Causality: My Cats Know About It

img 1752 20121212 1237163022When trying to pinpoint the root accomplishment of human intelligence, we are frequently tempted to use our inquisitive nature as an explanation. The relentless “why?” of a five-year-old seems to be as good an indicator and instigator of intellectual progress as any. We humans are intelligent because we want to find out.

Nice theory. Only it’s not true. We ask why? to determine causality. We have this notion that for something to be, something else has to have made it that way. Why is the sky blue? Because scattering of light favors high-energy photons, and blue light is at the high energy end of the spectrum. First, the spectrum. Then, scattering and back-reflected color.

It is true that the researching the causality behind observation is how we figure out a lot of things. But it’s not a unique achievement of human intelligence. 

As is proven by my crafty cat, Shasta. Shasta has an eating disorder, a strange form of bulimia. She will overeat from the food bowl and then vomit all the food. I am not very happy about that, since cleaning the daily puddle of puke is not anyone’s favorite chore. It is also something she understandably doesn’t like. So, after eating any food and puking it out for a while, she decides the food causes the vomit and she refuses to eat it any longer.

When I feed her treats, on the other hand, the amount of food she eats is controlled, and she rarely vomits after a feeding session. Of course, that made her very fond of treats, and she is now depending for probably 50% of her food intake on treats I give her.

Now, while there was evident causality research going on in the dismissal of food that made he puke, the crafty attempts to get her beloved treats are comically complicated. And it is here that she excels at showing me what causality is all about.

Shasta is not easily entertained with toys. She figures out after a short while she can’t eat them, and then she doesn’t react to them. So playing with treats is her main form of stimulation. Which means I try to challenge her all the time. In the end, she will always get her treat. But if she works hard for it, she can get is much sooner.

The latest trick I am trying to get her to understand is the Trash Can Dance. In the kitchen, there is a round chrome trash can she loves to jump on. She also loves begging by circling around my legs, as all cats seem to do. Finally, she is a quiet cat, but has the most awesome vocalizations; so I try to get her to make noise for her treat.

When she wants a treat, I have her jump on the trash can by simply tapping on the chrome top twice. Then she jumps off the can and runs around my legs (if necessary, I show her that’s what I am expecting by pointing a finger down). Finally, when she’s on the can again, I wait for her to make a noise. As soon as she makes the noise, she gets the treat.

This last part completely baffles her. Remember, she’s quiet, so she apparently doesn’t associate noise with anything positive. This might mask her ability to grasp that making noise could be important.

But she will stand on the top of the can, after performing her song and dance, and stare at me with that helpless exasperation we call frustration. She doesn’t know why she is not getting the treat. Until she gets the treat, but she doesn’t know why.

Which gets us back to causality. To understand any causal nexus, you have to be able to do two things independently:

  1. You need to be able to tell the commonality between several events. 
  2. You need to be able to tell which of the common elements is relevant

Shasta is good at understanding the nexus between treat and motion. She cannot tell that noise is the component she’s missing. She understands causality – she knows that if circumstances are similar (which requires some form of abstraction), then she’s going to get her treat. But the noise part is something she doesn’t process yet. 

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