Morgan’s Quaker gun and the species of belief

Philosophical Perspectives 37 (1):119-144 (2023)
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In this article, I explore how researchers’ metaphysical commitments can be conducive—or unconducive—to progress in animal cognition research. The methodological dictum known as Morgan’s Canon exhorts comparative psychologists to countenance the least mentalistic fair interpretation of animal actions. This exhortation has frequently been misread as a blanket condemnation of mentalistic interpretations of animal behaviors that could be interpreted behavioristically. But Morgan meant to demand only that researchers refrain from accepting default interpretations of (apparent) actions until other fair interpretations have been duly considered. The Canon backfired largely because of Morgan’s background metaphysical commitment to a univocal, hierarchical, and anthropocentric account of cognitive architecture. I make the case that, going forward, comparative psychologists would do well to pair judicious use of Morgan’s Canon with an openness to the existence of non-humanlike animal minds comprising phenomena belonging to distinct cognitive and folk psychological ontologies. And I argue that this case gives us pragmatic reason to reconcile deep—e.g., psychofunctionalist—and superficial—e.g., dispositionalist—approaches to the metaphysics of belief.

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Devin Sanchez Curry
West Virginia University


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