Dennis Hackethal’s Blog
My blog about philosophy, coding, and anything else that interests me.
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.
EDIT 2022-01-02: Slight changes to wording around linked videos and linked to them instead of embedding them.
There are 7 references to this post in:
- Post ‘Animal-Sentience Discussion Tree’
- Post ‘Animal-Sentience FAQ’
- Post ‘Evidence Is Ambiguous’
- Post ‘Sleepwalking’
- Post ‘The ‘Animal-Rights’ Community Is Based on Fear and Intimidation’
- Post ‘Views on Animal Sentience in The Beginning of Infinity’
- Comment #477 on post ‘Choosing between Theories’
What people are saying
I was informed by a cat owner that cats have the same ‘swimming’ bug dogs have.
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.
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.
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.
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, I wrote that humans have the same bug in other situations and that we do realize it.
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”.
Yeah, that’s the kind of unnecessarily complicated academic lingo people will use in their theses.
How does the part “what this also means” follow?
No, it’s because we both run software in our brains that makes us conscious. Physiology cannot matter due to computation being substrate independent. See also this entry in my FAQ on animal sentience.
I don’t believe I said that, but you seem to be implying that I did. Do you have a quote? (You follow this up by referring to errors in animal behavior, which I did write about, but I don’t believe I claimed that the presence of errors indicates a lack of complexity.)
I don’t think so. Following David Deutsch, I believe intelligence is something you either have or don’t have – it’s a binary thing, not a matter of degree. And, also following Deutsch, nothing can be more intelligent than people – what people refer to as ‘superintelligence’ can’t exist because what we might call the ‘intelligence repertoire’ of people is already universal. Lastly, if consciousness really does result from intelligence, then any entity that’s intelligent would also be conscious – it couldn’t be intelligent without also being conscious.
If, one the other hand, you’re referring to the smarts of an entity – which can exist in degrees – then yes, we can imagine an entity that’s smarter than humans without being conscious. But I don’t think this presents a conflict for me. It’s just that smarts and intelligence are orthogonal, as I have written.
While I agree that behavior can’t definitely tell us either way – no evidence can – I think humans are so far off the mark in their creativity compared to animals, as Elliot Temple once pointed out to me, that I’m not worried that humans are potentially not really creative or conscious. Humans are markedly different from animals in what they have achieved. Many people like to dehumanize the human race by claiming humans are not conscious or creative or don’t have free will – I’m not one of those people.
Don’t hold your breath, as neurobiology is pretty much useless in this regard.
Here’s a video by Instagram user iamkylo_ of a cat ‘drinking’ from a faucet.
Not only does the cat have no idea what it’s doing or that that’s not working, it doesn’t correct the error either. Nobody’s home and the lights aren’t even on.
Toward the end, as one commenter points out, it even swallows the non-existent water in its mouth. That makes me think swallowing in cats just happens at certain intervals while in a state of ‘drinking’, not based on how much water is in the mouth. (But the commenter just describes this behavior as “[a]dorable ❤️❤️”, as expected. As of 2021-10-27, none of the commenters interpret this video as evidence that the cat isn’t conscious.)
For those who have Instagram, here are two other videos of the same cat exhibiting the same bug:
https://www.instagram.com/p/CQl4XW4AzdP/ and https://www.instagram.com/p/CRlOBe2jWj3/
These are interesting because they start with the cat doing it right, then getting into the erroneous state (again without correction).
People are too eager to attribute intelligence to animals. For example:
There are a couple of big mistakes in Carlos’ tweet. First, even if you think animals are conscious, no animal is smarter than people. Second, when you watch the video, the magpie is just gathering sticks, presumably to build a nest. It may well have no idea that there’s a fire or that fires can be put out, let alone how to do that.
The video title is erroneous, too: “A magpie takes out a fire”. No, it doesn’t. It just gathers sticks. You can see a pile of sticks it has gathered on the right-hand side, and at 0:06 you can see it adding a stick to that pile. And at the end of the video you can still see a fair amount of smoke so I think the fire is still burning, meaning the video doesn’t provide evidence that the magpie actually extinguishes the fire as the title claims.
Let’s consider, for the sake of argument, that the bird really is trying to put out the fire. Why couldn’t that be preprogrammed genetically and then executed mindlessly by the bird? If you can’t say, then you don’t know that it’s intelligent behavior.
In addition to over-attributing intelligence to animals, people don’t take them seriously. When animals display overt bugs, people just shrug it off as ‘cute’.
This video is interesting. When I first saw it I struggled to explain it for a few seconds:
As many commenters think, the dog’s behavior is a sign that it’s extremely smart, even cunning. Some other commenters realized it was a trick. I pointed this out, too:
I scanned dozens of comments, including foreign-language ones, and even those who realized it was a trick didn’t state how the trick worked.
Then I was told by many that what I was saying was obvious, even accused of ruining the fun for others. But judging by some of the comments on the video above, I don’t think it’s obvious. As I wrote in the previous comment, people are eager to over-attribute intelligence to animals. And of course, several people think the video is oh-so adorable.
In The Beginning of Infinity ch. 7, David Deutsch writes about how people over-attribute intelligence to animals that can recognize themselves in the mirror:
(I personally wouldn’t call that awareness, but his argument stands.) I have written software that allows MacBook Pros and iPhones to recognize themselves in the mirror. You can try it out. Your MacBook Pro/iPhone does not suddenly become conscious upon visiting that website.
Deutsch then applies this argument to other areas which, in my terminology, are evidence of smarts but not intelligence:
There’s this video of a buggy cat.
Here’s another. A cat holding and kicking something that isn’t there.
Saying one’s animal is ‘broken’ is a meme. People use robot-adjacent vocabulary without realizing their pets really are robots.
EDIT: Maybe the cat is holding something that’s too small to be kicked (or seen).
Here are some key quotes from Austrian biologist Hans Hass’ book The Human Animal, as quoted on Elliot Temple’s blog. Brackets are mine, not Temple’s.
Hass then makes the mistake of attributing intelligence (“learning”) where nothing but a simple path-finding-and-storing algorithm may just as well be at work:
I think people mistake flexible behavior – such as path finding, which can vary depending on the path – for intelligent/conscious behavior. Scientist Walter Veit made a similar (maybe the same, IIRC) mistake in a recent discussion with me and others.
There’s also this buggy food-storing behavior in squirrels:
In other words, this algorithm is inborn and squirrels will execute it mindlessly and uncritically, bugs and all, when certain conditions are met.
Toads’ mating behavior is buggy, too:
Embracing anything that moves is reminiscent of imprinting, which was discovered by Austrian luminary animal researcher Konrad Lorenz. He found that goslings will follow around (‘identify as their mother’) the first moving object they see after hatching. If that’s their mother, they will follow her, but they will also follow a person. A primitive movement-detection algorithm suffices here.
Lastly, turkeys’ brood-tending behavior is buggy to destructive levels:
Parasitic birds can abuse such uncritical attitudes by laying eggs in other birds’ nests so as to avoid the burden of child rearing. Some may interpret this as ‘cunning’ on the part of the parasite, but it should come as no surprise that genes coding for slightly more parasitic behavior managed to spread through the gene pool. And that behavior can, again, be executed mindlessly, in robot fashion.
Writing this comment I’m getting the feeling that ‘mindlessly’ may be the same as ‘uncritically’…
I wrote in my previous comment:
That’s false. From Wikipedia:
In a previous comment, I wrote:
I’ve since found two instances of flexible behavior, one in a cat, the other in a machine, and I suspect most would consider the former evidence of consciousness, but not the latter.
First, here’s a cat with flexible behavior. Source
There are several times where the cat pauses and reconsiders which way to go. That results in flexible behavior, but is no evidence of consciousness, because it may just as well be preprogrammed. Changing behavior as new information comes in is entirely preprogrammable. For example, building a video-game character which follows another character around, even as the second one changes paths, is trivially easy to do nowadays. I’ve done so, and you can read a tutorial on how to do that here. Note that I was able to write the tutorial without knowing how consciousness works.
Next, consider this machine, whose behavior ~nobody will consider evidence of consciousness, even though I think it does something very similar. Source
Let’s put aside the fact that this machine has very different hardware from the cat’s, and that it’s built to do something else – namely to balance balls. The key similarity despite these differences is that the machine also displays flexible behavior. It has to recalibrate constantly while balancing the ball.
So flexible behavior can’t be sufficient for an entity to be conscious. And I don’t see why a person who’s had all limbs removed – i.e., can’t move – and is deaf, blind, and mute, couldn’t be conscious. In which case flexible behavior – or any behavior, for that matter – can’t be necessary for being conscious, either, since that person wouldn’t display any behavior whatsoever while still being conscious.
A cat going in circles several times chasing its own tail:
To make matters worse, it already has its tail in its mouth, meaning it should feel its teeth on its tail and realize that a) it’s bitten itself and b) it doesn’t make sense to keep going.
Cats are clearly not critical. And, as I wrote previously:
As usual, some might argue that the cat just isn’t very smart – meaning it doesn’t have sophisticated knowledge.
That happens to be correct, but it doesn’t explain why the cat is so utterly uncritical. Which, if it is true that being conscious = being critical, in turn means that any argument supporting the standard view, which alleges that consciousness arrives at some sufficient level of smarts, must fall flat on its face.