The question of animal awareness and the culture of science

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 24 May, 2012)


Paper about animal awareness by Esteban Rivas and Titus Rivas for Science and the Human-Animal Relationship. Amsterdam: Netherlands Universities Institute for Coordination of Research in Social Sciences.


The question of animal awareness and the culture of science

by Esteban & Titus Rivas

The subject of animal consciousness has never been popular among scientists. In fact it has been the norm to discard the notion of animal consciousness and to consider it 'unscientific'. This attitude has had practical consequences for science. Experiments on animals have been justified by stating that animals are unconscious machines, or natural robots. As they cannot feel or think in any way, one should not be sorry for them if they are used for or killed as a result of animal experimentation. Anyone objecting to the use of animals for experimentation, basing his views on the concept of animal awareness, has been discounted as irrational or emotional.
Now, where did the apparent scientific consensus on the non-existence of animal awareness come from? To answer this question we have to go back to the dawn of natural science, to the times of the French scholar René Descartes. The medieval scholastic tradition that preceded Descartes had taught the existence in animals of an Aristotelian soul, that not only moves the body, but also perceives, feels and strives for particular goals. Descartes however claimed that only man could possess a soul, that animals were automata totally driven by mechanical forces and therefore only belonged to the physical world. If, e.g. a dog screams when its body is hurt, its vocalization is not the expression of pain, but merely the result of a purely physiological process, rather like the ringing of a clock.
How could Descartes have made such a claim, which to many of seems counter-intuitive, and why did so many people follow his philosophy or creed?
Of the many possible explanations for this, we will mention the two most likely ones.
First of all, the term consciousness, which has been commonly used since Descartes, historically has had two very distinct meanings. One of them, which is derived from the original Latin term conscientia is strictly cognitive. In the sentence 'Paul is conscious of the fact that he has made a mistake', one can replace the expression 'to be conscious' by the expression 'to be aware'. Paul knows that he has made a mistake. The other definition of consciousness is specifically Cartesian in origin and indicates the whole realm of subjective inner life; not only cognition, but also perception, volition and emotion are included in this term. When we say that someone has lost consciousness we do not mean to say that he has lost his cognitive abilities but that he has stopped having subjective experiences of any kind; that he is no longer able to perceive, will or desire. We can easily imagine how the topic of animal consciousness will have been affected by the ambiguity of the term 'consciousness'. The claim that animals have subjective experiences of any kind could easily be taken for the claim that animals have rational, cognitive powers comparable to those possessed by man. Many scholars, understandably unable to accept the notion of an intelligence in animals similar to human reason, rejected outright the notion of animal consciousness, and in so doing, unwittingly discarded simultaneously the wholly different claim of animal subjectivity.
Another set of views which have influenced our outlook on animal awareness are the philosophical schools of empiricism and positivism which have dominated our scientific culture for centuries. Anything which cannot be measured outwardly, by physical means, is discarded as either non-existent or unscientific. Consciousness, as Descartes defined it, is subjective and be it of the human or the animal variety cannot withstand the rigors of empiricist or positivist inquiry.
Now when psychology first started as a scientific discipline with Wundt setting up the first academic research institute in the second half of the nineteenth century, it at first had consciousness and subjective experience within its field of study. Its research method mainly consisted of introspection.
In the 1920s a reaction came in the form of the school of behaviorism, which dominated psychology and ethology until the 1970s. Being influenced by the positivist culture of natural science, behaviorists like Watson and Skinner claimed it was unscientific to talk about consciousness, as it is a phenomenon not detectable by the senses. One cannot see or hear consciousness in other human beings or animals, one can only perceive the outward behaviour of these organisms. So by being true to the natural science method, behaviorim logically threw the study of consciousness out of the realm of science.
The 1970s saw the rise of the Cognitive Revolution. It became respectable again to talk in mentalistic terms about thought and even subjective experience in human beings. Authors like Donald Griffin applied the new cognitivistic approach to the question of animal awareness.
What we see up to now is that the subject of consciousness in general, not only in animals but also in human beings, is a problem for science. Whereas the common sense of our scientific culture dictates that we accept consciousness in human beings as an unquestionable truth, it sees awareness in animals as something problematic. Actually in both cases we find the same problem.
Today the problem of animal consciousness has still not been satisfactorily solved. There are two opposing groups: one is the group which adheres to the norms and standards of natural science and in its quest for 'objectivity' denies the possibility of a proof for consciousness in animals. The other groups poses the existence of awareness in animals as something obvious, mostly by use of some phenomenological reasoning.
These different positions are caused by the underlying epistemological differences between the two groups. It depends on one's view on knowledge where one stands in this discussion. If one thinks, in accordance with empiricist and positivist culture, that one can only get knowledge through the senses, then consciousness is something science cannot deal with. But if one is of a phenomenological background and one believes together with Husserl that one can have direct access to the subjectivity of others, then one will say science has proof for consciousness.
We would like to propose a possible way out of this disagreement. We ourselves agree with natural science that one cannot have direct access to someone else's subjectivity. In this sense there can never be a scientific proof for consciousness. But this does not mean that we cannot give a judgement about its existence. We propose the use of a philosophical postulate to make consciousness plausible. This is the socalled analogy postulate and has been proposed before by among others Bertrand Russell. The analogy postulate begins with the certainty of one's own consciousness. It then says that if one looks at other human beings one will find many similarities between one's own nervous system and behaviour and that of other human beings. And if one then knows that there is a relationship between the nervous system, behaviour and consciousness, it becomes very plausible to infer by analogy that those other human beings have consciousness too. In the same way one can look at animals and find, at least in the vertebrate animals, such a number of similarities that it becomes more plausible than not to suppose the existence of awareness in animals too.
Starting from the postulate one can then study more closely the animal's behaviour and nervous system to assess the specific contents of its consciousness. Thereby taking into account the species specific characteristics of animals and taking care no to fall into anthropomorphism.
We believe the analogy postulate offers a possibility to adhere to the epistemology of natural science and at the same time recognize the existence of consciousness. Thus it turns out to be possible to study consciousness in human beings and animals from a justified position.

This paper was published before in E.K. Hicks (Editor) (1993) Science and the Human-Animal Relationship. Amsterdam: Netherlands Universities Institute for Coordination of Research in Social Sciences, pages 91-93.

Contact: titusrivas@hotmail.com