The book is concerned with the nature of animal and human thinking, magic, and religion, and the nature of knowledge. The following is a condensation of an article about the book by, David Oppenheimer, who was a fellow of Trinity College Oxford and a University Lecturer in Neuropathology.
Learning by Trial and Error
A guiding principal is the distinction between the real situation, in which an animal finds itself, and the sensory situation that is "’The parts of the real situation", which are capable of stimulating the sensory apparatus. It is, of course, the real situation on which the animal’s life depends, but it is, the sensory situation, which affects its behaviour.
Firstly, consider single celled ‘animalcules’. Their behaviour is almost confined to swimming around and engulfing small particles, which they ingest as food. They are incapable of responding to material objects, unless they collide with them, objects at a distance are nothing to them. In an unfavourable situation, an animalcule will perform its limited repertoire of actions. If one of these results in a favourable change in the situation, this action will tend to be performed more readily, when the unfavourable situation recurs. Thus, this form of learning based on trial and error, can be detected, even in some of the most primitive animals.
An important stage is reached when sense organs that are more complex, enable an animal or an insect, say, or a fish, to recognise objects. The recognition of an object, depends on building up in the central nervous system, an internal representation of the real world that is on memory.
All animals, except perhaps the most primitive, learn from experience. In an unfavourable situation, a random reaction may be followed by a change for the better. Thereafter, if a similar situation occurs, the appropriate action is more likely to be repeated. In time, habits are formed, and reactions producing a unfavourable result are eventually eliminated. Such, trial and error procedures, are the basis of all learned behaviour.
When an animal’s brain has evolved to the stage of forming in the mind, models or representations of the real world (by linking up of remembered sensory impressions) the way is opened to a new form of trial and error behaviour. Experimentation is now carried out, not on objects themselves, but on the models of the objects constructed in the mind. This procedure is the basis of thinking in all the higher animals including man.
The model-making situation is complicated, by the invention of language. The effect of this is to enlarge the range of an individuals senses and enable people to share each other’s memories. This enlarges the scope for error, as we rely on words to infer another persons ideas, and words are often insufficient and imprecise.
Another major source of error occurs, when the consequence of a belief are not immediately disastrous. Men ask for freedom, not only from hunger and cold, but also from anxiety. If a particular belief, however silly, provides comfort; it is likely to prevail. Knowledge may enable one to change an unfavourable situation, but belief may actually enable one to enjoy it! ‘Where ignorance is bliss….and so on’.
The fundamental needs and corresponding drives of humans, are much the same as those of other mammals. As humans devise a more roundabout method of achieving their aims, they develop secondary drives aimed at intermediate stages on the road to primary goals. Pleasure may be felt, in the satisfaction of a secondary drive. (Similar satisfaction, is observed in chimpanzees that have only partially solved a problem). One such secondary drive is the pursuit of knowledge, beyond the point where it yields an immediate profit.
If certain conditions in the environment are constant, a stereotyped form of behaviour is observed. Habit then gives rise to behaviour similar to the automatic expression of instincts, and conscious awareness of such behaviour becomes progressively less. This applies to often, repeated mental processes, (most religious rites or text, spend some time away from them) which may in time, become inaccessible to introspection.
Memetics and Memes. See, Professor Richard Dawkins FRS ‘The Selfish Gene’. Richard Brodie ‘Virus Of The Mind’. Richard Brodie designed Microsoft Word! Vilanyur Ramachandran MD ‘The Emerging Mind’ and Synesthesia or synesthetes, and the Martian Alphabet.
Magic and Science
Magic of all kinds, ancient and modern, involve the same reasoning process as science. Both rely on observation, generalisation and hypothesis. It is the more accurate observation, the more careful generalisation and above all the systematic testing of hypothesis, which distinguish magic from science.
Magic and Religion
To make a fundamental distinction between magic and religion, is incorrect. Magical and religious practices survive only because the bond between action and result is : remote. Animals sometime make erroneous attempts to gain their ends, but they do not persist indefinitely in such ill-advised behaviour, as men do. Animals’ behaviour is aimed at immediate results and unlike humans, success or failure; reacts immediately on behaviour.
Souls and Spirits
The invention of souls and spirits can be attributed to observations of living and dying, dreams and visions, sleep and sickness. In dreams, for example, we roam and have adventures; yet are later assured that we have never left our beds. This is explained by the existence of a ‘ghost-self’ that can for a time separate itself from the body, and encounter other ‘ghost-selves’, including those of dead persons. Analogies are found in the breath, the shadow, the reflection, the echo, and all kinds of vaporous forms. Out of these familiar experiences, is constructed the spirit or soul, which is supposed to dwell within the living body, and escaping, leaves the body behind. Eventually the name, spirit or soul, comes to be considered as if it were the name of a real part of the person; like the liver.
Reality and Appearance
Some philosophers have held that the, ‘World we know, is nothing but appearance’. They are claiming to distinguish something as appearance, without having been able to contrast it with reality : surely, an impossible task, and one that makes nonsense of what is a useful distinction in everyday life. (The lack of reason, brings forth monsters…)