October 10, 2005

UConn Cog Sci Colloquium -- Friday, Oct. 14

Sorry I’m going to miss this one …

Speaker: Herbert Terrace, Columbia University
Title: "Thought without Language"
Time: 4pm, Friday, October 14, 2005
Place: Class of '47 Room, Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut / Storrs

In recent years, the Cartesian view that animals can’t think because they lack language has been attacked on two fronts. One objection is that animals can in fact learn language, e.g., they can produce grammatical sequences in American Sign Language or in artificial languages made up of visual stimuli. Another group of psychologists argue that animals can in fact think without language. I will defend the latter position and provide evidence that rhesus macaques can learn complex sequences of arbitrary items, that a monkey can gauge its knowledge of a particular sequence and use that knowledge metacognitively to determine when to request hints as to the identity of the next item of that sequence, that college students and monkeys use similar spatial representations to represent sequences, and that a naïve monkey can acquire serial knowledge by observing an expert perform a list. Given such serial expertise, why is a non-human primate unable to learn the most rudimentary linguistic skills? The answer takes us back to Descartes’ distinction between human and animal intelligence. I will argue that Descartes was right about the uniqueness of language but for the wrong reason. What animals lack is not the ability to think but a theory of mind. Language is of little value if you cannot infer what another individual is thinking.

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