Dogs Can’t Do Math

Yes, it matters to you — it’s a philosophy to keep you humble and curious.


Leon Purton

2 years ago | 3 min read

I’ve met some very smart dogs in my life, but I was dazzled when I watched a Dog called Chaser, who understood about 1000 words, repeatedly go and fetch specific toys by name.

‘Blue ball’, John said, and off Chaser would run to a pile of 100’s of different toys. Back he would come with a blue ball in his mouth. Then John would say, ‘no, bigger Chaser’, and off he would run again and come back with a bigger blue ball. I was amazed.

There is no escaping it, dogs are smart. But, dogs can’t do real math. You might say, ‘of course they can’t, no animals can’. You are of course right (beyond some limited addition in chimps). They just don’t have the frame of reference, the cognitive power, the understanding of how it couples together.

Dogs can’t solve math, and during a conversation about this with my high school friend, I realized just how important a revelation it is.

Life and what we know

The conversation I had with my teenage friend about the concept of dogs and maths, started in a sunlit room on a summer morning on the topic of God and religion. By this time in our lives we were both reaching a point where we were beginning to form our own opinions on things.

I was converging on the idea of atheism, that the underpinning ‘religion’ of the world should be to not be a jerk and to make decisions that pointed in that direction. But it was this conversation about how smart dogs were that tweaked my perspective.

Josh, my friend, expanded “if dogs can’t do maths, despite being incredibly smart and capable, what is it that humans don’t have a frame of reference for? Don’t have the cognitive ability to process? What can’t we understand or possibly know about?”.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash
Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

This philosophical statement, the simple idea, cuts to the heart of an important aspect. Perhaps there is a God, perhaps not, but there will be limitations to what the human brain can understand, to what we collectively can comprehend.

For as dogs can’t do maths, there must be a list of things that humans are completely unaware of.

As much education as I’ve had, and as widely as I’ve read and asked questions, of all the things that I know. There is still so much that I have no idea I don’t know.

I have a massive list of unknown unknowns.

Unknown unknowns

Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense during a briefing about the War on Iraq used the words;

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Most people don’t spend time thinking about known unknowns, and even less about unknown unknowns. The only reason you might do it is if you were interested in truly understanding the risks in an endeavor or you are trying to find a competitive edge. These seem like good reasons.

This is the importance of realizing that dogs, can’t do multiplication, trigonometry, or algebra. That dogs cant do math.

If you stop and consider at this point in time, all of the things beyond your frame of reference. Beyond your cognitive ability to understand. Beyond the limits of your knowledge. All the possible unknown unknowns, you are impressed to find a sense of humility and curiosity.

The point where you start to think you know all there is to know about a topic, you need to realize there are unknown unknowns and that dogs can’t do math.

Stay humble and curious

This philosophy has kept me grounded, and open to conversations with those who have different opinions than I do. My rationale is that perhaps they aren’t wrong, I just don’t have the frame of reference to understand it.

By acknowledging this, continuously, as a limitation of the human brain, I know I am a better listener and a more diverse thinker.

So, when the point comes and someone says something completely different, mentions a topic or an idea they have. Don’t immediately try and defend your own perspective. Just listen, and perhaps you will turn a complete unknown into a known unknown, and then, you can do something about it.


Created by

Leon Purton

Inspired by life. Leadership, Growth, Personal Development. Engineer and Sports Enthusiast. Top Writer in Leadership.







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