|The Denial of Consciousness in Non-Human Animals|
|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:
(I want to thank Jenny Wade for sending me a relevant paper.)
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
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).
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
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
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.
6533 RT Nijmegen
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
|philosophy of mind, sentience, animals, animal psychology, consciousness, neuropsychology, bob bermond, ethology|