Visit to Texas

31 01 2015

Last week I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in College Station, visiting two Texas A & M philosophers: Gary Varner, an old friend of Jonathan‘s, and Clare Palmer: incredibly from my home town of Kingston-upon-Thames, in the year below me at Tiffin Girls School (yes, it’s really called that), and someone I’d not seen for 30 years. Both have recently written well-received books on animal ethics (Gary’s here, Clare’s here), and they run ‘BLAB‘: a discussion group on animal learning and behaviour.

TAMU view

I gave a couple of talks. The first was on Walter‘s research, investigating whether internal states can be used as discriminative stimuli without awareness (interesting since if not, such tasks potential indicates phenomenal consciousness). Strong opinions flew about afterwards, from people working closely with animals who thought their sentience is just obvious, to Bill Klemm, a neuroscientist who argued strongly that one can never extrapolate from humans to animals (to which I invoked parsimony: who can argue with that?). However, very useful (and positive) feedback also came from Gary, and from Jim Grau, who’s work on spinal rats is a compelling illustration of how learning can occur without consciousness.

Slide1I gave the second the following evening, on the various ways to validate indicators of affective states in animals, and their strengths and weaknesses (the starting point for a book Mike Mendl and I are struggling with). This was more informal — which was just as well because during a visit to TAMU’s new avian centre that morning with Connie Woodman and Ted Friend, I started throwing up and this carried on most of the day. So, I was a little fragile (and had mouthwash and a toothbrush with me, just in case!). But despite that, the discussion was really enjoyable (and very intellectually challenging), with many fascinating comparisons to how human welfare is assessed that I’d not thought about before (note to self: read stuff by Amartya Sen).

Random food poisoning aside, it was a very inspiring and stimulating visit. Came home with a real spring in my step.