Consciousness Blog 01 January 2015

It is more than two years now since the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in July, 2012, resulted in the ringing Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals, signed in the presence of Stephen Hawking by a roster of prominent neuroscientists. But you will look in vain for any resulting ripples on the calm surface of human disbelief in the mental capabilities of animals.

It doesn't suit humanity of course that animals should have quasi-human mental capabilities. If we had to admit that animals have emotions, can suffer pain and pleasure, are to some degree 'conscious', and share other 'advanced' human mental characteristics, how then would we justify our egregious treatment of them as food, with all the barbarous and inhumane behaviour that this entails?

Humans have always believed themselves above other of God's creatures, of course. It is only recently that white men have admitted women and other types of human being to a degree of parity. Very often, the concept of 'God' (a bearded white man) was used to demonstrate that we (I am a white male, sad to say, but at least not bearded) were the 'chosen' people, to the exclusion of all others from the full benefits of membership of the human race.

I don't know whether the honourable signatories of the Cambridge Declaration adhere to pro-animal eating policies. It is not easy, in a world that comprehensively denies animal rights. Most people, even if they accept the need to try to improve the lot of animals, probably get only as far as preferring free-range chicken, and would disapprove of foie gras, while usually not recognizing it when it appears on a canape in front of them at a cocktail reception.

So what is to be done? One interesting fact to note is that the vast majority of food animals only exist because we eat them. If we stopped, then they would cease to exist. Nobody would suggest (well, I'm guessing) that because there are three billion broiler chickens today, then after we have developed artificial chicken meat, there should be three billion substitute chickens scratching the dirt in reconstituted jungles in Mexico. Modern chickens, like modern cows and geese, are creatures we have developed for our own convenience, and are presumably not viable in the wild. Once we don't need them any more, they are going to cease to exist, something they might not have chosen of their own free will. But hey! Man proposes, and man disposes.

From a consciousness perspective (what this is supposed to be about), the man to domestic animal interface is fairly easily dealt with, since there won't be any such animals (pace Fido, which is another matter, but we don't have space to go there today). The animal to animal interface is more difficult. When a large cat hunts down a wildebeeste on the veldt and takes its time to devour it, the prey is not in a happy state. But we are not going to try to control that, are we? Even if it ends that all large cats are in 5-star zoos, and subsist (like us) on a diet of artificial chicken, there are still half a billion ant-eaters at work in our carefully preserved jungles.

That way lies absurdity, quite rapidly, although we can evade it by choosing to live in electronic environments, and leaving the real world to carry on as best it can. Before we reach such a stage, though, we will have to construct a theory of animal consciousness to use as a basis for our own behaviour towards animals, and the first step, needless to say, is to define consciousness. Even the framers of the Cambridge Declaration had to admit this necessity, while agreeing that no satisfactory definition of consciousness exists, for animals or humans alike. This is not for want of trying: the literature on consciousness is full of such definitions. The problem with most of them is that they are 'top-down', that's to say, they take consciousness to be a developed characteristic of a mammalian brain, equivalent say to speech or memory, and study or describe it as such. This phenomenal approach to the problem may result in a comprehensive account of the actuality of consciousness, perhaps even including aspects of it which can be observed or tested in animals, but it will not explain the origins and purpose of consciousness, which are to be found through a study of the ontogenesis of organisms displaying what appears to be consciousness.

Read more in Chapter One of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Origins And Purpose Of Consciousness.


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