PET THEORIES

I enjoyed the stories in “The Psychology of Pets” package very much. As a dog owner and dog lover, I have always tried to make the distinction between dogs genuinely picking up on human emotions and looking to help versus them relieving their own stress and anxiety. Either way, the relationship humans share with other animals is awesome!

Peter Stratakos
via e-mail

Plenty of people don't love pets. Thousands and thousands of pets are dumped at pounds or animal shelters every year.

By the way, it was a bad idea to feature a border collie on the cover. This breed is way too hyper and neurotic to be a suburban pet. It belongs on a sheep farm or ranch, herding livestock.

Clyde Mason
Tulsa, Okla.

The editors of Scientific American Mind should know better than to claim pets love us. Animals are incapable of this abstract emotion, be it platonic love, brotherly love or romantic love. In fact, pets view us as walking can openers.

People with low self-esteem flatter themselves with the notion that their schnauzer or tabby loves them. Pathetic.

Don Manning
Tacoma, Wash.

As science reveals more about the complexity of canine emotions, as discussed in “The Science of a Friendship,” by Ádám Miklósi, one fact remains: humans will forever be changed by the impact that dogs continue to make in our society. It is because of their unique bond with us that we strive to understand them better. And although our language and DNA may differ, both species have found a way to build a friendship that illustrates the true power of the mind.

Michael Aaron Gallagher
Syracuse, N.Y.

CONSIDERING CONSCIOUSNESS

I liked Nicholas Humphrey's article, “Consciousness as Art,” very much. It accords with the narrative theory of psychotherapy, in which your memories are a narrative that you tell yourself, which is another way of making your life into a work of art. Cognitive and psychoanalytic therapies make considerable use of the idea that changing your narrative can lead to significant changes in your life. I wonder if Humphrey's theory can be used in any such way to help people.

Naomi Goldblum
via e-mail

Humphrey's article is lots of fun to think about. In it, he looks for new supporters for the theory of illusionism by offering a “more palatable” conception of the theory. But I'm afraid that just makes the issue more complicated and illogical.

This should be obvious, but a thinking person doesn't sign on to a new theory merely because it's pleasant (that is, palatable) to believe in; the theory must be supported by evidence and reason.

And there are other problems. Consciousness is a natural phenomenon. A core concept underlying most accepted art theory is that for a thing to be art, it must be created through the intentional act of a being that itself has some level of consciousness. Humphrey's idea that the laws of natural selection are the “artist” in the equation doesn't fit, because natural laws don't have intention. A painting of a lake might be art; the lake itself is not.

Humphrey reaffirms his dogged belief in consciousness as illusion even while pitching the reader on consciousness as art. But let's assume someone takes the bait. If I were inclined to believe that consciousness is art, how and why do I have to reconcile that with consciousness as illusion? They aren't the same thing.

Daniel Culhane
Madison, Wis.

HUMPHREY REPLIES: I'm glad Daniel Culhane found my essay fun. But I don't think he quite gets what I'm saying. To recap my argument, I suggested that although there are scientific grounds for believing that consciousness is in part an illusion, we would do well to think of it also as a work of art. First, doing so allows scientists to emphasize the positive, creative side of the illusion. Second, it opens up questions about what is the evolutionary payoff of “brain art.”

Human beings across the world and across history have tended to see consciousness as a door to an alternative, nonphysical reality. Modern science says that, in this belief, they are mistaken. Yet in my view, this tendency is not a mistake in human biological design. Rather natural selection has designed humans to make this mistake because, in several ways, it leads us to have more fulfilling and productive lives.

In relation to specific points Culhane raises, I'll offer three quick responses: (1) I was not asking him to sign up for illusionism simply because I've made it more palatable; I was asking him not to refuse to sign up because he finds it unpalatable. (2) I hardly think it matters whether natural selection intended to create consciousness as artwork; what's important is that what came out of the evolutionary mill does in fact have all the hallmarks of artistry. (3) Yes, of course, illusion and art are not the same thing. Not all illusion is art. But arguably, all art does involve illusion.

DETERRENTS FOR CRIME NEEDED

Crime without Punishment?” by Oriel FeldmanHall and Peter Sokol-Hessner [Perspectives], focuses on the needs of victims, as opposed to the punishment of perpetrators. I believe that this idea is interesting, and it indeed merits further consideration.

The analysis of the findings from the study on the role of third parties, however, is incorrect when it leads to questions about the role of judges and juries. The role of these third parties is wider than that of only satisfying the needs of victims.

There has to be some form of deterrence for the perpetrators in addition to satisfying the victims' needs. Otherwise, what is to prevent the perpetrators from reoffending? That is why an impartial third party is required.

Frank Smyth
Dublin, Ireland

A HISTORICAL SLIGHT

I am a long-term subscriber and enthusiast for Scientific American Mind. I find your reporting to be thought-provoking and of extremely high quality.

I read with interest Bret Stetka's article “Did Affluence Spur the Rise of Modern Religions?” [Head Lines]. It presented a typically evenhanded assessment of Nicolas Baumard's paper on the subject in Current Biology.

What troubled me was the chart at the bottom [“The Beginnings of Moral Religion”], which was attributed to Victoria Stern. It listed five venerable schools of thought, showing their approximate inception and commenting on their contribution to moral religion. But in one, and only one, was there an editorial comment critical of one of the religions. Second Temple Judaism is accused of “exclusivity,” and this alleged exclusivity is credited with why Christianity split from it.

This dogmatic myth, created by some early leaders of Christianity as a way to differentiate the new religion from its parent, was perpetuated for centuries and became one of the pillars of anti-Semitism. Like others of these pillars, it makes people more willing to accept attitudes about Judaism that they would not find acceptable in regard to other religions.

Including this “faith fact” strikes me as highly unscientific and hence inappropriate. The comment is also irrelevant to the arguments in the article.

Richard Berenson
via e-mail

THE EDITORS REPLY: While working on the brief descriptions of the five religions in this chart, we sought to make the language historically accurate, neutral and inoffensive. At the time, we did not see “exclusivity” as a negatively charged word. Now that you have explained the historical context, we see your point and sincerely regret the oversight.