Distributed Disconfirmation: Refute This Animal Interrogatives Hypothesis!

by John Holbo on November 23, 2016

Long post. Input welcome on any aspect of what I am discussing but I end the post with a very specific question, to which I would really like an answer: do our esteemed primate cousins ask questions? Yet more specifically: have language-trained non-human primates demonstrated the ability to ask questions? (Communicatively elicit desired information from their fellows or humans?)

But let me first back up and give you my situation and needs.

Next semester I am helping to team-teach a new general education module on ‘Questions’. A critical-thinking class, then; but our mandate is to make it multi-disciplinary. I am supposed to start things off with questions in philosophy and a philosophy of questions. So (duh!) I start with Socrates. I am also going to talk about how, interestingly, despite the towering figure of Socrates, the philosophy of science doesn’t employ ‘question’ as a key term. (Explanation? Only a bazillion papers on that one. Questions? Not so much. But I have a passage from R.G. Collingwood, and another from Sylvain Bromberger, lined up and ready to go.)

Partly this is down to the Socratic method not being such a hot way to conduct empirical science. Partly it has to do with ‘question’ apparently falling more on the ‘logic of discovery’ side of the subject, which many thinkers have felt is important – how not! – but hard to rigorize to philosophical taste. Some phil science writers use ‘question’ interchangeably with ‘problem’, which is not obviously right, nor is ‘problem’ a key term in its own right for most folks. I’m not going to get deep into philosophy of science – no time! – but I do want to put a questioning frame around teaching questioning itself: if you want to ask good questions about physics, then study physics, not questions. The same goes for law, English lit, economics, etc. Can good questioning be taught, per se? Are some people better at it? If it can be taught, is it more a matter of limiting the downside – avoiding cognitive bias, not asking bad questions? Or is there an upside? Can we nurture our inner interrogator?

Speaking of which, I’m going to talk a bit about Bacon and good old ‘putting Nature to the question’. Just added the guy to my caricature set, by the by.

Francis Bacon

Questioning, as a concept, straddles communication, problem-solving, and self-criticism. In addition to ‘putting Nature to the question’, there’s putting our fellow humans to the question, i.e. asking stuff and getting answers (typically without the rack!) Last but not least, there’s putting ourselves to the question, i.e. having a kind of split-level soul in which one part is monitoring what some other part is up to. When we want to teach ‘questioning’, we mix up the three since they often go together. We are social problem-solvers, and problem-solving settings are great occasions for spurring self-criticism. Then again, there’s a world of difference between figuring out, and asking someone for the answer, so you don’t have to.

So the philosophy of questioning can seem like it’s about questioners – a mirror held up to interrogative natures; or it can seem quite detached from that. A question is a problem is a place at which digging may commence – or not.

Don’t even get me started with the philosophy of answers!

But I have a question for you, and if you’ve got an answer, I’d like it. (Otherwise I’ll have to figure it out myself, which would be a problem.) Do our primate cousins ask questions?

As I said: multi-disciplinary. We don’t happen to have either a psychologist or a biologist on our teaching team, so I’m going to stretch a little. I’m going to start with Socrates, as I said, but also with children, and also with non-human animals. That is, I’m going to tell students a bit about what the developmental psych literature has to say about questioning in children. When do kids start asking stuff? What are kids’ questions like? What do researchers have to say about the cognitive role of questioning in child development?

So far so good, but I ran into a research obstacle when I dropped the babies and turned to non-human animals. There is a ton of literature on problem-solving – which could be question-asking-and-answering, or maybe not. (I’d say: not obviously. It’s relatively easy, I think, to model problem-solving otherwise than on an erotetic basis – whatever R.G. Collingwood says to the contrary.) But there isn’t a lot that I’ve been able to find about the interrogative mode, as opposed to problem-solving: animals eliciting informational output from fellow animals. Are there, for example, social insects that ‘ping’ their fellows to release information? Bees dance to tell where flowers are. Do any bees dance to tell bees to dance to tell where flowers are? None that I know of. Obviously there could be conflation between imperative and interrogative modes here. You let me worry about that. Just tell me about that weird bug with the weird communication protocol you’ve heard of. But I will say this: we are more likely to presume animals are asking questions – as opposed to giving orders – if they are problem-solving. Social insects aren’t much for novel problem-solving. We don’t attribute curiosity to them, even though having a subjective itch for info really shouldn’t be constitutive of interrogative communication.

Moving up the scale, there are lots of puzzling intermediate cases. Any animal with sense organs – any perceptual capacity – is more or less constantly gathering information from its environment. Social animals with sense organs will often be gathering information from other animals in their vicinity. But opening my eyes is not employment of the interrogative mode. Bacon notwithstanding, there is a sense in which seeing is not questioning. The philosophy of questioning should not swallow the philosophy of perception in one gulp.

Seeing what your fellow social animals are up to is a slightly dicier case. Seeing isn’t questioning. Seeing seeing is closer. Sometimes. Gaze cuing. If I see my fellow pack member looking over there, I look, too. (Babies totally do this way early!) In a sense, I elicited information from a fellow animal, by following its gaze, and the animal provided it, by gazing. But this is a marginal case of questioning, since the function is a secondary one. Then again, if it weren’t for secondary functions, some things would only have one function at all, which would be a thin way to engineer. A secondary, yet proper function of my fellow pack member’s gaze is to direct my gaze, i.e. inform me of things in my environment that it is in the pack’s interest that I know about. So social animals are obviously built to do a lot of things – cue each other in various ways – that are functionally quite like asking questions and getting answers. Call it what you will. That’s kind of interesting.

Final case: our primate cousins. Do they ask questions? Surely yes, right? They communicate, they problem-solve. They are highly intelligent and highly curious. A few of them have actually been taught language, by humans, who are constantly pestering them with tests, in question form. It seems impossible that primates don’t ask questions. I couldn’t find much on this, however. Part of the problem is that ‘question’ got me false-positives, and ‘interrogative’ got me not a lot. But here’s the thing. I finally found one book that addresses the question directly and gives a definite, quite strong answer: namely, no. Primates don’t ask questions, not even the language-trained ones. Weird. Neat, if true.

The problem: it’s a book on ethnomusicology. All honor to ethnomusicology, but if a philosopher were to give a lecture on primatology, based on second-hand ethnomusicology – and if it turned out to be wrong – boy would that philosopher look like an asshole. To use the technical term for someone who has been pre-disconfirmed, in Popperian terms.

The book is: Who Asked The First Question: The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech by Joseph Jordania (Logos 2006). You can find it online but I can’t tell whether it has been posted with the author’s permission. I don’t know whether the author would want that linked to, so I shall abstain from providing Googlejuice to a possible pirate site.

You may guess that ‘question’ in the title plays on ‘call and response’ in music — antiphony. You would be right! Most of the book is comparative study of polyphonic music traditions. You will also surely guess this is yet another one of those ‘Eureka! I’ve solved the riddle of the origins of language and thought!’ titles. Having dutifully read the darn thing — while admittedly skimming some musicology bits — I don’t think Jordania displays signs of being a crank. (Sorry, you gotta worry, with a title like that.) He is currently associated with the University of Melbourne, which seems legit. He seems like a serious music scholar who has maybe talked himself into overconfidence in a non-falsifiable, speculative evolutionary hypothesis. We’ve all been there. (Except for the bit about being a serious music scholar.) I’m not going to give you a brief of his bold evolutionary theory, because it’s not strictly relevant to the question I’m asking. But you still might want to know. Fortunately, someone has written up a very clear, accurate (so far as I can tell) summary of his big-picture view of the evolutionary relationship between music and language here.

The following is the bit I want fact-checked, from pp 335-7:

Regarding questions, it has been documented for a few decades already that the vocabulary of enculturated apes contains question words as well, like “who” “what” “where” in Nim and Wishoe’s vocabulary (Bronowski & Bellugi 1980:110; Terrace, 1980:11, 167). So it seems almost obvious that apes must be able to ask questions.

Nevertheless, according to the accounts of the experiment authors, apes do not ask questions. Wonderful examples of conversations with their human teachers have been recorded and published (Terrace, 1980; Gardner & Gardner, 1975, 1984; Premack, 1976; Rumbaugh, 1977; Rumbaugh & Gill, 1977); Patterson & Linden, 1981). Analysis of their conversations shows that in human-primate conversations questions are asked by the humans only. The same can be said about the question words: apes understand them and give appropriate responses, but amazingly they themselves do not use question words in conversation with their human teachers. [emphasis in original]

The apes’ ability to comprehend questions is quite amazing. Describing Nim’s ability to be engaged in conversations on many topics, Terrace notes: “…His teachers would ask him questions such as What color?, What name of?, Who?, … Nim showed his comprehension by making an appropriate response… As his ability to sign improved, Nim began to reply to his teachers [sic] questions with more than one sign” (Terrace, 1980: 166-167). But the ability to ask questions proved to be much more difficult.

Ann and David Premacks designed a potentially promising methodology to teach apes to ask questions in the 1970s: “In principal interrogations can be taught either by removing an element from a familiar situation in the animal’s world or by removing the element from a language that maps the animal’s world. It is probable that one can induce questions by purposefully removing key elements from a familiar situation. Suppose a chimpanzee received its daily ration of food at a specific time and place, and then one day the food was not there. A chimpanzee trained in the interrogatives might inquire ‘Where is my food?’ or, is Sarah’s case ‘My food is ?’ Sarah was never put in a situation that might induce such interrogation because for our purposes it was easier to teach Sarah to answer questions” (Premack & Premack, 1991 [1972]:20-21).

More than a decade later after writing these words of how to teach apes to ask questions, Premacks wrote: “Though she [Sarah] understood the question, she did not herself ask any questions—unlike the child who asks interminable questions, such as What that? Who making noise? When Daddy come home? Me go Granny’s house? Where puppy? Sarah never delayed the departure of her trainer after her lessons by asking where the trainer was going, when she was returning, or anything else” Premack & Premack 1983:29). Amazingly, Sarah would sometimes “steal” the words from the trainers, and then she would happily repeat the questions asked by trainers to her and then repeat her own answer [emphasis in original]. And still, she never asked trainers any questions.

Earlier Washoe also failed to formulate and ask questions, though that was one of the aims of the Gardners’ project (Gardner & Gardner, 1969, 1975; Bronowski & Bellugi, 1984:110; McNeill, 1980:152-153). Despite all their achievements, Kanzi and Panbanisha do not seem to possess the ability to ask questions as well. At least, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her to-authors never seem to have claimed this so far (Savage-Rumbaugh, 1986; Savage-Rumbaugh and Levin, 1994; Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1993, 1998, 2001).

The only case when it was claimed that an ape asked a question that I am aware of was connected to the chimpanzee Lana. (Lana was a chimpanzee that participated in (Lana was a chimpanzee that participated in Duane Rumbaugh’s experiments in the 1970’s.) “When the machine [food-giving machine] was broken and food could not be loaded, Lana was able to ask: ‘?You move food into room?’” (Savage-Rumbaugh & Levin, 1994:143-144) Even if this is the case of an ape asking a question, it would be strange to consider the possibility that apes would ask a question of a machine (who can not [sic] give them an answer) and would never ask questions of their human trainers, who can interact and give them answers. Given the natural curiosity of the apes, it would be natural to expect that if apes know how to ask questions, they would be asking plenty of questions.

So, according to our current knowledge, despite all their cognitive achievements, apes do not ask questions. They are apparently very good in replying to human questions, and they do understand quite complex requests and questions, but fail to ask questions [emphasis in original]. In cases when they begin a conversation, their utterances are either statements (“Bird there”), or orders/requests (“Play me”, “Tickle me”, “Me more eat”, etc). There seems to be something very important in this fascinating fact, something connected with the evolutionary distinction between the cognitive capacities of apes and humans.

Accordingly I would suggest that it is not the recognition of ourselves as individuals that makes us humans (we know that apes, at least chimpanzees and orangutans, are as good as humans at recognizing themselves in the mirror). It is, rather, recognition of other members of the society as individuals with equal cognitive abilities and the employment of their cognitive abilities as a source of information (asking questions), that makes us human, and our language – human language.

There is a subtle connection between the ability to ask questions and the “theory of mind”. Reference to the cognition of another individual as a source of information should be considered one of the highest forms of the “theory of mind” (or TOM. Premack & Dasser, 1991; Cheney & Seyfarth, 1991; Povinelli, 1993; see also Mead, 1934). According to the available information, apes lack this ability: “The chimpanzee has passed tests suggesting that it attributes states of minds to the other one. These states, however, are either motivational…, or perceptual… Decisive evidence for the attribution of informational states is still lacking (Premack & Dasser, 1991:265). (336)

The fascinating fact about the TOM and questioning behavior is that children learn the mystery of asking questions long before they show the development of TOM. This is fascinating, as apes are able to acquire at least some elements of TOM, which appears around the age of four in children’s development (Astington & Gopnik, 1991:12), but at the same time apes seem unable to learn questioning, which appears in children’s development in the form of correctly pronounced question intonation much earlier—before a child turns even one (Crystal, 1987: 241, 143).

Is any of this provably false? If so: prove it! I’ve been reading some of the stuff he cites. These are reputable authorities. But are there relevant studies Jordania does not cite? I’m obviously nervous, relying on such a strong claim from a non-primatologist; then again, the primatology I’ve been reading does not seem to me to refute it. The TOM stuff is highly controversial, but Jordania seems to fit in with the (as respectable as any other) views advanced by, for example, Cheney and Seyfarth. I just finished reading Baboon Metaphysics, which was a lot of fun. And I learned a lot. Cheney and Seyfarth don’t come right out and say what Jordania says, in so many words. But they provide a lot of evidence that there are weird holes in the TOM capacities of baboons, that would seem to fit with the limitations Jordania is positing. (Consistency is not proof, of course.)

And it’s totally important to remember that we shouldn’t say primates can’t do something just because no one has yet proven they can.

This post has gone on long enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do my best to write up my best hypothesis about how this Jordania hypothesis could make sense. There are so many cognitively sophisticated things various non-human primates provably can do: they can communicate. They can problem-solve. They are social in sophisticated ways. Chimp A may know that chimp B knows where food is hidden, and A may try to figure out where by following chimp B’s gaze; And chimp B, knowing chimp A is doing this, may misdirect by gazing in the wrong direction. How could you be able to do that AND be trained in the use of language AND be asked questions by humans all day AND not think to ask questions yourself, from time to time? It’s kind of weird.

If you can use a tool to get ants out of a hole, why not use a tool to get answers out of someone else’s head?

I don’t much like the frame Jordania puts around his idea: Man, the Interrogative Beast! I think, in general, it’s a hazardous temptation – borderline unscientific – to be looking for the thing humans do which no other species can. We don’t, a priori, assume every species has some one thing it can do that no other species can do. And the wages of saying ‘only humans do X’ is usually that it turns out a gray parrot did that very thing last year. (How embarrassing!) I’m actually more interested in experimentally denigrating questions than in elevating the status of humans. It seems like you can do a lot of problem-solving and communicating without employing verbal interrogatives.

Or maybe Jordania’s thesis is provably false. You tell me. I’m asking.

{ 59 comments }

1

Daniel Lindquist 11.23.16 at 8:23 am

“the philosophy of science doesn’t employ ‘question’ as a key term. Explanation? Only a bazillion papers on that one. Questions? Not so much.”

Van Fraassen’s “The Pragmatics of Explanation”, ch. 5 of “The Scientific Image”, gives an account of explanations as answers to why-questions (following Aristotle). That seems like something you should look at.

On the empirical question: Kanzi requests particular tools and foodstuffs, and in general is pretty clever in what all he can do. I’m not sure what, empirically, you are looking for when asking “Do beasts ask questions?” but if any of them will satisfy you, I’d guess Kanzi might. Lloyd’s “Kanzi, Evolution, and Language” is a very interesting discussion of his case.

2

Faustusnotes 11.23.16 at 8:34 am

Have you considered cetaceans? They have advanced language and eg orcas have group-specific hunting techniques which suggest non-instinctive learning. Learning suggests questioning… The problem f course is we don’t have a clue about whale behavior.

I sometimes think my cat asks questions – in particular “where have you been?” “Wtf are you doing?” And “wtf is that?” But they might be just accusations. Or rhetorical questions. Cats strike me as the kind of animals that would eschew all of intellectual development in favor of an advanced vocabulary of accusations and rhetorical questions.

Recent evidence suggests apes have worked out how to disarm traps set by humans, and how to warn humans away from their young while they teach them (?) how to. Surely at that level of intelligence questions are inevitable? Eg “do you think that’s a trap?” “I dunno, let’s ask mum!”

3

John Holbo 11.23.16 at 8:37 am

Hi Daniel,

Thanks. I haven’t looked at Van Fraassen in years but that is a good idea. I’m guessing the chapter 5 stuff might have to do with Bromberger, whose tower example was a well-known challenge to Hempel-style stuff. If I recall, Van Fraaseen is talking about the tower, too – maybe in that chapter.

Requests for things are a bit different from requests for information. Clearly our primate cousins use the imperative mode, and, in a sense, all questions are just a subspecies: imperative demands for information.

I’m not expecting a clear answer but I do think there is a chance there might be a fairly decisive refutation of Jordania. But probably any evidence will be somewhat equivocal, which also says something about the concept of questioning. Namely, it’s a bit cloudy.

This class I’m teaching is intro, and very little of this stuff will make the cut, but I’m trying to work up my own interest in the philosophy of questions, the better to be an interesting teacher. If there is any empirical validity to the Jordania hypothesis, I may use it as a hook to motivate discussion of ‘what is a question?’ with emphasis on disentangling the communicative and problem-solving functions. Of course, if the hypothesis is problematic, I will not spread likely falsehoods about primatology. No hook is better than a false hook.

4

John Holbo 11.23.16 at 8:49 am

“Learning suggests questioning”

Yes, but learning is clearly separate from both problem-solving and interrogative communication. You obviously can’t have that last one without the first one. But you can definitely have the first without the last. And you can have the first without the second.

“I sometimes think my cat asks questions – in particular “where have you been?” “Wtf are you doing?” And “wtf is that?” But they might be just accusations.”

This is important! (Or at least interesting.) As you might guess, Jordania connects music to questioning via question-tone. Which is a thing. Babies start to employ it at the babbling stage. I put ‘Meoooow?’ in that hazy social middle. Cheney-Seyfarth talk a lot about the difficulty deciding how baboon so-called contact whoops work, cognitively. They sort of elicit ‘answers’ – but then again not. Maybe I’ll post about that if I get around to writing more about baboon metaphysics.

Part of the problem, as you appreciate, is that you can notate it how you like: as questions or imperatives or statements. ‘Where is dinner?’ ‘Give me dinner!’ ‘I’m hungry!’

In a sense, interrogative is a syntactical category – which obviously cats lack. Then again, it’s a pragmatic category. But the pragmatic sense tends to spread. You ask because you’ve got a problem or something you want. But lots of animals are in that fix all the time. Not all communication associated with problem-solving, let alone desire-satisfaction is, perforce, interrogative.

Maybe I should distinguish ‘asking to do’ from ‘asking to tell’. Cats ask us to do all the time. But they don’t ask us to tell them stuff. I wonder whether there are animals that really seem like they are eliciting, specifically, information-release from their fellows.

5

Gareth Wilson 11.23.16 at 9:48 am

Can’t help you on the ethology, but there’s an interesting pop culture treatment of this. “Arrival” is a movie about humans learning to communicate with bizarre aliens. Eventually they manage to talk to each other in simple sentences. But thinking it over, I don’t remember the aliens ever asking a question. It’s not confined to this movie, either. “Contact”, “Close Ecounters” – humans ask questions, aliens answer.

6

Michael 11.23.16 at 9:58 am

Thanks for that. It seems to me that you are right to differentiate ‘asking to do’ from ‘asking to tell.’ The asking-to-tell of young children seems to me connected with the displacement characteristic of language, namely that it can be used to characterize things not immediately evident in the co-present environment.

(One would need to include in such co-presently evident things the example of foodstuffs whose location I learn from following your gaze.)

Such displacement enables us to convey to oneself and others events etc that happened long ago, perhaps before the lifetime of the interlocutor; to convey to oneself and others the present existence of distant persons, phenomena, events etc of which there is no other co-present evidence; and project to oneself and others events etc which may happen in a future of which there is no co-present evidence.

There is no reason to hang this necessarily on language, though: probably better to hang it on imagination as an everyday characteristic of human thought/experience. But by attaching such displacement — or better, routinely imaginative projection — I can include in this back-of-the-envelope theorizing a key bit, namely our talking to ourselves, and questioning ourselves, as well as others (in some form).

So in that perspective the relevant generalizing form of questioning would be this: what do you know, or think, about a far larger world in respect of which you seem to act, but of which there is no clear evidence here and now? And to that phrase ‘clear evidence’ it would be necessary to append doings, sayings, attitudes etc which are not apparently motivated by that banana you’ve hidden, or by that ominous cracking sound from among the trees.

So you might put it this way: the existence and use of questioning in this form is what enables children to be inducted into the great mystery of what anthropologists and everybody else calls ‘culture’. And please note that such questioning need not receive an answer for the questioner to provide one for herself. Why, the kid might ask, are we so careful to hide our privates (or faces, defecation etc, depending on your society), and the answer might be a mighty slap around the ears. I’ve just laid hands on Daniel Everett’s Dark Side of the Mind, which I suspect will touch on much of this implicitly learned stuff. And please note that ‘implicitly learned’ does not at all mean that the kid — or adult — would necessarily stop questioning what it’s all about.

Well I suspect that is no help to you, having raised entities such as ‘culture’ which lead directly into the underbrush. But I do want to share with you the origin of religion in such questioning. We were driving across the Pennines to the M6 at the edge of the Lake District when our daughter, about three years old, asked the 4327th question of the journey, ‘why are those hills there?’ My wife, no adherent of any creed involving personal, active deities, finally broke under the constant interrogation. ‘Because God put them there!’ she snapped. And so the origin of all religion was revealed.

7

John Holbo 11.23.16 at 10:05 am

“the existence and use of questioning in this form is what enables children to be inducted “… into the great mystery of what anthropologists and everybody else calls ‘culture’.”

Here I would disagree (although I thank you for your interest in the topic!) I think it’s pretty well established that there are non-human primate cultures. In a sense.

http://www.livescience.com/7064-case-closed-apes-culture.html

Which, if they don’t ask questions, would go to show you can have culture without questions. In a sense.

“Can’t help you on the ethology, but there’s an interesting pop culture treatment of this. “Arrival” is a movie about humans learning to communicate with bizarre aliens. “

By weird coincidence, I taught the original short story version just this semester, in SF and Philosophy!

8

Gabriel 11.23.16 at 10:14 am

Even more interesting vis-a-vis culture: orca have it, at least in some sense of the word.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2091134-orcas-are-first-non-humans-whose-evolution-is-driven-by-culture/

I remember a night of mild boozy debauch with my anthropology professors in grad school, during which we talked about (amongst other thing) the ways in which ideas of culture and anthropology had expanded to encompass more and more intellectual territory. ‘What’s next,’ I asked, to which the department chair immediately and without hesitation responded, ‘Non-human culture.’

9

SusanC 11.23.16 at 10:23 am

As already mentioned, cats might be a good candidate. “asking to do” is very evident in cat behavior: asking humans to make them breakfast, asking humans to open the door so they can go out… I agree “asking to tell” is different. There is some research that cats are one of the few animals that can track human gaze direction (its uncontroversial that dogs can do this; the research question was whether cats can too). So: do cats ever ask “where is it?”

Why cats? (Or dogs) They’re domestic animals, and so are evolved/selected to understand human beings.

10

Faustusnotes 11.23.16 at 10:27 am

John, I’m suggesting my cat appears to ask for information beyond demands. Especiallly when I move furniture around and he investigates the change, he clearly blames me and appears to be asking why and wtf in equal measure. Of course I’m being a big facetious but I suspect dog owners could give you a wide range of examples of this. E.g. Sheep dogs asking their owners should I herd it or bite it? I think often scientists are so carefully avoiding anthropomorphism that they also miss communication – see e.g. All the scientists of animal behavior who think cat human relationships are all one way feelings.

I’d say there has to be some form of questioning among animals, even if just who are you? See eh a type of mongoose that welcomes members from other clans into their own family but gives them the lowest jobs for a year or so (I saw this on an excelllent Japanese tv show called Darwin is here). Negotiationat this level must involve questions even if we don’t see them.

11

Daniel Lindquist 11.23.16 at 11:42 am

Hi Holbo,

Van Fraassen is indeed building on Bromberger; both towers and flagpoles cast shadows in chapter five.

“Maybe I should distinguish ‘asking to do’ from ‘asking to tell’.” — This does seem profitable. I’m not sure how cleanly asking to be told something comes apart from asking for other things to be done, though. If a young child asks “Where’s momma?” then sometimes no information will satisfy them; only momma herself will. Any other response will merely stall for time while waiting for momma. And then sometimes you can just tell them where momma is, and that will satisfy them. Though perhaps I am just raising an old puzzle about what satisfies desires (“He asked for water and she gave him milk”), and the question-asking business can be given a clean account apart from that.

It’s been a while since I looked at epistemology of testimony stuff, but I know at least Richard Moran makes a big deal about telling as a special kind of epistemic activity, e.g., in “Getting Told and Being Believed”. Telling in Moran’s sense involves giving your word, asking for trust and having it given, then the hearer being able to appeal to your authority as a justification for what they think, etc. If telling in Moran’s sense is required for the relevant sort of questioning to happen, then it seems that only humans can ask questions; telling is a human practice that’s tied in with the rest of the game of giving and asking for reasons, and we’re the only ones in that line of work.

12

Bill Benzon 11.23.16 at 11:47 am

To some extent it depends on what you mean by “ask a question”. Every morning a baboon troop has to make a decision: Where do we go today? How do they make the decision? It’s not like they can call a meeting of the executive committee and have them thrash it out. Or can they?

Years ago a primatologist named Hans Kummer observed how Baboon troops made this decision (Primate Societies: Group Techniques of Ecological Adaptation, p. 66):

The troop performs slow on-the-spot movements, changing its shape like an undecided amoeba. Here and there, males move a few yards away from the troop and sit down, facing in a particular direction away from the center. Pseudopods are generally formed by the younger adult males and their groups. For a time, pseudopods protrude and withdraw again, until one of the older males in the center of the troop rises and struts toward one of the pseudopods. At this, the entire troop is alerted and begins to depart in the indicated direction.

I suppose you could treat each of those pseudopods as a question: “Shall we go this way?” But you could equally treat them as a suggestion: “Let’s go this way”. And when the older male gives the signal, is he answering a question or giving a command? “Wagons, ho!” Of course, they aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities.

13

Rob Chametzky 11.23.16 at 1:34 pm

If you haven’t already, you might want to look at the work of Stephen Anderson

https://cowgill.ling.yale.edu/sra/

Or, perhaps better yet, email him and ask him.

–Rob Chametzky

14

Michael 11.23.16 at 1:51 pm

To John@7: I do know that it is well established that something behavioural ecologists have called ‘culture’, that is, learned patterns of behaviour, sometimes even actually taught rather than picked up by imitation, does exist among many other species. However ‘Culture’ — perhaps I should have capitalized it — comprehends much more than a repertory of skills. Culture with a capital C comprehends also an aesthetic of behaviour, including politeness and moral criteria, in a wide range of versions across the human world; a narrative understanding of a much larger world (people long dead or imagined, events long ago and/or far away, motives demonstrated or imputed explaining actions, etc.); hypotheses, aka theories, about the cosmos; some version of a folk psychology which goes well beyond Theory of Mind; and a wide repertory of behaviours each of which is appropriate to a highly differentiated series of fellow humans, animals, imagined beings etc.

Much of this Culture with a capital C is not copresently visible, and in particular, much of what Jerome Bruner has noted as the invisible part of action — the imputed motives, thoughts, attitudes, etc — could not to be accessed by sheer observation. These, and much more of Culture, has to be learned, or at least inferred, by a wide variety of processes, sometimes by explicit verbal and/or corporeal instruction, sometimes by example, sometimes indirectly through repeated patterns of narrative, sometimes by painful reaction from others, sometimes by more or less accurate speculation.

So from that point of view (of Culture with a capital C) your question about asking seems to me to be very fruitful and fresh. I hope it may take hold well beyond any one discipline of enquiry.

Then there are various Cultures (note the capital) which are based largely on questioning itself as a core value/behaviour. Among my friends the behavioural ecologists the style of Culture that they most value is cultivating The Question. They often ask of each other, ‘what is the question?’ And if you, as a budding researcher, can’t find a question, if you’re not sharpening one question after the next, you are sunk. And then there is the habit of mind/heart cultivated in Zen/Ch’an Buddhism, of poising yourself at the moment of asking, the moment where the curiosity is strongest and the urge to enquire the sharpest. In Korean Zen (Seon) the meditation taught is often just to ask over and over of everything, ‘what is it? What is it? What is it?’ And for that matter ‘investigation’ (of immediate experience) was already one of the characteristics the Buddha taught as a key trait to be cultivated.

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Z 11.23.16 at 1:53 pm

So let me get this straight, John: not only are you asking us to prove a negative, you are more or less asking us whether Great Apes possess the nature of the Interrogative Buddha. 無 is appropriate as ever, I think.

Well, I’m going to rise to the challenge and risk a definitive answer. Have language-trained non-human primates demonstrated the ability to ask questions? No, they haven’t, and I feel confident to state this because of the following proof by contradiction.

The main and most famous Great Apes Language projects had the scientific ambition to settle the question of whether Great Apes could learn some form of human syntactic constructions. Within the paradigm of human language that was presupposed (and potentially argued against) in these studies, questions are thought to be much more involved than for instance simple transitive or even passive constructions. As a consequence, had any of these projects yielded even a semblance of a question, that would have been a huge deal and a more relevant finding (by far) than the boilerplate “X understands n numbers of signs/words/symbols” article on the topic. I have read countless articles of the latter form and can find countless more in a 5 minutes of browsing while I have never even heard a claim of the first sort (considering I maintain a semiprofessional interest in linguistics), I am confident that no such claims were ever made.

This brings us to your refined observation that “interrogative is a syntactical category […]. Then again, it’s a pragmatic category.” The above of course applies only to the syntactical category side of the question. I think addressing the other side requires exceptions clarity in distinguishing the two sides. In my line of trade, we consider the syntactic side of a question as quite devoid of intrinsic interrogative force or meaning: the structures pre-exist, it acquires question-like features (that is to say the property of requesting a missing piece of information) only subsidiarily, and then again not always (think for instance of how embedded interrogative construction gained quantificational force in Japanese, or if you master a more exotic language, how “what” functions equally well as relative pronoun in English).

If that theory is anywhere near correct, then it follows that there are in fact two quite independent phenomena at play: the request of missing information and the use of certain syntactic structures to accomplish such requests. In this more precise framing, I am 100% confident that no Great Ape has ever demonstrated the ability to learn the construction of the relevant syntactic structure (not surprisingly) but I am at the same time reasonably confident that some may have exhibited information-seeking behavior (for instance showing an object to a more knowledgeable ape in order to learn how to use it) though I admit no clear-cut example of relevant studies immediately comes to my mind. Whether you want to consider information-seeking behavior questions is… an interesting question (I would say no, but YMMV).

Next, my son (why not? he’s 15 months, very cute, and asks many questions but purely through rising pitch onomatopoeia or meaningless syllables). Questions, or not? I would say yes, because I dispute that these utterances are entirely without syntax. I could give a long theoretical account based on the interaction between prosodic phases and syntax, but I’ll pass and just declare that I believe that MRI should be able to identify syntactic processes going on when a toddler says “Da?” while pointing at an unfamiliar animal.

But you were crowd sourcing, and I like to brag, so here goes. Tomorrow, I’m meeting Noam Chomsky. Yep. I’ll ask him a variant of your question (if I get the chance), and I’ll report. How’s that for crowdsourcing?

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John Garrett 11.23.16 at 2:29 pm

How about crows? Definitely intelligent, curious, with language (two languages at least, one with family and one with others), and as I listen to them it sure sounds like there is an exchange of information going on, which one would imagine might include questions. No idea how you’d test this though.

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 2:40 pm

“So let me get this straight, John: not only are you asking us to prove a negative, you are more or less asking us whether Great Apes possess the nature of the Interrogative Buddha. “

I’m asking whether you can prove a positive (and I would be very shocked to learn I am asking you whether Great Apes possess the nature of the Interrogative Buddha!)

The hypothesis is the negative: No X’s are Y’s. That’s the hard one to prove. I’m asking for a positive disconfirmation: An X that is a Y. Generally it’s thought to be easier to play this side of the court – the find-one-positive-case side, rather than the prove-there-are-no-positives side. (Just so you don’t think I’m unsporting.)

“The main and most famous Great Apes Language projects had the scientific ambition to settle the question of whether Great Apes could learn some form of human syntactic constructions.”

I’m aware of the syntactic research but it doesn’t seem to the point for the reason you yourself give.

“In my line of trade, we consider the syntactic side of a question as quite devoid of intrinsic interrogative force or meaning”

I think any line of trade that took the syntactic side has having intrinsic interrogative force should probably find another line of trade! That would be nuts, yes.

“I am 100% confident that no Great Ape has ever demonstrated the ability to learn the construction of the relevant syntactic structure (not surprisingly)”

I agree. But we can surely set syntax to one side as neither necessary nor sufficient (though interesting). That isn’t the sense that is relevant to my question (although it is a card-carrying sense of ‘interrogative’.)

“I am at the same time reasonably confident that some may have exhibited information-seeking behavior (for instance showing an object to a more knowledgeable ape in order to learn how to use it) though I admit no clear-cut example of relevant studies immediately comes to my mind.”

I would be interested in studies of this sort, especially something like showing an object to learn how to use it. In a general sense, I’m interested in modes of information transfer between animals.

“Whether you want to consider information-seeking behavior questions is… an interesting question (I would say no, but YMMV).”

I would say no, too. It’s borderline at best. I suppose we are circling back to the TOM issue. An ape can copy another’s tool use – say – without any TOM. But children ask a lot of questions before getting to the TOM stage.

In a sense, a question might be anything that triggers information release. But that is inevitably going to be too broad – at any rate, it will include things that we wouldn’t call questions. But it’s not obvious how to narrow it in a non-arbitrary way.

I agree that your son’s use of question tone is questioning behavior, because we know what it is going to grow into. But that’s a bit like looking at an embryonic stub and saying ‘that’s a leg’. We let it pass, because we get the point, but in an obvious sense it’s false. It isn’t YET. (You are probably right about the MRI, but even if that test failed – as it might – I would still call it questioning behavior.)

I think I know what Noam will say: no. He’s been a bit fixated on the syntax side of it for some years now. But thanks for asking!

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M Caswell 11.23.16 at 2:50 pm

OMG I love this.

It seems hard to me to say exactly what a question is. You remark “interrogative is a syntactical category”- but is it? I’m no linguist, but it seems interesting to me that no particular linguistic structure- either of inflection, word choice, or word order- is needed to ask a question in the languages I’m familiar with. Sure, there are typical interrogative constructions, but while these are common, they’re not necessary. Smyth claims that a question can be asked in Greek in every one of the four moods. So-called ‘question words’ are just pronouns. So how do we put our statements (and our pronouns) to interrogative use? I’m suspicious of the unutterable ‘question mark.’ Does it symbolize something in the language, or something extra? It doesn’t seem implausible to me that there could be a language-trained being who happened to be incapable of doing that extra something. But does that extra something belong to the category “pragmatic”?

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 2:52 pm

“However ‘Culture’ — perhaps I should have capitalized it — comprehends much more than a repertory of skills. Culture with a capital C comprehends also an aesthetic of behaviour, including politeness and moral criteria, in a wide range of versions across the human world”

I’m with you up until ‘across the human world’, Michael. Here’s a passage from Frans de Waal, “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?”

“The word fashion was first used in relation to animals by Köhler, whose apes invented new games all the time. They’d march single file around and around a post, trotting in the same rhythm with emphasis on one stamping foot, while the other foot stepped lightly, wagging their heads in the same rhythm, all acting in synchrony as if in a trance. For months our own chimps had a game we called cooking. They’d dig a hole in the dirt, collect water by holding a bucket under a faucet, and dump water into the hole. They’d sit around the hole poking in the mud with a stick as if stirring soup. Sometimes there were three or four such holes in operation at the same time, keeping half the group busy. At a chimpanzee sanctuary in Zambia, scientists followed the spread of yet another meme. One female was the first to stick a straw of grass into her ear, letting it hang out while walking around and grooming others. Over the years, other chimps followed her example, with several of them adopting the same new “look.”

“Fashions come and go in chimps as in humans, but some habits we find in only one group and not in another. Typical is the hand-clasp grooming of some wild chimpanzee communities, in which two individuals hold hands above their heads while grooming each other’s armpits with their other hands. Since habits and fashions often spread without any associated rewards, social learning is truly social. It is about conformity instead of payoffs. Thus an infant male chimp may mimic the charging display of the alpha male who always bangs a specific metal door to accentuate his performance. Ten minutes after the male has finished his performance—a dangerous activity, during which mothers keep their children near—the little son is let go. With all his hair on end, he goes to bang on the same door as his role model.”

This is one of the reasons why the ‘do they ask questions’ question is interesting to me. How can you have Culture without questions? And yet?

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 2:55 pm

Thanks for the link, Rob. Ironically, Firefox is currently telling me that’s an unsafe connection! Not configured properly. Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to receive (information, that is.)

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M Caswell 11.23.16 at 2:58 pm

I see that Z went over much of this- strike my comment above if you wish.

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 3:00 pm

“How about crows?”

Bloody clever corvids. I’m actually just starting “The Genius of Birds”, by Jennifer Ackerman. So I’m totally willing to learn about all that jazz. I should probably try to find out if Alex, the famous grey parrot, asked questions. If so, how and about what.

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Gabriel 11.23.16 at 3:02 pm

Michael:

I spent much of my adult life studying culture. Your definition is both idiosyncratic and ignores decades of intellectual work by anthropologists, sociologists, folklorists, etc – this is of course fine (in theory), but I’d suggest finding another word instead of culture to avoid confusion.

I was trained a folklorist, not an zoologist, but in the case of orcas, we are not simply talking about a set of skills passed down (which is nonetheless culture): we are talking about food preferences, recreational preferences, methods of education of offspring, and preference/presence of greeting ceremonies, all different amongst differing clan groups in the same geographical area. At least one group in history – in Eden, Australia – formed a pact with local human whalers to hunt cooperatively.

The case of dogs and ‘questions’ is an interesting one, given that dogs have been a course of convergent evolution with humans for tens of thousands of years. My dog is incredibly smart (herding breed) about many things, incredibly daft about others. She’s perfectly capable of indicating a preference for a door to be opened, alerting me to danger, reading minute changes in body language and hopefully/fearfully anticipating what will come next, but while I put money down that she has a theory of mind (me as an autonomous individual – studies have been done that support this) nothing in her behavior has ever struck me as particularly questioning. Questions to her, I think, would be superfluous to the way she interacts with other animals:

1. Desire something (play/food/affection).
2. Read other animal to see if possibility exists.
3. Begin desired action and read subject. If Other reacts negatively (yells/bites/etc), cease.

I would guess questioning begins as a refinement of 2, as a way to further refine the social read you get of a situation, to avoid possible censure in 3. Censure that, by the way, most dogs don’t hold grudges about. Getting bit on the ass for a bad social read seems to be an understood risk of interaction, so long as the bite can be contextualized as flowing justly and logically from the circumstance.

Questioning, to me, presupposes advanced language and strong social structures. It would not surprise me that humans are the only ones capable of questions. But it would also not surprise that other mammals with advanced languages – orcas, say, who show regional linguistic variation (more culture!) but also the ability to learn other cetacean languages – have the ability as well.

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MisterMr 11.23.16 at 3:16 pm

I think that the concept of “question” should be defined more restirctively than enticing information from someone else.

1) suppose that I’m walking around in Japan, and I realize that, while I’m speaking normally with my gaijin friends, all other people speak with a much lower tone of voice. I get some information from this, but I’m not asking a question, in fact I’m not acting but just receiving information.

2) or suppose that I want to know if my cat likes chocolate, I then give him a piece of chocolate and watch what happens. Now I’m actively researching some information but I’m not asking, more like testing, and the cat respose is not really an “answer”.

Thus I think that the term “question” should be restricted to 1) a willful comunicative action that is meant to cause 2) another willful comunicative action that meant to give me some information that 3) is the piece of information that I asked.

If you put it this way, it is obvious that a “question” implies a lot of assumption on the behaviour of others, and a lot of cognitive “reflexivity” (assuming that the others think as I do), so even a simple question is a very complex thing. Asking for something, on the other hand, doesn’t imply the same reflexivity, it just implies that I know that when I say “food” the food will come to me.

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Z 11.23.16 at 3:17 pm

I’m asking whether you can prove a positive (and I would be very shocked to learn I am asking you whether Great Apes possess the nature of the Interrogative Buddha!)

Ah, for my defense I’ll remark that Michael simultaneously and independently picked up the Zen thread (but the rest was just being humorous).

The hypothesis is the negative: No X’s are Y’s. That’s the hard one to prove. I’m asking for a positive disconfirmation: An X that is a Y.

Well sure, but that you are not going to get for the reasons I mentioned: it would be a huge deal. So huge, I tell you.

I think any line of trade that took the syntactic side has having intrinsic interrogative force should probably find another line of trade! That would be nuts, yes.

You are making Jonathan Ginzburg and Ivan Sag very sad (they wrote 460 pages on interrogative constructions arguing just what you dismissed). But I see we agree on the syntactic side.

I would be interested in studies of this sort, especially something like showing an object to learn how to use it. In a general sense, I’m interested in modes of information transfer between animals.

As you know very well, the principal mode of information transfer is imitation, and great apes at least purposefully elicit imitation (that is to say they draw the attention of a youth and perform an action, even meaninglessly, in order to trigger imitation). Young dogs and wolves (and I believe other carnivorous mammals) sometimes bring unusual preys to the group. When dogs do it and you look straight at them, it is impossible not to think that they are asking you “What am I supposed to do with this?” But, and here the syntax comes back with a vengeance, isn’t it the case that comparable information transfer among humans are thought as very distinct from questions, effectively because they lack the linguistic support, and that we may recast them as questions more metaphorically than actually?

I would say no, too.[…] a question might be anything that triggers information release. But that is inevitably going to be too broad – at any rate, it will include things that we wouldn’t call questions. But it’s not obvious how to narrow it in a non-arbitrary way.

Yeah, precisely. I would say the linguistic input is the non-arbitrary way.

I think I know what Noam will say: no. He’s been a bit fixated on the syntax side of it for some years now. But thanks for asking!

Oh, about your original question, of course he will say no. But I intend to press on (along the lines that you dismissed as nuts above, it is of course quite technical but even Noam does not deny that there is a question-like syntactic feature in pure syntax and within his line of inquiries, it is far from clear why and how this feature should have emerged, whereas other syntactic features like person, number or case have natural explanations).

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Z 11.23.16 at 3:22 pm

“I should probably try to find out if Alex, the famous grey parrot, asked questions.”

Apparently, he did, once. Wanted to know the name of his own color, which seems to be a pretty good question. But poor Alex has been one of a kind (if one feels generous).

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 3:35 pm

“As you know very well, the principal mode of information transfer is imitation, and great apes at least purposefully elicit imitation (that is to say they draw the attention of a youth and perform an action, even meaninglessly, in order to trigger imitation). Young dogs and wolves (and I believe other carnivorous mammals) sometimes bring unusual preys to the group. When dogs do it and you look straight at them, it is impossible not to think that they are asking you “What am I supposed to do with this?””

I agree that the crux is not just imitation, which we can agree is quite common but some of this attendant stage-setting. Provoking others to do things you can imitate. Bringing an odd object so you can see what another animal makes of it is pretty suggestive behavior, as you say. Definitely proto-questioning. Looks like.

“along the lines that you dismissed as nuts above, it is of course quite technical but even Noam does not deny that there is a question-like syntactic feature in pure syntax”

OK, school me on this. Why is this not nuts? It sounds to me like you are saying that an apparently arbitrary sign-feature is somehow non-arbitrary. How could that be? I must be misunderstanding you because, obviously, no feature of a given communication system or mode can possibly be necessary or sufficient for communication, per se. There can’t be anything at the signal level that is shared by all questions across the universe, and across all possible universes. You can always imagine a different system that would work.

One thing that Jordania explores in his book, which is interesting but vastly speculative is … well, I’ll just quote:

“I propose that hominid responsorial singing (through the question intonation) together with increasing complex social interactions in hominid groups were the main factors that prepared the way for the emergence of the human ability to ask questions.”

He said it, not me!

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Sebastian_h 11.23.16 at 4:56 pm

There is something about ‘question’ that we aren’t defining well. I think we can tease it from the cat discussion–we are having trouble distinguishing “where is the food?” from “feed me!” with cats. We don’t want the typical question to be just a rephrased demand.

I would suggest that it might be fruitful to look at things in the zone of “how are you?”. That kind of question seems unambiguously question-like and seems plausibly employed by social animals. So you might find research on primates or similarly intelligent animals asking about health or well being.

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Yankee 11.23.16 at 5:09 pm

One of the old Zen guys, talking about the method, said “The thing is to let down a hook for questions.” That is, like bizzaro Socrates, they want the student to be questioning them. “It is probable that one can induce questions by purposefully removing key elements from a familiar situation” there you go.

Also not a primatologist, but: asking a question implies that you are ready to give credence to the answer. So in a suitably advanced social/cognitive situation, asking a question is an invitation to be lied to; spying-out is superior strategy. Seems relevant somehow: primates typically sex in public and eat in secret.

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parse 11.23.16 at 5:41 pm

Roger Fouts, a professor of psychology at Central Washington Univeristy who helped train Washoe in ASL reported that the ape did ask questions, and specifically seemed to be “asking-to-tell” in some cases.

Washoe has astutely reacted to the feelings of others as well. One
of our longtime volunteers, Kat Beach, became pregnant in the summer of
1982, and Washoe was fascinated with her swelling belly, often asking her
about her “BABY”

That’s from an article in Psychology Today posted on line at https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200007/my-best-friend-is-chimp

Influenced by the first paragraph of your post, before I saw the explanation of the illustration, I thought it was Dr. Zaius. My bad.

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Scott P. 11.23.16 at 5:51 pm

“I don’t much like the frame Jordania puts around his idea: Man, the Interrogative Beast! I think, in general, it’s a hazardous temptation – borderline unscientific – to be looking for the thing humans do which no other species can. We don’t, a priori, assume every species has some one thing it can do that no other species can do.”

Maybe it’s unscientific, but I think it’s a very important question. I come from the view that only sentient (i.e. conscious) beings have natural rights, and also accept the postulate that humans are sentient. So a major issue in philosophy as I see it is: what is it to be sentient? How do we detect sentience in others? Are humans the only sentient beings on Earth? Is artificial sentience possible? These are all, I think, very salient questions.

I’ll note that so far only one generally accepted test for sentience exists, that is the Turing Test, but what is really interesting about the line of thought that you pose is that the Turing Test is all about testing a subject by asking questions. In every incarnation that I have heard of, the subject is free to ask questions of its own but that is not required. If the ability to ask questions is indeed bound up somehow with sentience, that suggests other ways of testing for sentience and possibly turning the Turing Test on its head, which is a very exciting idea.

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Flavio Gomes 11.23.16 at 7:01 pm

In the world that we live: soldiers marched against other and we eat animal carcasses, there is not much distance from homo erectus.

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peep 11.23.16 at 8:05 pm

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The first question!

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Z 11.23.16 at 8:48 pm

OK, school me on this.

Well, once and for all, let me make clear that everything in my answer has an implicit “according to a common but far from universally accepted view of syntax, namely minimalism” in front of it. That being said, it is believed that deep down in the syntax of questions there is a syntactic object (a feature in technical parlance) that makes it a question (or perhaps more precisely that is responsible for it having the syntactic properties of being a question). The properties of this feature-once we get into it-are neither tautological nor inscrutable: its existence entails clear empirical predictions that can be tested (an amusing one is that it is hard to translate “What did no one buy?” in Japanese, for instance). Now you write

It sounds to me like you are saying that an apparently arbitrary sign-feature is somehow non-arbitrary.

I guess I am saying something like that, or more precisely Chomsky is, and I intend to question him on that point because the reason underlying the existence of this feature is very unclear in his conception (the answer “to ask question, duh!” is not available to him as he believes that syntactic features are independent from communication uses).

How could that be? […] no feature of a given communication system or mode can possibly be necessary or sufficient for communication, per se.

Here I don’t understand your objection, but let me point out that the existence of this feature has little to do with communication.

There can’t be anything at the signal level that is shared by all questions across the universe, and across all possible universes. You can always imagine a different system that would work.

I don’t understand what you mean by signal level but the rest of the sentence seems to presuppose you are believing that the thesis is that this feature exists as a matter of logical necessity (“all possible universes”). That is not the proposal. The proposal is that it exists as a matter of cognitive (or, if you wish, biological) necessity. So it is supposed to be shared by all questions (with a linguistic content) and in fact by many other syntactic constructions across all possible human languages though of course one can easily devise a formal language with no such property. I should point out that this question-like syntactic feature is not the only one believed to exist: another one, for instance, is believed to be present in all simple transitive sentences across all human languages, yet another one explains third-person verbal agreement.

Under this conception, the mystery is precisely why such an abstract syntactic feature (in itself a rather formal object) exists (the puzzle is more acute for the question one than for the transitive one or the agreement one for a variety of complicated reasons) and how it came to play a ubiquitous role in information requesting.

But (to restate) if such a feature does indeed exist, then the question of what is a question is an intricate one: one the one hand it involves information requesting and the social, cognitive, pragmatic… aspects thereof; on the other and quite independently, it involves the abstract properties of this feature. The interaction of the two may be hard to disentangle and indeed, the fact that we use human language to investigate it does not help. Exactly the same phenomenon and related pitfalls is at play in the investigation of what is a copula relation à la Naming and Necessity, for instance.

Hope that helps!

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Chris (merian) W. 11.23.16 at 8:53 pm

What an interesting topic. Thanks, John! I’ll sure follow up some of the references. I don’t have any positive information about the main question re: animals. But reading through the comments, there’s a fair amount of top-down reasoning apparent, of a type I’m starting to be inclined to classify as a fallacy, or at best a heuristic device: “In my theory of how X works, it requires questioning. Beings of class/species A engage in X. Therefore they must have questioning.”

When I went back to graduate school four years ago I didn’t anticipate what would be easy and what would be hard. As it turned out, and is glaringly obvious, now that I’m getting to the “write up results” phase, the hardest part for me as someone with her own scientific research credentials is the development of good — clear, effective, complex-enough-to-be-interesting, but simple-enough-to-be-answerable — research questions. In my case, it’s hard to overcome being driven by methodology (“hey, this is a neat method! i’m sure if I apply it to THIS problem area, I can find out something new and interesting”) . What helps is, other than just growing into better mastery of a sub-field and thus having a more holistic view of it, to encounter people from outside the field, or even outside science, who have a problem they need solved. Obliquely, this, and your post, make me think of the bit from studying Charles S. Pierce years back and discovering abductive reasoning to generate hypotheses (“All balls in this urn are red. These two balls are read. Maybe they come out of this urn”).

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cs 11.23.16 at 9:09 pm

I’m curious how you make the distinction between “problem solving” and “questioning”. The first thing I though of when I read the beginning of this post was watching my dog going around the apartment looking for something. It seems pretty clear to me that if he could express his thoughts in human language, it would be in the form of a question i.e. “Where is it?”

More generally, think maybe by focusing on forming questions in human language, you are defining “asking a question” so narrowly that it doesn’t say much about an animal’s thought process to observe that animals don’t do it.

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 11:12 pm

“So it is supposed to be shared by all questions (with a linguistic content) and in fact by many other syntactic constructions across all possible human languages though of course one can easily devise a formal language with no such property.”

Ah, OK, I totally get it now. I thought you were leaving that out. Which would, of course, be nuts.

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 11:43 pm

Sorry for comments getting stuck in the queue while I slept. Let me just elaborate that what threw me about Z’s comment was the idea that some symbolic forms could have ‘inherent force’ of one sort of another. I took that to imply an even stronger claim than the (already no doubt strong claim) that there could be human linguistic universals. In my view, even if all humans innately employ question tone (rising tone) to indicate questions, it still wouldn’t be the case that rising tone is inherently suited to questions. The link is symbolically arbitrary, even if it is biologically strong.

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Val 11.23.16 at 11:44 pm

MisterMr @ 24
2) or suppose that I want to know if my cat likes chocolate, I then give him a piece of chocolate and watch what happens. Now I’m actively researching some information but I’m not asking, more like testing, and the cat respose is not really an “answer”.

Even if your cat directly asks you for chocolate, you should not give it to him. If he asks you ‘why?’ you should say ‘because chocolate is very bad for cats and can even be fatal’.

Whether your cat will understand you, or believe you, could be the subject of further lengthy philosophical debate, but anyway don’t give your cat chocolate because he might be tempted to actually eat it, in spite of perhaps in a ‘state of nature’ not doing so, because he may believe that what you give him must be good for him, even though it’s not (which could also raise many philosophical questions)
http://www.petmd.com/cat/emergency/poisoning-toxicity/e_ct_human_food_poisoning

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 11:47 pm

“I’m curious how you make the distinction between “problem solving” and “questioning”. The first thing I though of when I read the beginning of this post was watching my dog going around the apartment looking for something. It seems pretty clear to me that if he could express his thoughts in human language, it would be in the form of a question i.e. “Where is it?”

That’s the thing, though: the dog clearly does not express his thoughts in human language, and it’s far from obvious there’s such a thing as doggy linguistic mentalese, so do we need to imagine what is going on in his head as question-like? I think the answer is: no. By that I mean: I think we can imagine how problem-solving – ‘putting Nature to the question’ – can go on, cognitively, without having to imagine the animal formulates an inner question, as it were.

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John Holbo 11.23.16 at 11:59 pm

“Under this conception, the mystery is precisely why such an abstract syntactic feature (in itself a rather formal object) exists (the puzzle is more acute for the question one than for the transitive one or the agreement one for a variety of complicated reasons) and how it came to play a ubiquitous role in information requesting.”

I can buy this, purely hypothetically, of course.

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John Holbo 11.24.16 at 12:23 am

“look at things in the zone of “how are you?”. That kind of question seems unambiguously question-like and seems plausibly employed by social animals”

The hell of it is: that is typically not a request for information, functionally, but a form of social grooming. The linguistic equivalent of patting your neighbors fur, to show you are friendly.

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JimV 11.24.16 at 1:35 am

Hearsay report: dogs trained to search for specific things (drugs, cadavers) as instructed by spoken commands, will sometimes detect something there is a command for after being told to search for something else, and will pause and look back at their trainer as if to inquire, “Are you sure you don’t want me to find Y instead of X? (Because I can do that.)”

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Sebastian H 11.24.16 at 1:46 am

“The linguistic equivalent of patting your neighbors fur, to show you are friendly.”

Yes and no. It may have a primary function of showing that you are friendly, but it STILL elicits a response.

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John Holbo 11.24.16 at 3:08 am

Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, Sebastian. I thought you were proposing pure, clear, unambiguous case of questioning – which yours is not, seems to me. I guess you are proposing a proto-case. That is, first you have an animal that greets (and has its greeting returned). This isn’t really questioning – yet – but questioning could plausibly grow from such a seed. (Much as all software attempts to expand to the point where it can read email!)

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John Holbo 11.24.16 at 3:16 am

“will sometimes detect something there is a command for after being told to search for something else, and will pause and look back at their trainer as if to inquire, “Are you sure you don’t want me to find Y instead of X? (Because I can do that.)”

Yes the gaze cuing stuff. Per the post, that is very interesting. It’s clear that social animals have a number of communication mechanisms that are functionally equivalent to questioning but which aren’t quite like OUR questioning. So we have to ask ourselves whether we want to call them that.

Questioning communicatively serves to: enhance or refine/redirect the flow of information from a fellow creature.

(The connection with problem-solving: manipulating objects serves to enhance or refine/or redirect the flow of implications from it.)

Social animals have a lot of feedback loops by which animals keep in touch, and keep in touch with what each other are keeping in touch with. Functionally, this does the work of questioning but a lot of it is instinctive and a lot of it has analogies with things humans do, which we don’t call questioning, per se. The kicker. When we humans do these sorts of things, we may explain it in terms of ‘inner questioning’. All the gaze-cuing stuff. It’s as-if I am questioning. But plausibly that has it backwards. Questioning, proper, is a thing that only comes later.

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Z 11.24.16 at 8:48 am

When we humans do these sorts of things, we may explain it in terms of ‘inner questioning’. All the gaze-cuing stuff. It’s as-if I am questioning. But plausibly that has it backwards. Questioning, proper, is a thing that only comes later.

I think that and the doggy mentales stuff (“I think we can imagine how problem-solving – ‘putting Nature to the question’ – can go on, cognitively, without having to imagine the animal formulates an inner question, as it were.”) is precisely correct.

Regarding Jordania’s

“I propose that hominid responsorial singing (through the question intonation) together with increasing complex social interactions in hominid groups were the main factors that prepared the way for the emergence of the human ability to ask questions.”

I have a much higher tolerance for sweeping grand theories of Humanity than most so I am not at all unsympathetic to the proposal, yet in that particular case and with my emphasis I am totally unconvinced. This kind of explanation falls directly onto why I would call Chomsky’s objection, that is to say: if he is right and questions originally occurred in complex social interactions of singing hominids, then why is it the case that all man languages allow “I like John and Belle” and no human language allows the question “Who do you like John and?” (and a million others)? The meaning is quite transparent and there clearly is a range of social interactions in which the question is very natural and useful, so why not?

I would be quite open to a theory in which the syntactic apparatus appeared in the brains of some Sapiens and was first put to use to produce adversarial choral singings then subsequently for communication between peers (and indeed perhaps I would discover that this is exactly what Jordania precisely means with “prepared the way” if I actually read what he did).

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ZM 11.24.16 at 9:09 am

The woman who works with Koko the gorilla who communicates with sign language writes in a chapter about the personhood of gorillas for a Peter Singer book, that Koko does ask questions, although it doesn’t go into detail apart from saying she expresses questions with eye contact and facial expressions. I think her sign language doesn’t tend to use grammar or syntax, so she would possibly say “kitten?” and make a questioning face rather than ask “where is the kitten?” in a more grammatically correct form.

“The gorillas have been observed to use these kinds of variations to mark relations of size (e.g. small versus large alligator sign), number (birds versus bird by repeating the sign), location (scratch-on-back), possession (KoKo’s-BABY signed simultaneously), manner, degree, intensity or emphasis (tickle signed with two hands), agent or object of an action (you-sip signed by moving the signing hand toward the intended agent), negation (negating the attention sign by changing its location), to express questions (through eye contact and facial expression) and as a form of word play akin to wit or humour (simultaneously signing sad frown when asked to ‘smile’ for the camera).”

Source: The Case for the Personhood of Gorillas, by Francine Patterson & Wendy Gordon, PAOLA CAVALIERI & PETER SINGER (eds.), The Great Ape Project
New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993, pp. 58-77

http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/patterson01.htm

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Paul Davis 11.24.16 at 11:52 am

John, two links that are not directly related to your question but touch a little on some of the issues raised in this thread.

The first touches on questions of how groups of primates might learn to carry out coordinated activities of various kinds (and notably proposes dancing/moving in time with each other, not the choral singing you cite from Jordania, as a basic organizing ritual).

The second is more general, and covers how there is a continuum of culture across a broad swath of the animal world.

Neither book addresses your central question of whether or not any primates have ever been known to ask questions.

(1) Keeping Together in Time (Dance and Drill in Human History) by William H. McNeill
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674502307

(2) The Evolution of Culture in Animals by John Tyler Bonner
https://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Culture-Animals-Tyler-Bonner/dp/0691023735/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1469747148&sr=8-4&keywords=the+evolution+of+culture+in

(blurb:)

Animals do have culture, maintains this delightfully illustrated and provocative book, which cites a number of fascinating instances of animal communication and learning. John Bonner traces the origins of culture back to the early biological evolution of animals and provides examples of five categories of behavior leading to nonhuman culture: physical dexterity, relations with other species, auditory communication within a species, geographic locations, and inventions or innovations. Defining culture as the transmission of information by behavioral rather than genetical means, he demonstrates the continuum between the traits we find in animals and those we often consider uniquely human.

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Paul Davis 11.24.16 at 11:58 am

John writes:

That’s the thing, though: the dog clearly does not express his thoughts in human language, and it’s far from obvious there’s such a thing as doggy linguistic mentalese, so do we need to imagine what is going on in his head as question-like? I think the answer is: no.

Isn’t this just rewrapping Dennet’s intentional stance in linguistic terminology? Surely the critical leap here is “there is something going on is his head”; whether this gets formulated using the precise syntactical form of “asking to tell” seems rather insignificant without a clear position on whether the intentional stance is a convenient narrative fiction or a causative explanation.

In the case of the sign-using primates, I think we’ve largely accepted that the intentional stance does in fact provide a sufficiently accurate causative account of mental states, so that we feel free to move on to John’s specific question about “do they use a specific syntactical form?” Dennett (and others) might disagree that the initial assumption is sensible, and could possibly provide an argument about why asking questions (“using a specific syntactical form”) is actual an epiphenomenon caused by the intentional stance, rather than any actual internal mental states and/or machinery.

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Frank Wilhoit 11.24.16 at 1:20 pm

Two points:

1) Interrogation is certainly a semantic category rather than, or over and above, a syntactic one. This is shown by the reversal of the roles of the actors, if nothing else.

2) Irene Pepperberg ought to be asked about this, with reference to her far-reaching work on semantic communication with parrots.

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ZM 11.24.16 at 1:50 pm

Paul Davis,

“so that we feel free to move on to John’s specific question about “do they use a specific syntactical form?” “

But Koko is one of the gorillas who has learnt the most sign language, with being able to sign about 1000 words and understand more words than that, but if you read anything quoting her communication she doesn’t communicate in proper sentences, its like very broken English. I don’t think she would need to know how to make a sentence with a question in, if she can just make a face or indicate she is asking a question with a gesture or something. Her sentences are not that degree of complexity or length.

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dbk 11.24.16 at 2:48 pm

Thanks so much for a great post, John, and to all the commenters for thoughtful and provocative answers/responses to the specific question, viz. “have language-trained non-human primates demonstrated the ability to ask questions?”

Speaking from the standpoint of a language teacher/applied linguist rather than that of a theoretical linguist or a philosopher of knowledge/language now.

Question: What makes it possible for a human being to ask a question?
I would suggest as starting-points:
a) the ability to consciously recognize an information gap and zero in on it. So: conscious realization of the unknown + focused attention on the specific unknown (and its salient feature(s)).
b) a presumption/hypothesis that an other can supply this gap in information.
c) a communicative mechanism for conveying the specific gap that entails very low cost (in biological terms, i.e. “low energy consumption”) for both questioner and respondent.

b) seems to me to require at least a primitive TOM (“I don’t know; Mommy knows”), but this isn’t at all my area, so I won’t continue this line of thought.
c) requires a higher level of symbol manipulation than that required for declarations of fact. In English, it presupposes the ability to understand that symbols can stand in for other symbols, including interrogatives (Who-what-when-where-why) and deixis (this, that), and pronouns (he, her, it), and to manipulate them even in rudimentary fashion to elicit the specific response sought.

Starting from ZM’s comment @48, that Koko expressed questions through eye contact and facial expressions (a means of questioning that seems to me at least somewhat comparable to that used by infants in their pre-language stages of preparation for language deployment), my answer to your original question would be a qualified “no”.

We are certainly not the only curious species on the planet, but the ability to acquire massive amounts of information through asking directed questions seems to be, well, human. And the cognitive costs of this, in terms of energy consumption, are sufficiently low as to make it a highly efficient means of learning.

The really interesting question to me is what feature(s) of the human neo-cortex made this evolutionary cognitive-linguistic achievement possible. Clearly it is associated with the language function, but since we know that chimps can understand questions very well, but do not spontaneously ask them by manipulating language symbols, there may be other areas of the neocortex involved.

Another area one might look into is the field of expressive aphasia (aka “Broca’s” aphasia). Some patients lose the ability to ask Wh-questions (a basic question form), which suggests to me that the questioning faculty is piggy-backed onto the core language faculty, and can be lost through brain trauma while other faculties (naming, declarative statements) remain to some extent intact.

Profoundly fascinating stuff.

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dilbert dogbert 11.24.16 at 4:00 pm

MMMMMM???
My horse got bitten on the nose by a rattlesnake. My wife was working with her horse nearby. My horse came over and was bothering my wife. Was my horse asking, Can you help me? She did notice the bite and called the vet.
When my horse alerts on the trail, is he asking me, Should I be afraid?

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Jason 11.25.16 at 9:40 am

Having lived with animals for all my 44 years, it has become apparent that they do indeed try to communicate with us, but unfortunately most of the time we are unaware of it. Household pets and horses have become closer to us humans because of the constant interaction and this probably helps them to determine how they should be communicating with us.

Unfortunately, in today’s modern world we are so busy and focussed on a myriad of things at once that we don’t pick up on the animals signals. I have found when you bring your mind into a relaxed state, if we are with an animal there are times when we can pick up a lot more of their signals.

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Z 11.25.16 at 9:52 am

Just to keep my promise, some comments from NC on the question. He in fact had something quite interesting to say, I believe. He argued that not only the computational system (the syntax) used in in the linguistic capacity is specific to humans, the atomic elements on which this computational system operates (words, to simplify) are also quite specific and in particular not clearly referential (or in fact clearly not referential, as he would put it, but that would be a topic for a post in itself) whereas to the rather large extent great apes, parrots, corvids and cetaceans can manipulate or use symbols to achieve communication, they seem to do so in a rather rigidly referential way. As a consequence, he denies (of course) that animals can ask anything like “What is this?”or “How do you open this box?” in any technical sense, as he already doubts that animals have a concept of “this” or even “open” or “box” analogous to that of humans (not to mention of course of the concepts of “What” or “is”).

In the end, he did say something that I find not altogether uninteresting to discuss in a seminar on questions: that the properly human components of question-complete with syntactic form-is probably first and foremost an internal mode of organization of thoughts, and that communicative modes of information request are only peripherally linked to it.

Or in philosophical slogan form: Can Great Apes ask question? Maybe. Can they ask question to themselves? Probably not.

As an aside, he also pointed out a biological fact that undermines Jordania’s thesis: that there is no evidence of external manifestation of human language before Homo Sapiens Sapiens and in fact some evidence (the vocal tract and linguistic behavior of !Kung San people) that it occurred after the separation of the !Kung San from other human groups. So there are strong reasons to doubt at least some particular points of Jordania’s story.

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Dr. Hilarius 11.26.16 at 11:45 pm

I know almost nothing about linguistics but will share a cat observation. Two of my cats were trapped as ferals, one a kitten of 6 months, the other its mother of unknown years. Momcat took 10 years to learn to “meow” to humans. She is tightly bonded to her offspring, Uncle Spook. Momcat knows that I bring Uncle Spook in and out of the house (she is indoor only). If she can’t find him in any of his usual spots in the house she comes to me, meows and follows me until I bring Uncle Spook to her. Is this a question (where is he?)? Or is it a command (go get him!)? Either way, I obey.

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Gabriel 11.28.16 at 6:01 am

My biologist wife adds: Alex the Parrot once asked, ‘What color ?’ in regards to his own reflection in a mirror and learned the answer (grey) after repetitions of the question/answer.

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M Caswell 11.28.16 at 3:30 pm

“the properly human components of question-complete with syntactic form-is probably first and foremost an internal mode of organization of thoughts, and that communicative modes of information request are only peripherally linked to it.”

I think something like this is true. There’s a profound difference between ‘asking a person’ and ‘asking a question.’ The first- no matter how polite- is an imperative. The second is more mysterious.

You can ask a person for a thing (forgiveness, permission, spare change, directions, etc), and this is just a gentle command or entreaty: “Please give me forgiveness/permission/your spare change/directions to Fenway Park.” Note that imperatives have their own grammatical structures (in the languages I know).

You can even ask a person to tell you the answer to a question- or, as we say, ask them a question. This is the ‘information request’ mentioned often above. But this is still an imperative: “Please tell me if you will forgive me/where Fenway Park is.”

But to ask a question is something else. It is necessarily embodied by no particular grammatical structure. It’s parasitic on ‘having a question’ or ‘wondering’: “Will he forgive me? Where is Fenway Park?” It calls for that unutterable question-mark, or that unwritable question-tone. When spoken, this sort of question is just as likely to be involved in an ‘ignorance transfer’ as an information transfer, as happens when we ‘plant a question’ in someone’s mind. Serpent: “Did God really say….?” Eve (to self): “Hmm, well…did he?”

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