Animal Rationality

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Many people ponder what their dog or cat is thinking and question why they act a certain way. This sparks a significant debate in philosophy and psychology: are non-human animals capable of reason? The rationality question has supporters and opponents alike.

In his book “Rational Animals”, Donald Davidson asserts that no other creature possesses the capacity to reason, except for humans. Davidson presents a specific formula to support his stance, but I dissent from his perspective and even challenge aspects of his reasoning.

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In my essay, I will discuss Davidson’s evolving ideas and refute his theory as unfeasible. Through disproving Davidson’s theory, I aim to unequivocally demonstrate the existence of rational higher-level animals. In his essay “Rational Animals,” Donald Davidson vigorously opposes any arguments in favor of animal rationality. However, he does reasonably succeed in persuading the reader with his ideas.

In order to dispel any skepticism regarding animals lacking rational minds, Davidson suggests a sequence of four interconnected stages, which later condenses to two. A major premise put forth by Davidson asserts that animals lack a system of beliefs. My perspective aligns with Davidson’s definition of a belief as the understanding of a particular idea, object, or concept.

According to Davidson’s essay, the term “network of beliefs” can be best described by the following quotation: “One belief requires multiple beliefs, and beliefs also require other fundamental attitudes like intentions, desires,… (Davidson, 473).”

Therefore, a network of beliefs refers to one or multiple underlying beliefs about a specific belief. This initial step is crucial in setting the groundwork for Davidson’s following three points. The core of Davidson’s second step is the notion that beliefs are inherent to a rational network. By stating this, Davidson aims to convey the importance of his theory of a “network of beliefs” in relation to rationality.

Both in this essay and in Davidson’s, the concept of rationality is defined as having a network consisting of beliefs, basic attitudes, and a basic language. The term “network” when associated with “rational” refers to the deep belief network mentioned earlier. Furthermore, Davidson asserts that possessing any belief necessitates comprehending one’s own beliefs.

Davidson argues that possessing a concept of belief does not require specific beliefs. Without certain general beliefs, it would be impossible to categorize a belief as being about something specific, like a tree. Additionally, understanding beliefs requires the use of language. However, this is where Davidson and I differ in our understanding of language.

According to Davidson, language necessitates the usage of an advanced verbal form of communication that can effectively express complex thoughts. However, my interpretation consists of any form of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, that can convey more than just fundamental needs and desires like hunger, thirst, danger, and sexual interest. Despite initially presenting a comprehensive process in his essay, Davidson later simplifies it to just two steps. He entirely disregards the initial two steps and asserts that the concept of belief is the foremost requirement.

According to Davidson, the concept of belief requires language (478). However, I will now disprove both versions of his theory by challenging one statement he makes. Davidson asserts that animals cannot possess a network or concept of beliefs. Yet, in the latter part of his essay, he inadvertently reveals a vulnerability.

The concept of surprise, as explained by Davidson, depends on the presence of a belief network in animals. He contends that animals, except for humans, lack such a network and therefore cannot experience surprise. Nevertheless, this viewpoint is flawed.

While I cannot provide a complete list of all the animals I believe are “higher-order,” examples include dogs, chimps, dolphins, and possibly even cats (although I do not like them). However, my focus will be on dogs for my argument. In order to effectively prove that dogs can experience surprise, it is important to first establish the definition of the term.

In the perspectives of both Davidson and myself, surprise is contingent on being conscious of a disparity between one’s former beliefs and one’s newly formed beliefs (Davidson, 479). I will illustrate a specific instance that I have indirectly observed, demonstrating dogs’ ability to experience surprise. Consequently, dogs possess a system of beliefs and are, consequently, rational beings. Presently, some individuals argue that prime time television offers no positive value within the contemporary world.

However, despite being a seemingly worthless show, I have discovered a remarkable piece of evidence that supports my point: America’s Funniest Home Videos. In one particular clip that I personally witnessed, a dog is shown chasing a small cat into a barn. The interior of the barn is not visible to the viewer, leaving uncertainty about what is inside. Shortly after the dog enthusiastically enters the barn, it quickly exits at full speed, being pursued by a large tiger that appears to be lazily strolling after it.

Despite being out of sight, one can easily deduce what happened inside the barn. The dog anticipated attacking a vulnerable cat, but instead, it came face to face with a huge tiger. Instantly, the dog switched to defensive mode and quickly escaped from the barn. Analyzing the underlying belief system in this scenario reveals that surprise indeed plays a crucial role.

Dogs possess a fundamental belief system that applies to both cats and tigers. Cats are perceived as vulnerable, weaker, and fearful of dogs. Tigers, on the other hand, are seen as more formidable predators capable of inflicting serious harm on dogs. Hence, when the dog is exposed to a transition from encountering a cat to encountering a tiger, it is inevitably taken aback.

The dog’s physical adaptation is a direct result of its surprise and mental adjustment. The fact that the dog escapes and makes whimpering sounds is clear evidence that dogs, along with other higher-order animals, can experience surprise. Therefore, by demonstrating this, Davidson’s claim that animals lack rationality is proven false.

However, there are possible responses from Davidsonian thinkers to the objection I raised. They could argue that in the cases I presented, the dogs are not genuinely surprised. Instead, they are just adapting to a new set of sensory stimuli. A Davidson-like thinker could outline a two-step process to demonstrate that higher-order animals do not experience surprise.

People who disagree with my proof might argue that the dogs have to adjust to a new set of stimuli because the expected stimuli are not present. This could be a valid explanation for my problem. However, how can these people demonstrate that there is no contradiction in beliefs when there is a contrast in stimuli? In this essay, I have examined Donald Davidson’s “Rational Animals” and countered his theories. I can disprove Davidson’s assertion that animals are not rational beings by demonstrating that animals can feel surprise.

The subject of animal rationality is difficult to prove or disprove with current technology. However, future advancements in technology and thinking methods may allow scientists to comprehend and explain animal cognition. Until then, neither Davidson’s theory nor my own theory can be definitively deemed true or false.

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Animal Rationality. (2018, May 06). Retrieved from

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