Animal Consciousness

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!


More like this

I think a reasonable case can be made that there are emergent (immaterial) aspects to consciousness that arise in both intra and inter species collective behaviors. Human social institutions mediated by various communications means are one example that John Searle has explored quite a bit.


Of course other animals are both conscious in varying degrees and can feel pain (although react differently to it than a person might).

I doubt very much that a C. Elegans (total number of cells ~1300 of which ~300 are neurons) is either conscious or feels pain in a useful sense. On the other hand it is fairly clear that cats, dogs and field mice experience pain in various ways and respond in appropriate ways to limit stressing the injury - which is a primary use of pain.

By Chris Tomlinson (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

"If the empirical evidence points strongly in one direction"
This should be a no-brainer. It's entirely possible to formulate a coherent and consistent mathematical model based on the assumption that the Earth is flat. So what? To find knowledge deduction is simply not enough.

My favourite example of animal consciousness is this one: birds waging war against humans and winning.…

Nr. 4. These crows devised and implented their own version of Operation Fortitude.

"natural evil seems to pose a particular challenge"
The dog of my female counterpart gave birth to seven puppies recently. Six died within a day. My female counterpart is religious, but not interested in sophisticated arguments. So she has an open eye. Unlike WLC she has noticed that her dog seems to be sad.
I'd like to know what sin the dog has committed.

"Craig is correct on the science"
Granted, a certain catholic philosopher of religion gets his natural sciences even more wrong, but WLC does a pretty bad job too.

@CT: "Human social institutions mediated by various communications"
I am not familiar with Searle, so teach me. Humans: material. Institutions: material. Means of cummunication: material. How does this imply an immaterial soul? What's more, wouldn't it rather imply that those social institutions have souls of their own? Typically I never see dualists defending that idea.
Which means that there arguments are as ad hoc as the average creationist explaining evolution away.
Like this one:

"pain in a useful sense"
Define useful. You see, my neighbour prefers the idea of fairies taking care of the plants in his garden. He doubts if they can grow without fairies in any useful sense.

@MNb: There seems to have been a gargantuan leap somewhere. I never said anything about a soul or souls. I'm hardly a dualist.

By immaterial I simply meant that there are emergent phenomena that are as "real" as their material basis but that are not usefully described in terms of the material basis.

For example, Searle notes that consciousness is ontologically subjective while being epistemically objective. That is, our personal experiences are real and subjective while the material basis is becoming shall we say more and more (epistemically) objective as neuroscience probes deeper with more sophistication such as fMRI and DTI.

Baseball is a material phenomena that has strongly subjective facets that are not usefully described in terms of the physics of the ball and bat and running and so on. There's the intangible smell of the pop corn the sensations that arise when the smack of the bat resounds through the stadium and the crowd roars as the ball leaves the park.

These feelings individually and collectively are as real as the smack of a ball on your head if you get in the way of a line drive.

As for pain i was merely commenting regarding what I think is a relatively well understood aspect of the evolution of pain processes in animals. Pain appears to provide aversive sensations in the animal that result often times (but certainly not always) in the animal mitigating behaviors that would otherwise exacerbate an injury.

My comment about C. Elegans was meant to indicate that I think that somewhere a threshold of complexity and organization is crossed such that some animals will be eventually be determined to actually "feel" pain in a sense that we mean "to feel" and others will be clearly seen to not have sufficient neural representational capacity to represent what we understand as "feeling" pain.

I really had no idea that these comments would elicit such strong comments.

By Chris Tomlinson (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

In reply to by MNb (not verified)

À propos Lichtenberg’s remark, I think it was Ogden Nash (could have been James Thurber) who said, “The proper study of mankind is man, says man.”

By Jonathan Lubin (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

"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."

I think the underlying psychology behind it is that people just want some things to be mysterious. But nothing is inherently mysterious, mystery subjective. In essence, these people want something to worship and most things that we worship are deemed mysterious. Ironically, to worship mystery is to worship your own ignorance.

By J. Quinton (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

And yet, if you put aside church dogma, and lean in to look at the Bible itself, or at the Christian tradition, the picture is more complicated.

I could have done quite nicely without the religious BS occupying several paragraphs.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

I repeat my comment from a previous thread that vitalism is an apt comparison. A century ago, no one would have believed that you could construct an organism, say a bacterium, just by mixing the right chemicals together. There must be some 'spark of life' added. The situation RE consciousness is similar, but we are not so advanced in understanding the material basis.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

"A century ago, no one would have believed that you could construct an organism, say a bacterium, just by mixing the right chemicals together."

Wait, when did this happen?

It hasn't actually happened yet, but today most scientifically educated persons would grant that it appears to be possible; i.e. there is no principle standing in the way, only difficulty in actually performing the experiment.
A great deal has actually happened already. We understand the biochemical reactions of basic life to a much greater extent than a century ago, including the molecules and events involved in such key events as cell replication. We have added chemicals to cells, and removed chemicals, and the chemicals involved seem in all respects to be perfectly ordinary. I.e. most scientifically educated persons no longer believe there is any 'spark of life' involved. We have added genes to cells and changed their nature. In at least one experiment, the entire chromosome of a bacterium was replaced with a chemically synthesized chromosome.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

"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."

Let me offer a different perspective on this interesting post. According to the author we should recognize that the science is pointing in one direction in this debate, and this is made central to evaluating the issues in this area. But the science is not nearly as clear as we're being led to believe. As the animal scientist and psychologist Clive Wynne (a leading figure in the field) writes: "It may be romantic to ascribe human qualities to critters.....but it's not very realistic. While animals are by no means dumb, they don't think the same way we do. Contrary to what many popular television shows would have us believe, animals have neither the "theory-of-mind" capabilities that humans have (that is, they are not conscious of what others are thinking) nor the capacity for higher-level reasoning.."

Here is an article that responds to Wynne from "the opposing scientific camp." "Psychologist Clive D. L. Wynne takes a firm behaviorist stance on the issue in his new book, Do Animals Think? He argues that animals, even those commonly believed to have active minds and a good deal of conscious thought...really don't think much about anything. ....Wynne says that we should be very cautious about ascribing consciousness to animals and that anthropomorphic explanations have no place in the study of animal behavior."

In fact the science in this area is not very settled. It is worth recalling also that the major opponents to the idea of animal consciousness in the last century were not philosophers or something, but the scientists B.F. Skinner and John Watson.

I find the research on animal behaviour interesting and important, but it is about animal behaviour, not animal consciousness. It tells us about animals' capabilities, about the sophisticated ways their brains can process information. But it does not tell us about their subjective experience. It does not tell us what it is like to be a bat.

From Nagel's 1974 article:

"Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.)"


"I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species)."

This seems to be very similar to Jason (and most people's) view on the nature of animal consciousness. (Although I'm sure that Jason wouldn't do anything as embarrassing as referring to humans as 'man', or going down a phylogenetic tree in search of bats; hopefully Nagel wouldn't either these days.)

So I don't think the blog post is going to have much impact on 'immaterialists'. Like so many attempts to grapple with the hard problem, it deals with something that is related - and fascinating - but beside the point.

Wynne says that we should be very cautious about ascribing consciousness to animals and that anthropomorphic explanations have no place in the study of animal behavior.”

While anthropomorphism should be avoided, so also should anthropocentrism.

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

Excellent post.

These latest apologists seem to be cashing in on the vagueness of the term "immaterial," using it interchangeably mean both "abstract/mental" and "magic." But spirits are not "immaterial" the way that minds are, since minds require a material substrate to exist upon while spirits are incorporeal phantoms which violate the laws of physics. Minds run on brains the way that software runs on hardware. The entire concept of god is that he is magic mind that has no need for a physical brain or brain. Fundamentally, the concepts are nothing alike. Trying to stuff them into the same category with the purpose of using the existence of one as evidence for the other is invalid reasoning.

*edit* That was supposed to read " need for a physical body or brain."

Asking a bat what it's like to be a bat is akin to asking a zombie what its like to be a zombie...also akin to asking Nagel what in the h*ll he was thinking when he wrote Mind and Cosmos.

"...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?"

From a non-materialist perspective, evolution can be seen as a way for consciousness to increase self-awareness in order to know itself better, because it would be the property of consciousness to know itself, in the same natural way that fire has the property to burn. It is hard to deny that the capacity to increase self-awareness and knowledge doesn't provide an evolutionary advantage when you look at the way the human species prosper.

By Ça alors! (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

"...natural evil seems to pose a particular challenge".

Evil is a human problem, not an animal one. In a state where consciousness is separated, or I should say, experienced individually, through space, matter and time, that experience can only happen on a dual mode, i.e.: grasped and felt through discontinuity and opposites, a mode that wouldn't exist outside the material experience. In other words, evil, as opposed to good, has no choice to be present in a space/time continuum, just like south, as opposed to north, or left, as opposed to right, exist too.

Duality is precisely what can make consciousness more aware of itself by pointing to what it is not. In other words, when not separated and incarnated, when not opposed, consciousness cannot know itself because it has no distance with itself, just like the water that lies at the bottom of the ocean can't wet anything. Its property to wet can only be revealed when water interacts with what it is not, like rocks or sand.

Many mystic traditions, easter and western, point in that direction. That link explains better than I try to those concepts.

With another perspective, the romanian philosopher of science, Stephan Lupasco, understood well how that duality is a psychic and physical phenomenon that lies at the heart of the universe...

Sufism and buddhism lead to the same ideas.

By Ça alors! (not verified) on 29 Mar 2013 #permalink

Chris Tomlinson --

By immaterial I simply meant that there are emergent phenomena that are as “real&rdquoo; as their material basis but that are not usefully described in terms of the material basis.

I have no problem with that. Saying that mental phenomena are the result of the complex interactions of the matter in our brains is different from saying that it is useful to describe mental phenomena in material terms.

couchloc --

Thanks for the links. Not having read Wynne's book I can't really assess his argument, but the critical review you linked to sounds pretty cogent to me. This is the part that jumped out at me:

Although Wynne admits that we do not know very much about animal thinking, this does not stop him from arguing that his reductionist views are correct. He believes that the differences between animals and humans are greater, and more significant, than the similarities. But are they? Does Wynne include all animals or only some species in his arguments for mental dissimilarity? He claims that

The psychological abilities that make human culture possible--enthusiasm to imitate others, language, and the ability to place oneself imaginatively into another's perspective on events--are almost entirely lacking in any other species.

What does “almost” mean? Nobody claims that other animals are identical to us, but arguments invoking evolutionary continuity leave room for the conclusion that the differences are, in fact, small--differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Many observations show that members of some species imitate other animals, empathize with them, are able to take another's perspective in certain situations (there is neurobiological evidence to support the conclusion that some animals have a theory of mind), and have culture and rather sophisticated patterns of communication.

The behaviorist view is little concerned with evolution. It also fails to recognize that the behavior of many animals is far too flexible and situation–specific to be explained in terms of simplified stimulus–response contingencies. Marked within–species variability is quite common, and this adaptive variability often (although not always) lends itself readily to “cognitive” explanations invoking consciousness, intentions and beliefs. (Emphasis added.)

The remark about evolutionary continuity rings true to me. If we take evolutionary gradualism seriously it's hard to believe that there is a massive difference in kind between humans and animals, although it's certainly possible that once you cross some threshold of brain complexity a whole onslaught of new capabilities becomes possible. At any rate, coupling gradualism with the observed behavior of animals as described in Sullivan's article sure puts the “animals are automatons” crowd on the defensive..

Contrary to what many popular television shows would have us believe, animals have neither the “theory-of-mind” capabilities that humans have (that is, they are not conscious of what others are thinking) nor the capacity for higher-level reasoning

I wonder how Wynne knows this, especially in light of recent results.

By Jeffrey Shallit (not verified) on 30 Mar 2013 #permalink

Ha, JS, that's another terrific piece of research done based on the assumption of dualism. Oh wait .....

The remark about evolutionary continuity rings true to me. If we take evolutionary gradualism seriously it’s hard to believe that there is a massive difference in kind between humans and animals, although it’s certainly possible that once you cross some threshold of brain complexity...

If we take evolutionary gradualism seriously it's hard to believe there is a massive difference in kind between birds and dinosaurs, although it's certianly possible that once you cross some threshhold... oh wait; birds can ****ing fly! Talk about a threshhold!
The evolutionary way of thinking is a useful one, but keep in mind that in addition to making comparisons across the various tips of the branches, it might be useful to go deeper, down toward the trunk. While I think it is interesting to ask immaterialists whether various species are likely conscious (chimps, dolphins, bats, fish, insects, protists. etc.; work the chain in either direction for variety), if only because it useful in mapping the boundaries of their anthropocentric bias (for that is the point of the exercise); keep in mind that evolution has provided us with a history. One could also ask whether Neandertals were conscious, or Homo habilis, or various species of Australopithecines...

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 30 Mar 2013 #permalink

@Jason, I understand the view you want to sympathize with is the continuity one. But the argument in your post depends on the claim that the view you favor represents the preferred position of science, and my point is that that's not really the case from anything you've said. It is true that the Bekoff article describes some support for your perspective. But he also makes clear that there is a divide among scientists on this issue. He notes that "Zealots abound at both ends of a spectrum that ranges from those who believe that animals are merely thoughtless robotic automatons to those who argue that all are thinking creatures with rich cognitive lives"..... and that......"a great divide remains between opposing camps." So you're free to appeal to the view you like if you want, but I don't see that you're entitled to the claim that it represents the consensus in this area. For myself I worry that approaching the problem of consciousness in this way is a difficult way to try to make the case (though I appreciate what you're trying to do).

MNb, much thanks for the link to the Cracked article, not that I needed to be reminded that dolphins aren't very nice.

Even substance dualists, who hold that mental and physical are different kinds of "stuff", also (usually) accept that mental stuff and physical stuff interact somehow. So, observations that physical changes to the brain are accompanied by mental changes do not constitute evidence against dualism. It's legitimate to press the dualist to explain how two distinct substances interact, but you shouldn't assume that interaction itself counts against dualism. That bit's just not relevant to the argument coming from the armchair.

There is an obvious reason why some humans have insisted that animals are automatons, and it goes beyond the usual Abrahamic beliefs.

"Food" is stuff we eagerly eat, for example vegetables and meat.

"Not-food" is stuff we don't think of eating but doesn't gross us out, for example "eating paper."

"Dirt" is stuff that we refuse to eat, and grosses us out, for example "eating a turd." Very often there are cultural parameters (limits) at work here, e.g. most Americans consider fish to be "food" and insects to be "dirt," but there are African cultures in which the reverse is the case, and so on.

But there is also a fourth category. Cannibalism. Eating another person.

What constitutes personhood? If your friend comes back from the war minus one or more limbs, clearly they are still a person. If you do that exercise in depth, you will inevitably come to the conclusion that a _mind_ is what makes a _person._

If we conclude (or as some would have it, "concede") that other animals have minds in any substantive sense, then we find ourselves on an uncomfortable slippery slope whereby our desire for certain very convenient food sources is suddenly recognized as cannibalism. And say what you like about religious/philosophical mysticism, but mystics have often been ahead of the curve on this one, by espousing vegetarianism (BTW I am omnivorous, this is not an attempt to guilt-trip my fellow omnivores).

Bottom line: we will eventually discover that our common meat animals have sufficient consciousness as to constitute at least rudimentary personhood, and there will be a culture war over that, to an extent that makes marriage equality seem like a warm-up exercise. We will see a resurgence of some terribly ugly "animals are automatons" memes along the way. But we will eventually settle on "vat meat" produced via biotechnology, as a substitute for "natural" meat obtained by slaughter. It will be marketed as "cruelty-free meat" and it will truly be so: at first a treat for the wealthy, and eventually and with mass production, a universal in the human diet.

As for theories of consciousness, one way to demonstrate that there are no true and pure substance dualists any more is to offer anyone who claims to be such, a pill that (you claim) is a dose of LSD. Uniformly, they will decline the pill. This is especially useful when dealing with the "life begins at conception" crowd, by way of demonstrating the axiom, "no brain, no mind, no person, no right to life."

Though to play devil's advocate, one could assert that the prevalence of consciousness in numerous animal species demonstrates that whatever-it-is hypothetical immaterial aspect of mind, can be picked up by simpler brains as well as more complex brains: by analogy the radio broadcast of a symphony can be picked up on a simple transistor radio and on a sophisticated audiophile system, with different degrees of fidelity. That is, animal consciousness does not truly make a case for a material monist theory of mind.

Personally I think David Chalmers' interactionism is on the right track.

One more thing. What's this obsession with "feeling pain"?! How about using pleasure as a viable standard?

For example monkeys masturbate, and it is not a stretch to assume that they experience something similar to orgasm, including a massive dopamine release and subjective sense of pleasure. This is probably also true of other mammals, and analogous processes probably exist down to the level of very simple organisms. Reproduction is an energy cost to the individual, energy costs are generally experienced as aversive, and a subjective experience of pleasure can more than offset the aversiveness of the energy cost.

For another example, sugary drinks such as soda and milkshakes give us pleasure (once again, look for the dopamine), and "sugar water" is usable as a behavioral reward in experiments with a wide range of species all the way down to the planarian.

Using pain as an operationalization for consciousness is at best incomplete.

The picture isn't complete until we also operationalize consciousness by way of pleasure.

I'll leave it to you to work out the implications of that, but they are highly subversive of some elements of our cultural status-quo.

Last weekend the Wall Street Journal had an article on Animal Intelligence:…?
It has over 150 comments and this week the author, Frans de Waal, answered some questions:…

I believe consciousness arises when the thinking animal instead of thinking about things, becomes introspective and starts thinking about itself and this proceeds to contemplation of self with the world. Pack behavior helps in hunting, but does not imply consciousness. I posit that "consciousness arose in homo sapiens relatively recently, say in the last 75,000 years. I believe the 40,000 year old cave paintings are evidence of consciousness, so it had to develop before then.

My personal theory is that all people can perform reflective thinking, but that few do. To me it is an advanced use of the mind that I hope grows and becomes the basis for a better society. I consider much tribal behavior as barely a step above pack behavior. Hopefully as a species we can evolve to a higher social plane. I'd love comments on this.

Seems like this guy is pushing veganism to me. No thanks, PETA = People Eating Tasty Animals. All that matters is filling my belly with them.

By SmoledMan (not verified) on 31 Mar 2013 #permalink

Re. JimR @ #27:

We can describe a rough hierarchy in which awareness is the ability to recognize stimuli, and consciousness is the ability to recognize one's own existence ("I think, therefore I am"). Going further, "empathy" is the ability to recognize another individual's subjective existence ("I think, therefore I am; you are, therefore you think") and respond accurately to another's emotional state ("It appears you're feeling X, therefore I should communicate Y"). And, "lucidity" is awareness of one's subjective state (as in lucid dreams, "I'm dreaming now!")

The content of dreams reflects the content of one's waking life: were you to keep a consistent dream journal and descriptive stats of the nouns you use, the vast majority would reflect your everyday world and experiences. This is consistent with findings that dreaming occurs in the process of consolidating information into learning and memory stored in the brain.

Thus the relative rarity of lucid dreaming points to the fact that most of us are not lucid in our waking lives: we are not particularly aware of the state we're in, and we are usually governed by emotional reactions to stimuli including communication from others. This is also seen in common language such as "you made me feel X" or "that pushed my buttons."

Asian philosophical traditions use the word "maya" and analogies about "drunken monkeys" to describe this state of everyday attachment to an arbitrary and socially-constructed filtration of reality, and the stuporous ways in which most humans react most of the time. I use the term "Newtonian billiard balls" to refer to humans behaving automatically and deterministically, reacting to emotions and failing to use their cognitive capacities for choice, bouncing around from one stimulus/reaction to the next rather than exercising free will.

So yes, humans seldom exercise the capacity for reflection, and I also agree that much of our "tribal" behavior (in-group/out-group, blind nationalism, racism, etc.) is barely above the level of other pack animals.

Re. "reflection... is an advanced use of the mind": I would assert that it is a natural capability of present-day human brains and minds, but one that is not widely practiced because it requires effort, and few if any cultures encourage it. Were I to agree with you that it's an "advanced" use of the mind, I would be in effect conceding that humans are far less cognitively and socially evolved, a pessimistic conclusion I'd prefer was not correct.

Efforts to encourage any kind of mindfulness or reflectiveness in the USA draw howls of protest from religious fundamentalists, who claim it is an attempt to impose "foreign" and "alien" religious practices (typically this occurs when the subject comes up in the schools). The usual reply is to deny any religious connection, and that triggers yet another howl that it is now a "secularist conspiracy" to de-religionize the children. Seems to me the answer to this one is to either point to the universality of reflective threads in all of the world's religious traditions, or to find ways to strip the exercise of any association with any type of belief, such as occurs with calisthenics in phys ed classes.

The simple exercise of having students take one minute to ask themselves "what state am I in, and how do I know?" (without having to discuss the results in class, just do the exercise internally) could be used at the beginning of every class, on the basis that it _improves readiness for learning_. This is lucidity by definition, and as it becomes a common everyday activity, it will also produce an increase in lucid dreaming (since your dreams reflect your waking life, you'll find yourself asking, "what state am I in and how do I know?" and then recognizing "oh!, I'm dreaming!").

Now consider what will change in the culture when lucid dreaming becomes common. For one thing, people will come to view dreaming as a kind of nightly vacation, and look forward to a full night's sleep in order to have as much of it as possible. Next will come misguided attempts to encourage or demand "productive" use of dreaming, but this will quickly fail as humans will assert their right to happily "goof off" in their dreams. An increase in sleep time will produce an increase in cognitive capacity (our presently sleep-deprived culture is chronically cognitively impaired), and the practice of lucidity in waking life will contribute to that as well.

Re. SmoledMan @ #28: Probable troll, please ignore.

I understand that 20% of caloric consumption goes to the brain.
I don't understand if we do not think hard about something if that reduces calories used. If true, there is a conservation incentive to conserve calories.

BTW, I enjoyed your post as it added to my knowledge.

My main thought on reflective cognition is the possibility that we may become more attuned to our moral responsibilities. I took an economics class in college and flunked the first test. The answers were multiple choice, but the reasoning was not If A, then B; it was If A then (invoke some econ law) then C. I saw it immediately and that is one of those life changing moments where you feel your IQ went up a few points. Since then I have studied cognitive processes, but only randomly.

One more question. When do humans achieve consciousness? I don't think of babies as conscious. The very definition is too vague to give an answer; so defining the attribute with greater specificity will help a great deal.

And if babies have consciousness you simply ask the same question concerning foetuses.

Resources / research papers on the human/non-human in language and social habits theme "On the origins of language" :

(cited at "Sur Les Epaules de Darwin" radio programme :
@… )

ARTICLES CITED in the broadcast:

Mahmoudzadeh M, Dehaene-Lambertz G, Fournier M, et coll. Syllabic discrimination in premature infants prior to complete formation of cortical layers. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the USA 2013, 110:4846-51.

Benavides-Varela S, Hochmann J, Macagno F, et coll. Newborn’s brain activity signals the origin of word memories. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the USA 2012, 109:17908-13.

Fitch W. Evolutionary developmental biology and human language evolution: constraints on adaptation. Evolutionary Biology 2012, 39:613-37.

Abe K, Watanabe D. Songbirds possess the spontaneous ability to discriminate syntactic rules. Nature Neuroscience 2011, 14:1067-74.

Bloomfield T, Gentner T, Margoliash D. What birds have to say about language. Nature Neuroscience 2011, 14:947-8.

Ouattara K, Lemasson A, Zuberbühler K. Campbell’s monkeys use affixation to alter call meaning. PLoS ONE 2009, 4:e7808, pp. 1-7.

Ouattara K, Lemasson A, Zuberbühler K. Campbell’s monkeys concatenate vocalizations into context-specific call sequence. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the USA 2009, 106:22026-31.

Arnold K, Zuberbühler K. Meaningful call combinations in a non-human primate. Current Biology 2008, 18:R202-3.

Language, voalisations--with intent, meaning, carried in them-- are deep in "lower" animal behaviors. E.G. In experiments, Campbell monkeys distinguish vocal tones--and the same vocal frequency is found over and over in the earliest sound repetitions in both human newborns and in Campbell monkeys.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Apr 2013 #permalink


" 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?"

It may appear that perhaps it entered at the point where (or somewhat before) social living arrangements arose in many species--whether this could include insects, such as bees and ants is an interesting question but as for other animals, there can be little doubt that their social environments influence all their brain activities in ways that are endlessly recursive. And, as do humans, these animals should have something of the human brain's capactity to continuously assemble and report by neural reiterations sense data as experience, including the self-awareness, an "ego", at whatever level of sophistication.

That is, they, in ways that are either similar to or identical to our brain's processes, constantly, without interruption, re-create all their living awarenesses--those of the world, of their environment, of their identities as individuals and their social relations (such as these may be at their level of sophistication).

social animals--which, by definition, possess intelligence and consciousness--practice social behaviors. These include species of sea mammals, esp whales, but also many birds,

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Apr 2013 #permalink

Darwin treats the topics of this post in his chapters 3 and 4,

(3) "Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals"

(4) "Comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals" --continued

Pages 69-131 in The Works of Darwin, Volume 21 and 22 (Paul H. Barrett & R.B. Freeman, editors, 1989, London, William Pickering), : The Descent of Man, Selection in Relation to Sex (1887).

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Apr 2013 #permalink


PLoS Biol. 2006 Sep;4(9):e302.

Neonatal imitation in rhesus macaques.

Ferrari PF, Visalberghi E, Paukner A, Fogassi L, Ruggiero A, Suomi SJ.
Source Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e Funzionale, Università di Parma, Parma, Italy.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Apr 2013 #permalink

Ronan the Sea Lion Rocks the Beat

Researchers have made a new discovery in the field of adorable dancing animals. In a University of California Santa Cruz study, Ronan the California sea lion has learned to bob her head in rhythm to several songs, a capability once believed to be only possessed by humans and some birds.

If rocking your head to the musical beat isn't a sign of intelligence, what is?

By Reginald Selkirk (not verified) on 02 Apr 2013 #permalink

RE: "Reginald Selkirk April 4, 2013 Bees are actually capable of deductive reasoning"

the study referred to there (in your link) was (one of several) discussed specifically in the same or a previous broadcast of the same weekly radio programme I cited and linked above. I recall it's basic set-up.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

The article mentioned about bees concludes something rather different than what's suggested here. It states:

"One way to look at the research is to think, "Wow, bees use logic to find food!" __Or__ you could think of it the way that Leadbeater does. "In a way, we are talking about something that looks as though it's really sophisticated: The tiny bee brain is seemingly deducing, 'Oh, I can find sugar by copying,'" she says. "It looks clever but it's simply a Pavlonian ability that just about anything can do."

RE: couchloc April 5, 2013

I agree that it could be easy to, in this particular case, overestimate the significance of this study as concerns the issues of consciousness--though it can't be doubted that bees are conscious and intelligent, we don't know that they possess deductive reasoning abilities such as we see ourselves having.

On the other hand, those who aren't familiar with it should refer to the work of Dr. Karl von Frisch on bees' intelligence because, otherwise, the reader may drastically underestimate the potential intelligence of this social animal.

See, e.g. links:

Nobel lecture:…

By proximity1 (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink