BB #81: Animal Gods

I’ve lived with a Beagle, a Keeshond, a Belgian Shepard, a Great Dane, and a Black Labrador. I’ve dog-sat a German Shepard, two Black Labs, and the delightful Bentley, an American Bully.

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “BB #81: Animal Gods

  • Lee Roetcisoender

    A couple of years ago I watched a documentary on the intelligence of crows and ravens. At the University of Washington in Seattle, they have been conducting an experiment with the local crows on campus for several years.

    The crows don’t have a problem with human beings and are quite friendly and curious; but one day a researcher donned a rubber mask and shot an killed one of the crows with a shotgun. From there after, whenever this mysterious creature with the rubber mask appeared on campus, the crows would carry on in disdain for this being. This dislike for the mysterious rubber masked human being is passed on from one generation to the next even though the incident of the killing of one crow only occurred once several generations ago.

    Animals are much more intelligent than most people give them credit for and cross-species communication is difficult but it does occur; and when it does occurs, it’s something special and quite rewarding for both species.

    “Understanding” is magical indeed……

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Amigo, I fear you are misremembering or embellishing. (Doesn’t your mind red-flag “shotgun” or the notion of researchers killing their subjects?) Regardless, the main point stands — crows remember faces and apparently pass on that knowledge. (Which is why I mentioned wondering if my daily morning walks made me part of their known world. And if that might be a basis for getting to know them.)

      You’re referring to the experiment by John Marzluff, who, indeed, works at UW in Seattle. They designed a caveman mask for “dangerous” and a Dick Cheney mask for “neutral”. The caveman mask was used by those who trapped, banded, and released crows at several urban sites. Afterwards, crows would “scold and mob” those wearing that mask. They would continue to ignore unmasked people or those wearing the Cheney mask. The effect persisted for many years and spread out geographically. The crows apparently passed on the knowledge. Perhaps by watching “experienced” crows react to mask wearers. (Here’s the 2010 paper.)

      What impresses me even more is that corvids have demonstrated the ability to solve multi-level problems — problems with sub-problems and problems that require fabricating tools. I saw a documentary where a parrot was given a puzzle box that had multiple steps to unlocking a treat. But it was designed so it could be reconfigured to remove a middle step such that the first step was no longer necessary, the parrot could just jump to the last one. Which it did.

      So, yeah, some animals are extremely intelligent. The Sebald Gap is very much there, but we can sometimes gaze into each other’s eyes across it. My pal Bentley and I certainly share a wavelength or two!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’ve read that dogs see us as in their pack, just much higher up in the hierarchy. Of course, I guess you could say that’s what humans are doing when they anthropomorphize aspects of the world and call them “gods”.

    The Discworld gods actually get at a truth in our universe. God are always cultural forces, forces that end up having causal effects on the people within those cultures. And they become that force through collective belief. Remove all that belief, and the god as a cultural force is gone.

    Interestingly, the same thing can be said for money.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, dogs do have strong “my pack” sensibilities and most understand their place in the pack. They do distinguish strongly between humans and other dogs. For instance, most dogs react differently to a person walking past the house than to a person walking a dog past the house. I think they may have three classes of “other” — humans, dogs, anything else. It’s possible the last one divides into ‘small possible prey’ and ‘large possible threat’. Hard to say. If only they could self-report.

      Discworld is a favorite in large part because it contains so much acute human truth! (Each novel explores a core aspect of humanity or society. One of them is about that illusion we call money!)

  • diotimasladder

    Birds are very intelligent. From my experience with a couple of pet birds, I can tell you they do tend to fixate on one individual, more so than dogs do, and the other members of the family get left out. The ones I had were very monotheistic. 🙂

    Amazing story: One time while I was at the park walking Geordie, a bird (I have no idea what species, but brown, very ordinary looking) got startled by his presence and fell into the pond. The bird ended up underneath a small overhang, and I guess by the time he was clear of the overhang, he was too exhausted to get out of the water. Another bird who saw it happen called over a huge flock of birds of varying species. When they saw the situation, they flew over to an area of the pond where there was a tapered shoreline and all began squawking very loudly, as if to say, “Over here!” A few birds flew just above the one stuck in the water when he was going in the wrong direction and seemed to point him towards the flock. Finally, the bird in the water flapped over to the flock and was able to walk out of the water. I felt so lucky to get to witness that. I was amazed that all these birds of varying species were working together to help the one stuck in the water. Incredible.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Some animals, such as elephants, crows, or octopuses, are thought to be highly intelligent, and some see them as being very close to us in consciousness.

    I’m not so sure about that. I think the Sebald Gap is pretty big, even for such as those. For one thing, their operational zones are far more restricted than ours. We’ve taken over the planet and entered space. And routinely sailed the skies and seas.

    But it’s also the lack of language and symbolic thought. They can’t communicate with us, and they can’t really understand all that we would communicate to them. All we have is a slice of shared reality that no doubt looks different to them than it does to us. Octopuses, crows, and bats no doubt see the world differently.

    Then one has to ask, how did humans get so lucky (if, indeed, luck it was)? Why have all the other animals remained across that gap? The dinosaurs had millions of years, and many animals have been around longer than we have. Why just us?

And what do you think?

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