24 Sep

From the horse’s mouth

A team – it’s always a team, isn’t it? – of scientists in Norway claims to have discovered that horses are more intelligent than we thought; and that they think like humans.

Dr Cecilie Mejdell of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, who led the research, says her team has found a way to ask the horse whether it likes wearing a blanket. In Nordic countries, it’s common for horses to wear blankets in all weathers. No surprise there, then. The team trained horses, by offering slices of carrot as an incentive, to touch a board with their muzzle to indicate if they wanted to wear a rug.

I don’t suppose for a minute that the horses touched the board in order to be given another slice of carrot? 

Dr Mejdell added,  “Horses are often considered to be not very intelligent…” By whom, Dr Mejdell? – “but this shows that, when we use the right methods, they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can make choices that seem sensible even to us.”

Even to us, eh?

“Express their opinions”?

“Tell me, Trigger, what is your opinion of Jeremy Corbyn?” But horses don’t express opinions any more than we eat hay and neigh.

In trying to evaluate the meaning of these results, we might well remember a saying of Wittgenstein’s: “If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand it.”

For intelligence is related to a particular form of life, Lebensformen. And the life of a lion – or a horse – is a different form of life from the life of a human being. Horses don’t usually do crosswords, for example, or play the piano very well.

Of course, some animals can be taught to make responses to stimuli provided by humans in order to receive a reward: it’s called classical conditioning.

But this doesn’t allow us to conclude that, for instance, a horse understands the meaning of the symbol on the board in the same way that humans understand what it means.

In other words, horse sense is different – and necessarily different – from human sense.

The horse might well return to its stable and boast to a horsey colleague: “Guess what? I’ve trained human beings to give me a slice of carrot when I want one.”

Perhaps the experiment shows that horses are more intelligent than Dr Mejdell’s team?

Anyone for a carrot?

28 Jul

Defiling the stars

Evil communications corrupt good manners.

The brilliantly successful programme to land a spacecraft on a comet has come to an end. Contact has been lost with the module and there is no possibility of its being re-established.

So – the ineffably fatuous BBC Radio Four programme Inside Science, presented by Adam Rutherford, mourned this moment of loss, said how touching and evocative the whole experience had been

So – how does the BBC do “touching” and “evocative”?

By saying  goodbye to the spacecraft by means of five or six extracts of rock music

I thought; O music of the circling spheres, accept this audible filth, our only tribute

22 Jan

Happy Birthday Sir David!

Sir David Attenborough, the BBC’s chief outward bound correspondent, was being interviewed on TV as part of the celebrations of his forthcoming 90th birthday. It was an interesting, genial and good-humoured conversation about dinosaurs – until near the end.

Then the interviewer asked Sir David for his impressions of the Paris meeting on the subject of climate change:

“Why do you think that there are still so many intelligent, educated people who deny global warming?”

“Because to be informed of the process involves them not only in receiving the information but urges them to do something about it. And that, they feel, is not in their interests and so they excuse themselves by saying they don’t believe it.”

I found this shocking. When intelligent, educated people say they don’t accept the dogma of climate change, it couldn’t be because they have examined the evidence – as intelligent, educated people do – and found it to be spurious could it? No, not according to Sir David it couldn’t.

I wonder where he mines such rich reserves of self-righteousness?

Sir David is a scientist, but it is no part of the scientific method to repudiate theories you consider incorrect simply by hurling ad hominem jibes at your opponents – that they are selfish and concerned only with what they consider to be their private interests

We expect better of the Old Dinosaur


10 Nov

Horatio’s back

I suspect some malign power has slipped something into our drinking water to turn us all stupid. Just cast your eyes over the following report:

Swiss researchers carried out an experiment to make artificial ‘ghosts’ They were investigating why some people feel a ‘creepy presence’ And in the research they found it was just a trick of the brain  The sensation was re-created by researchers using a robot to interfere with the sensory signals in the brains of blindfolded volunteers. The illusion came from a programmed delay between the brain’s processing of the body’s movements

“This confirms that it is caused by an altered perception of their own bodies in the brain,” said Professor Olaf Blanke.

No it doesn’t, Professor Blanke.

The fact that scientists can replicate artificially the experience of those reporting to have seen a ghost no more disproves the reality of ghosts than the artificial creation of the sensation of eating pork pie and mushy peas disproves the existence of real pies and peas.

The mistake is the confusion of ontology with neurology.

All our experiences take place in our brains, from the view of Mont Blanc to our acute dislike of Strictly Come Dancing. The relation between what takes place in the brain and what is out there – if there is anything out there, or even if there is an out there – is one of the most abiding problems of philosophy. And Professor Blanke and his mates have not solved it.

Please don’t compound the mistake by assuming that I’m arguing for the existence of ghosts. I’m not. I’m merely stating what ought to be obvious, even to neuroscientists and all materialists: that my (and your) neural activity neither explains nor explains away what actually is or might be.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.