|Does Consciousness Exist in Animals?|
|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
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
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
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
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.
|philosophy of mind, sentience, animals, consciousness, animal ethics, psychology, analogy postulate, animal consciousness|