Do dogs have knowledge?
Daily Life Observations Repost

Learning from Dante

Life is a kinetic experience. We act and the universe responds, letting us know we are alive

I watched my dog (Dante – a Lagotto Romagnolo puppy) race around the front lawn — nose to the ground and tail wagging madly from side to side. He would stop occasionally and bark at a bird or a leaf blowing across the garden. He wasn’t doing much in the way of meditation or reflection, but he seemed to have some essential knowledge about being a dog. This scene got me thinking about an article I read earlier in the morning on Medium — Is Consciousness a Quantum Phenomenon? By Zia Steele. It’s a provocative article, but I was thinking about the first paragraph where Zia writes, “Consciousness is defined as knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.” I started to wonder about my dog and knowledge. What’s the difference between acquiring facts and learning?

I spent a lot of time in school acquiring facts and other disparate bits of information under an unspoken premise — the store of information I was accumulating encompassed learning. I’m a bit reluctant to accuse my dog of acquiring a vast store of facts he regularly returns to and contemplates when faced with a tough decision. It’s more about him suddenly arriving at a new level of existence, which he learns about without any real review of his knowledge base. Like when he stopped trying to eat poo. One day he was going after it like fine French cuisine, and the next day he simply sniffed and walked away. He had learned something.

Krishnamurti, in “The Book of Life,” asserts learning and acquiring information are separate propositions, and while acquiring information is a cumulative process, real knowledge is not. He describes learning as “constant movement” and states you cannot store up learning and then act from that storehouse. Learning, in this sense, implies entering a new state of existential awareness.

This concept seems to run counter to the fabric of western society, where learning is often perceived as the process of accumulating information. But, in another sense, it expresses the central concept of the Christian experience, salvation. Salvation is not a process of collecting data about God; rather, in the Christian tradition, it is the result of accepting the man-God relationship through an act of faith. Spiritual enlightenment also cannot be approached in terms of accumulating information; it’s more akin to passing over a threshold from one state of awareness to another.

Knowledge

I thought about my dog a bit more and started watching him closely. He was still on a tear around the yard, and a couple of squirrels in the maple tree were scolding him. He would stop occasionally and bark at them. I didn’t hear my wife sneaking up behind me until she asked what I was doing.

“I think the dog is teaching me something about learning,” I replied as I glanced over my left shoulder at her.

“Hmmm…, don’t start peeing on the grass,” was her only response before turning and heading back inside.

I resumed my observation of the dog and thought about some older writings of Carlos Castaneda concerning the shaman Don Juan. Knowledge was a subject frequently referenced in his books. But the term, as he used it, carried connotations outside our usual frame of reference. I recalled several passages about knowledge in his book, The Wheel of Time (© 1968).

Knowledge is a most peculiar affair, especially for a warrior. Knowledge for a warrior is something that comes at once, engulfs him, and passes on.

Knowledge comes to a warrior, floating, like specks of gold dust, the same dust that covers the wings of moths. So for a warrior, knowledge is like taking a shower, or being rained on by specks of dark gold dust.

Knowledge, as described by Castaneda, is not merely the accumulation of facts and information. Instead, he uses the word in a fashion similar to the Greek concept of gnosis, an intuitive or mystical realization of a fundamental truth. But I also pieced these quotes together with the constant admonishments from Don Juan concerning the necessity of action.

A warrior lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting.”

The flaw with words is that they always make us feel enlightened, but when we turn around and face the world they always fail us, and we end up facing the world as we always have, without enlightenment. For this reason, a warrior seeks to act rather than talk, and to this effect he gets a new description of the world — a new description where talking is not that important, and where new acts have new reflections.

I thought, perhaps, I was on to something and turned my attention back to the dog. He appeared to be minimizing any actual thinking and focusing all his energy into action, as he dug in my wife’s flower bed.

“Dante, no!”

He stopped with a somewhat surprised look, stared at me for a moment, then trotted into the middle of the lawn for a bit of a lie in the sun. Evidently, dogs like lying in the sun because it is the only way for them to get their vitamin D. The dog was either in constant motion or resting in a mindless state. There didn’t seem to be much in between — no philosophical moments. Perhaps knowledge and learning are the natural by-products of action.

Action

For not even for a moment can a man be without action. Helplessly are all driven to action by the forces born of nature” (Bhagavad Gita 3:5)

Life is a kinetic experience. We act and the universe responds, pushing back, giving essential feedback, and letting us know we are alive. Action is a state of being. We are born into it, and it is all we know. Well, I thought, this certainly seems to describe the dog. He learns through action, not through examining a repository of stored facts. Even if he could talk, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you why he just stopped eating poo one day.

The whole action thing took me back to Zia’s article and how quirky quantum observations can be. Niels Bohr once said, about quantum physics, “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” He also noted we can’t independently observe other objects in the world around us because we are always part of the same system.

How can you independently observe an object within a system to which you are inextricably bound? You can’t position yourself outside of the system. You can only observe the object from your position within the system. Your understanding is the outcome of how you and the object interact, not a description of the object in an independent state. Reality becomes subjective and depends on where in the system you are when you make an observation. What we call action, is really interaction with the universe. Cause and effect — we act, the world responds, and we learn.

I looked back out at the dog, lying in the afternoon sun. I was reasonably sure he wasn’t thinking along these lines. Maybe that was a good thing. After all, he was pretty damn happy and seemed to have learned the finer points of being a dog without a lot of reflection or study. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt me to think a little less and act a little more.

He followed me back into the kitchen and laid down next to the refrigerator while I extracted a cold beer and popped the top. My wife looked up from the sink as I spoke.

“He’s one smart dog, Honey, let’s remember to let him out in an hour so he can go pee on the grass.”


Also published in Dropstone on Medium

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William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.