Other Minds ~ Daniel Menaker

Maxwell can do the following tricks, at spoken and/or manual commands, each trick rewarded by a small treat: Sit.* Shake hands, right. Shake hands, left. Lie down. Cross left paw over right.** Roll over (prefers bed or rug to bare floor). Walk 360 around me to the right and sit. Walk 360 around me to the left and sit. Turn around two or three times in place. Front paws up and over my forearm parallel to floor, head over arm. Front “ “ “ “ “ “ “”, “ under” “. Stand up on back paws, 360 degree revolution (American Ballet Theater Award for Worst Pirouette, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Go between human legs, turn around, come back between legs, turn around, but only if outside edges of human feet are against something—a wall, a doorway—that is unskirtable. Otherwise, on the way back, Maxwell will go outside the feet. Generally he seems not to like going under things.

Teaching him these tricks was remarkably easy. Each one took just two or three days of two or three fifteen-minute sessions. The paw-crossing one—the one that earns the most oohs and awws, the one that I’ve never seen any other dog do (though surely others do), was the easiest. I just said, “Maxwell, cross your paws,” pointed to his left paw, picked it up and put it down across his right paw, and gave him a treat. Soon all I had to do was say the words, point to his left paw, move my hand, index finger pointing, from right to left (Maxwell’s left to right), and “Viola!” (as I read “Voila” when I was nine or ten). Now all I have to do is either say “Cross your paws” or motion with my finger.

Border collies and other herding breeds and smarty breeds can follow dozens of commands— whistles, words, and/or hand signals. People say that dogs “love” following the commands they understand, as I would say that Maxwell apparently loves doing his tricks. Herding dogs will spend hours following commands with no rewards at all—and even doing their work with no commands and no rewards at all, except, apparently, the reward of fulfilling their genetically programmed destiny.

Well, now, I don’t really know that Maxwell loves doing his tricks, do I? That’s anthropomorphizing, isn’t it?*** I remember once, in particular, among many other similar times, a long time ago, seeing my wife and children playing on the lawn at the Farmhouse on a beautiful day. Will, eight or so, such a kid. Lizi, five, so much a lively and mischievous creature. My wife, so much a beautiful woman and great mother. All three so fully and joyously human. A warm full feeling expanded my heart and its immediate chestal vicinity, and I said to myself, Oh, I see—this is what real, full love feels like. (And I also understood more directly and thoroughly, more literally anatomically than ever before, why we associate love with our hearts.)

We also use the word, variously, for the enjoyment of steak, surfing, certain movies (“The English Patient,” “Notting Hill,” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” in my case), poems, fishing, sex, travel, baths, snow. It’s a baggy old word, is “love,” often used in such an all-purpose way (“Oh, I just love those lawn chairs”) as to weaken its strength. It may be that using it for the way Maxwell regards the tricks he does, as I did above, is also to derogate it. He does do them with what seems like great eagerness, gusto, and elan, it’s true. Sometimes he’s so eager that he will raise his left paw immediately, without the command, after he raises the right. This jumping the gun always makes spectators laugh. Sometimes he will roll immediately after lying down instead of waiting for the command. Sometimes he gets so excited as to start to jam one trick in with another—raise a paw and begin to fall on his side, as he does at the start of rolling over. We know what kind of internal experiences dogs’ behavior looks like it’s representing—love, enthusiasm, anxiety–but of course we don’t know what it feels like to be a dog, “love” doing tricks, act “nervously” when the oven goes on, “dislike” small children.

Philosophers down the ages have applied the idea of this kind of barrier between the direct experiences of others and our own direct experiences not in an inter-species way, as I’ve just done, but in an intra-species way. Introductory courses in philosophy generally refer to it as the Problem of Other Minds. The Problem of Other Minds asks, How can we know that everything else in human form—everything but me—isn’t a robot or some other non-human entity just acting like a human. Since we can never experience directly what another person is experiencing, how can we be sure that the other person is a person and not, say an intergalactic X5+44@1~~|}{±∑β superthrelkeld evilianator?

Well, the way I see it, you can discuss the existence of God. (Maxwell doesn’t have any doubts about this. He “knows” Who God Is—the God of Treats.) You can discuss Perception. You can discuss Aesthetic Quality. You can discuss Ethics. You can discuss the implications of the possibility of the Multiverse.

(Let’s stop there for a minute or two—stop at the Multiverse. Which I, er, love. Some physicists/theorists hold that something about quantum something or other indicates that there may exist an infinite number of universes—a multiverse. If that’s the case, then, apparently, it means that all possible universes must exist. This means that there must be another universe in which a human being named Daniel Menaker is typing this very sentence just as Daniel Menaker (Yours Truly) is typing it in our own homestead universe. Not only that, but it may be that there exists a sub-infinity of universes exactly like this one, which means that there are an infinite number of D.M.s (lucky multiverse!) typing this exact same sentence.

If this theory —a theory that James Gleick, a good friend and brilliant science writer has just now in an email christened “utter bollocks”—is correct, then an infinite number of at-least-to-me-amusing assertions have to be true:

  1. There must be a universe—an infinite number of universes, I think– in which Denial Manekar is writing this same piece with e’s as a’s and a’s as e’s. Esk Jemas Glaick.
  2. There must be a universe—etc.–in which Jennifer Lawrence just proposed marriage to me.
  3. (I’d better hurry up with this one.)There must be a universe in which I am happily and most fortunately married to an infinite number of Katherine Boutons.
  4. There must be a universe in which pigs can fly.
  5. There must be a universe in which cholesterol—especially as it is found in bacon—is good for you.
  6. There must be a universe in which everyone alive is descended from House Menaker.
  7. There must be a universe in which LeBron James plays for the Knicks.
  8. I w. a Tibetan Terrier named Maxwell never barks when his owners wish he wouldn’t.
  9. In which the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Multiverse Literary Prize are awarded to a certain party every year. Every day! But it never gets old!
  10. I. w. people get all the benefits of exercise from taking naps.
  11. I. w. anyone who beats a dog or any other animal is put in the stocks and restricted to a Vegemite diet for a year.
  12. Noam Chomsky is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
  13. This list is much, much funnier and more imaginative (and less self-centered.)

OK—back to problems in philosophy. You can discuss those other Problems—in epistemology, theology, cosmology, etc.—with some degree of reason. Although most of them have to end up with ”We don’t know.” That’s why—unlike, say, the assertion “Mozart is a genius”–they present as problems in the first place. The evidence about them, insofar as there is evidence, does admit of differing conclusions

But not the “Problem” of Other Minds. That one is just stupid. If you base conclusions about what the world is like on the aforementioned evidence, then every bit of data we have indicates that that there are Other People who have Other Minds (though with Republicans they are at best other minds). It is a bogus question, posed only so that Introductory Philosophy textbooks can meet their length requirement.

Why, with regard to Maxwell and his tricks, go on about this non-Problem, you, with your obviously and very probably superior Other Mind, might ask. I’m really not sure. It’s something about love, though. Something about how love for an animal is easier and purer than love for other humans, with their complicated and often ambivalent other minds. Something about how an animal’s learned behaviors—anthroid tricks, in particular—paradoxically demonstrate how non-human they are. Do you see what I mean? Something about how animals, dogs in particular, provide us with love in both directions across a chasm of existential difference and in so doing show us what we are precisely by differing from us so widely. But with just enough fetching commonalities to induce us, in the metropolis, to pick up their poop. And win our hearts.

*Maxwell doesn’t expect a treat for sitting on command. I think Chief Justice Noam Chomsky would say that sitting on command is part of a dog’s brain’s Deep Structure. Maxwell often seems relieved to sit, as who doesn’t?

** The most oohed trick. Sometimes even awwwed. Because when he crosses the paw, he ends up looking really thoughtful—not quite Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, but close. I am going to secretly teach him to cross his left paw over his right. Why secretly? Because Katherine says it will confuse him and that may end up making him trick-disabled. Sorry, sorry—trick-differently-abled.

*** There are many annoying and condescending conversational habits of the British (particularly in their intercourse with Americans, who just happen to have trounced them in battle), but this tic of tacking a phony interrogative onto an assertion of fact, the more emphatic the better, is the most annoying of all, isn’t it?