Monday, April 22, 2024

Intentionality of a Cat


 I’ve often wondered about the scientists and philosophers of the 17th century—and right on till thirty or forty years ago—the errant materialists that believed nonhuman animals were devoid  of mind and consciousness.  Did they not ever observe or play with a cat or a dog?   Many of this persuasion also doubted the reality of their own mind and consciousness.  Again, one wonders if these materialists ever spent much time observing and reflecting on their own mental life.


My thoughts on this were triggered by a recent encounter with a cat.   One morning  I opened the side door of my house to find a strange cat staring  at me.  I checked my mail and closed the door. The next two mornings there was a repeat performance; I open the door and there is the same grey-brown-striped cat with white paws staring intently at me, each time stationed a little closer to my door.


On the fourth morning, I opened up, and lo! In steps the cat!  She immediately butts my ankle with her head and proceeds to march around my living room, rubbing herself against chairs, book shelves, and so forth. I sat down at my desk and she came and nestled between my feet. Of course,  I then reached down and pet  her on the head, which she seemed especially to savor.  What struck me was the sheer intentionality of the cat’s behavior.  It took four days for her to accomplish her goal—humans give up more readily at their tasks.


Intentionality is a property of consciousness—it is always directed toward  something.  I discovered that the cat belonged to a couple two houses to my right, and could be seen at odd hours wandering about.  Her name was Clio, after one of the ancient Greek muses.  After about five minutes, Clio strolled toward the door, I followed, opened the door, and she shot out.


The next day I was at my desk at work when I glanced to the right and there is the cat sitting on my windowsill gazing at me.  Okay, I let her in—the side or the front door? The moment I decide to open the front door, the cat leaps off the windowsill and walks straight toward the front door.  I quickly learned two things about Clio: she was very intelligent and, as it seemed to me, psychic.   Those old mechanists got it wrong about animals.


I enjoyed what became daily visits from Clio, never tried to feed her, and whenever I gave the sign for departure, she would gracefully vanish.  I liked to watch her behavior.  She learned how to ‘speak’ one English word—hand! Whenever chance permitted, she would butt my hand with her furry head, and the meaning was clear: “Please pat me on the head! I love it!”  She would explore every room in detail and was always looking for the highest thing to leap on top of and look out a window. One thing she always did—I think it was a game she played—she would spin around in circles very fast trying to catch her tail.  She also  found certain comfortable places to lie down and nap, and I could hear her purring away.


The cat would leave and return later, peering at me through windows and doorways, letting me know she wanted back in.   One afternoon, during a visit with a colleague, Clio appeared on the windowsill.  I got up and closed the window shade.  I was too busy to entertain the cat. A few seconds later we were distracted by  scrapings and sounds on the side glass door.  What we saw caught our attention.  Clio was pounding on the door with both her paws.  Who thought a cat could be so amazingly willful?


It was a treat getting to know Clio.  She liked to leap on to the kitchen counter when I was sitting there having lunch.  She had no interest in food.  It was pure playful rapport.  We were sitting almost face to face, and for a moment I felt I was peering into the eyes of a human being. Her green eyes  spoke to me, and for a moment it felt as if I was looking into the eyes of a woman reincarnated as a cat.  


Things took a wrong turn when Clio wanted to stay in my house. I would let her out in the afternoon, but I soon noticed that she hung around my house, even late into the  night. Once at around midnight I opened the door and she tried to dive into my house.  And she was there first thing in the morning. But she was not my cat, so I had to terminate our relationship.   I’ve had cats that I lived with but never did I meet a cat with such focus and intentionality.


The modern scientific study of animal consciousness is a recent development. Until recently the scientific assumption was that animals have no consciousness or inner life.  A convenient assumption that makes it okay to slaughter animals for food, clothing, hunting, ‘sport,’ religious sacrifice, etc. By denying the consciousness of animals we rationalize their brutal exploitation. One of the dumbest form of human malice is to call the people we despise animals.   As if humans are not animals when in fact  they are the cruelest and most destructive animal on the planet.


And now for a final note—talk about coincidence or maybe telepathy.  A minute  ago when I finished writing the last  paragraph, I looked up, and there was psychic Clio on my windowsill.  Staring at me.  The perfect punctuation mark.  I have not seen her at all for at least two weeks.  But she shows up exactly the moment I finished writing and thinking about her.  By the way, there are wonderful stories about the psychic adventures of animals.  So much to learn about the mystery of life.


Tim said...

I've heard stories of half starved, abandoned pet cats turning up at their owners new homes weeks after being dumped, in cities they have never been to before. Pretty sure Ian Wilson's book 'Superself' has an example.

Miguel said...

This essay brought to mind the many times that one my undergrad psychology professors, Kurt Thomsen, would caution us anthropomorphizing animal behavior. In fact, I can even recall reading (?) that the tendency to anthropomorphize is probably pre-wired in human brains. As well it should be! After all, if we truly subscribe to evolutionary theory, why should we believe that consciousness is unique to humans?

BTW, about a third into the essay, the thought also occurred to me that the cat might be the reincarnation of a former girlfriend of yours. :)

Michael Grosso said...

It never occurred to me that the cat was a reincarnated girlfriend of mine. But that the animal I got to know was definitely conscious, had feelings and was wonderfully willful, I don't doubt.

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