In my last post, I focused on the scientific errors underlying John Jeremiah Sullivan’s claim that we occupy a continuum of consciousness with other animals. In today’s much briefer post, I’d like to critique Sullivan’s philosophical errors.
Part Two: Sullivan’s philosophical errors
Chapter 6 – What science can and cannot do
One of the major flaws in Sullivan’s elegantly crafted essay is its failure to acknowledge the inherent limitations of science. Nowhere is this clearer than in Sullivan’s discussion of animal consciousness. He writes:
If we put aside the self-awareness standard … it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.”
The kind of consciousness which Sullivan is talking about here is what philosophers refer to as phenomenal consciousness. In his essay, Why the question of animal consciousness might not matter very much (Philosophical Psychology 18(1), 2005, pp. 83-102), Dr. Peter Carruthers defines the term as follows: “Phenomenally conscious states are states that are like something to undergo; they are states with a distinctive subjective feel or phenomenology; and they are states that each of us can immediately recognize in ourselves, ‘straight off’, without having to engage in any kind of inference.”
What Sullivan appears not to realize is that not only has science been unable to establish the existence of self-awareness in non-human animals, but it has also failed to show that animals possess any phenomenally conscious feelings at all. From a strictly scientific standpoint, we don’t know whether other animals feel anything at all.
Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, is no human exceptionalist: indeed, she is highly sympathetic to the view that a large number of animals may be conscious. Nevertheless, she is forced to conclude in her recently published book, Why Animals Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012) that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is” (p. 112). Summarizing the data surveyed, she writes: “The mystery of consciousness remains. The explanatory gap is as wide as ever and all the wanting in the world will not take us across it” (pp. 171-172).
In a recent online article entitled, Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters (The Huffington Post, 8 June 2012), Professor Dawkins makes the following concession:
It is, perhaps, not a comfortable conclusion to come to that the only scientific view of consciousness is that we don’t understand how it arises, nor do we know for certain which animals are conscious.”
I respectfully submit that if science cannot even resolve the question of whether animals have feelings at all at all, much less is it capable of lending support to the radical Darwinian thesis that our consciousness lies on a continuum with that of other animals. Sullivan does science a grave disservice by invoking it to support his “progressive” political agenda on animals, which envisages them as differing from us merely in degree, and not in kind. Science doesn’t say that at all, and to claim that it does is to misunderstand science.
What science can do very well, however, is to test hypotheses purporting to explain the cognitive differences between humans and other animals. If a hypothesis makes a suite of predictions about mental tasks that only humans are able to perform, then a single failed prediction is all it takes to falsify that hypothesis. Sullivan apparently holds that the failure (to date) of any generalized hypothesis on what makes us different from other animals to withstand rigorous scientific testing lends support to the rival, Darwinian view that the mental abilities of humans and non-human animals differ merely in degree, and that nothing fundamental separates us.
Excursus: Has it been scientifically established that animals are phenomenally conscious?
Let me state for the record that I personally believe all (or at least most) mammals and birds to be sentient creatures, and I’m prepared to at least consider the possibility that octopuses might also be. The question that I am concerned to address here, however, is whether science has definitively established that non-human animals are sentient, and that they, too, have a feeling of “what it is like.”
(i) Clever crows
In my previous post, I discussed the case of extremely clever New Caledonian crows who were able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by Rebecca Morelle). Although I concluded that the crows were probably not capable of genuine reasoning (see this article and see also previous post),it could be argued that at the very least, the crows must have been phenomenally conscious of their surroundings: like Nagel’s bat, they had a subjective feeling of “what it is like” to experience the world as they do. While this seems a very natural inference to make for a large-brained animal like the New Caledonian crow, we need to keep in mind the fact that highly sophisticated problem-solving skills don’t necessarily require the possession of subjectivity. The fact that human beings habitually employ conscious thought while solving novel and complex problems does not suffice to establish that other animals do.
(ii) Driving doggies
A Lexus RX450h retrofitted by Google for its driverless car fleet. At the left side is parked a Tesla Model S electric car. Interestingly, dogs can also be trained to drive cars. Image courtesy of Mariordo and Wikipedia.
More impressive evidence of subjectivity, in my opinion, comes from recent experiments showing that dogs can be trained to drive a car (BBC news report, 5 December 2012, by reporter Bill Hayton). The philosopher Wayne Wright, in an informative presentation entitled, “Attention and Phenomenal Consciousness” (2003), cites three driving studies which show that driving requires a certain minimum amount of attention to the road. As Wright puts it: “Without sufficient attention being paid to one’s visual experience and driving behavior, one will quickly find one’s car quite mangled.” Wright cites several studies showing that even a distracted driver, who is able to navigate a car home despite being oblivious to his visual state, pays attention to the road momentarily: it is only because he is thinking about other matters that that the information about the visual scene is quickly bumped from his working memory, causing him to remember nothing of his trip. Paying attention to the road is a feat that only conscious human beings can accomplish, and recent legal cases notwithstanding, there is no authenticated record in the psychological literature of someone being observed driving while sleepwalking. It therefore makes sense to suppose that animals that can drive must be conscious too. However, we should be wary of making too much of this argument: after all, no-one would argue that self-driving cars possess consciousness. It does not necessarily follow from the fact that for human beings, the task of driving requires us to consciously attend to the road (even if only briefly) that canines are subject to the same requirement. Nevertheless, the evidence in this case is powerfully suggestive.
(iii) Blindsight and visual illusions in monkeys
A crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) in Lopburi, Thailand. Despite extensive research, it has not yet been scientifically established that non-human primates such as monkeys are phenomenally conscious. Image courtesy of “Chris huh” and Wikipedia.
The capacity for illusions is highly suggestive of consciousness in animals (as opposed to self-consciousness). Work on blindsight also points to the same conclusion. (Blindsight is the strangely ability of people who are cortically blind, due to lesions in their primary visual cortex, to detect and discriminate between visual stimuli when asked to do so, even though they report that they cannot actually see the stimuli.) One highly cited paper in this connection is Blindsight in Man and Monkey by Stoerig and Cowey (Brain, 1997, 120, 535-559).
In my 2007 thesis, The Anatomy of a Minimal Mind, I surveyed the scientific literature on animal consciousness, and summarized the Stoerig and Cowey’s experiments, which have been widely interpreted as establishing the existence of phenomenal consciousness in non-human animals. These experiments have been critiqued by the philosopher Peter Carruthers. Philosophers like Carruthers, who subscribe to higher-order theories of consciousness, maintain that a mental state only becomes phenomenally conscious (i.e. accompanied by a feeling of “what it is like”) when we have a higher-order thought, belief or perception relating to that state. I also discussed experiments with binocular rivalry in monkeys, as well as evidence (see here and here) that non-human animals such as pigeons can have conflicting perceptions of a visually ambiguous stimulus, such as the Necker cube.
The following excerpt is taken from my thesis:
“Recent experiments by Stoerig and Cowey (1997, p. 552) have shown that a monkey can be trained to respond to a stimulus in its visual field by touching its position on a screen, and to a blank trial (no stimulus) by touching a constantly present square on the screen that indicates “no stimulus”. The monkey’s ongoing responses fit the requirements for a nonverbal “accurate, verifiable report” (Baars, 2001) indicating “sustained awareness of the environment” (Rose, 2002a, p. 6). Moreover, recent experiments by Logothetis with binocular rivalry have demonstrated that the humans and monkeys make identical reports about what they see when conflicting data is presented to their left and right two visual fields (Block, 2003). According to Stoerig and Cowey (1997, p. 552), lack of awareness has also been experimentally verified in studies of monkeys with blindsight, a condition in which patients with damage to the visual cortex of the brain lose their subjective awareness of objects in a portion of their visual field, but sometimes retain the ability to make visual discriminations between objects in their blind field. It is also interesting to note that pigeons can respond variably to the ambiguity in figures like the Necker cube, which suggests that their subjective impression of its orientation can “flip” (Butler, Manger, Lindahl and Arhem, 2005).
“Two philosophical questions are pertinent here. First, should these nonverbal responses be regarded as introspective reports by the monkeys on the content of their phenomenal experiences, or simply as environmental reports on what they see in front of them, as Block (2005) suggests? The latter suggestion is more parsimonious and accounts for the behaviour equally well. Second, is the ability to report on the objects in one’s environment a sufficient condition for having phenomenal consciousness? Carruthers thinks not; he argues that phenomenal awareness requires an ability on the subject’s part to “draw a distinction between the way things are and the way they seem or appear” (Carruthers, 2004b). Other philosophers (Allen, 2005) have also proposed that any animals which can learn to correct their perceptual errors are phenomenally conscious, but what sets Carruthers apart is that he regards this ability as a necessary condition for possessing subjective awareness. The only findings I have been able to uncover in this field are negative: experiments with monkeys fitted with glasses inverting the retinal image showed that in the monkeys (unlike human beings) this completely disrupted their behavior, and they entered a long period of inactivity (Leontev, 1978).”
Carruthers contends in his essay, Why the question of animal consciousness might not matter very much (Philosophical Psychology 18(1), 2005, pp. 83-102), that “phenomenal consciousness is implicated whenever we draw a distinction between the way things are and the way they seem or appear.” He offers the following comments on Stoerig and Cowey’s scientific findings:
The point is that when monkeys press the key for ‘not seen’ they are, more strictly, only signaling that a light isn’t present in front of them. There isn’t really any reason for claiming that they are making a higher-order comment on their lack of awareness of a light. And conversely, when a monkey omits to press a key because a light is seen, it is strictly only expressing a judgment that a light is present, not that it is currently experiencing a light. So there is nothing in the data that can’t be explained in purely first-order terms, by deploying the figure 1 architecture. And so from the perspective of a higher-order thought account of phenomenal consciousness, too, there is nothing in the data to suggest that monkeys are, normally, phenomenally conscious.
At the present time, then, it has not been established whether we can legitimately infer the existence of phenomenally conscious states in animals with blindsight, or animals that suffer from cognitive illusions.
Chapter 7 – Drawing the line
In his essay, Sullivan repeatedly takes aim at various definitions which have been proposed of what it is to be human. According to him, the differences between ourselves and other animals is merely one of degree.
However, our inability to draw a line precisely between man and the beasts does not mean that there is no line to be drawn. For it is one thing to identify a real, qualitative difference between two categories, and quite another thing entirely to articulate what the basis of that difference is; and most of us are much better at the former than the latter.
Allow me to illustrate with a couple of examples from my own field: philosophy. Philosophical terms are notoriously difficult to pin down, and for every attempted definition, exceptions can nearly always be found. For instance, the terms “know” and “cause” have been much discussed in the philosophical literature: to this day, no definition of these terms has managed to secure general acceptance among philosophers. But it would be exceedingly foolish for someone to infer from the absence of philosophical agreement about what makes one event the cause of another that there is no fundamental difference between causation and mere correlation.
Similarly, only a sophist would argue that our lack of agreement about the definition of knowledge entails that there is no fundamental difference between knowing some statement to be true and merely believing it to be true.
By the same token, I would argue that the failure (to date) of scientists to come up with a comprehensive theory that explains precisely what it is that makes the human mind distinct from other animal minds, and that successfully predicts exactly which mental tasks non-human animals should be able to perform and which tasks they should fail, does not warrant our throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and asserting that there is no fundamental cognitive difference between humans and other animals.
In any case, there may already be a scientific theory that successfully accounts for the differences between human and animal minds. After carefully marshaling the evidence for a “profound functional discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds” in their 2008 article, Darwin’s mistake (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31:2, pp. 109-130), authors Derek Penn, Keith Holyoak and Daniel Povinelli propose a theory of their own to account for the cognitive basis of this discontinuity. According to their relational reinterpretation hypothesis, “the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds extends … to any cognitive capability that requires reinterpreting perceptual relations in terms of higher-order, structural, role-governed relations.” Only human animals, they say, “are able to reason about higher-order relations in a structurally systematic and inferentially productive fashion.” Let me hasten to add that while the authors take issue with Darwin’s treatment of animal psychology, they do not question his biology, and they suggest that the gaping discontinuity between human and other animal minds arose as a result of incremental biological innovations on the representational level and physical level. But what is important for our purposes is that in a follow-up article, written in response to their critics, entitled, Darwin’s triumph (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31:2, pp. 153-178), the authors propose no less than seventeen scientific experiments that could falsify their relational reinterpretation hypothesis.
Three other tricks used by animal rights advocates to belittle the differences between humans and other animals
Advocates of animal rights frequently employ rhetorical arguments to support their political agenda. One of the most eloquent modern advocates is philosophy professor Steven Best. In an essay titled, Minding the Animals: Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism (The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 2009), he makes three clever moves in addition to the ones I have highlighted in Sullivan’s essay, to advance his moral crusade against “anthropocentrism and speciesism.”
First, he deflates the claim that humans are unique by arguing that it is banal at best: every animal is unique:
The much vaunted claim that humans are “unique” is uninteresting, uninformative, and tautological. Every species is unique, by definition: the hawk, the rattlesnake, the silverback Gorilla, the African elephant, and the ocelot are all unique in relation to one another. So humans are not even unique in being unique, this is a mundane biological property associated with natural selection and speciation.
What the foregoing argument overlooks is that uniqueness is not a simple binary property: some members of a class are more unique than others. For instance, each and every chemical element in the periodic table is unique, but only an obtuse person could fail to recognize that carbon is an element like no other, as shown by its ability to form millions of compounds, and to serve as the element on which life itself is based. Carbon is truly in a class of its own.
The second rhetorical trick employed by Best is to put forward a narrative of history in which science is seen as steadily whittling away at the claims to uniqueness which arrogant Man makes for himself.
Only humans, we thought, experience a deep and broad range of emotions, such as love, joy, grief, jealousy, and embarrassment. But science has demonstrated these same feelings among many animal species…
For millennia, it was thought that only humans ― Homo faber ― make and use tools, until recent discoveries that chimpanzees, birds, and other species do also (e.g., chimpanzees use sticks to extract termites from their mounds, apply stones to crack open palm nuts, and craft spears to kill bush babies)…
The dogma that only humans ― Homo loquens ― have complex forms of language and communication prevailed until it became clear that chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, prairie dogs, and other animals do as well…
With traits allegedly unique to humans running out, philosophers and scientists claimed that only humans have minds complex enough to allow a sense of self-consciousness or self-identity, but, alas, chimpanzees and other animals demonstrated significant degrees of self-consciousness too.
The assertion that Best is making here, that claims for human uniqueness have been steadily receding over the course of time, is historically false. Indeed, it was common for philosophers in antiquity to credit animals with a capacity for conversation, like ourselves. For instance, the pagan philosopher Celsus, who vigorously defended the rationality of animals, depicted ants as conversing with one another: “And when they meet one another they enter into conversation, for which reason they never mistake their way; consequently they possess a full endowment of reason, and some common ideas on certain general subjects, and a voice by which they express themselves regarding accidental things.” Celsus continued: “Come now, if one were to look down from heaven upon earth, in what respect would our actions appear to differ from those of ants and bees?” (Origen, Against Celsus, Book IV, chapters 84 and 85). In his reply, Origen pointed out that in human conversations, the speaker’s voice is used to convey their meaning; however, it would be absurd, Origen wrote, to attribute meaning to ants’ conversations. Origen also argued that humans, unlike the other animals, were capable of regulating their passions – something which he thought a celestial observer could not fail to notice. Celsus also argued that “if men appear to be superior to irrational animals on this account, that they have built cities, and make use of a political constitution, and forms of government, and sovereignties, this is to say nothing to the purpose, for ants and bees do the same” (Origen, Against Celsus, Book IV, chapter 81). Origen replied that “ants and bees merit no approval, because they do not act from reflection.” In short: arguments about the existence of rationality in animals have been going on for thousands of years, and the claim that science has been steadily eroding the alleged differences between humans and other animals is absurd.
Best’s third rhetorical trick is that of assimilation: thus he credits chimpanzees with the possession of culture, rules and morality. What he overlooks, however, is that in the absence of any scientific demonstration that these animals possess self-awareness or awareness of other mental states, any attribution of culture or morality to these animals is necessarily equivocal: it bears no comparison with what self-aware beings mean by these terms.
Chapter 8 – Why self-awareness matters
What I found to be Sullivan’s most troublesome philosophical error, however, was his denigration of the importance of self-awareness, in the following passage from his essay:
If we put aside the self-awareness standard – and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to) – it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness.
I have already discussed Sullivan’s uncritical acceptance of the myth that the steady trend of scientific research is towards ascribing more consciousness to creatures, so I’ll say no more about it here. But Sullivan’s question, “What’s so special about self-awareness?” deserves an answer.
What Lichtenberg actually said (as Sullivan could have readily ascertained simply by consulting the Wikiquote entry for Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was as follows:
The most perfect ape cannot draw an ape; only man can do that; but, likewise, only man regards the ability to do this as a sign of superiority. (Notebook J 115)
Lichtenberg then went on to say: “[It is] equally foolish to believe that human attributes [are] any more or less remarkable than those special to another species.” And in this short sentence, he saws off the very branch he is sitting on, undermining his barb aimed at what he regards as human pretentiousness.
To see why, let’s have a look at a similar witticism uttered by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his essay, Death as the Final Event of the Self (published in Why I am not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. by Paul Edwards, London and New York, 1957):
In one of Aesop’s fables, a lion is shown pictures of huntsmen catching lions and remarks that, if he had painted them, they would have shown lions catching huntsmen. Man, says Dr. Barnes [the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham – VJT], is a fine fellow because he can make airplanes. A little while ago there was a popular song about the cleverness of flies in walking upside down on the ceiling, with the chorus: “Could Lloyd George do it? Could Mr. Baldwin do it? Could Ramsay Mac do it? Why, NO.” On this basis a very telling argument could be constructed by a theologically-minded fly, which no doubt the other flies would find most convincing.
The silliness of Russell’s argument should be readily apparent: flies, lacking a capacity for meta-cognition and the sense of self that goes with it, are constitutionally incapable of finding any arguments convincing. If they could “theologize” about their personal relationship with God, as Russell supposes, then they wouldn’t be flies anymore. As far as we know, the only animals on this planet with the neural wherewithal for such ruminating on life’s Big Questions – Gauguin’s famous “Whence came we? What are we? Whither go we?” – are human beings. Likewise, lions are certainly cleverer than flies, but no lion could ever say, “If I had painted those pictures, they would have shown lions catching huntsmen,” unless it had a sense of self. And as far as we know, it doesn’t.
Lichtenberg thought the distinctive attributes of human beings were no more remarkable than the distinctive attributes of other animals. My question is: remarkable to whom? Certainly, there are other animals that can feel. But man is the only animal, as far as we know, who finds anything remarkable. Other animals don’t “wonder why.” Only we do. That being the case, it takes a special kind of obtuseness not to recognize that there is something genuinely unique about the human animal.
A Parable about Visiting Aliens
I’d now like invite my readers to imagine that a UFO lands on our planet, with aliens on board. The aliens are brimming with scientific curiosity about the new planet they’ve discovered: it has millions of species of living things! Unfortunately, however, the aliens are only allowed to take back one species to their planet, to study, as this is an exploratory mission. Quick question: which species do you think the aliens will want to take home? No prizes for guessing the answer: Homo sapiens, of course.
What the foregoing parable illustrates is that human beings are, objectively speaking, the most interesting animals on this planet. But if we lacked self-awareness, then there’d be nothing to distinguish us from other clever critters, such as crows and chimps.
Human self-awareness: why it matters ethically
The ethical implications of possessing self-awareness are also of vital importance. To illustrate why, I’d like to quote two passages in the contemporary literature on animal consciousness which address this question.
The first passage is taken from a recent article entitled,
“Can fish really feel pain?” by J. D. Rose, R. Arlinghaus, S. J. Cooke, B. K. Diggles, W. Sawynok, E. D. Stevens, and C. D. L. Wynne (Fish and Fisheries, published online 20 December 2012, doi: 10.1111/faf.12010):
Even those scientists who would attribute some form of consciousness, such as primary consciousness, to fairly diverse species of vertebrates typically do not believe that fishes could have self-awareness (Donald 2001; Tulving 2005). The debate about that capacity has mostly been centered on whether it is unique to great apes or just humans (Macphail 1998; Donald 2001; Povinelli 2004; Wynne 2004; Terrace and Metcalfe 2005). This point is pivotal because one of the most critical determinants of suffering from pain is the personal awareness and ownership of the pain (Price 1999). This is why dissociation techniques, in which a person can use mental imagery to separate themselves from pain, are effective for reducing suffering (Price 1999). In contrast, without awareness of self, the pain is no one’s problem. It is simply there, something to be reduced or avoided if possible, but not a ‘personal’ problem. The known importance of self-awareness for pain contradicts, Sneddon’s (2011) claim that an absence of self-awareness in fishes would make their ‘pain’ worse.
Stephen Budiansky, a former Washington editor of the science journal Nature and author of the best-seller, If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness (The Free Press, New York, 1998). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The second passage is from a best-selling book entitled, If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness (The Free Press, New York, 1998) by Stephen Budiansky, a Yale and Harvard graduate who was the former Washington editor of the science journal Nature. In the last chapter of his book, Budiansky argues that while animals experience pain, they do not suffer. Only humans, he argues, are conscious:
Experimental evidence suggests that there is a great similarity between the unconscious thought processes of man and other animals… [W]e experience many emotions and sensations without the necessity to attach labels to them – pain, fear, hunger, thirst, surprise, pleasure, elation.
These are levels of sensations that it seems logical and justifiable to attribute to animals. Consciousness is quite another matter, though, for whether or not language causes consciousness, language is so intimately tied to consciousness that the two seem inseparable. The “monitor” that runs through our brains all the time is one that runs in language. The continual sense that we are aware of what is going on in a deliberate fashion is a sense that depends on words to give it shape and substance…
The premise of animal “rights” is that sentience is sentience, that an animal by virtue above all of its capacity to feel pain deserves equal consideration. But sentience is not sentience, and pain isn’t even pain. Or perhaps, following Daniel Dennett’s distinction, we should say that pain is not the same as suffering: “What is awful about losing your job, or your leg, or your reputation, or your loved one is not the suffering this event causes you, but the suffering this event is,” Dennett writes. Our ability to have thoughts about our experiences turns emotions into something far greater and sometimes far worse than mere pain. The multiple shades of many emotions that our language expresses reveal the crucial importance of social context – of the thoughts we have about our experiences and the thoughts we have about those thoughts – in our perception of those emotions. Sadness, pity, sympathy, condolence, self-pity, ennui, woe, heartbreak, distress, worry, apprehension, dejection, grief, wistfulness, pensiveness, mournfulness, brooding, rue, regret, misery, despair – all express shades of the pain of sadness whose full meaning comes only from our ability to reflect on their meaning, not just their feelings. The horror of breaking a limb that we experience is not merely the pain; the pain is but the beginning of the suffering we feel as we worry and anticipate the consequences. Pity and condolence and sympathy are all shades of feeling that are manifestly defined by the social context, by the mental-state attribution to another that we are capable of. Consciousness is a wonderful gift and a wonderful curse that, all the evidence suggests, is not in the realm of the sentient experience of other creatures. (1998, pp. 192-194)
I am personally agnostic as to how many species of mammals and birds possess a rudimentary form of self-awareness – a “proto-self,” as it were. It may be that all of these creatures are “subjects of a life,” in animal liberationist Tom Regan’s memorable phrase – although I should note that to date, man is the only animal known to possess what psychologists refer to as an autobiographical memory, claims for scrub jays notwithstanding. Pet-owners are, for the most part, adamantly convinced that their pet is a companion with whom they can at least share feelings, even if a conversation about the day’s events is beyond them. If they are right, then we can legitimately speak of animals as morally significant others, towards whom we might have a duty of kindness. (I say “if” because human beings are notoriously prone to the pathetic fallacy, or the tendency to credit natural objects with human emotions, and it may be that the companionship we feel with our pets is entirely one-sided: maybe they don’t care about us.) But even if animals are “others,” it does not follow that we stand on a psychological – let alone a moral – continuum with them. It may be that there are dimensions of “self-hood”: perhaps animal “selves” are two-dimensional, while human “selves” are three-dimensional. In that case, one would have to say that while animals matter in their own right, they matter infinitely less than we do.
Or it may be that none of these creatures have a “self,” and that man is the only creature that can say “I.” As Rose et al. (2012) note in the passage cited above, that remains a perfectly tenable scientific view. If that is the case, then it is difficult to see how we can have any duties towards animals as such. For a duty towards an animal would have to be directed at someone, and if the lights are out and there’s no-one home, then any talk of duties or obligations is meaningless. To be sure, a magnanimous person, motivated by a disinterested ethic of reverence for all living things, might still wish to alleviate the feelings of pain occurring in animals, even while recognizing that these feelings belonged to no-one. But it would no longer be possible to maintain that animals are morally significant “others.” The most we could say is that insofar as they are organisms, animals have a biological “good of their own.” If we adopted this biocentric view, then we would deplore any wanton harm done to animals, just as we would the felling of a Californian redwood tree. But the notion that animals belong on a psychological or moral continuum with us would be forever shattered. For if animals have no “selves,” then they are not “they,” and their pain doesn’t warrant our pity.
In short: the question of animal self-awareness is one of vital ethical importance. It is also a question which science currently cannot answer.