I’m not bragging or claiming expertise (many have much more and far broader experience living with dogs). Just saying I’ve spent some solid hours with dogs pondering what the world looks like to them, how they perceive things.
It’s often struck me that, while humans may imagine and believe in gods (or not), animals live in a world where apparent gods walk among them. Dogs, and some other animals, live with their god(s) — depend on them and are subject to their every whim.
That’s the Brain Bubble, by the way: Humans imagine gods. Animals know them. Everything else here is just a riff on that.
The thought occurred to me as I was driving down the freeway noticing crows flying towards, and then veering away from, the speeding cars. I wondered what, if anything, they made of these large beasts moving at 65 MPH. Their eyes are plenty good enough to see humans inside — the same flightless humans they see wandering around the ground.
Do they have any theory about the nature of such things? How do we fit into their worldview?
When I take my morning walk, I often notice the crows. Birds of many other varieties, but the crows seem to be watching things, whereas the other birds just go about their business. The phrase “bird brain” has a legitimate origin, but crows and others very much belie that description. On these walks, I often wear the same or similar clothes, and at least some birds recognize faces. Do they know me? Am I a part of their expected daily pattern?
I keep meaning to take appropriate food so I can try to make friends with the crows. I recently saw a nice video with tips on how to do that, so now I’m fired up to give it a try. (I wish I had a balcony or porch. A regular location with some shelter.)
Crows aside, the thing about dogs is how our dogs depend on us for everything. Even something as natural and necessary as peeing or pooping requires human permission and intervention. Food and water, of course, come visibly and directly from the gods. Sometimes they even provide treats!
[Never call it slavery. For most dogs it is without horror or pain and, in fact, usually exemplifies the notion of a “dog’s life”. In fact, it’s a form of infancy, hence the need for a human “parent”.]
Every time I turn a light on or off, I wonder how amazed the dog must be. Like us, they’re hugely about patterns, so they’re used to this godlike light-controlling power, but it must seem a kind of magic to them. We humans do all sorts of magic.
Once she was old enough to be more aware of her surroundings (and to have built some of those “life is like this” patterns), I remember how freaked out Sam was the first time I took her for a car ride. Poor thing was whining and confused — quite upset. I stopped several times and let her walk around to reestablish contact with known reality. I’m sure the experience of 25 or 30 MPH was blowing her mind.
Over time, of course, she came to love “go for a ride?” She’d learned the pattern (and that it provided huge benefits, such as walks around the lake).
But my point, again, is imagining it from their point of view. How they live with beings having powers far beyond their ken. Beings they can’t hope to understand, but on whom they depend for every aspect of their lives. Beings that can be whimsical or strict, capricious or predictable, loving or angry, demanding or distant. Beings that control light, water, and food (and treats).
In 1974, Thomas Nagel published a paper that seems as misunderstood as it is famous (or perhaps infamous would be a better word). It’s called “What is it like to be a bat?” and it gave rise to the notorious phrase, “something it is like” [to be a bat].
Nagel’s paper addresses the distinction between our personal subjective experience of consciousness and an objective view of (someone else’s) consciousness. No other aspect of science, or of our world, has this divide. Based on what others report, we can (I think safely) assume all humans share a roughly similar experience of consciousness. But only ours do we view from the inside.
That notorious phrase simply picks out that roughly similar shared experience. As a human, we know what it is like to be a (conscious) human. There is something it is like to be a human. (Our appreciation of music, stories, and jokes, demonstrates this.)
If we grant that bats, as higher mammals, also have some sort of roughly similar shared experience of the world — albeit one based largely on sonar — then there is something it is like to be a bat. Nagel’s point is that we don’t share the bat’s roughly similar experience of reality the way we do ours. Even though we can potentially know all the objective facts about bats, we can’t fully imagine the subjective nature of sonar. We can’t “walk a mile in their shoes” (or more aptly, fly a mile with their ears). By extension, the apparent divide in any system capable of having and reporting subjective experience. A system for which there is “something it is like” to be that system. We are forever on the outside of such systems.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is due to W.G. Sebald: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
Bats, certainly, but dogs, as well. In their case, it’s not sonar but an amazing sense of smell that’s the basis of their experience of the world. As much as they, unlike bats, share our daily lives (often sleeping in our beds), there is surely still a gulf of mutual incomprehension. Even of mutual confusion.
In part because we’re gods, and who can hope to understand gods? That way lies madness!
And for that matter, can gods ever truly understand their subjects? The gulf, after all, is mutual.
I’ll leave you with what will be the first of three invocations over the next three days (“three is the count…”).
On the Discworld, belief manifests. Gods exist because they’re believed in — born of imagination and sustained through belief. The more who believe, and the more fervently they believe, the stronger the god’s powers (whatever they are imagined to be, so be careful what you wish for).
As such, on the Discworld, gods exist. Beliefs, once established, don’t go away until they are completely forgotten by mind and matter. (Active disbelief is just the flip side of belief.) Those on the Disc are rather in the position of dogs — the gods are a concrete aspect of daily life.
Stay godlike, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.