The question of whether other animals have consciousness is an interesting one. Here are a few cases for and against.
Why is this question interesting?
The question of whether if other animals have consciousness is interesting for us in more than a purely curious and intellectual way.
The implications of other animals’ consciousness would for example impact the moral implications of how we treat animals today. For example during slaughtering, in slaughterhouses, and the way we use animals in research. If animals are conscious in a similar way as we are, then what we are doing can be seen as pure cruelty.
In finding out if other animals are conscious, we may also get a more solid view of our “place” in nature. Where do humans stand in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom? This may be a pure egoistic gain, but it may be interesting anyway.
Consciousness in Humans
The question of consciousness is already a complex one regarding humans. We, ourselves, have a very strong intuition that we are indeed conscious. It is something that we feel that we know.
But to this day, we haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what consciousness is neurologically (in our brains), nor been able to determine a “soft” definition of consciousness.
For example, is consciousness something that can be broken down into mechanical processes in the brain (Daniel Dannett’s physicalism)? Or is consciousness so subjective that every experience of consciousness is a totally unique one, that is indescribable to others (“What is it like to be a bat” by Thomas Nagel)?
But if we step away from those types of questions for now, and just assume that we humans are conscious because we are self-aware, have the ability to think and experience feelings, are aware of the world around us, and can direct our attention.
According to that definition of being conscious: Do other animals have consciousness? Are other animals self-aware?
In the paper Animal Consciousness by Colin Allen and Michael Trestman, they examine the topic of whether other animals than humans have consciousness.
They start off by explaining that there are three things that need to be answered:
- Which animals have consciousness?
- Could a human ever understand how the experience of another animal is?
- To what degree is a certain animal conscious?
Theories of which animals have consciousness
There are all sorts of theories of which animals have consciousness and which do not.
The most widespread theory is that at least all mammals have consciousness. This is based on the fact that all mammals seem to at least have the neurophysiological systems needed for consciousness.
A little less common but still popular theory is that all mammals + all birds and reptiles are conscious. And this is based on that they all can make private mental models of reality.
And these theories go on and on until all animals are embraced.
How to test animal consciousness
The most common test to see if an animal is conscious is to use mirror tests to test for self-recognition and self-awareness. Which animals can recognize themselves in the mirror?
These tests show that all of the great apes show self-awareness through their behavior in front of the mirror. Other animals seem to fail to do so.
But my critique of this test is that, is self-recognition in a mirror really a reliable way to tell if another living being is conscious? What if an animal is just uninterested in that aspect of reality? Such as the way humans are uninterested in some perspectives of reality that other animals may find interesting. Perhaps humans are just too self-centered in relation to our consciousness.
Humans in denial of other animals consciousness
In many papers that I’ve read, I seem to see a pattern of humans rejecting that other animals have consciousness, even when we seem to find so many indications of it. The argument is usually: Well, how do we know if they really are conscious and not just going through the motions? Like an AI machine would?
Well, how do any of us know that any other human is truly conscious and not just going through the motion of it? Perhaps we, every single one of us, are the only conscious being in the entire universe. Or perhaps we are not.
I personally have the gut intuition that other animals do have consciousness. You can see it in their eyes, the way they interact with each other, us, and the world. The creative problem solutions that have been shown by for example dolphins and birds. Yes, they may not have the same “type” of consciousness as we do, but do any single human have the same consciousness as someone else? Isn’t so much of how we view the world and think based on culture, norms, societal guidelines, and memes?
Science has not yet come to a definite answer to this question, but it does seem to point in the direction that yes, other animals do have consciousness. Or at least some do.