immaterial spirit who has a nature that contains no parts. Bodies extend through space and can, for that reason, be divided into parts. God cannot have parts.

    Let’s consider what a few of those church fathers had to say. (I include only a small portion of them to save space). Remember, they were all of one mind and there are many more not listed.

    Irenaeus
    “Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason . . . all light, all fountain of every good, and this is the manner in which the religious and the pious are accustomed to speak of God”

    And again, “Being is in God. God is divine being, eternal and without beginning, incorporeal and illimitable, and the cause of what exists. Being is that which wholly subsists. Nature is the truth of things, or the inner reality of them. According to others, it is the production of what has come to existence; and according to others, again, it is the providence of God, causing the being, and the manner of being, in the things which are produced.”

    “What is God? ‘God,’ as the Lord says, ‘is a spirit.’ Now spirit is properly substance, incorporeal, and uncircumscribed. And that is incorporeal which does not consist of a body, or whose existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. And that is uncircumscribed which has no place, which is wholly in all, and in each entire, and the same in itself.”

    “No one can rightly express him wholly. For on account of his greatness he is ranked as the All, and is the Father of the universe. Nor are any parts to be predicated of him. For the One is indivisible; wherefore also it is infinite, not considered with reference to inscrutability, but with reference to its being without dimensions, and not having a limit. And therefore it is without form”

    Origen

    “Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God as he is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of his works and from the elegance of his creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual being, admitting within himself no addition of any kind.”

    “John says in the gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible, not as if he were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because he is by nature impossible to be seen.”

    Athanasius

    “God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is Father of one only Son”

    Hilary of Poitiers

    “First it must be remembered that God is incorporeal. He does not consist of certain parts and distinct members, making up one body. For we read in the gospel that God is a spirit: invisible, therefore, and an eternal nature, immeasurable and self-sufficient. It is also written that a spirit does not have flesh and bones. For of these the members of a body consist, and of these the substance of God has no need. God, however, who is everywhere and in all things, is all-hearing, all-seeing, all-doing, and all-assisting.”

  39. StephenB,

    Thanks for the quotes.

    I wish I had the time to read everything that I just don’t have time to read (including all the writings of the Fathers)!

    But I did read your post :)

  40. I don’t believe God the Father has a body. I don’t believe God the Spirit has a body. I don’t know that I have ever met anyone who has believed that, to be honest.

    I also never really though about it all that much, taking Scripture at face value on those points.

    I do believe though that Jesus Christ has a body, His church.

    :)

    While I have come across many people who think that even now Jesus is still in a human body in heaven, I am not one of them. I can’t even tell you what the ‘orthodox’ Christian view on that point is.

  41. JLAfan2001, in one YouTube video, a young man who had had an NDE told how surprised and tickled he was, when the first creatures running to greet him ahead of the family posse, were all the pets the family had had, at least in his time.

    Also, there is the passage in Romans 8:18-22:

    ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’

    So, I think, our pets will enjoy a lot more than the natural joy they were able to experience here, below, if appreciably less than the Beatific Vision.

  42. Mung, the question of Jesus’ simultaneous spirituality qua one of the persons of the Holy Trinity and his glorified corporeality is deeply mysterious, logically beyond our comprehension, simply paradoxical.

    Re the latter, just a glimpse of the nature of Jesus’ (and later our own) glorified bodies is evidenced in his appearance to the disciples, when they were lying low in the upper room, with the doors barred, after Jesus’ crucifixion; and he walked through it. After eating with them.. so he was not pure spirit. Indeed, he is the head of his own Mystical Body, of which, d.v., we shall become members.

    It is also generally attested to by some of the people who have had an NDE, some of whom said that they had been met by him.

    I don’t use tentative words, such as, ‘claim’, in this kind of context, as the evidence for the truth of them, generally, far exceeds the plausibility of any claims about their being starved of oxygen, or any other nonsense they dream up. We know there is no limit to the level of fancy to which atheists will resort to negate any manifestation of non-materialism.

  43. Re the latter, just a glimpse of the nature of Jesus’ (and later our own) glorified bodies is evidenced in his appearance to the disciples, when they were lying low in the upper room, with the doors barred, after Jesus’ crucifixion; and he walked through it.

    Yes, and on the road to Emmaus his disciples did not recognize him.

    Bu what, in the text, makes you think He walked through the door, or even climbed through a window?

    :)

    I tend to think that He could put on and take off a “body” at will and didn’t have to resort to walking around unless He just wanted to.

  44. p.s. “And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them.”

    YIKES!

    Bet that gave them a start.

  45. 45

    I don’t wish to derail an interesting discussion of theological matters, but I do want to add a few thoughts about the idea of rationality and the sense in which a normal mature human being is a rational animal.

    On a first pass, it might seem fine to identify rationality to the capacity to make inferences. But I think that the example of the crows, and many other examples drawn from cognitive ethology, might make us leery of that view.

    One might say that it is one thing to simply infer, and quite another to know that one is inferring. The latter, but not the former, would seem to be at work in our capacity to assess our inferences — or, to use Bob Brandom’s phrase, our ability “to play the game of giving and asking for reasons”.

    If that distinction works, it might be fine to acknowledge that the crows really are inferring — not just mimicking inference or whatever — but still deny that their implicit, tacit inferences count enough to grant them a place in the space of reasons, because they cannot make their inferences explicit, taking those inferences as reasons for action, for evaluation, revision, etc.

    The contrast, then, between a normal, mature human being and anything else is that the former can both ask for reasons and provide reasons when asked to do so, which is to say, she can not only make inferences but keep track of her inferences as inferences, revise them as need be, and so on. And the reason why we can reflect on our inferences, as well as make them, is because of the recursive structure of natural language.

    I don’t think this approach will clarify the concept of rationality entirely, but I think it’ll help.

    On a slightly related note, I think it matters greatly to distinguish between what we hold true as a matter of conceptual analysis and what we hold true as a matter of well-grounded explanation.* The assertion that “a normal mature human being is a rational animal” is, I think, a piece of conceptual analysis that theists and naturalists should agree on. The difference lies in the explanation provided as to how this came to be — how it is that we entered the space of reasons.

    * For the philosophers: in saying this I am aware of setting myself against Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction. So be it — I am not a Quinean, though I am a pragmatist of a different stripe. Having read recently C.I. Lewis’ Mind and the World Order, I now think that the real problem with Quine lies in his rejection of intensional expressions. Once we embrace extensionalism, the rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction is soon to follow. So the trick here is to prevent extensionalism. But one might have scruples against positing intensional entities, as that soon leads to an inflated ontology such as Meinong’s. So the trick, I’ve now come to think, is to make a place for the distinction between intensional and extensional expressions without reifying intensional expressions into intensional entities. And the way to do that, I think, is to treat intensions as metalinguistic expressions of semantic rules, where the rules are cashed out in terms of shared norms of linguistic behavior.

  46. The difference lies in the explanation provided as to how this came to be — how it is that we entered the space of reasons.

    I entered for the free food. It sure as heck wasn’t for the conversation.

  47. A mighty posted thread dealing with crows!
    Would these smart crows do such a thread on us?

  48. Just a recent thought, having an aged dog near her end, but I feel that God will reverse every effect of sin, all the deaths of everything with the breath of life – all our pets and all the animals all back!

  49. Kantian Naturalist,

    Thanks for a very sensible post. It was well-written and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you once again.

  50. StephenB,

    Thank you for your insightful post on God’s incorporeality. Your choice of John 4:24 (“God is spirit”) as a key text was an excellent one, and the citations you listed from the Church Fathers should leave no doubt among readers that the early Church believed God to be an incorporeal spirit.

  51. VJ, thanks for the kind words. The congenial way that you, Eric, and Mung entered into a dicussion on such a critical issue persuaded me that I could chime in without distracting from your theme.

  52. Alright, I’ll bite and make one more comment, since we’re having fun. :)

    StephenB, thanks for your comments.

    We must be careful to distinguish between Biblical metaphors, which express truth in picturesque language, and the truths themselves. Surely, no one thinks, for example, that God has wings or feathers simply because he may, in a sense, take us under his wing.

    I agree. One of the principal challenges of scriptural interpretation is ascertaining what is to be understood literally and what is to be understood metaphorically — no easy task. Particularly when there are passages that would seem to be at odds.

    It is the same with metaphors of bodily existence. The defining passage, I think, is John 4:24: “God is spirit . . .”

    And how do we know that statements of bodily existence are metaphors, but the statement about being a spirit is not? Certainly we don’t gain that insight from the text itself, so we must be relying on some other source. Is it possible we are reading that into the text? John 4:24 is an interesting case in point. At first glance the first four words seem pretty straight forward. And yet: (i) the very next clause (as you cited) says we must “worship him in spirit”; surely that same word is meant metaphorically in the second case; (ii) we have the “God’s image” statement we have already been discussing; (iii) the martyr Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God (meaning he must have seen God too and there must have been some discernible form to God); (iv) Moses conversed with God “face to face,” and so on.

    Now it seems pretty convenient to me that we would rely on one word made in the context of a metaphorical discussion about how we are supposed to worship (rather than being, say, a discussion detailing the scientific status of God’s physicality), and that we would take that word literally, while at the same time treating as metaphorical other passages, some of which are not meant as a discussion/teaching moment at all, but are just a description of an actual experience someone had.

    Actually, rather than John 4:24, I think the real defining passage is where it states that “God is love.” Maybe the whole God thing is just a metaphor for love! :) Just kidding, but it does highlight the fact that we can’t rely on a single passage or even a couple of passages, particularly when they are analogy-laden teaching moments, at the expense of other passages that include matter-of-fact statements of experience.

    Well, I’ve babbled too long. As I said, we obviously won’t resolve this issue on this thread. I just think we should be open to acknowledging that the idea that God does not or cannot have a body is certainly not the only reasonable interpretation of scripture, and if we look not at a single statement or two but instead (if I may be forgiven for stealing a phrase from our intelligent design discussions) at the overall weight of the evidence, it is not clear to me that it is even the most reasonable interpretation.

    Anyway, I appreciate the discussion and everyone’s good-natured approach to laying out our thoughts regarding what, in some quarters, might be a sensitive issue.

  53. Kantian Naturalist

    Good thoughts. Don’t worry, you’re not derailing the thread. You’re getting it back on track. :)

  54. Mung,

    You asked (#34): “Is it part of the doctrine of the Incarnation that Jesus Christ is still in the same body he occupied at the time of his death?”

    The short answer is “Yes.” Here are some good Catholic and Protestant references. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the matter here and here, while the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry discusses the question here.

    I hope that helps.

  55. Eric, thanks for your comments. You make a lot of good points in your post. It is, indeed, possible that some Scriptural passages can, as you say, be reasonably interpreted either literally or symbolically (metaphorically) and, in a few cases, literalness and symbolism may both be in play. When the Israelites were “saved” from the Egyptians by crossing the Red Sea, for example, that event constituted both a real historical event and a symbolic prefigurement of the Christian doctrine of salvation by water (baptism). The question, though, is how can we know that? What do we do when there is some question about which way to take a certain passage. Does the phrase “God is spirit, and we should worship Him in the spirit of truth,” constitute a literal truth, a metaphor, or both.

    I gather that we both subscribe to the hermeneutical principle that the best interpretation is the one that captures the meaning that the Divine and human author (in this case, God and St. John) meant to convey. While a Catholic might appeal to the Church’s Teaching Magisterium for a solution to the riddle, the non-Catholic, who subscribes to the principle of private interpretation, may not accept that solution as an authoritative answer for the same reason that a non-Christian may not accept the Bible itself as an authoritative source. Who, then will serve as the tie breaker between the one Catholic interpretation and the multiple non-Catholic interpretations.

    I submit that the Church Fathers, many of whom were disciples of the twelve apostles, can play that role admirably. Being closer to the source of truth than modern day exegetes, and charged with the task of fighting heresy at every step, they would be more likely to pass on the correct interpretation. As stewards of the Gospel truths, they felt obligated to hold fast to what they had learned–even at the expense of being crucified, beheaded, skinned alive, fed to the lions, or boiled in oil. Not only that, but they felt that their salvation depended on faithfully passing down what had been given to them. I think we have to take what they say seriously and, dare I say it, submit to their authority as truth bearers.

    With that, I will give you the last word. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to dialogue with you and thanks making your case with readable clarity and fraternal charity.

  56. vjt, I have to say, I cannot agree with Aquinas.

    Not sure this is the place to discuss it though, lol.

    Take Article 3 in the first linked source.

    Would you want to defend all of his arguments in that article.

    “All the blood which flowed from Christ’s body, belonging as it does to the integrity of human nature, rose again with His body”

    That’s a real stretch, imo. :)

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