Assumptions about Communication

Tom Givon tgivon at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Thu Feb 22 05:36:08 UTC 2001

Not so fast, Sherm ol' buddy,

Whoa, Hold your horses for just a spell. If you read Irene Pepperberg's
experimental work with Alex (African Grey Parrot) even cursorily, you'd
conclude that you could not take 'intention' out of avian communication.
No bloody way. If you read Ristau's collection on Cognitive Ethology,
you'll also conclude the same about communicating Vervet Monkeys and
Chicken (yes, dumb chicken). If you ever had a dog or a horse and
seriously communicated with them or study their frustrated attempts to
communicate with you (yes, they *do* think we are dumb, we are a very
puzzling experience to them, you couldn't possibly leave intention out
of communication. Indeed, the whole notion of communication rises and
falls on 'intention', nothing species-specific about that. So if this
business of ruling 'intention' out in earlier evolutionary stages goes
anywhere, it goes back to the Cartesian prejudice about some animals
(but not us!) being deterministic automata. Besides, how can 'intention'
spring forth evolutionarily, just like that? And when? And is
'intention' all that specific to communication? There are plenty of
self-directed 'secular' behaviors in very 'low' organisms that are
awefully hard to explain without 'intention' either...

Also, it is good to remember that the neurological seat of 'intention'
is sub-cortical, in the *limbic* area, a very old intermediate part of
the brain that predates mammals. It is coinnected both to the lower
brain (for automatic body-sensory feed) but also the the cortical
frontal lobe (in mammals). The coinnection to the frontal lobe is of
course interesting in mammals, since that's where got the consscious,
attentional mediators of 'intention'. But 'intention' itself, apart from
self-consciousness, is much older. And unlike the brain-stem component,
it is *not* fully automated, but rather an instrumrent of choice-making,
and highly context-sensitive even in pre-mamalian vertebrates.

There remain, of course, legitimate questions about degree of
consciousness, self-consciousness, focal/executive attention, degree of
automaticity etc. But I think you can do *exactly* the same logical
proof that Quine did on *induction* to show that there is no bloody way
in the work meaningful 'communication' can take place without thge
intention to communicate. The fine, constant context-sensitive
adjustment that Peter Marler showed in chicken communication (yeah, them
dumbest-of-the-dumbest pea-brain aves) cannot be interpreted without
'intention to communicate'.

Sure, animals can extract information from the 'secular' behavior of
their conspecifics without invoking any intent on the part of that
conspecific. But the minute 'secular' behavior shifts into communicative
behavior, 'intention' is, at least in principle, on the table. Of
course, when you go down the complexity ladder of species (say Apis
Mellifera), questions of degree of automaticity and degree of both
consciousness and self-consciousness do arise, and are not easy to
resolve. But even there, if you look at James Gould's work on the
historical evolution of Apis Mellifera communication, you find subtle
conrewxtual adjustments of behavior that are not easy to explain, at
least at the initial pre-automated stage, without invoking some species
of intention.

But we don't need 'intention' only to explain *communication* in 'lower'
animals. We also need it to explain a variety of other 'secular'
behaviors that again, are so contextually-sensitive and
contingent--often on subtle interpretation of shades-and-gradations of
the unpredictable behavior of 'intending' prey and predator--that we're
going to get into the same Quinean induction bind here. You look at the
way hoofed prey animals on the Veld watch a cheeta sneaking toward them
in plain view. They have to decide when to run for dear life. They don't
just run on an automatic visual trigger of either Cheeta form, Cheeta
position, Cheeta distance, Chgeeta crouching etc. Their computations are
extremely subtle and complex and, again, irreducible to toital reflexive

I seems to me that in the interest of real science (rather than
Positivist "show me an absolute proof"), we ought to unload the legacy
of "fear of anthropomorphism" that Positivists philosophers have been
chastizing us about. After all, that is the very fear that was used to
knock the whole idea of Functionalism, if you read back about 30 years
in the P. of Sci. collections of the 1960s-1970s. And when you dig down
into the earliest roots of Functionalism--Aristotle's founding of
functionalist Biology--you see *some* species of 'teleology' staring you
at the face right there, from the very start. Of course, you can always
argue that Aristotle's 'purpose' should be interpreted as "it looks as
if they are behaving purposefully", "it looks as if the organ was
specifically designed for its 'work'". But I doubt it that in the long
run this gambit will get you too far off the hook. It is not all that
respectable, tho it does echo our abiding, recalcitrant sense of
(Cartesian) arrogance.

Best regards,  TG

Sherman Wilcox wrote:
> On 2/20/01 10:20 PM, Gerald van Koeverden said:
> > It's the same in everyday life.  We are constantly trying to get a sense for
> > the other's intentions.  When you cut "intention" out of communication, you
> > aren't left with much more than a corpse to consider...
> Maybe that's true if you're facing forward and looking only at human
> communication. But when you turn and face the other way and gaze into our
> evolutionary past, I think we must at some point cut intention out of
> communication. Because if we don't, if we limit communication to that which
> is intentional, I don't see how we will ever understand how communication
> evolved.
> How can we understand how intentionality got bound up with perceptible
> behaviors (basically, doing something with our body in a way that produces
> some perceptible signal -- moving our body for audible and visible signals)
> to produce intentional communication, if we don't consider unintentional
> communication?
> -- Sherman Wilcox

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