Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

My blog about coding, philosophy, and anything else that interests me.

Buggy Dogs

Dogs ‘swim’ above water under certain conditions:

This is evidence of how algorithmic dogs are. It seems that one trigger of the swimming motion is: ‘water-like surroundings + not touching the ground’.

In this video you can see many instances of erroneous swimming:

All of these dogs swim when they shouldn’t. At 1:52 in particular, a dog is just held over a sprinkler, which isn’t enough water to swim in.

The algorithm dogs use to determine when to swim is so buggy that no water is required at all. For example, at 0:30 a dog is held over an empty pool. Nonetheless the dog tries to ‘swim’. The pool is blue so maybe that is reminiscent enough of water.

Even cool air can be enough to get a dog to ‘swim’, as witness this dog held over an air-conditioning unit:

This last case is particularly interesting because some humans seem to have the same bug (though it manifests much less dramatically and, as opposed to dogs, humans can correct this error pretty easily). For example, when I shave for the first time in weeks and then expose my face to cool air (also from an air-conditioning unit), for a split second I think my face is wet. Sometimes I even touch my cheeks to make sure it isn’t.

This leads me to guess that some of the criteria dogs and humans use to determine whether they’re wet are shared and inborn. I asked a couple of friends if they ever feel like their faces are wet under the same conditions but they said they don’t. It’s unclear whether this refutes my guess as they may simply have corrected the error so quickly they didn’t even notice it. Or they may have forgotten.

When one’s face is wet, it does feel cooler. So biological evolution may well have endowed ours and dogs’ common ancestors with an adaptation that detects wetness based on coolness. But it also leads to the non-adaptive result of misidentifying wetness in some situations. In dogs, this manifests as erroneous swimming. In me, it results in thinking my face is wet when it’s completely dry. It only happens when, as I said, I haven’t shaved in at least a few weeks, which makes me think the algorithm in me goes off of how drastic the change in temperature is. When you have a beard your face is more shielded from changes in temperature. Once you shave, that shield is suddenly gone.

I suspect the dogs’ algorithm likewise goes off of how drastic the change is. For example, if you slowly cooled down a room and held a dog in the air the whole time, I’m guessing it wouldn’t start swimming mid-air. This is all reminiscent of the famous experiment of frogs not jumping out of water that’s slowly being heated.

Whatever the case, the crucial difference between how dogs deal with this error and how humans deal with it is this: dogs don’t seem to deal with it at all—they seem to be completely clueless—whereas humans can become aware of the error and correct it. Humans have a moment of curiosity or wonder: they wonder why their face feels wet. They then feel their cheeks to test whether it is wet and conclude that it isn’t; that they must be mistaken instead. They are critical and learn something. None of this can be said of dogs—they don’t even look down to check if there’s any water to swim in.

I have written more about the topic of animal intelligence (or rather, lack thereof) in my book. On the topic of ‘swimming dogs’ in particular, I wrote (p. 108):

[…] it is intuitively clear that no intelligence is at work here. Why? Because an intelligent being would have noticed errors in its behavior and corrected them. If one of these dogs were intelligent, it would know that it is being held above water, and therefore need not swim. The dogs in these videos do not even realize they remain stationary because they are being held. In other words, to be intelligent, they should expect to move while swimming, and have the desire to understand the problem when this expectation is disappointed.[*] There appears to be no such desire for error correction in dogs or other animals.

I have also shared some more thoughts and details on animal intelligence in this Twitter thread (click on the preceding tweet after clicking this link to see the whole thread).

* That consciousness may have to do with disappointed expectations is from Karl Popper’s book Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, 1983, Oxford Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 344.


What people are saying

I was informed by a cat owner that cats have the same ‘swimming’ bug dogs have.

dennis | about 2 months ago

When you say that “intelligent being would have noticed errors in its behavior and corrected them”, you seem to assume that the dog has some reason to inhibit it’s instinctive behaviour in this situation, and is unable to. But it doesn’t have a reason to. Although a social animal, the dog feels no shame about it’s instinctive movements, and has no incentive to stop.

We know that dogs can learn to overcome their instincts when it comes to things like housetraining.
Humans also have instincts that make them act in ways that are not sensible or proportional to the situation, and they can only overcome them with high motivation for it - for example the fear of snakes, fear of spiders etc.

Mikko Karjanmaa | about 2 months ago

[…] the dog feels no shame about it’s instinctive movements, and has no incentive to stop.

Exactly. It should have an incentive to stop – it’s not touching water! It should understand that incentive and adjust its behavior accordingly (without going through dozens of iterations of reinforcement ‘learning’, i.e. what you call “housetraining”). If a person tried to swim above water you’d say: Dude, what the fuck are you doing. But if an animal does it people rush to defend it. I don’t get it.

Humans also have instincts that make them act in ways that are not sensible or proportional to the situation, and they can only overcome them with high motivation for it - for example the fear of snakes, fear of spiders etc.

Yes. See the example of me thinking my face is wet. But as I said, humans deal with that very differently than dogs, and somewhere in that difference, I think, lies the difference between sentient and non-sentient.

dennis | about 2 months ago

The problem with this argument is that it is very likely that humans have the same kind of “bug” but in other situations. Since we don’t realize we are exhibiting this bug, it’s easy to assume we have no bug of this kind.

hasen | about 2 months ago

hasen, I wrote that humans have the same bug in other situations and that we do realize it.

dennis | about 2 months ago

Hi Dennis,
I’m currently writing my Philosophy MA dissertation on the topic of consciousness (more specifically the thesis is on the identity conditions of persons as overlapping with the subject’s disposition for conscious experiences). I am of the opinion that animals do in fact have consciousness. However, I certainly diverge from the majority of people who have responded to you in that I do not think that we have any great empirical evidence for this claim right now. It is clear to me that many people struggle to see how certain behaviours (such as a dog yelping in response to being bitten) does not equate to the necessary existence of a prior conscious experience to go with it. It is perfectly feasible to posit the existence of an entity which responds to stimuli in a way that we would expect of a conscious human without it actually having consciousness (an AI with preprogrammed responses would be a good example of this).

However, a curiosity which comes about from this realisation is that no kind of behaviour is satisfactory to give us epistemic closure on a claim about the consciousness of another entity. What this also means is that there is no necessary causal relation going from a consciouss experience to a mental state or type of behaviour (but whether this is true is debatable). Of course, it seems that mental states do cause conscious experiences, and because they are so closely associated I think people are quick to assume that they are causally related in both directions. From looking at some of your responses I think that you also recognise that people frequently jump to this error as an explanation. But if the common sense view is wrong about this, and consciousness is epiphenomenal (caused by physical matter but cannot itself influence physical matter), then we have a problem when it comes to trying to draw a line between humans and animals.

You know you are a conscious entity through virtue of your personal conscious experiences. You assume that I am too because we are physiologically similar (it’s the best we have to go off of). However, my behaviour is not evidence of this. To you - I very well could be the same as how you currently view animals.
The problem I have with your argument is that in the same way that seemingly complex behaviours does not a conscious entity make, neither does the lack of complex behavioural responses act as evidence towards the entity not being conscious. I think that moving from ‘errors’ in the cognitive systems of animals to the conclusion that they lack consciousness is the same mistake that your opponents are making when they try to reverse engineer what they consider ‘successes’ of an animal like a dog to be evidence of an associated conscious experience.
For example, in the same way that we can imagine an AI which feigns consciousness, we can also imagine one which is more intelligent than a conscious human without being consciousness. In this example, we have a reverse correlation between intelligence and the disposition for consciousness.

I think this lands you in a bit of hot water because you now do not have a wedge by which to justify considering humans as distinct from other animals. If we argue that so-and-so animal behaviour can be adequately explained without appeal to conscious experience, then why can’t we apply this argument to other humans?
This is where I believe we land in a bit of an impass until neurobiologists figure out more about what parts of the brain appear to be responsible for consciousness. One possibility is that animals do have the corresponding parts responsible for consciousness in the same way that we do. One possibility is that they do not. A third is that no empirical evidence will ever satisfy our question due to the subjective nature of consciousness, meaning that it could manifest itself under any kind of conditions whilst simultaneously being undetectable.

Either way, I found your talking points interesting. I always have to applaud views which challenge the status quo, particularly in the case of consciousness. We would still be in the dark ages of understanding cognition if people were not willing to challenge that which most others consider to be “common sense”.

Luke B | about 2 months ago

What are your thoughts?

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