Over at Lapham’s Quarterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan has
an excellent article on the subject of animal consciousness. Here’s the opening:
These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”
Stirring stuff. There are many other quotable parts as well. I liked this:
The sheer number and variety of experiments carried out in the twentieth century—and with, if anything, a renewed intensity in the twenty-first—exceeds summary. Reasoning, language, neurology, the science of emotions—every chamber where “consciousness” is thought to hide has been probed. Birds and chimps and dolphins have been made to look at themselves in mirrors—to observe whether, on the basis of what they see, they groom or preen (a measure, if somewhat arbitrary, of self-awareness). Dolphins have been found to grieve. Primates have learned symbolic or sign languages and then been interrogated with them. Their answers show thinking but have proved stubbornly open to interpretation on the issue of “consciousness,” with critics warning, as always, about the dangers of anthropomorphism, animal-rights bias, etc.
Regardless, though, of whether they can talk to us, we’ve learned more and more about the complex ways in which they talk to each other. Entomologists mastered the dance code of the bees and spoke it to them, using a tiny bee-puppet. (For the bees it may have been as if the puppet had a strange accent). In more recent years the numerous calls that elephants make to one another across 150-mile distances have been recorded and decoded. Evidently the individual animals can tell each other apart. So there are conversations of some kind taking place. Zoologists have observed elephants having, for instance, a “departure conversation” at a watering hole, rustling their great heads together in a “rumbling,” communicating about the decision to leave; the water is no good here, we should move on. Who knows what they’re saying. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t understand it. It may, as it turns out, be truer to say that we wouldn’t understand it very well.
If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.
The whole article is well worth reading.
The question of animal consciousness relates to two questions of interest to this blog. The first has to do with whether or not the mind is purely the result of the highly complex interactions of the stuff within our heads. The sorts of things on which Sullivan is reporting are part of the reason I think the materialists are on the right track. For all the argle-bargle out there about how consciousness is some ineffable quality that humans have but animals don’t, the actual science of the subject does not point in that direction. Rather, it sure looks like consciousness is purely a matter of degree. The more material stuff you have in your head (relative to your body size), the more consciousness you have. I keep wondering, if there is something more going on than material interactions in the head, then at what point did that immaterial aspect enter into the evolutionary process?
I couple these findings with others. We know that everything we consider specific to who we are, whether our perceptions or personality or sense of morality or anything else, is intimately tied to the physical stuff of the brain. Damage the right part of the brain, and all of those things can be effected or destroyed. Does that not suggest that even the seemingly immaterial parts of our personality are nonetheless the result of material interactions? I know you can summon forth theories for denying this conclusion, but to me they seem like attempts to deny the obvious.
Science might have discovered something different. It might have turned out that while brain damage could knock out our ability to see or to engage in certain sorts of mental activities, there was nonetheless some aspect of “me”-ness that nonetheless always seemed to survive. Perhaps our sense of morality, or our personalities, always seemed to survive brain damage. That would suggest that our personalities have a fundamentally immaterial component to them. But that does not seem to be the case.
This is also why I’m generally unimpressed with purely philosophical arguments against this conclusion. If the empirical evidence points strongly in one direction, then any armchair argument in the opposite direction is immediately suspect. Inevitably your argument is going to include a premise about what material processes can and cannot do, and that’s the point where you are intruding on science’s domain. I especially liked this statement, from Sullivan’s article:
The whole “animal consciousness” problem remained more or less static for the next two hundred years. Which is to say, it remained philosophical, and retained more or less the contours of the dispute as it had existed among Descartes and his contemporaries, one side arguing that animals did not possess reason or the capacity for meaningful self-awareness, the other countering that we really have no idea what they think, and given that they often seem to undergo states equivalent to our own, why shouldn’t we assume that they do? After all, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. But it isn’t proof of presence, either, and that’s what science wants.
Finally, it is also why I am insistent that people proposing immaterial theories provide some specifics about how their theories work. I don’t know how purely material interactions lead to consciousness, and it seems as counterintuitive to me as it does to everyone else. The only thing the idea has going for it is that the science points strongly towards its truth. But if materialism is mysterious, then show me how immaterialism is less so. And if your reply is that rather than using immaterialism as an hypothesis for explaining the mind, the point is merely to show that the mind just is immaterial, then I would refer you back to my remark about the direction in which the science is going.
Changing the subject, I would think that the recent findings about animal consciousness are also relevant to discussions of the problem of natural evil. The problem of evil is already a serious problem for theology, but natural evil seems to pose a particular challenge. The free will defense, which is the main argument for addressing the bad things people do to each other, has no application here. One common response is to argue that the horrors of nature are just necessary consequences of designing a natural world for us to inhabit. I find that argument dubious, but that’s not the issue right now.
Rather, I want instead to address a different argument raised by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. In several venues, here, for example he has argued that animals don’t suffer like we do, because they lack the awareness that they are in pain. They can experience mental states of pain, but for some reason this does not count as actual suffering. This argument received some bloggy attention recently, here and here for instance.
Even taking Craig’s claims at face value, I don’t see how they defuse the problem of natural evil. Having mental states of pain seems sufficient to create a problem for theism. More to the point, however, is that the sort of research on which Sullivan reports makes it seem very unlikely that Craig is correct on the science. It is becoming clear that animals are capable of far greater sophistication than we ever previously imagined. Any attempt to draw fundamental distinctions between humans and animals seem doomed to fail. I see no basis for thinking that animals cannot have awareness that they are in pain.
So go read the rest of Sullivan’s article, and let me know what you think!