[percy-l] Re: animals, order, symbol, self-consciousness, and The Fall of Man

James Piat piat1 at bellsouth.net
Fri Dec 13 21:20:13 EST 2002

Dear Marcus,

There are countless examples of non human animals using deception for
purposes of mating, escape, hunting and the like.  Some seem so elaborate,
flexible and contrived that it's hard to imagine that they are not examples
of conscious, deliberate deception employing symbols. Others, of course,
appear effective but clearly fixed, instinctive and neither conscious nor
deliberate.    I'm wondering what any of us might take as the definitive
test for determining if any given behavior is intentionally symbolic.  IOWs
is there any definitive way we can determine if another (whose consciousness
we can not directly access) is engaging in symbolic behavior or using
objects as symbols.  This is the main reason that I think symbolic ability
and consciousness are intimately related  -- it seems to me consciousness is
the only direct and convincing (albeit subjective) evidence we have of
symbolic activity.  Perhaps there can be no objective evidence of symbol
se  -- that one can always choose to interpret behavior as either symbolic
or mechanistic.

Ah something just occurs to me.  Maybe I'm using the wrong unit of analysis.
Maybe the test is not whether some individual member of a species or class
is capable of symbolic activity but whether the species itself is capable.
IOWs symbolization is inherently interpersonal behavior and can not occur or
be objectively tested for without considering more that an individual member
of a community.   Perhaps a behavior is symbolic if it is taken by other
members of the community as such.  Behavior is symbolic if other members
respond in such a way that it is clear that they perceive the act as
standing for and communicating something other than the direct consequences
of the behavior itself (that is to say the consequences of the behavior
which follow only from the behavior itself as distinct from those
consequence which depend upon others interpreting the behavior as
symbolizing something other than itself)  Perhaps this offers some hope of
an objective test for symbolic activity  -- or at least a direction in which
to seek one.

But Marcus  -- I'm curious, what criteria (informal or otherwise) did you
use to reject Seabeok example as not a genuine instance of symbolic
behavior.  And what if anything (short of direct conscious access) would you
take as evidence of symbolic intention or interpretation.  I don't mean this
as a challenge  -- I'm simply interested in your further thoughts on the
matter.   I find your comments on symbols as forms of deception helpful in
getting a better handle on this fascinating phenomenon.

Jim Piat

> But we also fall "down."  We can and do use words and symbols to lie.  As
> far as I know, that is also a sign of our uniqueness.
> Marcus Smith
> PS  Thomas Sebeok once argued--and Percy was in the audience--that some
> insects use symbols to deceive

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