Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dog logic

My first contact with the intellectual discipline known as logic was in 1957 at the University of Sydney, where I attended the classes of John Anderson, whose overall style and behavior might be described as Victorian. That was probably one of the last occasions in academia for an alleged philosopher to ramble on for an entire year about logic without ever going an inch beyond Aristotle [384-322 BCE].

Retrospectively, I find it preposterous that such a course could have still existed in the second half of the 20th century, and been taken seriously, in a philosophical world that was already impregnated by mathematical logic of the subtle kind invented by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell [1872-1970], Alonzo Church [1903-1995] and the genius Kurt Gödel [1906-1978].

Concerning the latter man, I had the privilege of talking to him on the phone for about ten minutes, when I was visiting the USA in the early '70s, and attempting vainly to persuade him to be interviewed for French TV. Gödel insisted stubbornly that his contribution to mathematics was minimal, and that no TV viewer in his right mind would be interested in watching him. Maybe he was right on the second point, because the celebrated incompleteness theorem is not necessarily ideal stuff for what used to be called (unjustly, to my mind) the idiot box.

Talking about the teaching of philosophy in Australia, I often had the impression that it could be weirdly sex-oriented at times, as if philosophy—in the minds of many observers—were a synonym for sin. While I was at university in Sydney (for two short years), a terrible scandal of a typically wowserish Aussie kind (you might need to look up that adjective in a Down Under dictionary) erupted in Tasmania because the professor of philosophy Sydney Sparkes Orr [1914-1966] had seduced a female student. As for John Anderson himself, biographers inevitably draw attention to trivial anecdotes about his advocacy of so-called "free love" (casual adultery)... which sounds very much like what countless inhabitants of the planet Earth are practicing regularly these days, without even bothering to give it a pompous name.

Concerning the substance of Anderson's courses in philosophy, which I would generally describe as light-weight, I did however appreciate his drawn-out analysis of the trial and execution of Socrates for his allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens.

I often thought that the mumbling old Scotsman, attired in a black academic gown, liked to imagine himself as some kind of latter-day Socrates, persecuted by the straight-thinking citizens of the Antipodes. To me, that sounds like a nice summary of the situation... except that nobody at the old Royal George pub in Sydney's Sussex Street, hangout of a mindless sect known as The Push, ever got around to offering the professor a middy of hemlock. [Click the above image of Socrates to access an excellent Wiki article on beer in Australia.]

As far as Aristotelian logic is concerned, I'm convinced today that it's so trivial that my dog Sophia masters it perfectly... in spite of the fact that she never had an opportunity of studying under Professor Anderson. [She did get involved in free love, long ago... which resulted in the birth of Christine's dear dog named Gamone.]

I'm often impressed by demonstrations of what's going on in Sophia's head. She understands perfectly the logical concept of negation... which was a Big Thing for Aristotle. When Sophia sees me getting dressed and closing doors as if I'm about to go out in the car, she analyzes the situation patiently. If she hears the ritual command "Guard the house" (in French), Sophia realizes instantly that there's no way in the world that she's going to accompany me in the automobile. But, if a certain time has elapsed without this formula being pronounced, Sophia suddenly deduces that the absence of the "Guard the house" command means that I'm indeed inviting my dog to accompany me in the car... and she's already jumping excitedly alongside the door of my archaic Citroën. To my mind, Sophia's capacity of interpreting a non-existent prohibition as a positive incitation is truly remarkable. Once Sophia's brain has calculated the reasonable lapse of time during which the absence of the "Guard the house" command can be interpreted as an invitation to a car excursion, it would of course be unthinkable for me, out of forgetfulness, to attempt stupidly to change Sophia's mind. I don't want to have a schizophrenic dog. In this way, my smart Sophia earned herself car trips when she wasn't supposed to accompany me.

Recently, I've been amused by a new manifestation of Sophia's reasoning power: the ability to count from one to two. I don't know whether I've said already in this blog that I'm a huge consumer of French cheese. It's fine that I should be residing alongside both the Saint-Marcellin and Vercors cheese-production zones. Often, I buy a big chunk of hard creamy cheese manufactured in the neighboring Haute-Savoie region. Each time I cut away a slice for a toasted sandwich, there's a small segment of dry crust at each extremity of the slice. Sophia, of course, loves this stuff. Well, I was intrigued recently by the fact that, when I was preparing a sandwich in front of my toaster, and cutting off the crust of a piece of cheese, Sophia did not pounce immediately upon the first bit of cheese crust that fell to the floor. Instead, she hesitated unexpectedly, leaving the piece of cheese crust untouched on the floor, just in front of her snout. She knew that there's a crust fragment at each extremity of the master's morsel, and she waited for the second bit to fall to the floor before gathering up both off them in one fell swoop. This reaction links up with Sophia's delightfully confused behavior whenever I confront her with a pile of several pieces of meat. Her general plan is always to get that food out onto the lawn as rapidly as possible, where she can consume it in a leisurely manner while lying on the grass. But a terrible existential arises in Sophia's mind: Maybe, a chunk of meat might disappear mysteriously, either on the kitchen floor, or out on the lawn. I can see her performing some kind of canine calculation, trying to decide which piece she should carry out, and which pieces must be left for later. Indeed, the seriousness of a dog's calculations concerning food take us back magically in time to the early eras of Creation, when Sophia's ancestors (and mine, too) had to get their act right about such matters. Otherwise, they starved, and neither Sophia nor I would be here today to talk about such archaic ancestors' tales.

The most amazing instrument in Sophia's anatomy is, of course, her snout: a precision molecule detector of a kind that modern science and engineering would have trouble duplicating. Like any dog, Sophia uses this high-tech tool as a shovel, to bury bones. In this domain, the respective intellectual conclusions of Sophia and me often differ.

First, although we humans realize that a dog's snout is precious and fragile, and we do our maximum to optimize the working environment of this fabulous device (I love to wash mud off Sophia's fine face), it's a canine mistake to imagine that Homo sapiens tills the soil in gardens, for example, in order to facilitate the burying of bones.

Second, although we humans—particularly atheists like me—consider that there's nothing "sacred" in the bodily remains of a dead creature, and that anything of a meaty nature deserves to be eaten, I disagree with my dog when she believes that the bacterial action of the soil in my future medieval garden is likely to transform magically a horn from our dear departed billy-goat Gavroche into something akin to a juicy steak. Apparently Sophia still has a Christian streak in her genetic upbringing, which makes her believe in miracles, whereas I have lost all such superstitions. I try to convince her that she errs, but it's not easy to discuss metaphysics with a dog. In spite of that slight discord, Sophia and I—not to mention the distinguished professor John Anderson—would appear to agree basically on the primitive intellectual processes of Aristotelian logic.

In a forthcoming chapter of this philosophical essay, I shall demonstrate that Sophia is in fact Cartesian. Clearly, she thinks, therefore she is...

1 comment:

  1. Jack Anderson as I recall held the Challis Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Sydney. The chatter at the time was that Anderson felt he was equally a professor of moral philosophy and of immoral philosophy.