Friday, 18 November 2011

Do cats have Asperger's - or do they inhabit a parallel universe?

I’m sitting here freezing because an alien cat has just materialised in my study only to disappear through an open velux window onto our roof. I thought it was our cat, until I saw its bottom retreating around the chimney. I tried coaxing it back inside, but, inevitably, it paid no attention to me whatsoever – they never do, unless food or a warm lap’s on offer.

 Now I can’t shut the window in case it can’t find another way down. If it had been an ugly cat, I might have been tempted to let it suffer the consequences of its own curiosity – but even a non-cat lover like me can see that it’s an extraordinarily beautiful representative of its species.

Part of my lack of basic fondness for cats might have something to do with what my brother  – who is fonder of cats than I am – once pointed out: if they were ten feet long, they’d rip our throats out the instant we attempted to thwart their slightest desire. In fact, having watched our own handsome tabby deliberately keeping maimed mice alive for the sheer pleasure of further torturing them, I’m not sure there would need to be any thwarting involved in the process. They’d do it for the sheer fun of it. Of course, my brother’s on firm ground here – just look at lions (from a safe distance).

If dogs were ten feet long, of course, their behaviour wouldn’t alter one iota (apart from producing industrial quantities of poo and eating us out of house and home). The only danger to owners would be from displays of exuberant affection: imagine rolling about on the carpet with a friendly, extravert polar bear. A gargantuan Staffordshire Bull Terrier would probably lick you to death (mind you, it would be able to carry you down to the shops and back safely in its jaws).

I’ve heard several people advance the theory that cats are basically autistic, and I can follow their reasoning. For a start, they won’t look you in the eye. Unlike dogs (but like chimpanzees) they don’t understand that when a human being points at something they’re meant to look at it. As with those on the autistic disorders spectrum, odd items will snag their attention at inappropriate moments – the corner of a desk, a lamp, anything. Just as suddenly, they’ll lose interest. Playing with a dog can be exhausting because they never want the game to end – playing with a cat is frustrating because they seem incapable of maintaining interest for longer than about thirty seconds. Has anyone not experienced the irritation of their pet pussy suddenly spurning the piece of string that was the centre of their universe a split instant before in order to lick a paw (or, more usually, their fundament).

Frankly, it’s hurtful.

When we arrive back from holiday, our cat will race down the stairs or through the cat flap, be excited for a few seconds, and then, just as often as not, wander off again - if there’s no food on offer. 

Like autistics, they’re terrified of straying further than a few hundred yards from their home. A trip to the vet in the back of the car is our cat’s worst nightmare. Dogs love a change of routine – cats hate it: that’s very autistic.

“Autistic” might be putting it a bit strongly – there’s a book entitled All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, and I reckon that’s nearer the mark: they occupy the higher-functioning end of the spectrum. After all, they’re willing to indulge in lots of sucking up when they’re hungry, so they’re only too aware of our existence, and how to get us to do what they want.

I’ll end with another theory (which has no doubt been advanced many times before by people far brighter than I). Because their cognitive structures and perceptual apparatus are so different from ours, it’s impossible to know what cats actually see. Dogs tend to react to the same things we do – an unexplained noise, a squirrel, fireworks etc.  The main difference is in the area of smell, where they evidently have an advantage over us. But, in my experience, cats inhabit the borderline between our universe and a parallel world we simply can’t see – a universe quite different from our own, in which anything could be happening and which could be populated by creatures and objects we’re simply unaware of. Perhaps they see a world where inanimate things are in perpetual motion (as they fundamentally are) and that’s why they’ve developed such constricted comfort zones. Let's face it, a world in constant flux would be disconcerting.

That would explain an awful lot. After all, we also inhabit a parallel universe entirely inaccessible to cats when we read, or watch television or write posts on the computer.

I expect they find our behaviour very peculiar.

The alien cat has popped back through the window and, after a cursory examination of my Telecaster and turntable, has slunk off, two paws in each of its universes. 

Now I can close the window and warm up.   


  1. I read this book once, Thought and Reality, by Michael Dummett.

    Bishop Berkeley was right, says Dummett. Esse est percipi. Humans perceive the world one way, and cats perceive it another way. So that's two realities, not one.

    That's no good if you want to be scientific. Dummett says that if you want to be rational and practical, you have to believe that there is only one reality. He's not saying that he believes that. But scientists must. Dawkinses. One reality only.

    There's a circle here that needs to be squared. The humans apprehend one reality and the cats another, but if you want to hold to the belief that there is only one reality, then there must be some superhuman and superfeline being perceiving it.

    So Dawkins has to believe in God.

    Next question, please, that lady at the back in the charming cerise blouse ...

  2. If you add worms and dromedaries into the reality equation, that makes four. And there are being plenty more of animals, such as the elk, what we like much here in Sweden. On the other leg, the scripture will tell that only humans has the soul. If the soul is the way to percepting reality, then there is only being one of realities, which is leaving the elk out in the spiritual forest (which is being a bit sad). Who is Dawkins? There is not any book about him in our library in Uppsala.

  3. Torsten, here in the UK we have the highest regard for a country that uses elk's pee to flavour its licorice. Higher still, if that's possible, for a country whose university libraries find no need to stock Dawkins.

    The issue you raise about the soul causes me to reach for help from the world's major philosophers and political thinkers. Kriss Akabusi, Bill Nighy, Naomi Klein,... It's a tricky one.

    When Immanuel Kant hosted that famous TV panel, the strong view of the studio audience was that all animals were able to perceive the world – their world – whether or not they had a soul. The transcendental unity of apperception, etc ...

    The regrettable fight that broke out between panellists Rolf Harris and Frank Kermode over animals being able to go to Heaven, I think that's where your question has traction, and where we must await the outcome of further research by our leading social scientists.

  4. Mind you, Mr Moss, apparently many scientists believe that Einstein's theories necessitate the existence of trillions, zillions or an infinity of parallel universes - every time anything happens in our universe, the opposite must happen somewhere else, so a parallel universe is instantaneously created (I'm hazy on the science, despite having read two books on the subject many years ago). So I think we could then square the circle by positing the theory that cats - indeed all creatures - somehow exist in two universes at once, just as we do from their point of view (physical and mental?). These various universes are all objectively real - every creature is simply restricted as to how many they can perceive.

    Next question....angry-looking don at the back there, holding the "Anyone who thinks God exists is a Poo" sign...

  5. Torsten - are you absolutely sure you're Swedish? Most of my fellow Swedes are more au fait with English than you appear to be. Are you sure you're not an Estonian immigrant? Or, in fact, English, as their English is often quite appalling? Heaven only knows what you lot get up to in Uppsala, but here in Ystad once a year, we sacrifice a herd of elk in front of a bronze effigy of a naked Richard Dawkins. After the beasts have been slain and we have drunk their blood and had lots of blond sex, the Government-appointed Priest of Science addresses the effigy's buttocks. If we, the inhabitants of Ystad, have forsworn God for the past year, the bottom makes noises for days on end, which the priest interprets, and these interpretations are written down, arranged into chapters, and published throughout the world in book form with titles such as "Who'd Be Stupid Enough to believe in God That's What I'd Like to Know?" and "God? Pull the Other One!"

    You Uppsalans must be utter barbarians!

  6. Now you are explaining the relation between your opinions and your bottom, your comment is making more sense.