Why we should assume animals are conscious

human and dog eyes, animals are furry
© Monica Martinez Do-Allo/Shutterstock

Scientists are starting to think most animals may be conscious. Better late than never, I guess.

A friend once told me only the human brain is advanced enough to possess awareness. But a recent Atlantic article pointed out that scientists are changing how they think about animal cognition.

"In recent years, it has become common to flip through a magazine like this one and read about an octopus using its tentacles to twist off a jar’s lid or squirt aquarium water into a postdoc’s face," the article explained. "For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not." After all, it's tough to call all animal behavior mindless instinct after you've seen ants pass on walking routes to younger generations and kangaroos try to pet dogs.

It's nice that the scientists are finally getting there, but I think they're looking at the question wrong. As I see it, consciousness is something to be disproved, not proved.

Before I get a billion angry comments, let me define the term. When I say conscious, I don't mean being smart, or creative or having a good memory. I'm talking about pure sentience — the experience of being in a body and perceiving the world.

"... scientists have yet to furnish a satisfactory explanation of consciousness," the article continued. "We know the body’s sensory systems beam information about the external world into our brain, where it’s processed, sequentially, by increasingly sophisticated neural layers. But we don’t know how those signals are integrated into a smooth, continuous world picture, a flow of moments experienced by a roving locus of attention—a 'witness,' as Hindu philosophers call it."

Perhaps that's why philosophy can take this question farther than microscopes can. I know I am conscious. In fact, it's the only thing I know for sure. The world could all be a dream, for all I know. But that doesn't change that I am a mind experiencing the world.

I can't be 100 percent certain anyone else is conscious because I can't inhabit anyone else's mind. But I can see that other people seem to express consciousness — they play with me, cry during sad movies, etc. — and so I assume they are conscious too.

Plenty of animals engage in basically identical behaviors. In fact, the difference between human and animal behavior is mostly just about technology. We have language, fire and iPhones. But I have a tough time imagining rubbing sticks together uniquely bestowed sentience upon our species.

In fact, every life form does basically the same things as any other. Animals find food, eat, rest and find more food. Many socialize. So any line I draw putting some species into a special consciousness club seems arbitrary. The claim that consciousness only originates in complex brains is simply an untested guess, one that "coincidentally" makes it easier to treat animals like objects.

Science isn't about 100 percent certainty. It's about looking at incomplete evidence and making the best conclusions you can make. It takes a greater logical leap to imagine consciousness cuts off at some arbitrary place in the evolutionary tree than to imagine that all life is conscious until proven otherwise.

"There now appears to exist, alongside the human world, a whole universe of vivid animal experience. Scientists deserve credit for illuminating, if only partially, this new dimension of our reality," the article added. "But they can’t tell us how to do right by the trillions of minds with which we share the Earth’s surface. That’s a philosophical problem, and like most philosophical problems, it will be with us for a long time to come."

Why we should assume animals are conscious
Scientists are starting to think most animals may be conscious. Better late than never, I guess.

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