gall and gumption

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dog Brains

Skip if you like, obviously. The difference in temperaments and habits of these two dogs still surprises me. On weekends I try to make sure they get a little more of an adventure on at least one of our outings. Saturday's weekend adventure was a trip to the dog park. Not very adventurous, but that park has deer passing through it sometimes and deer smell is like good drugs to Sweetie.

Neither of them is mad about the doggie play area itself. Sweetie can't quite make head or tail of all the romping. She was part of a pack of half-wild dogs for the first year she was with me -- the others sort of attached themselves to me. As a result she has really excellent dog manners, but the downside of it is she reacts in the dog park like she's in a pack of dogs who all happen to be lunatics. She was the bottom dog in her St. Kitts pack, and at the dog park she can find dogs who are even more pathetic than she is -- and Sweetie is a dog who has been chased by a sheep. She hovers nervously next to me until some particularly goofy dog comes in and then she runs to join in the general pile-on. So the effect of the dog park on her character is not good. I keep trying in hopes she'll figure it out.

Misha on the other hand regards the doggie play area as some sort of gulag.

So this time, with the two of them, I thought, let's walk around the doggie play area and you can say hello through the fence, and then we'll go tour the park. But after circling the doggie area and a toddle around the picnic area Misha wanted to go back to the car. And could not be persuaded to go anywhere else. At last I just put her in the car with the windows down and the doors unlocked and then she was quite happy, she sat in there barking at everything. That is Misha's notion of a really good time. And Sweetie and I went into the play area for a while.

Later I realized that most of the past several times when Misha has been to that dog park my father has been along. We try her out in the play area and then my father takes her on a short short stroll around the picnic area and the two of them sit in the car, he has a smoke and does a crossword puzzle or chats on the phone with one of his lady friends and Misha sits in the back seat and barks at everything. And so now this is what she expects to do at the park: to go for a decorous waddle around the picnic area, and then to guard the car. The barking, by the way, drives my father nuts. My father hadn't come to the park, but
Misha was keeping up her end of the ritual.

She instantly makes a general and binding law out of any activity related to my father. If I go for a long walk and have him meet me at the lake or the shopping
center to pick her up (she doesn't like very long walks), she never forgets that that is where He once picked her up, and she will wait for him there and will walk no further. I forget, though, and then I can't figure out why she won't move except to lunge at passing pickups. Then I remember that my father picked her up once at this spot months ago.

A few weeks ago during the last heavy snow they both got salt between their toes -- this is very uncomfortable for dogs. Sweetie didn't let it stop her -- she was going to look for squirrels by God if she had to limp on one leg. And of course she never wants me to pick up her feet or interfere with her movements in any way while we are outside. She she was sort of limping along, the salt got shaken loose, and she was
back at full-speed circling and sniffing and charging about. When Misha felt the salt between her toes she just sat down, lifted up the paw and looked at me with
this totally bathetic expression.

I really think part of this difference is owing to Sweetie's being basically an island street dog. They have to be quick, adaptable, and independent -- that is, they have to live by their wits. It's not a life I'd wish on any animal, life on the streets in the Caribbean. But it does make for a smart, smart dog. There are some other factors in the difference that may not be all about intelligence. Misha had a couple years of really callous emotional neglect before my father rescued her from his ex-wife; second, she's a German Shepherd mix. And of course she has never had
to fend for herself on the streets or anywhere, her experience has been limited and a fair chunk of it was bad. So her temperament, breed, and experience tend to
make her even more attached to her regularities and expectations.

The late lamented Linus had all sorts of odd phobias when I first met him. We'd be out walking at night and he'd get spooked by something like an orange traffic cone or a discarded umbrella. Occasionally people would see his reaction to these things and suggest that maybe he had had a lot of negative experiences with whatever the object was. And this never really convinced me. For one thing, I couldn't imagine what sort of unpleasant repeated experience a dog could have with a traffic cone. It seemed like his fear was much more general in its basis than that: it was an
apprehension that the unknown object might turn out to be dangerous. That's one reaction to the unknown that seems perfectly reasonable to me. As he grew older, he
got less prone to being spooked by things. He had learned, I suppose, that most of these objects weren't all that threatening.

I guess he was lulled into a false sense of security; how did he know that the next
old umbrella wouldn't leap up and attack him? He wouldn't and couldn't, and neither could we, logically, according to David Hume.

This idea of repeated experiences is the psychological half of Hume's theory of induction. It is, as Popper points out, "the popular psychology." It has a great lineage. Another description of it is the "empty bucket" or "blank slate" theory. We animals are born, it supposes, with a mind like an empty bucket or
blank slate than then gets filled up by experience and that is how we come to know what we know. The logical problem of induction that Hume left us was that no amount of accumulated experiences could form the logical basis for a prediction. If you see 10,000 white swans, there's no basis for inferring that all swans are white, no basis for inferring that you might not yet see a black swan. That is, experience was no basis for inferring any kind of natural law. And yet we kept coming up with natural laws anyhow. Fabulous ones, like Newton's. Hume knew all about Newton, of course.

The assumption that there must have been several experiences that made a cumulative impression on my dog also didn't seem convincing. Anybody who lives with dogs can tell you that when a dog wants to learn something he learns it really quickly. Linus learned the word "biscuit" in about five minutes. Once I got him into a dog crate for travel by tossing a biscuit in there. That trick never worked again. You can play
a trick on a dog maybe twice. The first time you can trick him, the second time he is thinking "Well, maybe this time..." The third time the dog makes up its mind not to be fooled again. And it is now also on the lookout for tricks from you. Once it is on the lookout for tricks from you it becomes more wary. Sweetie, who
was abused in her first year of life, is very wary. I once punished her for chasing a cat by locking her in the bathroom for ten minutes. Since that one incident, the harshest punishment she has ever had from me, nothing will induce her to enter a bathroom. Or an elevator.

When Misha discovers one of her regularities, ("This is the place where He picks me up.") she is so attached to it. I might talk her out off her insistence on it -- "No, we are WALKing HOME." But she yields, if she yields at all, very reluctantly. If we go to that pickup spot again a week later, she is just as insistent that He must pick her up here. Now, Sweetie, having observed that he isn't coming, would stop expecting it at about the second time. She'll want to go back to the place where she saw the deer, or where she almost caught a groundhog, but she finds that the experience doesn't repeat itself (some of that expectation might be residual excitement) and it soon becomes like everywhere else again.

Popper solved Hume's problem of induction. That's a very big deal.

He began by proposing a new psychology of experience: animals (including humans) looked for regularities. He described, in his essay "Conjectures and Refutations," (it's in the book of that title)an experiment where someone held a lighted cigarette in front of a litter of puppies. The puppies smelled the cigarette and ran off sneezing. A few days later the person showed them a roll of white paper, about the size of a cigarette. The puppies ran away from that, sneezing, too. The puppies had gone from the single unpleasant experience of smoke to a more general expectation that a white cylinder might produce an unpleasant experience. But that expectation sits on a pretty complex set of prior expectations, such as the distinction between "difference" and "similarity". How did they get that in their short and uneventful little life?

Popper suggested that we are born with a tendency to look for regularities, to make
conjectural "theories" out of our experience, use them for as long as they're useful, and refute or discard them in the light of better insight or new information. The growth of scientific knowledge, he said, follows this pattern.

But Popper had noticed that most scientists thought that induction was what made science different from pseudo-science. There was still this disconnect between the psychology of induction and the logic of induction. If you accepted the psychology the logic wouldn't work. But, weirdly, the science still worked. I mean, even though there wasn't a very satisfactory explanation of how scientific knowledge increased,
scientific knowledge kept increasing. Popper cites Max Born (one of those giants of physics of the last century:

I recently came across an interesting formulation of this belief in a remarkable philosophical book by a great physicist -- Max Born's Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance. He writes: 'Induction allows us to generalize a number of our observations into a general rule: that night follows day and day follows night... But while everyday life has no definite criterion for the validity of an induction... science has worked out a code, or rule of craft, for its application.' Born nowhere reveals the contents of this inductive code (which, as his wording shows, contains a 'definite criterion for the validity of an induction'); but he stresses that 'there is no logical argument' for its acceptance; 'it is a question of faith': and he is therefore willing to call induction a metaphysical principle'. But why does he believe that such a code of valid induction must exist? This becomes clear when he speaks of the 'vast numbers of anti-vaccination societies and believers in astrology. It is useless to argue with them: I cannot compel them to accept the same criteria of valid induction in which I believe; the code of scientific rules.' This makes it quite clear that 'valid induction' was here meant to serve as a criterion of demarcation between science and pseudo-science.
[Italics are Popper's]

You can see what a problem this could become. Now, you can add to the anti-vaccination societies and believers in astrology the whole legion of creationists and Intelligent Design advocates and all the other pseudo-scientists now practicing. In fact, pseudo-science has sort of cultivated the appearance of being scientific: Intelligent Design's advocates keep insisting that it's a scientific theory and not a
religious one.

Against the people who attack science, a faith in induction seems an awfully weak defense. First of all the attackers are using induction too, they are using it in spades. They've inducted dinosaurs into their 6,000-year Biblical timeline and
have the museum to prove it. Second, they are all about the metaphysical faith. They, so to speak, wrote the book on faith, and they know that their faith is stronger, their certainty on the origins of knowledge, is strong.

Popper did not solve the problem of induction by finding that valid code that Born hoped was there; he solved it by pointing out that it wasn't necessary to believe in any valid code of induction. You could just stop looking for that nonexistent missing link. And he had another more interesting model to put in its place, a model he could trace all the way to the pre-Socratic philosophers. It wasn't even new. It was basically the critical method, which is essentially anti-authoritarian. Induction, on the other hand, can be a support for authoritarianism. All these freaks and frauds of the Intelligent Design movement use their "proofs" to prove that what they believe is irrevocably right and true and not open to debate. This is as big a problem as the bogusness of their "evidence." It's bigger, because that is not how people should learn to know. That is, it is dangerous to have people thinking that what they know is not open to critical examination.

Popper said we will make theories, it's in our makeup to do so, and it's in our makeup to be attached to them. But we can criticize them and discard them, admit sometimes that we don't know what to think next, and we can take up a new theory that solves the problems of the old ones or that, provisionally, is the best we can do. That's how knowledge advances.

Misha comes home from a dog walk and the first thing she does is look for my father. She checks the kitchen. Not there. She runs to his bedroom next. Not there. Glances in the bathroom door. Then, she hauls herself into the recliner and watches out the window and waits for him.


At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ochen, ochen xorosho. Sabaki u Popper! Otlichna. Ya ponimayu siichas.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Kia said...

Spasiba BB!

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Bijoy said...

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus - Blog


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