Hume and that cat

Once this motorcyclist asked me – “What do you call her?” – pointing at the motorcycle. I responded — “nothing!”, and casually explained how it’s just a machine. She was shocked, and retorted in a rather jovial way — “You called her a machine, now she will breakdown!” Sort of reminded me of this David Hume quote “There is a very remarkable inclination in human nature, to bestow on external objects the same emotions, which it observes in itself; and to find everywhere those ideas, which are most present to it.” Hume goes on to attribute these inclinations to mostly children, poets and ancient philosophers. May be the lady was a poet? My own instincts tend to go the other way, I rather bestow on humans the characteristics of inanimate objects. We are also machines, just really complex ones. Guess I am no child, a poet or that ancient philosopher.

Hume’s insight is probably more prevalent, and often a cause for serious mischief. Recently I went riding to Orcas islands, but had an overnight stay at Anacortes to catch that early morning Ferry. Overnight motorcycle parking in a motel lot is always risky, so to minimize the attention I draped it with a dull two-wheeler cover. Next morning I noticed this feral cat sitting and staring at the motorcycle. In a parking lot filled with cars, this draped bike might have invoked his curiosity? We can actually never know. If I say the cat was curious, all that means is — if I was a cat, then I’d be curious. For all you know, that cat might have been a fan of Triumph motorcycles, and it was simply gazing in admiration. Or maybe it was just day dreaming. Possibilities are endless. Unless we place sensors in his brain, we can never truly understand that intend behind his action.

Not just in animals, we have this propensity to assume intend based on the actions of our fellow humans too. Sometimes it’s related to the curious actions of our spouse, or parents or maybe relatives. Our subject of scrutiny can also be the distant actions of some movie star or politicians, as seen through YouTube or TV. Lengthy contentious discussion on the behavior of such a celebrity is not that uncommon. But, whenever we assume intend based on actions, it only tells us more about our own mind, our own assumptions, which may or may not be relevant to the actual object, animal or the person being scrutinized. Not surprising that Hayek once said “We are studying mental and not physical events, and much that we believe to know about the external world is, in fact, knowledge about ourselves