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Consciousness might enable animals to behave flexibly by imagining the best outcomes. Animals would deserve moral consideration if conscious.
You probably assume you are conscious and deduce the mental life and consciousness of other people based on your own experience. But how can you know whether other species are conscious? Can animals of other species also be aware of their thoughts and feelings? Can they know that other beings have thoughts and feelings? Or could it be that animals are unconscious sleepwalkers with no mental awareness?
The question of consciousness is fundamental to animal rights. We should not use/abuse animals (factory farming, fur farming, etc) if animals are conscious like humans.
From an ethical standpoint animals should deserve full moral consideration if they are fully consciously aware.
If animals are not conscious, like sticks and stones, then there is less moral scruple about how we should treat them, and for some people no scruple at all. A full appreciation of animals must include understanding what and how they think and feel - assuming they think and feel anything.
Other than the mirror test (see below), which is open to interpretation, there is yet no scientific procedure that can establish whether an animal is conscious. Although science is beginning to make some headway, the question of whether animals are conscious remains largely philosophical.
Two Philosophical Views
There are broadly two views of consciousness.
consciousness is merely a consequence of how the brain works and as such has no function. If this is true then consciousness will make no difference to how animals behave; conscious and non-conscious animals will do things equally well.
consciousness enables an animal to survive and reproduce better and thus has a function. In this view natural selection can act on consciousness so that consciousness evolves and is passed on to successive generations.
Kinds of Consciousness
We all use the terms 'conscious' and 'consciousness' in many different ways. One meaning of conscious is being awake and not asleep. There is no doubt that animals in this sense are conscious. But two kinds of animal consciousness are contentious: primary consciousness and secondary consciousness. When discussing animal consciousness it is useful to avoid confusion by knowing which kind of consciousness speakers have in mind.
encompasses being aware of basic feelings (body position, hunger, fear, fatigue, pain) and happenings in your environment (someone calling you, approaching predators). Another name for primary consciousness is phenomenal consciousness, because it is about the perception of phenomena. Responding to basic feelings and happenings does not necessarily mean you are also aware of them. A robot responds to stimuli but is not mentally aware of them. Responding and being aware of responding are separate.
covers being aware of consciousness itself: consciously thinking about consciousness. Not only do humans think about things, we think about thinking, and we think about the thoughts and feelings of others. We are self-aware. Another name for secondary consciousness is self-consciousness.
Many animal species probably have at least some form or degree of primary consciousness. People generally believe that primary consciousness is likely in mammals and birds, more vague in reptiles, amphibians and fish, and doubtful in insects and other invertebrates (the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris
, is an unusual exception). The extent to which animals experience secondary consciousness, if at all, is the really big mystery.
Functions of Consciousness
We do not need consciousness for most activities, even very complicated ones. An animal or human receiving a painful stimulus will try to escape it, but this does not prove they are conscious; you can instruct a robot to do likewise. It is the same with cerebral tasks such as telling like from unlike objects; even a computer with the right program will do it. We carry out many daily tasks with no conscious awareness of doing them. Calculating the speed of approaching motor traffic when crossing a road is an unconscious computation. Doing things fast, like catching a ball or playing a musical instrument quickly, are not under conscious control. If we stopped to think about doing them while doing them, consciousness would drag like an anchor restraining our movements.
So why be conscious? Scientists speculate that consciousness has a function and some scientists argue that it enables you to behave more flexibly than if you went without it. When faced with a complicated predicament, making a conscious decision about what you should do, based on your assessment of the situation, has a greater likelihood of a successful outcome than if you were programmed to react unconsciously - instinctively - to all possible combinations of situations you might come across.
How might you make a conscious decision about a situation? You could imagine the likely outcome of various scenarios then act according to the best one. This is what scientists speculate consciousness does. Consciousness is ideal for tackling unusual or complicated situations. A conscious animal can see more potential solutions to problems and plan ahead. This is especially advantageous for animals who live highly social lives, like apes, dolphins and wolves. Consciousness enables them to handle complex social interactions by imagining how members of their social group are likely to act.
Conscious in Animals
Neurones in humans and many other animal species derive from the same basic components and they function in much the same way. Given this, it is reasonable to believe that consciousness in some degree and form may be widespread in the animal world. Furthermore, some researchers venture that consciousness may come in minute chunks, rather than be an all-or-nothing allotment, like humans have it and animals do not. Individuals and species seem to have a chunky consciousness. An adult has more chunks than a youngster, who has more chunks than a baby. Chimpanzees may have more chunks than cats, who may have more chunks than mice. In this way animal consciousness gradually comes forth within individuals and across species.
The Mirror Test of Animal Consciousness
The mirror test purports to be a measure of whether animals are self-aware, that is conscious of themselves. The mirror test is based on whether animals can recognise their reflection in a mirror as an image of themselves. Gordon G Gallup, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, invented and developed the test in the late 1960's.
Gallup marked the foreheads of sleeping adult chimpanzees when they were sleeping and observed what they did when they woke. The only way the chimpanzees could see the mark on their forehead was by looking in a large mirror nearby.
How did the chimpanzees react? Gallup discovered that on looking into the mirror the chimpanzees touched the mark on their forehead significantly more frequently than a comparable group of chimpanzees. The comparable group was treated exactly the same way but no visible mark was left on their foreheads (they served as a 'base line' from which to make measurements).
The classical explanation by Gallup and co-workers for the chimpanzees' behaviour is that by inspecting the mark the chimpanzees indicated that they can recognise their own reflection, and this is good evidence that chimpanzees are self-aware. Moreover, Gallup proposed that 'passing the mirror test' indicates a chimpanzee is self-aware to the extent that he can inspect what is going on in his own mind and, furthermore, is therefore able to understand the mental state of others.
A number of other species have been tested on adaptations of the mirror test, but few, such as chimpanzees, orang-utans and bottlenose dolphins, consistently react to themselves. Humans pass the test, but only when they are over three to four years of age. A weakness of the mirror test is that it depends on vision. Species that use other senses as their primary sense may do badly at it.
You might applaud the mirror test as evidence that at least a few species are conscious. But some scientists are sceptical, claiming that, although intriguing, the test is far from definitive and might demonstrate nothing at all about consciousness. Other scientists say that reacting positively in the mirror test may be only a first step toward a conscious being. They say that passing the test may be more related to intelligent thinking about a reflection than to actual consciousness. At best, they assert, the mirror test is a necessary but not sufficient condition for self-awareness. The debate about what the Mirror Test demonstrates is still unresolved.
Beam Me Up
Not too long ago people thought consciousness resided in the soul. Today we are more likely to say it is inside your head. The brain is a physical object, so consciousness has a physical substrate and is therefore a physical object itself. We can transport physical objects. Thus one day people might send consciousness along telephone wires or beam it to the moon and reflect it back again. Its present mystery lies in our lack of understanding it.
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