[percy-l] an opposing viewpoint

Karey L. Perkins karey at charter.net
Thu Dec 12 16:35:37 EST 2002

Oops -- here is the plain text version -- I keep forgetting.


Here is my friend Ken's response to my first e-mail on animal communication
and consciousness that I had just forwarded to you all -- I've not read it
yet, except to see that my argument was not convincing, and I have only
briefly perused the other responses from the list which I'll look at a
little later in more detail.

Ken gave me permission to post this to the list; I'm curious as to any
counterpoints that might be made?  What do you all think? Are you swayed by
the argument below, or is there a crucial understanding that is missing?

Ken is also responding in part to my paper at:
http://www.atl.devry.edu/kperkins/papers/genesis.html  -- Caveat:  it is no
great or original intellectual work, just my own personal attempt to
summarize my understanding of Percy's language theory as I proceed forward
in working with it.

Clearly, I've not succeeded in making a convincing argument for Percy's
language theory!!!  Can anyone else, or do we all err?


----- Original Message -----
From: kdenney at mindspring.com
To: Karey L. Perkins
Sent: Thursday, December 12, 2002 3:56 PM
Subject: Re: latest version

The question before us is Percy's thesis that "a theory of language is a
theory of man."  Thus, to address the issue of language you must first come
with an understanding of what sort of creature man is -- something he
maintains people are not intersted in. The essence of your thesis, however,
that people are becoming interested in the nature of man because people
from stage to stage; they are, at this stage of post-modernism, detaching
themselves from the dualistic concept that has held sway since the
Enlightenment and evolving into a new "stage"; a state in which they are
spiritually centered.

Your issue, then, is whether Percy's concept of man -- which he grudgingly
gives in the "interview" you cite -- supports your thesis.  As you point
Percy does support that thesis because his concept of man is that of a
creature "more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated
personality .. etc."  Percy's proof of mankind as more-than-an-organism is
that man uses language in a way unique among animals.

I say pish-posh.  Percy's "proof" is, in fact, mere sophistry. He states a
proposition and uses what are essentially self-evident facts to prove his
proposition -- but ONLY those self-evident facts to prove the proposition.
This is not a logical proof.

I base my argument on three premises:  1) The earth is populated by animals.
2)All these animals have brains. 3)Animals are distinct from one another
depending on how successful they have been in evolution.

Foremost in my argument is the statement that man is an animal. He is
mammal, sub-species primate, genus homo sapiens, sub-genus homo sapiens
sapiens (except, of course, for Republicans).  He is the spawn of the earth
and the special biological processes of the planet; he is not the cast-off
gift of extraterrestials or forgetful gods. Man is the inevitable result of
what happened billions of years ago when cosmic star-stuff began colliding.
Had different permutations of collisions occurrec, I could be typing this
essay with tentacles, or not at all.

How do I know this to be true? Man has a brain, as well as other organs,
functions are essentially the same as the other animals.  As you point out,
and as my hyperlinks suggest, animals do communicate and they communicate in
highly complex ways.  But they have differences to mankind that have nothing
to do with their separation from a higher, spiritual entity.  These
differences have to do with evolution.

Cats and dogs have a higher acuity in sight and sound than are capable by
senses.  As such, they live in a world of sights and senses that we do not
perceive and cannot experience unless we adapt our senses for theirs.  While
we are confined essentially to sight and sound, they experience the world in
third dimension -- scent -- and the trails of scents they follow, as well as
the higher-pitched sounds and infra-red sights they experience -- are
fundamental to how they experience the world.  The same is true for insects
with their distinctive sensory organs.

Try to imagine the three-dimensional life that Bob leads.  When you come
from the evening to a dark house, you see only the darkness and hear the
rattling of your keys.  Bob, however, sees everything as if it were day. He
hears not only your keys but also the sounds of electric clocks and the
ticking of the water heater as its temperature adjusts.  He scents the grass
on your shoes that you don't know is there and he smells the cat you petted
last week, the last time you wore that coat.  He lives life, in other words,
in an environment far more rich in INFORMATION than we will ever know.

How does he use that information? Well, like all mammals, Bob is a social
creature so he lives in a society of other cats. Not just Sarah, but the
who live in the neighborhood -- cats you've never seen and cat's Bob has
even seen.  Wherever Bob goes he knows these cats are there and nearby and
communicates to them in the unique ways of his species.

Here is where my third premise comes in.  Man has evolved differently.
Although his senses are less keen than the other animals, his mind is of a
higher order, capable of greater cognitive skills.  But these skills were
acquired spontaneously or by design. I stress, not by design.  These
skills evolved specically to make up for the deficit of his senses.  Bob and
Jimminy Cricket evolved differently because their senses evolved differently
along with their skeletal structure and other aspects.  Human beings, being
animals, evolved as they did because of the original equipment they acquired
during the evolutionary process.

The urge of evolution is that all creatures, great and small, strive for
dominance.  Man found ways to attain that dominance not through his physical
abilities but through his mental abilities.

Man's brain functions in a way unique among the animals. That is obvious and
trueism.  But is that uniqueness the result of man being especially favored
among the animals --as by God -- or the result of a lucky break?  The answer
is that there is no answer -- because it is a question that need not be
 It reflects, in fact, the very point of inquiry: man's brain functions

This is the most important part of my argument; it is very important, but
admittedly hard to get. I will allow you a few moments to read the above
paragraph again a couple of times.

Let me put it this way. You can teach a dog a trick by getting him to repeat
physical action in response to a cue of some sort.  The dog associates the
with the reward that comes after performing the act. The dog, as you say, is
simple animal, interested only in a few things bound up by issues of his
survival, of which the reward - presumably food -- serves.  Tht is the way a
dog thinks and acts. It is the way all creatures think and act, mankind
included, because that is the way their brains are wired.

Man's brain, of course, is wired a bit differently because of the way he has
evolved. His brain is wired close enough to that of other animals that we
draw analogies from their behavior to ours.  But there is a chief difference
that has allowed man's brain to evolve further than those of dogs or cats or
non-myth-bearing chickens.

It is a unique, utterly unique, inability to accept disorder. This is the
to our intelligence and it is the key to our language skills.

There is something about the brain, as the latest scientific studies
underscore, that will not accept a world that is chaotic. It is too chancy
survive in such a world.  Brains have learned, through evolution, that by
making sense and order of the world around them they will live longer and
better than the brains in other animals.

Let's look at Helen Keller.  For a few years she lived a life like all of
seeing and hearing  and all of that.  Suddenly, she gets ill and she loses
senses that gave her the ability to perceive objects in the world.  If her
parents picked her up, she only knew that she was one minute standing and
next minute her feet were off the floor and she was in the embrace of some
creature the nature of which she could not imagine. She could not anticipate
being suddenly swept up that way: she may have been intent on moving forward
on some exploration when suddenly this unplanned, chaotic effect just
to interrupt that exploration.  When her parents decided to give her a bath,
she could not anticipate being taken away from whatever she was doing to
suddenly be subjected to warm clothes being taken off her by unseen beings
doused with hot or cold liquid.

Helen Keller lived in utter chaos. She was the prisoner of that chaos,
deprived of  her senses -- those organs which separate humans from animals
the differences of which determined our evolutionary path.  Helen could not
make any sense of the world.  Whatever she learned to do she found could be
interrupted or changed because of physical events that she could not

Then, one day, Anne Sullivan came to her house and after much kicking and
screaming, Helen Keller learned that the shapes made in her hand represented
something -- the water that also was flowing over her hand.  The ASSOCIATION
of the shapes in her  hand with the substance of the water proved to her
sense could be made out of chaos. And if sense could be made of chaos, then
she need not be the prisoner of chaos. Now it was possible to learn the ways
of the world and to be more like the human being she was born to be.

So now we come to the issue of language and whether man's use of language is
really significantly different from the way animals use language.  My answer
is no.

You and Percy base your assumption on "meaning." Words, you say, have a
specific "meaning" to us that is unique from animals.  Well, duh.

This is not the answer, nor is it a proof. There is no distinction, I
between "meaning" and "association."  The only difference is that to a human
brain "meaning" is an arbitrary assignation that helps the brain sift order
from disorder.  It is actually immaterial whether the "meaning" assigned to
object is not bound up by issues of survival, which you presume is the sole
interest of animals in associative communication.  I say that it makes no
difference whatever, it is only one more thing that makes a human brain
-- and not much more unique at that.

Percy begins from the belief that man is a higher being connected to some
spiritual mystery outside himself. He has no evidence to back it up, but it
feels right to him. It makes sense, in other words.

But in seeking proof of that, he fixates on the supposedly unique use of
language and the alleged significance of "meaning" we impart to symbols used
in our communication with other humans.

This is not a proof, because it answers its own question. It takes facts
exist that support the conclusion already reached.

The human brain, being of the earth, is a thing composed of atoms which form
proteins and amino acids that shape themselves into neurons divided by
synapses and collect in glumps of matter that collectively weighs about 3.5
pounds and swims in cerebral-spinal fluid encased by a skull that has
similarly evolved to protect the preciousness at the top of the necks of
people the brain calls Joe or Mary.  In a sense, the brain is no different
from any other such collection of atoms or primordial parts.  Like all
it evolved to drive the functions of a body that, in turn, support its

There is, therefore, ultimately nothing unique about the brain, in the sense
that a brain is a common object, like a rock.  It does, however, as I said
possess one unique PROPERTY and that is its ability to sort order from
disorder, and, having done so, it has made a evolutionary leap from the
of other animals.  This difference, however, is not a uniqueness. Some trees
are taller than other trees, but that does not make them better trees.  The
evolutionary difference between human brains and animal brains, when seen
that perspective -- that is to say from a detached perspective -- is only a
characteristic, not proof that it has a connection with something truly
unique, specifically a spiritual entity that is the very definition of sense
from disorder.

Let's take another look at that paragraph above that I said was so

"Man's brain functions in a way unique among the animals. That is obvious
a trueism.  But is that uniqueness the result of man being especially
among the animals --as by God -- or the result of a lucky break?  The answer
is that there is no answer -- because it is a question that need not be
 It reflects, in fact, the very point of inquiry: man's brain functions

Percy's brain asks a question: is man more than just an organism? Is his
nature more significant than just a being who eats, poops, writes books and
occasionally lectures to university students? In other words, Percy's brain
seeking order from chaos. He/it wants to know if there is something unique
about him, some MEANING that he has, that separates him from other

Such a question is an artificial question. It can not have an answer because
it begs the question. The brain of Walker Percy is OBVIOUSLY a unique one
because it possesses the unique ability to ask such a question in the first

Yet in the calm, clear evaluation of all of nature, the fact that one such
brain can ask a question that a frog's brain cannot ask is immaterial. It is
property of the human brain that it seeks order and, in so doing, asks
fundamentally unanswerable questions about itself. Other brains don't do
just as they don't use language in the same way.

There are trees and there are rocks and there are dogs and there are
people --
and all these things are made from the proto-atoms that combined to form the
earth and all that there is in it millions of years ago.  Each of these
objects and things have different properties but the meaning of these
properties depend wholly on the entity that beholds them and that is a
subjective meaning based on that entity's physical properties.

I hope that answers your question. My fingers are quite tired.  KD

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