Further Implications Of Non-Conceptualism: Sometimes, Hell Is Other Species.
By Robert Hanna
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21. Further implications of non-conceptualism: sometimes, hell is other species. In the first and third installments of this second series of Thinking For A Living, I argued that if Non-Conceptualism is true, then —
(i) we’re essentially embodied minded animals who are directly connected to the world, to ourselves, and to each other by veridical, pre-reflectively conscious, essentially non-conceptual cognition (thesis I: essentially non-conceptual content and essential embodiment) ,
(ii) our “human, all-too-human” capacity for rationality grows right on top of and out of this dynamic and organismic cognitive, affective, and practical essentially non-conceptual foundation, without in any way being reducible to it (thesis II: the bottom-up foundations of human rationality), and
(iii) that in disclosing the essentially non-conceptual dimension of human nature to ourselves, we’re in effect authentically facing up to our own humanity in all its limitations and specificity, and thereby becoming capable of being in dynamic, rhythmic harmony with ourselves as the minded human animals we essentially are, freely and as needed, without any further Intellectualist demand for conceptualization, logical inference, theorizing, or self-conscious thinking more generally (thesis III: the existential counterpunch).
In this installment, I want to extend the Non-Conceptualist line of thinking to philosophically understanding our encounters with minded animals belonging to other species.
22. In “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?,”[i] Thomas Nagel famously argued that non-human animal perceivers, for example bats, have subjective experiences and are therefore conscious, but their consciousness contains phenomenal characters that cannot be adequately conceptually understood by us.
I will call this Nagel’s Mental-Mental Gap Thesis; and I strongly agree with it.
Now it’s crucial to recognize that Nagel’s Mental-Mental Gap Thesis is about the failure of conceptual understanding of non-human animal consciousness, not about the failure of understanding non-human animal consciousness as such.
Hence even assuming that Nagel’s Mental-Mental Gap Thesis is true, it remains possible for us to understand not only the consciousness but also the conscious intentional contents of non-human animals by means of a simulationist procedure involving pre-reflective, essentially embodied, essentially non-conceptual, immanently reflexive, first-order phenomenally conscious, veridical emotional awareness.
I will call this The Empathic Mirroring Thesis.
23. If The Empathic Mirroring Thesis is true, then non-human minded animals are deeply familiar to us; indeed, the external natural world as a whole, including all the non-human minded animals in it, even has what I call proto-dignity, as I’ve already argued in the sixteenth installment of the first series of Thinking For A Living, The political aesthetics of outer space.
Yet it’s also manifestly true that, when oddly-shaped or otherwise behaviorally unusually-constituted non-human minded animals are presented to us–for example, bats, rats, lizards, snakes, spiders, insects, sharks, giant squids, lions, tigers, or grizzly bears–they can become deeply strange and menacing, concrete manifestations of the horror mundi, our abyss-confronting terror in the face of the external or physical world.
This is a horror also invoked, for example, by caves and precipices.
But non-human minded animals are the original “Other” in the existential sense: the snake meeting up face-to-face with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or the mesmerizing cobra that kills the innocent little boy Bogie in Jean Renoir’s brilliant 1951 film, The River.
In the 19th century, Herman Melville’s philosophico-literary masterpiece, Moby Dick, fully exploits this most amazing and deeply disturbing phenomenon of non-human animal Otherness.
The terrifying white whale, Moby Dick, by virtue of its enormous, white, rubbery cetacean body, including the microcosmic abyss that’s formed by its wide-open jaws, is the worldly manifestation of a featureless Ding an sich, a noumenal horror that Ahab cannot either live with or live without.
And in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa becomes his own terrifying non-human minded animal Other, a giant dung beetle.
The creators of The Wizard of Oz discovered the terrifying potential of crossing monkeys with bats, and gave an entire generation of children, many of them now in their 80s, nightmares they still shiver to remember.
And Hitchcock did the same thing with ordinary birds, for people now in their 50s and 60s.
Comparatively speaking, Spielberg had an easy time of it in Jaws, terrifying the child-versions of the “millennials,” people now in their 30s, drawing directly on Melville’s Moby Dick and Louis Malle’s The Silent World.
20th century Analytic philosophers finally began to recognize the phenomenon of non-human animal Otherness too, in the early 1970s, when Nagel, then at Rockefeller University, started talking to Donald Griffin, the pioneering cognitive ethologist.
A few years later, Nagel, in the manner of all real philosophers, creatively connected his stimulating conversations with Griffin to his own thoughts about existential issues and to contemporary work in the philosophy of mind, and wrote “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”
Bats are strange, fascinating, and in an existential sense — like Moby Dick, and Kafka’s giant dung beetle, not to mention rats, lizards, snakes, sharks, giant squids, spiders, insects, lions, tigers, and grizzly bears — truly terrifying creatures.
It is no wonder, then, that so many people have obsessions with or phobias about at least some of them: the self-same existential terror, the horror mundi, thereby manifesting itself in seemingly opposite violent emotions.
In any case, we are all dimly or thrillingly aware of our existential terror about bats when viewing their visual representations in popular culture, all the way from vampyre-style horror movies to the Batman comics and movies, especially including the brooding Dark Knight series.
But anyone who has ever felt a bat swoop close by at night, or has seen, in the light of day, the staring, shiny, black, blind alien eyes, like marbles, the dracula-like fangs, the tessellated ears, and the convulsively collapsing wings of a frightened, trapped bat, knows what I talking about not just visually, but in the backs of their throats and in the pits of their stomachs.
So Nagel chose his paradigmatic non-human minded animal exceptionally well.
24. Now if Non-Conceptualism is correct, then as a consequence of it, philosophers of mind, cognitive psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, medical neurologists, cognitive ethologists, and ordinary reflective non-scientific folk alike need to start thinking philosophically about non-human animal minds, and also about our cognitive, affective, and even moral relationship to non-human animal perceivers, in a radically different way.
According to this new way of looking at the human/non-human relationship, the minds of non-human animal perceivers are at once
(1) conceptually incommensurable with our minds, in relation to our self-conscious awareness of the phenomenal characters of their perceptual states, via our necessarily failed attempts to form a correct Theory of Mind about them, and yet also
(2) non-conceptually commensurable with our minds, in relation to our pre-reflective, essentially embodied, essentially non-conceptual, immanently reflexive, first-order phenomenally conscious, veridical awareness of the phenomenal characters and intentional contents of their conscious perceptual states, via our affect-based and emotion-based simulationist practices of empathic mirroring.
Or in other and simpler words, in our cognitive, affective, and moral encounters with non-human animal perceivers, we find that they are at once fundamentally alien forms of life (as regards our conceptual awareness of them), and yet also fundamentally non-alien forms of life (as regards our essentially non-conceptual awareness of them).
25. Essentially the same Non-Conceptualist way of thinking philosophically about the encounter between rational human minded animals and non-human animals has also been conveyed in cinematic form by Werner Herzog’s stunning 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, about the strange life and grisly death of the grizzly bear enthusiast, Timothy Treadwell:
Grizzly Man is a 2005 American documentary film by German director Werner Herzog. It chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The film includes some of Treadwell’s own footage of his interactions with grizzly bears before 2003, and of interviews with people who knew, or were involved with Treadwell, as well as professionals dealing with wild bears.
He and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by a grizzly bear on October 6, 2003. Treadwell’s footage was found after his death. The bear that killed Treadwell and Huguenard was later encountered and killed by the group retrieving the remains of the victims.
Jewel Palovak, co-founder of Grizzly People and a close friend of Treadwell’s, had to give her approval for the film to be produced, as she controlled his video archives. The filmmakers had to deal with logistical as well as sentimental factors related to Treadwell’s footage of his bear interactions. Grizzly People is a “grassroots organization” concerned with the treatment of bears in the United States. After her friend’s death, Palovak was left with control of Grizzly People and Treadwell’s 100 hours of archival footage. As his close friend, former girlfriend, and confidante, she had a large emotional stake in the production. She had known Treadwell since 1985 and felt a deep sense of responsibility to her late friend and his legacy.
She said that he had often discussed his video archives with her. “Timothy was very dramatic,” she once said. She quoted Treadwell as saying, “If I die, if something happens to me, make that movie. You make it. You show ’em.” “I thought that Werner Herzog could definitely do that.”[ii]
Translated into my terminology, the existential tragedy of The Grizzly Man was that he catastrophically failed to see the difference between our non-conceptual commensurability with non-human perceivers and our conceptual incommensurability with them.
As Herzog the narrator says in that amazing, deliberately cadenced, German-accented voice of his, “Timothy Treadwell crossed a line.”
Precisely which line?
In Being and Nothingness, No Exit, and other works in post-War Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre argued, with characteristic exaggeration, that “hell is other people.”
Sartre was far too Cartesian in this respect, and failed to see that if our consciousness is essentially embodied, then the minds of other minded animals are directly present to us in their bodily expressions of feeling and emotion, via empathic mirroring.
Other people are not essentially hidden inside their bodies, as a “nothingness” that is not only forever hidden from us, but also inevitably objectifies us, making us into mere lifeless targets of their Gaze.
On the contrary, according to the Non-Conceptualist/Non-Intellectualist view, we are always alongside and with other minded animals, whether in our own species or other species.
Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental cognitive divide between conceptual content and essentially non-conceptual content; and to pretend that this divide does not exist, is not only a fundamental fallacy about the nature of minded animal cognition, but also, in ethical and existential contexts, it can be genuinely tragic.
Grizzly bears are not non-human rational minded animals, hence they are not non-human persons.
But Timothy Treadwell had gone over to treating the grizzly bears he was studying as if they were non-human persons, capable of caring about him in the same way that he cared about them.
So although Sartre was wrong that hell is other people, Timothy Treadwell discovered, tragically, that sometimes, hell is other species.
[i] T. Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?,” in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press), pp. 165–180.
[ii] Wikipedia, “Grizzly Man,” available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grizzly_Man>.
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