Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Can we ever see the world from a cat's perspective?

This is Jingle, who was staking out a backyard BBQ when this photo was taken. But were we looking at the same things?
Here's an interesting thought: when we try to understand how non-humans experience the world, we often focus on shared qualities. Its a tad anthropomorphic but we do it with humans and that works nicely for us. However, in a recent paper reseacher Kara White argues that we can only get closer to the feline gaze if we appreciate our differences.

White is clear: "We cannot, without a doubt, know what it is like to be a cat" (although as Hero currently sleeps on my desk while I type, I have a fair idea that it can be pretty fantastic). But her point is we don't have to prove they have minds that work just like ours.

White is not a big fan of the term "minds" anyway, contaminated as it is with Cartesian dualism which seems to privilege the mind over the body (with the body being just a convenient vessel for our pure minds). No, she says, feline subjectivities are mediated by their bodies - and in case you hadn't noticed, those bodies are a lot different to ours.

For example, I would personally struggle to do this.
The sensory apparatus of cats are different (to that of humans) - in some ways ours are better, in some ways theirs are better. (If you've ever been home alone with a cat at night, and they suddenly see something over your shoulder that you can't, you will know what I mean. Alternatively, consider the cat who goes to ground the moment you lay hands on the cat carrier in preparation for a trip to the vet. They're not even in the same room, but when you touch that cage they sense it somehow and off they go).

White sees these differences, and the different sensory world of cats, not as a barrier to communication but a rich field for exploration.

"While our sharedness can be important to emphasize, we should not over-rely on our desire for similarity with other species due to what we can miss. Rather, by acknowledging and seeking to understand alien as well as familiar sensory experiences, we can get even closer to the feline gaze."

In short, cats have a radically different way of experiencing the world to us - and just because they don't talk about it or use language the way we do, doesn't mean that they don't possess an "embodied consciousness".

[Speaking of animal senses, it reminds me of this post where veterinary ophthalmologist Cameron Whittaker spoke about what pets actually see. Read here].

Jingle used his senses to locate the BBQ snacks...and his gymnastic abilities to reach them.
White, K (2013) And say the cat responded? Getting closer to the feline gaze. Society and Animals 21:93-104.