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Scientists: Humans and Non-Humans—We Are All Conscious August 26, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.

A watershed of an event happend recently–if you’re in any way interested in the nature of consciousness. My students from Phil 107 and 108, and readers of my book, The Human Condition, know how vital I consider this topic, both in its ontological and  ethical aspects. I hope to expand this post later. For now, let me just share the URLs and a few quotes:


An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. But will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?

 While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it’s the open acknowledgement that’s the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it’s no longer something we can ignore.


The two principal features that distinguish people from other animals is our hypertrophied ability to reflect upon ourselves (self-consciousness) and language. Yet there is little reason to deny consciousness to animals simply because they are mute or, for that matter, to premature infants because their brains are not fully developed. There is even less reason to deny it to people with severe aphasia who, upon recovery, can clearly describe their experiences while they were incapable of speaking. The perennial habit of introspection has led many intellectuals to devalue the unreflective, nonverbal character of much of life. The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioral continuity between animals and people.

And here is the declaration in its entirety:




1. Paul J. Moloney - August 31, 2012

There was a famous historian who wrote volumes on world history. When it came to commenting on Aristotle, he said something to the effect that Aristotle was only concerned with definitions. The implication, whether explicit or not, was that Aristotle was of not major importance. I do remember, though, that the implication was explicit, unless my memory is wrong. After reading such an incompetent remark on Aristotle, I gave up reading that history. I knew enough about philosophy, even at that time, years and years ago, to know how incompetent that remark was.

Definition is in a sense everything because it is a starting point. Without a starting point there is no middle and end. If there is no end there is no conclusion. This is why Aristotle made it a point to be clear about definition. If one’s thesis concerns consciousness, it would seem that one ought to define what they mean by consciousness. There may be more than one form of consciousness. Definition can put us all on the same page. If there are different forms of consciousness then the matter of equivocation can arise.

According to my own understanding of consciousness, consciousness is a form knowledge. If there are different forms of knowledge then there are different forms of consciousness. I would agree that all animals have a certain form of consciousness or knowledge in common. The form of consciousness I have in mind is that based on sensation. There is a form of consciousness restricted to sensation. Sensation seems to have a relation to the power of self-movement that an animal has. If there are different degrees of sensation, it would seem to follow that there are different degrees of consciousness. The blind person has been thought not to have knowledge of color. Though conscious, such a person is not thought to have the same degree of consciousness, at least not in regards to color.

Sense knowledge does not have to be verbal. In other words consciousness does not depend on thought but thought depends consciousness. I was conscious before I could think. Thought comes with the learning of language. In order to speak we have to think. We are conscious of thought. It would seem that one would first be able to think before they could be conscious of thought. It also seems that one has to be conscious of their thought before they are self-conscious.

I would be inclined to accept without doubt that all animals have consciousness, in the form of sense knowledge, according to the degree of sense development. Though thought is based on sense knowledge, sense knowledge or consciousness is not the same as thinking. I know there was a time in my life when I could not think, even though I was fully conscious. As a baby and little child I do not remember any experiences, even though I was conscious of many experiences. The reason could be that I was not thinking about what I was experiencing. How could I possibly remember what I was thinking before I could even think? How could I remember thinking nothing if I was not even thinking? If I can be a non-thinking animal for a period of my life, it seems plausible to me that other animals can remain non-thinking.

Whether other animals can think or not I will leave open for debate. My main concern would be with those with whom I know I can reason. Besides, philosophy is a subject too tedious for most people. Most people end up arguing with each other in the bad sense of the word. If one follows an argument to a logical conclusion, there is no time to argue with anyone, in the bad sense of the word. For instance, when it comes to whether other animals think or not, it can be stated that we do not really know what is going on in them. Since thinking is taken, by some at least, to go on within the mind, the question of whether or not the mind has a spatial location or not can come up. The question of whether or not the mind is the same as the brain comes up. The answer to one question can depend on the answer to another question. One has to constantly go back and forth, if this then that, if not that then this, and so on.

If we know that other people are human and still treat them inhumanely, more so would we treat other animals. Even there, though, I am not fully convinced. I try to make sure the family cat has decent food and clean water and exercise. If the ants invade our kitchen again, I will do everything within my power to get rid of them, without any qualm of conscience.

This comment is longer than usual because I have been sick this week with a fever and have more time on my hands.

2. Paul J. Moloney - September 8, 2012

Though I am not verbally conscious of having had a nonverbal memory, I think I must have had one. Even if animals do have a nonverbal consciousness, they still indicate they have memory, even if the memory too is nonverbal. The family cat reminded me of that this morning. Sometimes we create somewhat of a hubbub before going shopping. That hubbub is similar to the hubbub we create when we take him, the cat, to the vet. This morning I realized the cat was looking apprehensive, so I tried to assure him that we were not going to see the vet. As soon as I told him that, he jumped off the bookcase in the living room and darted to a bedroom and went under the bed. When we do go to the vet, we try to assure the cat that everything will be all right. The cat must have taken his cue from my trying to assure him. In other words, the family cat still indicates that he remembers the experience at the vet’s.

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