Are animals conscious? Consciousness has been called the “hard problem” of philosophy; scientists still don’t have any idea what human consciousness is. But it seems that for most people, consciousness is still on that ever-shrinking list of things that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom; only humans have consciousness. But is that true, or is it just more evidence of human arrogance?
Lately I have seen a number of things that have made me question the presumption that animals aren’t conscious. The first is my sweet cat, KittyCat. Sometime about six months ago she and I got in the habit of brushing her every evening about 7:00. I am regularly amazed at how she turns up in the living room every day about that hour. It’s usually the time we are finishing dinner, so you could say she’s using the clue of the sounds of dishes being washed, but there are many times when we haven’t eaten and she still shows up. We joke about her Mickey-Mouse wristwatch, but truly it amazes me how she is so aware.
The next was in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living With a Wild God. Ms. Ehrenreich had a mystical experience as a teen-ager and this book is her attempt, during middle-age, to understand it (see review here). Her experience was that everything was on fire with life. This implied a conscious Other, but Ms. Ehrenreich is an atheist, and she couldn’t comprehend how and where this conscious Other could exist. The she read The Hunters or the Hunted?, by South African paleontologist C. K. Brain, and for her
The import of the book was that you could not understand anything about human violence—war, for example—without understanding that before they were warriors, or even hunters, our ancestors were the prey of more skillful and far better armed nonhuman predators…It took a while for me to grasp the metaphysical import of the animals that began to populate my imagination, my notebooks, and eventually my book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. Here were the Others, or some of them anyway, whose existence science had tried so hard to deny: conscious, autonomous beings, or ‘agents’ in the largest sense, very different from ourselves and, no doubt, from one another. They were all around us and they always had been. The scientific notion that humans are the only conscious beings on the planet had been an error all along, an error rooted in arrogance and provincialism.
Not long after reading this book, I saw a video about a man named Jonathan Field who works with horses. He is trying to promote new methods for breaking horses to replace what he called “mechanistic” techniques. While I listened to him talk, it occurred to me that what he meant by mechanistic was operating from the belief that the horse had no consciousness; in other words, treating it as if it were just a machine.
Interestingly, he says that young people understand his method much easier than old people, which suggests that the recognition that animals are conscious is beginning to emerge in our culture.
Our belief that everything (other than humans) is either unconscious or non-living enables our abuse of the planet; makes it easy to exploit animals, destroy forests, poison rivers, pollute the air, and tear up the earth in our greed for more. What does it matter, since it’s dead anyway? Animals don’t feel anything, so what’s wrong with experimenting on them and using them to test our products? From this worldview we can completely disregard ethics or morality when it comes to our relationship with the world.
And this attitude is leading us straight towards self-extinction.
For anyone who is still reluctant to believe that animals are conscious, I recommend this video of a man searching out the male gorilla he had raised in captivity, then set free some years earlier (actually I recommend it to everyone). When the two of them find each other, the love expressed by the gorilla is astonishing. This gorilla has more love in his heart than a lot of people I know. There is no way you can watch this video and not recognize the awareness shining out of the gorilla’s eyes.
Traditional peoples treated the Earth and animals with respect because of their animist worldview, from which they perceived everything as having a spiritual essence. What would our world look like if we turned away from our dead scientific worldview and once again saw that everything around us is aflame with life?