Silly Goose

Filed in Episode 3 by on April 12, 2017 2 Comments

I’m in the, for me, novel position of looking after some geese these days. This usually involves nothing more than feeding them once a day and trying to keep them out of places they shouldn’t be. But this is breeding season, so there are additional complications.

One morning last week I went out to feed them. This is done in the same place every day. Usually they all come running when they see me heading that way and then it’s just a question of whether I get there first to strew their food around or whether they do, so they can all hiss at me while I’m trying to do that. But today mother goose was sitting on her nest waiting to lay an egg. The other three came running but, as soon as I was gone, they ran back and starting quacking (or whatever one calls a goose noise) at her to come and eat. Which she did. They’d even saved the greens, their favourite, for her. And then she went straight back to her nest.

nest

 

What interests me most in this story, strangely enough, is what it might tell us about humans.

As I understand it, it’s (human) language that is key to human consciousness, because it gives us the ability to think in abstractions. And because of that we can generalize and make conscious, rational plans of action. Other animals have forms of communication that convey concrete, actionable information but no other animal can, as far as we know, deal with abstractions. I’ll cite at least Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks (as mentioned in an earlier post) in support of those three sentences .

The three geese (ganders actually) acted with intent. What sort of consciousness was that? We’ve just defined them as not sharing our ability to rationalize. The trigger for their action could be an instinct to protect/favour the female during breeding season but that doesn’t explain a very specific action taken in a very specific situation (see anyway Gregory Bateson’s demolition job on the idea of instinct in Steps To An Ecology Of Mind pp 48-69). And they were communicating a specific message to mother goose. So if it wasn’t conscious in the human sense perhaps it was unconscious.

If geese can perform purposeful, context dependent actions based on the unconscious mind, why wouldn’t that be true for us too? Well it is. There are lots of things we do where we’re not busy consciously instructing our bodies what actions to take, even though we may have learned these in a conscious manner – from driving a car to building a cabinet to playing music – or football. Gregory Bateson argued that most of what we do comes from the unconscious (what he called the primary process). These days a lot of neuroscientific studies tend to support that. Some argue that not just what we do but what we think has more of the unconscious mind in it than we like to think.

Anyway, if both we and the geese perform context dependent actions from our unconscious minds, what might that tell us?

Some folks today conclude that we and all other lifeforms are somehow pre-programmed for everything; that (human) consciousness is an illusion, that we are in fact just information processing machines. Very well programmed machines that can do “deep learning” but machines nonetheless.

Bateson had other concerns (and so do I). He contended that, if the conscious part of our consciousness is what distinguishes humans from the rest of nature, then the unconscious part is what unites us with it (see another earlier post of mine for more on this). What we have in common with the rest of the planet is what makes us more than just Cartesian logic machines. Inspired by Abeba Birhane’s recent post (https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons), I’m inclined to call this planet level Ubuntu. We are more humane through the part of us that isn’t uniquely human.

Back to the geese. Aside from the, by human norms, apparently completely rational behaviour described above, my experience with the geese is they very often do things that seem to me incomprehensibly illogical – “as silly as a goose”. But I’m looking at it with human logic – actually the observational powers and logic of one individual human. If I knew what the perspective of a goose or, better, a gaggle of them was, that behaviour might be completely rational. And that too might shed a different light on human behaviour and consciousness and what is and is not in fact rational about us. That could get us into some very interesting social/political discussions. But that needs and will get its own blog.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Hi Stuart,

    Thank you for sharing your blog. Firstly I am quite delighted by your geese duties and what these creatures are teaching you – and I am grateful that you are sharing your thoughts inspired by them. Secondly, there is a lot in the blog that resounds with my (quite Jungian) thinking, although you take a different route to get there. For example – re Bateson’s notion that a lot of what we do comes from the unconscious, Jung says that consciousness is a hard won, tiny corner of a vast,unmapped jungle which is our unconscious (can send refs later if wanted) which shows up in our actions and life situations all the time.

    I haven’t read Bateson’s ‘demolition of instinct’ so bear with me when I use the term, but in order to function rationally and consciously we have had to cut off from our instinctual behaviour. That represents freedom to a degree, or so we think, but then unconscious behaviour shows up without us wanting it to, and louses things up so we find we aren’t quite as free. Or we find we haven’t factored in that – as you point out – we exist in relationship, Ubuntu style – and that our own behaviour and unconscious desires affect others and our environment and by that token, what we find there. Gosh it’s complicated and I need a load of time longer and Easter Monday lunch won’t cook itself.

    Keep writing!

    Hxx

    • Stuart Boardman says:

      Thanks Helen.
      1. I’m not sure that Jung and Bateson are saying the same thing but neither of them is around to help us. Plus I’m coming to see that discussions around conscious, unconscious, consciousness, cognition etc are always clouded by differing understandings of those terms. I am sure that Bateson differentiated between the conscious and the unconscious and that therefore whatever he might have meant by consciousness (a term he doesn’t seem to use a lot) could not be part of the unconscious. Does that matter? Only in as much as it’s good to avoid accidental disagreements.
      2. If we allow that there is such a thing as instinctual behaviour, it would certainly be part of the unconscious (in the Bateson sense) but would not be all of it. Bateson puts learned behaviours (e.g. skills) in there too. So unconscious behaviour includes lots of things we should be very happy with. I don’t think you’re disputing that but I say it for the sake of clarity.
      3. I really like your concise phrasing of the sentence beginning “Or we find…” A lot said in remarkably few words.
      4. I hope you enjoyed your Easter Monday lunch. We ate later – eggs for the third day running – quite enough for one week.

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