Animals' "Sixth Sense"

Despite the many human victims of the recent Asian disaster (currently around 120,000), few animal bodies have been found. In fact, wildlife officials in Sri Lanka have found no bodies of animals (source).

This has fueled new talk about animals' apparent abilities to sense impending danger, especially in the form of natural disasters. But if they do, is there anything "mythical" about this "sixth sense"?

To answer that question, it is useful to consider the traditional distinction between "primary" and "secondary" qualities as made by John Locke (and many others):

Primary and Secondary Qualities

Qualities are powers objects have to produce ideas in our minds (b.II, c.VII, P.8, p134). Locke distinguishes between primary, secondary, and tertiary qualities. Tertiary qualities are powers to produce change in objects (b.II, v.VII, P.10, p135). Primary qualities exist in objects themselves, and the Patterns [in our Ideas of them] really do exist in the Bodies themselves," (b.II, c.VII, P.15, p137). These qualities are Solidity, Extension, Figure, Motion, or Rest, and Number," (b.II, c.VII, P.9, p135). Secondary qualities are mind-dependent and exist only when perceived (b.II, c.VII, P.17, p137-138). They include color, smell, taste, sound, and other sensible qualities (b.II, c.VII, P.14, p137).

(reference: Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1698. Nidditch, Peter H., ed . New York: Oxford U. P., 1975.)

Relevance to the "Sixth Sense"

Assuming something like this distinction holds, it follows that many (perhaps infinitely many) secondary qualities are possible depending on the observer's sense organs. Since secondary qualities are the result of objects interacting with an observer's sense organs, different sense organs would cause the perception of some other sort of secondary quality.

It also seems that there are other qualities that could be considered "primary" qualities - the electromagnetic properties of an object, for example. With proper sense organs, it should be possible to perceive these properties as well.

One common, non-mythical "six sense" is the apparent faculty of migratory birds to perceive the earth's magnetic fields. Last I checked, this wasn't necessarily the only theory in the running to explain birds' migratory behavior, but it was pretty commonly accepted.

If birds can navigate with the aid of a magnetically-sensitive faculty, it isn't much of a stretch to assume that birds and other animals have similar faculties providing them with information about the world around them that we humans don't have.

Natural disasters don't happen randomly - they follow from certain pre-existing conditions. Plate tectonic activity for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, atmospheric conditions for tornados, etc. We humans can detect many of these changes with scientific equipment. There is no reason, of course, to think that we have exhausted our possible predictive abilities - as time goes on, we will learn more and more about detectable conditions that precede natural disasters.

It isn't unreasonable to assume that animals with different/additional sensory faculties could already know how to detect the conditions that precede natural disasters - especially considering the evolutionary benefit of doing so.


Because there is no reason to think it impossible or unlikely for (some) animals to be able to detect conditions that usually precede natural disasters, I think the common anecdotal evidence for animals having some sort of (non-mythical) "sixth sense" is enough to make it reasonable to believe they might. Denying the possibility might even be unreasonable. Still, we should remember that attributing such abilities to animals doesn't require that we think anything "mythical" or "supernatural" is going on - there are convincing explanations from within a completely mundane worldview.

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