Does Consciousness Exist in Animals?

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 13 April, 2012)


Slightly adapted essay by Esteban Rivas and Titus Rivas about animal consciousness originally published in Euroniche Newsletter No. 6, September 1991.


Does consciousness exist in animals?

by Esteban and Titus Rivas

As two former active members of EURONICHE and of the Dutch organization concerned with animal use in education, VDO, we would like to present to you some interesting thoughts on a subject matter that is important to all those working for animal welfare.

When we started our psychology study, we were confronted by the use of animals in science and the way scientists look at animals. In our first year there was an animal experiment involving rats which we could refuse after some effort. But we were most of all shocked by meeting scientists, professors and others of high standing and quality, who did not believe that animals were conscious and could experience pain and pleasure. So we got interested in the questions of animal awareness and dedicated most of our study to this subject. Having nearly finished our study now, we come after years of thorough thinking and discussion to some conclusions which we present here. We define consciousness throughout this article as referring to subjective experience.

In the seventeenth century the natural sciences began to flourish and a specific method to gain knowledge was developed. Now known as the method of natural science, it starts from the idea that all knowledge should come to us via the senses. Sensory experiences became the source of real knowledge, and one could only know things that were visible to the eye. This empiricism was the cause of considerable success in studying the world, especially in the case of physics and chemistry.

When psychology started as an academic discipline in the 1870's, it originally included consciousness and subjective experience within its field of study. However, its research was sometimes contradictory and not thorough enough. In the 1920's therefore, a reaction came in the form of the school of behaviourism, which dominated psychology and animal ethology until the 1970's. Behaviourists like Watson and Skinner claimed it was unscientific to talk about consciousness as this was a phenomenon not detectable by the senses. It went on to ignore and sometimes even deny the existence of conscious experience and concentrated on visible, outward phenomena, on behaviour (thus the term 'behaviorism') and this entailed a lot of animal experimentation with rats running through mazes, etc. All this was a consequence of behaviorism taking the methods of natural science seriously and applying them strictly to phenomena such as consciousness and emotions. For consciousness is something the senses do not have access to. One cannot physically see or hear consciousness in other human beings or animals, it is only possible to perceive the behaviour of these organisms. We only have direct access to our own consciousness.

As the method of natural science dictated that scientific knowledge could only be knowledge gained directly from the senses, consciousness, quite logically, was banned from the realm of science.

In our opinion, there is only one way to solve this problem. This is the use of a philosophical postulate. If weannot scientifically prove (i.e. observe through the physical senses) the existence of consciousness, we can still try to find rational, philosophical arguments to make the existence of consciousness in organisms other than ourselves plausible. The postulate needed here is the so-called analogy postulate. This stresses the similarities between yourself and other human beings both in behaviour and regarding the nervous system. Knowing that there is a relationship (whatever its precise nature may be) between the nervous system, behaviour and consciousness, and knowing that you yourself have subjective experiences you can then plausibly infer by analogy that other human beings will also have such consciousness. Bertrand Russell was one of several philosophers who saw the need for such a postulate. It is sometimes said that the language human beings use can provide scientific proof for consciousness. Yet, we could in principle still hold that human language in other people than ourselves is just the output from a complex (organic) machine that is not conscious at all.
Language always equals indirect access to consciousness and in using it to assess consciousness, we always implicitly use an analogy postulate.

This being the case for human beings, we can extend the analogy postulate easily to at least the vertebrate animals. The similarities in nervous system and behaviour between man and other vertebrate animals are so enormous that there is more plausibility to the idea that they too have consciousness than that they are unconscious automata.

Starting form this postulate, we may study more closely the animal's behaviour and nervous system to assess its consciousness. Thereby taking into account the species-specific differences between animals and making sure not to fall into the trap of naive antropomorphism.

Still, the very existence of consciousness itself, in human beings as in (vertebrate) animals is something we can consider as a strong rational certainty, even though not a scientific fact by strict physical standards.

Well, the space we have at our disposal here is far too limited to go into all this more deeply, but if you or your group are interested in this subject and want to know more, don't hesitate to contact us. Send us your comments and your own thoughts on this matter.

This paper is a slightly adapted essay originally published in Euroniche Newsletter No. 6, September 1991, page 5.