For some reason several news stories have popped up questioning whether other animals are conscious. Try these links:
I like these stories because they bring up the issue of what kind of minds our fellow beasts have. Of course some scientists and philosophers reserve consciousness for animals with symbolic capabilities, which restricts it to humans, but I think other factors are involved here. The earthsky article says that animals, like Inky the octopus who smartly escaped his aquarium, are intelligent enough to be conscious, but if intelligence were key, that would rule out some people I know and some politicians I read about.
Long ago I posted about the difference between sentience and consciousness. Let me review: They are not synonyms. Sentience is the alert perceptual awareness of your environment, internal as well as external. When you sleep, then you are insentient. Sentience would seem to me an inherent property of all life because all life must sense and find resources. Sure sentience comes about in many ways, from the amoeba’s sensitive membrane, the lobster’s vision and chemical senses, or mammalian perception along with the sleep-wake cycle. So all life is sentient (yes, even trees in this view—don’t their leaves follow the sun? don’t they communicate with chemicals?); one facet of their intelligence is how sophisticated their sentience is .
Now consciousness is a different matter. We can be sentient but unconscious as when we are hypnotized or drive too long fatigued and experience what is called highway hypnosis. We can be insentient but conscious as when we dream. We can be both sentient and conscious as I hope we all are as of this writing and reading or we can be neither as when we fall into deep, non-REM sleep. (It has occurred to me that dissociative processes can involve being both sentient and conscious in a disconnected way, e.g., PTSD flashback). Consciousness, then, is a quality dependent upon our internal subjective awareness. I have posted before about the claustrum that Crick and Koch think is the conductor organizing mental or conscious processes. When the claustrum is momentarily ‘turned off’, the person remains awake but unconscious and remembers nothing of the experience; our subjectivity is disrupted.
We humans are able to monitor and control (to a lesser degree than some might think) our thoughts because of our symbolic capacity, so it does seem that symbols are important to our consciousness. While other animals may not communicate symbolically, some must have some proto-symbolic processes that facilitate mental control. (So as not to ignore what ‘proto-symbolic’ entails, please consider how animals control information displaced in time and space mnemonic or imaginative but beyond the current situation). I think that something else is important to whether or not an animal’s sentience also develops into consciousness (hint: the title of this blog).
Consciousness arises in animals who are social and have an empathic awareness of another’s mind and so an increased awareness of their own. (This is close to the basis of object relations theory in psychodynamic psychology.) In this view consciousness is a matter of degrees, not all or none. How empathically tuned is the animal and how robust are its symbolic or protosymbolic capabilities? Our human consciousness is a paragon here because our roots of empathy and symbolization have joined mightily in the evolution of our lineage.
Yes, some old fogeys want to keep consciousness as one of humanity’s special traits, but don’t you buy it. That is, in de Waal’s terminology, anthropodenial. On the other hand, yes, your dog is conscious to some degree, but a different one than ours or simians or cetaceans. In one of his books, Frans de Waal utters a challenge for anyone to interact with a bonobo or chimpanzee, look into their eyes and then deny they are conscious. Can’t be done if you yourself are conscious.
Which brings me to consider whether or not some politicians who utter repeatedly an ill-considered script and show an utter disregard for the empathy required for normal interactions are conscious. Could NIMH study them? Maybe better to follow the path set by Inky. Travel on.