The Denial of Consciousness in Non-Human Animals

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 13 April, 2012)


A critical response by Titus Rivas to Bob Bermond's approach to the question of animal consciousness and suffering. Behavior is a more reliable indicator of the presence of subjective experiences than brain structures or activity.


The Denial of Consciousness in Non-Human Animals

Short comment on Bob Bermond's paper "The Myth of Animal Suffering" in
Marcel Dol, et al. (1997) Animal Consciousness and Animal Ethics. Assen:
Van Gorcum.

(I want to thank Jenny Wade for sending me a relevant paper.)

Bob Bermond has written a shockingly provocative paper in which he claims to show rather conclusively that outside the realm of humans, the great apes and possibly dolphins, there would be absolutely no consciousness and therefore also no suffering in the animal kingdom. This view, reminiscent of that of René Descartes himself, is based on an exclusively neuroanatomical approach to the application of the analogy postulate to the study of non-human consciousness. As emotional feelings, emotional behaviour and emotional physiological responses can all occur separately from each other in human subjects, Bob Bermond is interested only in the relationship between brain structures and subjective emotional experiences. This is because the relevant literature in the field would indicate that human emotional feelings can only arise if a person posseses a well-functioning right neocortex and pre-frontal neocortex. Other subcortical neural structures may suffice for the production of emotional behaviour or physiological responses, but never for human emotional feelings in the sense of conscious experiences.
If Bob Bermond is right, this would have extremely important implications for the way we look at animals and naturally for our treatment of them as well. Most animals would indeed be, as Descartes thought, unconscious automata and there could be no ethical reason anymore for us not to use (most of) them for food, clothing, vivisection and even such "pleasures" as bullfighting. Only chimps, orangs, gorillas and perhaps dolphins would deserve our ethical concern and compassion.
Let me first remark that it is curious that Bob Bermond makes an exception for the very same species which are usually considered as self-conscious rather than just conscious. Also, I find it confusing that he mentions that there are also other mammals with similar (though less developed) neural structures but seems to dismiss them out of hand as candidates for consciousness (p.136).

However, rather than concentrating on such details, I find it necessary to launch a more fundamental attack against his whole way of reasoning. Bermond's main points appear to be clearly founded on an outdated concept of the neural localization of mental functioning. Apart from important data which strongly indicate that for some types of mental functioning there even is no location in the brain whatsoever (Wade,1996), there always have been neurological anomalies which shatter the myth of a strict parallellistic psychophysiological relationship (Rivas, 1993). It is common knowledge that the neural correlates for mental functioning may be shifted to other points of the brain after brain injury. Also, there have been extreme cases like those studied by Lorber (Lewin, 1980) which suggest that neurology is still very far removed from attaining its goal of totally understanding brain-mind interactions (See also: Ebels, 1980). Therefore, reasoning on the basis of neuroanatomical analogies rather than behavioural ones is at best a very slippery approach.
The fact, which I acknowledge completely, that emotional behaviour can be separated from emotional feelings does not at all mean that this is the usual, natural case. It does not force us to concentrate on the nervous system rather than on an animal's behaviour.
By the way, all of Bob Bermond's conclusions about the relation between brain and consciousness are ultimately derived from studies which involve behaviour as well, i.e. studies of verbal reports of subjects, etc. Has he forgotten that in the strict sense verbal reports of conscious experiences can be no guarantee for the presence of such experiences either? Consciousness will for ever remain a private phenomenon which (in others) can only be studied indirectly by its very nature.
Instead of concentrating on specific structures within the brain, it's better to just acknowledge as my brother Esteban Rivas and I have done(1992) that many animal species share a CNS and that that very fact alone suggest that all of them might be conscious creatures. Whether they really are and to what extent should be mostly derived from behavioural studies, not neuroanatomical ones.

Finally, I wish to point out that if an animal lacks higher forms of cognition this does not by itself prove that its emotional feelings could only be epiphenomena, as Bermond claims. What seem to be simple mechanistic conditioning processes may often involve effects of conscious emotions as ethologist Konrad Lorenz believed.

In one respect I do believe that Bob Bermond has contributed something substantial to our understanding of research strategies in the field of animal consciousness. To avoid the kind of alienating, counter-intuitive conclusions he draws on the basis of his own strategy, we inevitably must reject it.

- Ebels, E.J. (1980). Maturation of the central nervous system, in: Michael Rutter (Ed.) Scientific foundations of developmental psychiatry. London: William Heineman Medical Books Limited.
- Lewin, R. Is your brain really necessary? Science, 210, 1232-1234.
- Rivas, E. & Rivas, T. (1992). Zijn mensen de enige dieren met bewustzijn? Prana, 72, 83-88.
- Rivas, T. (1993). De mysterieuze relatie tussen hersenen en geest. Prana, 78, 69-74.
- Wade, J. (1996). Changes of mind: A holonomic theory of the evolution of consciousness. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Titus Rivas is an independent psychologist, philosopher and essayist who is interested in many issues including animal consciousness, the philosophy of mind and animal rights.

This paper was originally published in the late 1990s on the website Kritisch and republished on txtxs.nl in 2012.

Also see Bert Stoop's paper Sensible and senseless talk about animal suffering

(c.) Titus Rivas