Philosophy Professor’s Animal Attraction Leads to Intriguing Experiments

March 4, 2011

Robert Lurz, an associate professor in the Philosophy Department, wants to get into the minds of chimpanzees. He wants to know what they know and how they know it.

His book Mindreading Animals: The Debate Over What Animals Know About Other Minds, due to be published in August by MIT Press, is full of experiments he hopes clinical researchers will use to get at the answers to those questions.

"There’s a longstanding issue in anthropology and psychology about whether any nonhuman animals — particularly apes and chimps — understand that other animals have psychological states of mind or even emotional states like fear or anger," explains Lurz, who received a $6,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to help him write the book.

Anyone who has ever owned a dog might think there’s no question. Yet Lurz explains that’s not exactly the case.

"When two dogs meet, they do this posturing where maybe one goes down on its forepaws with its back end up in air. They seem to be able to predict or assess what the other dog is going to do by the posture they respond with. But that doesn’t mean any mindreading is going on," says Lurz.

For the last 25 years, researchers have designed and run a number of tests to try to ascertain the mental state behind such body posturing and, essentially, the cognitive level of animals. But many of the studies have left researchers divided on how to interpret the results.

"At the moment, the debate has kind of come to a standstill," says Lurz. "I'm trying to design tests to pull the two interpretations apart. A large part of the book is giving researchers very concrete tests to do just that."

Lurz has been working with researchers to tailor experiments for chimpanzees, monkeys, dogs and ravens — all very social animals.

"Animals are great test cases for philosophizing about the mind," he says.

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