Corvid Captured

Philosophy Now|June/July 2020

Corvid Captured
Seán Moran investigates indoor ornithology.
Seán Moran

It’s not a typo: I’m talking about the biological genus Corvid, rather than the COVID we’ve been enduring. At times like these, the consolations of philosophy can help to restore our peace of mind. And the corvids – the crow family – have some surprising philosophical relevance.

My photograph, taken in Mumbai, shows a heart-warming daily ritual for feral dogs. This retired sailor spends most of his small pension from the Indian Navy feeding streetwise canines. They gather at the same spot every day, anticipating his arrival with chicken and fish scraps for them. But the pariah dogs (from the Hindi for ‘outcast’) are not the only beneficiaries of his kindness. Behind him, a cheeky crow is helping himself to a free lunch.

The dogs give structure and purpose to the man’s day, which begins with an early morning trip to the Mumbai docks for cheap offcuts; back home for breakfast; then off on foot to his lunchtime distribution spot. In return, the dogs receive nourishment. Being a devout Hindu, he is keen to polish up his karmic profile in his final years. He hinted to me at some unspecified naughtiness in his naval days, and his service to these outcast canines is an atonement for that. But the bird is a free rider in the transaction. Brother crow is just an opportunist.

Corvids are smart creatures. Although they have nut-sized brains, they seem to be cleverer than dogs, and second only to primates. Barbara Clump et al’s research with crows on the Pacific island of New Caledonia reports them demonstrating remarkable levels of intelligent craftsmanship (Biology Letters, 2019). And crows can recognise and remember individual human beings; so it’s probably no coincidence that our crafty corvid was ready and waiting on an Indian street. We humans, on the other hand, sometimes struggle to tell species of birds apart, let alone individual birds – which brings me to a bizarre philosophical paradox.

Raven Mad

Whilst sitting in our homes during the lockdown, we might have amused ourselves by producing evidence for the statement ‘All crows are black’. Unexpectedly, we could do this without binoculars; without even looking out of the window. How can this be?

Here’s how: observing a grey pork-pie hat, white piano keys, and a red tablecloth in my room provides real evidence that all crows are black. American philosopher Nelson Goodman called this strange practice ‘indoor ornithology’, and said that “the prospect of being able to investigate ornithological theories without going out in the rain is so attractive that we know there must be a catch in it.”

Let’s look at how the bizarre paradox arises. We can write the proposition ‘All crows are black’ as ‘If x is a crow, then x is black’. This becomes an interesting proposition when we apply the rules of logic to it – in particular, when we translate it into its logical equivalents.

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June/July 2020