Musings on Cats and Philosophers

John Gray and his latest book

British philosopher John Gray thinks cats can “often teach us much more about living the good life than philosophy ever could.” As a lifetime cat owner, I can vouch for cats serving as metaphors for all sorts of things, but not usually as philosophers outside some children’s books. That statement intrigued me because my prior association with cats and philosophers had been mostly limited to Michel de Montaigne‘s musing about animal consciousness and the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat.

Gray was interviewed on the CBC, recently about his new book Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life,  in which he “… examines the nature of our philosophical pursuits, and finds them wanting.”

I read the transcript of the interview, and am keenly interested in reading his book. But to date, my small experience with Gray as a philosopher has not encouraged me to embrace his views. Maybe his new book will change that.

I recently read his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2002). I  found it pessimistic and nihilistic. While it contains some interesting axioms on which you might begin a discussion if you are among those with a philosophical bent, it seemed meandering and unfocused. Some of what should be pithy aphorisms come across as platitudes or even nostroms.  Gray wrote:

As commonly practiced, philosophy is an attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs. (p.37)

I’m not a student of philosophy, but my limited reading of it suggests that Plato, Lucretius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Aristotle, Epictetus, and other early philosophers weren’t presenting “conventional” beliefs at all, but rather radical ideas that shook up their followers and their societies. Perhaps later philosophers, building on their predecessors’ works, were merely reinforcing ideas that had morphed from radical to conventional as they gained wider acceptance. But I can still think of later philosophers (including Gray) whose ideas seem more radical than conventional.

My personal belief is perhaps, anachronistic, but I am moved to think philosophy should be at least somewhat practical. It should provide guides for us to consider our existence. Philosophy may not be able to (and maybe shouldn’t attempt to) answer the questions we raise, but should at least be able to teach us how to ask them and how to analyze the answers. It should contain some tools to pry open our insight, observations we can use as mirrors to our own condition, not simply a series of complaints and criticisms.

I don’t think of philosophy as a sort of “self-help” practice, but rather a tool like a telescope or a microscope that allows us to examine what we could not see unaided. And it is, as Socrates said, our examined lives that makes life itself worthwhile.

In the interview, Gray was asked what philosophy for and he answered (conflated):

The goal of philosophy was a condition they called ataraxia, or unshakable tranquility — unshakable equilibrium within one’s self…  human restlessness is too deep-seated, and mere argumentation and mere reasoning can’t really get human beings out of that condition…. [it tries to cure]… the discomfort of human beings at being in the world. And especially the discomfort that they feel when they confront the knowledge which comes to them in the course of their lives, that they’re going to die. As far as we know, only humans have the recurrent or continuing sense of mortality; that’s to say that they themselves are going to die.

Well, in part I get that latter statement, having rather seriously and intimately considered my own mortality when I was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. My own thoughts ran the gamut between emotion and reason about death. I read a lot about the end-of-life experiences of others and of observers.

In response to a question, Gray replied:

…no other animals, as far as I know, including cats, have developed death rituals. And so it doesn’t seem [to be] any part of their actual life in the world, except at the very end, perhaps when they have some sort of instinctual sense that they’re failing… when they’re sickening, they tend to crawl to some quiet, shadowy place where they, in a sense, they aim to die.

Most of the cats I’ve had in my life were aware of their end, albeit perhaps not in any sort of spiritual or philosophical manner. Some crawled away, others came closer, looking for the final comfort we can give them. But while we cannot know what any animals think, we should recognize that they do think and are self-aware. They have consciousness and sentience. Gray himself suggests this in his book:

Over the past 200 years, philosophy has shaken off Christian faith. It has not given up Christianity’s cardinal error — the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals.

In his latest book, Gray wrote

Much of human life is a struggle for happiness. Among cats, on the other hand, happiness is the state to which they default when practical threats to their well-being are removed,

I have to question that statement because it seems his argument suggests both cats and humans share the same definition of happiness. Isn’t that mere projection? Anthropomorphizing? How can we know what cats feel or think? How do we know that a cat is happy? Our own happiness is the result of neurochemicals. Cats and all mammals have similar physiology; their glands express similar chemicals as ours. But is happiness merely a chemical reaction or is it also a neurological process of recognition and acceptance? And do cats or any other animals go through the same processes?

We make assumptions based on our own thoughts and emotions, but are they shared by a cat? Or a dog? or any other animal? Our thoughts are shaped by our ability to process abstract symbols into form.  We can understand that a collection of lines and curves is a word. When I write “tree” you build an image of it from those bits and pieces, you create an emotion about a tree from these symbols. But it’s all abstract. Do other animals process symbols in any manner that we can say is like our own? I don’t think we know enough to say with confidence that what we and cats consider happiness is the same. 

This is the basis of a recent book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by primatologist Frans de Waal. He explores how “cognition [takes] different forms that are often incomparable to ours.” As a lifetime cat and dog owner (and for a few years we had a busy-ness of ferrets), I want to believe animals share our emotions and many of our cognitive attributes. I’ve seen them, watched them work out problems, been amazed at their ability to figure out schedules and timing for things like dinners, treats, walks, or coming home from work.

We can’t even spell “park” here much less say the word because our dog, Bella, knows it means a long walk and she pulls us the whole way along the correct route to get there. I’ve watched cats (and ferrets) figure out how to open doors and drawers simply by watching one of us do it. I watched an older cat patiently teach the trick of opening a cupboard door to a younger one, doing it a couple of times while the younger one watched. Then watched the younger one try it and open the door himself. The older cat then walked away, having imparted the lesson successfully.

Yes, animals think and reason. And they behave like they’re happy, sad, afraid, annoyed, jealous, and all the other human emotions. but how do we know for sure that what they feel is equivalent to what we feel when we express similar behaviour or encounter similar situations? As Michel de Montaigne wrote, “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her?”

Perhaps cats don’t default to “happiness” but rather to a Zen-like state of calm contemplation. Who really knows?*

I think Gray is equating religion and philosophy when he claims its goal of philosophy is “unshakable equilibrium within one’s self” to cure “the discomfort of human beings at being in the world. ” I’ve not yet found any works of philosophy that provide the sort of all-encompassing answers that religions claim to offer. Nor have I encountered any philosophy that depends on faith rather than reason. But perhaps my reading has been limited. I equate philosophy with science, both springing from the human drive to know and understand our universe and ourselves: open systems of investigation. Religion is a closed system that discourages investigation outside its established boundaries.

However, I do agree considerably with Grays’ statement that

If you want to know the variety of human goodness, don’t read philosophers. Read really good novelists of various kinds in various languages from various cultures and various times in history. Read novelists or writers or poets. You’ll learn a lot more about the variety and the real nature of the good life than you would by reading philosophers.  

Even more than just goodness, novels are like the holodeck in Star Trek: simulations of existence. In them, we can experience a wide range of emotions, behaviours, conditions, reactions, fears, hopes, and beliefs that may not be within our own environment. We can even reach into evil, virtually, and see it without having to experience it ourselves. Novels teach us about ourselves, and build within us a sense of empathy and even compassion to help us connect with others. They are a platform for the imagination, perhaps our single greatest asset.

And not merely novelists: poets and playwrights offer the same voyages into the human, although they may be less easily delved into than novels because their form is seldom linear or structured as robustly. For them, we may need external assistance, some Virgils to our Dante such as I find in the notes and glosses as I read Shakespeare’s plays.

I personally think we should read novels and philosophy, as well as history, science, poetry, biographies, politics, religion, and everything else. We can learn from it all, even from reading John Gray.

~~~~~

* Gray also wrote in Straw Dogs:

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

And:

Yet after all the work of Plato and Spinoza, Descartes and Bertrand Russell we have no more reason than other animals do for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow… Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals.

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