On felines and free will

“When did you become such an old cat lady?” I was recently asked (yes, on Facebook). I can’t deny it, somewhere along the line I seem to have turned into one. I’m not a total mad old lady, because I resolutely refuse to anthropomorphise my cats. I like them, but I don’t grant them much in the way of human attributes. Indeed, I relish some of the feline behaviour which would be highly immoral in humans, and often berate them for not bringing home enough half-dead animals to quietly torture. It will be a lie, though, to say that I don’t talk to them, quite often, and that sometimes they may even answer back. Some might call the claim that they talk anthropomorphisation, but as they only do it when there’s no-one but me around I have no evidence that it is not actually me putting on silly voices.

I probably shouldn’t even admit to the above, but it is relevant because of a conversation I had with one of them the other day, which was surprisingly thought-provoking, particularly given how tiny their little brains are, and how one of the manages to be a bit simple, even for a cat.

Here’s how it goes. In the mornings, when I feed them, I’m always amused by the habitual behaviour they exhibit. I come downstairs, and go to the kitchen to clear up the old food and put down new. At this point Bear often gives a plaintive and rather pathetic little mew, which is somewhat incongruent to the deep and rather plummy tones with which he speaks, if indeed it is him. Whilst I’m dishing out the new food, and moaning at them for not consuming all of the dry food, Bear will groom Suki. This apparently affectionate behaviour will then be negated by him pushing her aside to get to the bowl of wet food, leaving her the unpopular dry. I usually go and flake out on the sofa, with my iPad, to read emails and pretend that I’m starting to work. Bear will finish eating first, and return to his usual place on the table. Suki will then eat some of the wet food, and then immediately come and sit on me, for she is incapable of being around more than half a square foot of horizontal human flesh without going into purr and curl mode. What particular amuses me is that it is only when she starts purring that it occurs to Bear (who is, as noted, a bit of a divvy) that there might be some stroke action to be had and he comes belting over. Though I may provide a certain amount of comforting cushioning, I’m not a large man and there’s only really room on me for one self-infantilising feline. He is thus forced to either half-slump on me, or curl up next to me, taking second best.

So, the other day, I was laughing at him for being such a routinely unforesightful animal, and in general for the predictable behaviour they both manifest. I did admit to him, however, that it is this behaviour which endears them to me. I noted, as above, they do have tiny little brains, and that there probably isn’t room in them for sophisticated decision-making. In other words, it is the almost total absence of anything resembling free will which makes them so appealing. I have to confess that, given my rather patronising view of his brain power, Bear rather threw me a blinder by pointing out that this was precisely what he had been thinking about me. That my behaviour is comically identical most mornings, and that those few mornings when it varies it does so consistently, in that I come down later, seem more preoccupied with putting huge amounts of food and coffee in my own body than giving them any, snarl a lot, and am accompanied by a strange and not very pleasant odour. That what Bear and Suki appreciate most in me is precisely my lack of free will.

Let’s be clear here. I’m an atheist, a naturalist, and a determinist. I have long considered free will to be an illusion, albeit a very pleasant one. Given the unrepeatability of time, we have no evidence that the decisions we make could ever be otherwise. That we can imagine they were is no evidence at all. What is imaginable, contra the bizarre claims of people such as Platinga, should never be grounds for ontological assertions. The illusion of free will is useful, partly because it’s nice, and partly because it gives us a framework with which to assert moral norms. But what Bear drew to my attention was that precisely what I value in myself—my fantasy of undetermined decision-making—is precisely what I do not value in you. Yes you, dear reader. (I am presuming, as this is only my second proper post, that I have no readers yet other than those who I already know.) I realise that, for instance, it is exactly the fact that should I suggest a deviation from a previously arranged pub crawl Mr Bibby will inevitably call me a four-letter word that makes me love him so. That should Mr Clark ever turn up when he said he would, I would fall over in surprise. That my similar brother and I unchangingly have conversations which can roughly be divided into a third palpable nonsense, a third smut, and a third gratuitous over-intellectualisation. That Mr Lavelle infallibly gives as good rant as he gets. That the boy Eaton, when he deigns to be in the same hemisphere, is as loyal and grouchily affectionate as ever. That I can not see, or even talk to, Mr Shalgosky for a year or so and he still remains as contemptuously amused at me as he has been since we were eleven. And presumably, God knows what it is, there is some aspect of my intrinsically will-free and predictable behaviour that makes at least a proportion of those named (and maybe even a couple of others) value me. It can’t be that I feed you every morning. I’m pretty certain it is not for overlong waffle like this.

Personality, Bear helped me realise, is the exact opposite of free will. And I’m damn sure I know which I value more.

Bear: surprisingly insightful

Bear: surprisingly insightful

6 thoughts on “On felines and free will

  1. Do you ever bite them, Stuart? Having talked to a friend, we’ve decided to try to end the shame and secrecy around the perfectly natural fact that we sometimes give our cats a little nibble.

    Re: the other part – would you say that a less predictable person has less personality? Surely not. There must be a U-shaped curve involved.


    • Actually, I don’t bite, despite the fact that Bear considers my nose fair game for a chew of his own. But between you, me, and the other members of the Secret Mad Old Cat Lady club, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Re the second point: I think so, in a strict sense. We may use the phrase “s/he has loads of personality, they’re really whacky” or similar; but the whackiness I’d say often ends up being them doing things that *we* would not think of or, having thought of, not do; and usually in quite a restricted domain. In the former case, certainly, their behaviour may be subjectively “unpredictable” to me, in the sense that I do not make the same cognitive associations as they do, so when I am with them they do things I do not expect. But I would argue that, to an objective and empirical observer, patterns would emerge; and that someone who was wholly unpredictable, even subjectively, would considered odd and probably somewhat dangerous. The unpredictability is also somewhat limited: in, for instance, one of our many online debates you might be a bit surprised on the occasion when I concede you have a good point, or modify my stance somewhat; but were I to resort to ad hominem, or even get a train over there to bop you on the nose, you’d not only be more than surprised, you’d probably think there was “something wrong” with me. I’m not saying our behaviour is so simplistically determined 100% predicatable to each other; but the range of options that we will accept without looking for some external agency (such as drunkenness or emotional turmoil) I’d say are actually rather narrow, even for the delightfully whacky members of society.


  2. The honest response to that is that I think you merely think that you think that you do; that you are confusing spontaneity and a sense of fun with genuine unpredictability. I’d say that, the closer you are to someone, the more your interactions with them are predictable; not necessarily that they are 100% known, but let’s put it in Bayesian terms:for any given situation, you have a highly informative prior. A truly free-willed choice, if such a thing were possible, would conform to the principle of indifference: the probabilities would have to be equally assigned between all possible outcomes, even those that are morally outrageous.
    Here’s an example. Suppose that, in the circumstance that you were to say to me “I think you’ve had enough, Stuart” let’s say that there were four possible outcomes: (a) that I say “Yes, you’re probably right, I should go home now”; (b) that I say “Yes it seems so, I’ll stay out but shift to soft drinks”; (c) that I say “Nonshensh! Mine’sh a large gin and tonic. With a gin chaser.”, or (d) that I invite you outside for a fight. Are you really saying that you would find me a more attractive person if all of these were equally weighted? Or that, actually, you have a fairly precise idea of the probability values for each options, including the fact that (d) has a probability of 0? (The fact that the likelihood of option (c) increases proportionate to the amount of previously-consumed gin (up to a certain point) is one of the major problems for people who want to believe in a non-corporeal free will. Religious people should all get really drunk at least once in their lives, and then try and tell me that their will is somehow independent of the chemical fluxes in their brains.) If your response is “No, but that’s not the kind of situation I’m talking about,” then my response is that this is precisely my point: that the apparent unpredictability is within, well, very predictable parameters.
    Like everything around free will and our comfortable illusions therein, I don’t recommend forefronting this idea in your interactions with people. I certainly don’t: I am quite happy to embrace the noble lie 99% of the time; and I’d say that’s what you are doing when you say you like unpredictability. But that doesn’t stop me from, when I reflect upon it, coming to the conclusion that the reality is far from this; that we are dull and repetitive machines who narrate our dull and repetitive actions back to ourselves and, either in order to spice the narrative up a bit, or out of simple observation bias, add in concepts such as free will and (un)predictability.


    • Tom, this should *reinforce* your faith in reality. You know, real reality, as wot is made of things that are things and causation and stuff. Not weirdo things that aren’t actually things but somehow affect the behaviour of things that are things even though there’s perfectly reasonable (if not 100% specified) explanations of how the things that are things behave. Teh kittez is part of the former, look there’s a picture to prove it. But you can’t have your free will back, sorry. I’ve taken that from you and you’ll just have to accept yourself as a self-narrating automaton from now on. Sorry.


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