Do animals have consciousness?

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Do animals have consciousness?

Postby PerPer » Sat Feb 28, 2009 8:13 pm UTC

So I read a study the other day which said that about 93% of the Swedish population thought that elephants, dolphins and primates had a consciousness. I myself was amazed that such a great number of people thought that animals other than humans had a consciousness. In my opinion, animals do not have consciousness. I don't have a valid explanation to why I feel this way, I just do. I admit that it is possible that animals could have a consciousness, but to me that doesn't add up for some reason. I think I read a study somewhere that scientists have located the part of the brain which contains the consciousness, and that this was only present in humans, though I could be wrong on this. So what do you think, does animals, especially mammals, have a consciousness? If so, where does the line go, if an elephant has a consciousness, then does a rabbit or a fly or a single cell organism have one? Is there any scientific proof that animals are sentient? What could be the reason to why so many think that animals are sentient, without having any scientific proof? Wishful thinking?

If animals had a consciousness, especially mosquitoes and flies, then I wouldn't feel right to kill them for just bothering me. Hell, I'd even consider going strictly vegan. But let's hope that this is not the case.

Thank you.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby andy33gmail » Sun Mar 01, 2009 4:42 am UTC

It's my belief that some animals, including mammals have consciousness. Very hard to rationalise beliefs of this nature, but I see consciousness as something that exists when a suitably powerful brain exists.

I'd also throw open the question of whether non-animals have consciousness - e.g. a truely intelligent robot (aside: is this possible? I would suggest that a completely adaptive, self-modifying computer would be sufficient for its brain... maybe) or more generally objects such as Earth and the Galaxy - which could reasonably be seen as computers of a form - collections of logical gates which happens to be electrons / people / planets.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby poxic » Sun Mar 01, 2009 4:55 am UTC

My favourite source for all things consciousness is Douglas Hofstadter, of course. His book I Am a Strange Loop is pretty much my all-time desert island choice. It's hard reading, partly because of the difficult concepts and partly because of his sometimes over-engineered writing style. I enjoy his style, but it does not make for light reading.

I'm going by memories that are a couple of years old (yes, I bought the book pretty much the day it came to town). His arguments amount to this: the more complex the brain, the more consciousness will be present. Consciousness is a function of complexity. The book title refers to the strange loop of chaos theory, a self-reinforcing feedback loop in a complex/chaotic system. (I might be conflating complexity with chaos theory incorrectly, but to me they seem only a degree apart.)

In the book, DH describes consciousness as one mirror held in front of another, or a video camera pointed at its own monitor. The self-reflecting patterns become so complex, with a deep underlying order, that self-awareness becomes inevitable. Mosquitos probably aren't self-aware -- there simply aren't enough neurons wired together in that tiny skull for the chaotic loops to form. Cats and dogs are probably self-aware, conscious of "my paw" and "my tail" (oh boy is my friend Catherine conscious of her tail, especially in physical relationship with my hand). They're not really capable of the deep self-examination that humans can do, though. Their brains are quite similar to ours but don't have as much neocortical tissue (if I've remembered my brainatomy correctly).

In other words, yes, I believe that most animals have some consciousness. I also believe that consciousness isn't an all-or-nothing thing, but that it comes in sizes or degrees. There's probably a lower bound, somewhere around lizards, maybe. I certainly believe that most birds are conscious. There's not much else that could explain why I saw a sparrow deliberately hold back dropping a turd until I was about to walk under its tree. Seriously. I saw the damn thing catch my eye, freeze, watch me walk, then release the dropping at exactly the right moment for it to hit me if I hadn't stopped. Heh. I kind of liked that bird. (I'm also convinced that I saw its intentions in its eyes the moment we made eye contact. For that, I have no proof, only anecdote.)

I accept that my kitty is aware of herself, and that she tries to figure out what I'm thinking. She fails pretty often, because her somewhat simpler consciousness can't accurately model my own, more complex one. We can still make eye contact and transmit our emotions to each other, though. If I make myself relax and focus on contentment, then look over at her, she will relax, too. She sees me, the "big cat", feeling safe and secure, so she assumes that we really are safe and secure. She closes her eyes, yawns, and curls up for a nap. If I'm so inclined, so do I. :wink:


Edit for andy33gmail: the inevitable conclusion of "complexity = consciousness" is that, yes, a sufficiently complex computer would be conscious. Thing is, though, that we wouldn't be able to tell that it was conscious just by looking at the ones and zeros rushing around. (We can't "see" consciousness by examining neuron input and output.) We would probably only be able to communicate with the intelligence of the machine by giving it a completely novel way to interact with its environment (and us), like we interact using our senses. It would have to learn to use that method of interaction not by having it hard-wired to the internal, traceable computations, but by controlling that interaction with intent, a product of consciousness. I wish I could describe what that would look like, but I'll leave it to the next generation of science fiction writers.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:04 am UTC

Thanks for bringing Hofstadter into the debate, poxic :). I believe he actually used the term "large souls" and "small souls" to refer to basic and more complex consciousnesses.

I definitely believe that many, if not most, animals have the same sort of consciousness that we have in varying degrees. Some animals we are able to relate to on an emotional level and, I believe relate to us in similar terms. We keep animals relatively similar to ourselves as pets, but reject pets whose consciousness is too similar (chimps and other primates, for example, are particularly dangerous as their mental structure is sophisticated enough to incorporate boredom and curiosity in degrees that rule them out as pets).

Consciousness encompasses emotions as well as self-awareness, and I doubt that many of us would argue that the excitement, contentment or fear that animals such as cats, dogs, pigs and many other mammals and birds feel is anything less than genuine, if not particularly sophisticated. Some animals, like insects, seem particularly programmed by their brains and probably aren't very self-aware or self-conscious.

I guess my point is that it's just a matter of degrees.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby TheSkyMovesSideways » Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:17 am UTC

Clumpy wrote:Thanks for bringing Hofstadter into the debate, poxic :). I believe he actually used the term "large souls" and "small souls" to refer to basic and more complex consciousnesses.

I haven't read IAASL, but in GEB, I recall his use of "small souled" was in response to a music critic (or someone) stating that one of Chopin's etudes was not for "small souled men".
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby poxic » Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:25 am UTC

Clumpy wrote:We keep animals relatively similar to ourselves as pets, but reject pets whose consciousness is too similar (chimps and other primates, for example, are particularly dangerous as their mental structure is sophisticated enough to incorporate boredom and curiosity in degrees that rule them out as pets).

It's interesting to think of it this way: the closer an animal (of any species) comes to our own level of consciousness, the less we can treat it (/him/her) as a pet, and the more we must think of that animal as a friend*. I don't mind keeping my friend Catherine in my apartment and leaving her alone for hours at a time, day after month after year, with only a few scratchy and climby things to entertain her (and the balcony, she likes that). I would seriously mind leaving a human friend in the same situation, because the greater complexity of a human's consciousness demands higher levels of input and expression. An ape or chimpanzee would be much closer to the human level of input/expression. I would NOT leave a chimp alone for several hours in my apartment, any more than I would leave a five-year-old human alone in the same situation. Disaster would be guaranteed to ensue.

* The whole phenomenon of slavery and *-ism (racism, sexism...) could be the belief that the subjects are less conscious, less aware, less *deserving of our concern* than ourselves. This bothers me when applied to humans. Maybe it should bother me more when applied to the rest of the animal kingdom. There's undoubtedly another thread available to debate this, though.


Edit for TheSkyMovesSideways's comment: given Hofstadter's idea that concsciousness = self-reflection, "small-souled" people would probably be those not given to (consciously applied) self-reflection. "Large-souled" people would be those most engaged, and familiar, with the study of their own consciousness, and thus their own mental and emotional patterns.

That said, it's also interesting that the ultimate goal of most mystic traditions is the eventual extinguishing of the self, the loss of that self-examining facility. Those who have experienced loss of self describe it as "there's nothing and no one there". I conceptualise it as the extinguishing of will, or intent. If I have no self, then I am merely reacting to whatever is in the immediate range of my senses, according to the patterns that I've laid down over my life. This is apparently what is called nirvana, or "the kingdom of heaven" for Christian mystics. Or maybe I've misunderstood it. It's still fascinating, though.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Sun Mar 01, 2009 8:00 am UTC

poxic wrote:
Clumpy wrote:We keep animals relatively similar to ourselves as pets, but reject pets whose consciousness is too similar (chimps and other primates, for example, are particularly dangerous as their mental structure is sophisticated enough to incorporate boredom and curiosity in degrees that rule them out as pets).

It's interesting to think of it this way: the closer an animal (of any species) comes to our own level of consciousness, the less we can treat it (/him/her) as a pet, and the more we must think of that animal as a friend*. I don't mind keeping my friend Catherine in my apartment and leaving her alone for hours at a time, day after month after year, with only a few scratchy and climby things to entertain her (and the balcony, she likes that). I would seriously mind leaving a human friend in the same situation, because the greater complexity of a human's consciousness demands higher levels of input and expression. An ape or chimpanzee would be much closer to the human level of input/expression. I would NOT leave a chimp alone for several hours in my apartment, any more than I would leave a five-year-old human alone in the same situation. Disaster would be guaranteed to ensue.


Not only that, but the difference between the animal's intelligence/"human-ness" and our ability to communicate with it are so great that miscommunication and disaster would inevitably ensue (I seem to have inadvertently copied your wording on that). We can't hope to supplement the sophisticated interaction a chimp would get from its fellow animals, while cats generally communicate through physical gestures and body language that we can more easily duplicate. Combine that with the animal's strength and the cat is a much better prospect; its territorial instincts allow it to take care of itself while still incorporating humans to some extent into the space left by the absence of a pride.

Increase the intelligence/communication ratio too much and you're more likely to mistreat/neglect the animal or put yourself in danger, decrease it a little more and you have a good friend who doesn't expect too much. (Of course, if both sides of the ratio are too low you've got something like a fish which may be pretty to look at but provides zero companionship.)

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby poxic » Sun Mar 01, 2009 8:32 am UTC

Humans can and do form close relationships with chimps and gorillas, but the humans have to pay very close attention to their primate friends. It's up to the humans to adapt to how the other party thinks/feels/reacts, if relations are to stay amicable. It's much harder for the non-human primates to adapt to humans, since they can't accurately model how we think within their own, simpler brains. If I make a gesture that to me means "hello" but to an ape means "I challenge you", there's no arguing with the ape that I'm right and he's wrong. I either back down and apologise, in ape gestures, or I get my ass kicked. :wink:
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby PerPer » Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:02 am UTC

Poxic, I can happily agree with your solution that there are different levels of consciousness. I can agree that dolphins, elephants and primates have some sort of consciousness, though probably not to the same extent that you believe. When I think about it, there is no reason why I shouldn't believe this, since I do believe that a computer can attain consciousness, since the brain can, and that is just a chemical computer.

But, can consciousness evolve? Given enough time, the cat's consciousness would probably grow to the same level as ours, if the conditions are right. But how about us humans? It would be naive to think that the human consciousness is the best there is. So, how would an evolved consciousness manifest itself? Can consciousness evolve in different paths? If you would split up two populations of one species, would their consciousness' evolve in different directions? I believe so, I think.

Thanks for the book tip, I'll look into that.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Sun Mar 01, 2009 4:08 pm UTC

PerPer wrote:It would be naive to think that the human consciousness is the best there is. So, how would an evolved consciousness manifest itself?


Well, most people just kind of go about their day-to-day lives. I've seen plenty of people with those dead eyes. Perhaps an "evolved consciousness" would be quite a bit more savvy and self-aware on a moment-to-moment basis. Is there a point where self-consciousness stops or is that something in varying degrees that can keep evolving?

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby aging.child » Sun Mar 01, 2009 5:37 pm UTC

Okay, this isn't scientific in the least, but it's an interesting perspective that I agree with.

When I was going through my confirmation classes (aka sitting on a church lawn with two other teenagers and my pastor talking about random stuff), my pastor said that animals don't have the ability to make choices or have "human" emotions. He said that all animals except humans are governed by the holy spirit, or what non-religious people would call "coincidence" or "randomness". He said that that's why humans build such strong bonds with animals, because they're technically God in animal form. Of course, we were all skeptical, but it kind of makes sense that all animals are connected to each other and governed by a force from which we as humans are disconnected, because we are "higher life forms".

Despite being a former engineer and a huge nerd, he said nothing about robots...
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Dazmilar » Sun Mar 01, 2009 5:59 pm UTC

Well, if you define consciousness as a perception of relationship between self and other, then any animal that can be shown to exhibit self-awareness is showing some form of consciousness. The animals stated by the OP, dolphins, elephants, and great apes, all exhibit signs that they are self-aware. Meaning that they differentiate between self and other. The earliest way we could detect this is the mirror test http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test

Are you willing to accept Mind-Brain Identity Theory? That is to say, there's nothing in the mind that's not caused by the brain. If consciousness is nothing more than an effect of brain function, there's no reason why any animal with a developed brain and the right brain-to-body ratio shouldn't develop consciousness.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby spent » Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:29 pm UTC

aging.child wrote:When I was going through my confirmation classes (aka sitting on a church lawn with two other teenagers and my pastor talking about random stuff), my pastor said that animals don't have the ability to make choices or have "human" emotions. He said that all animals except humans are governed by the holy spirit, or what non-religious people would call "coincidence" or "randomness". He said that that's why humans build such strong bonds with animals, because they're technically God in animal form. Of course, we were all skeptical, but it kind of makes sense that all animals are connected to each other and governed by a force from which we as humans are disconnected, because we are "higher life forms".


So animals don't have "human" emotions, and they haven't the ability to make choices? I'll point you to my favourite authority on the matter, Harlow and his Rheasus monkeys. There have been countless incidences of animals exhibiting what we once thought were purely human traits; from elephants painting pictures to monkeys doing math. I think humans are a lot more similar to animals than most would be comfortable admitting.

Furthermore, emotions are considered to be amoung the most primitive components of human functionality. The amygdala (emotional centre of the brain) and its more primitive homologues evolved before the neural components governing higher level thinking. Of course, as consciousness evolved, emotions also became more complex (progressing from emotions simply presenting in the form of behavioural changes, to a being actually feeling those emotions). I guess the point is, everything lies along a continuum.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:33 pm UTC

aging.child wrote:Okay, this isn't scientific in the least, but it's an interesting perspective that I agree with.

When I was going through my confirmation classes (aka sitting on a church lawn with two other teenagers and my pastor talking about random stuff), my pastor said that animals don't have the ability to make choices or have "human" emotions. He said that all animals except humans are governed by the holy spirit, or what non-religious people would call "coincidence" or "randomness". He said that that's why humans build such strong bonds with animals, because they're technically God in animal form. Of course, we were all skeptical, but it kind of makes sense that all animals are connected to each other and governed by a force from which we as humans are disconnected, because we are "higher life forms".

Despite being a former engineer and a huge nerd, he said nothing about robots...


I'm a Christian as well but have a problem with making a physical, as well as a theological, division between animals and humans. Animals are capable of making mistakes, acting against their better impulses and then feeling guilty later (admittedly not many do this, but I know a couple of dogs who have remorse, or at least the appearance thereof, down pat. Much of our morality is determined by experience and society so I don't see much of a difference.). So, from a theological perspective, we may not hold animals up to our standard of morality (and responsibility for sin or weakness), yet many of them have a decision-making process analogous in some way to ours.

I have very real trouble with God being spiders, protozoae, giant squid and cockroaches :). I also think that defining our emotions as "human" emotions may be a nice cop-out (not to bash your pastor), but doesn't really solve the problem of how similar animals are to human beings.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby JPA » Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:51 pm UTC

Humans are animals
Humans have consciousness
Therefor some animals have consciousness

QED.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby negatron » Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:55 pm UTC

aging.child wrote:my pastor said that animals don't have the ability to make choices or have "human" emotions.

Despite being a former engineer.

I can see why he's no longer an engineer. The discipline tends to extensively involve reasoning.

aging.child wrote:but it kind of makes sense that all animals are connected to each other and governed by a force from which we as humans are disconnected, because we are "higher life forms".

You make it sound as if this isn't true of any species to which you compare a lesser set of species.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby aging.child » Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:26 pm UTC

Maybe I should have defined "human" emotions a little better. I meant that certain emotions we know arise from hormones, chemical imbalances, and the like, like anxiety for example. We share those emotions, or rather, reactions, with animals. Others, like embarrassment, seem to be uniquely human, and honestly wouldn't help us if we were trying to survive.

So, many christians can accept systems like weather or plant life being governed by the holy spirit. I am amazed at the complexity of animal behavior and animal processes, but I can still believe that they don't need to be governed by a consciousness. It is simply the same system that governs the weather and plants. One could of course argue that humans are just part of this system, and that everything we thought was consciousness is really just the affect of different hormones, ions, and chemicals in our body. But that disturbs us, so even the non-religious folk have given us a concept called "conciousness", which makes us feel better.

I guess I'm not good with the spectrum idea. It's either all animals are governed by the forces of the universe, just like weather, gravity, etc., or every animal has a consciousness.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby bratwurst » Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:08 pm UTC

The lack of a rigorous, generally agreed-upon definition of "consciousness" might hinder constructive discussion, to some extent. If you want to get philosophical about it, we can't even realistically prove that anyone other than ourselves is conscious in the first place - it's not like we have direct access to the subjective reality of other people, so we do the best we can, extrapolate from the one data point we have (ourselves), and assume that other things that seem to look and act more or less like us have a vaguely similar experience. Intelligence is arguably substantially easier to get a realistic grasp on, at least in the "can X be taught to add? to do sign language? etc." manner of things, and is probably generally thought to have some connection to consciousness.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby negatron » Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:23 pm UTC

aging.child wrote:It's either all animals are governed by the forces of the universe

Yes, they are. Consciousness just happens to be a derivative of these forces.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby poxic » Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:35 pm UTC

negatron wrote:Yes, they are. Consciousness just happens to be a derivative of these forces.

That...! That right there is the thought I've been trying to form. Thank you for putting it into words for me.

We can hardly be products of something other than the natural universe when we are, in fact, entirely made of universe stuff. (Well, that was less elegantly put than I'd hoped, but there you are.)
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:10 pm UTC

poxic wrote:
negatron wrote:Yes, they are. Consciousness just happens to be a derivative of these forces.

That...! That right there is the thought I've been trying to form. Thank you for putting it into words for me.

We can hardly be products of something other than the natural universe when we are, in fact, entirely made of universe stuff. (Well, that was less elegantly put than I'd hoped, but there you are.)


Hmm. . . I'm not sure that's a problem. If there's a higher Being (and I believe there is) he or she "exists" at some level and is part of the natural universe. Thus, anything God (or we) creates can be both a creation and a product of the natural universe. The two terms are not mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, I have trouble with the whole "all things are governed by the holy spirit" theory, mainly because I don't believe God micromanages things like weather patterns or animal behavior; the mechanisms managing those systems are perfectly good and may have been created just for the purpose of keeping things orderly. Going further would shift this discussion into pure theology.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby ccx » Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:29 pm UTC

poxic wrote:That said, it's also interesting that the ultimate goal of most mystic
traditions is the eventual extinguishing of the self, the loss of that
self-examining facility. Those who have experienced loss of self describe it as
"there's nothing and no one there". I conceptualise it as the extinguishing of
will, or intent. If I have no self, then I am merely reacting to whatever is in
the immediate range of my senses, according to the patterns that I've laid down
over my life. This is apparently what is called nirvana, or "the kingdom of
heaven" for Christian mystics. Or maybe I've misunderstood it. It's
still fascinating, though.

Actually this is common misconception, at least when dealing with Buddhism. Hope
I don't get too tangential with this, but after all Buddhism is all about our
mind and consciousness.

First although there are lot of very profound teachings, without the Buddhist
methods you don't have any similar concepts or experience when talking about
nirvana, so I recommend you to grab some methods at your nearby Buddhist group
and try some empirical science on your mind.

Secondly there are two things that are called nirvana: liberation as in getting
rid of the ill concept of permanent self and enlightenment as getting rid of all
confused concepts. Liberation, which you apparently had in mind is pretty much
opposite to what you described. Not only you don't give up your will, but you
are more free to do what you think is right, because you don't take things
personally anymore. You are free from attachments and fears, but you don't fall
into some 'middle gray', you enjoy things even more.

About animals: Animal and human lives are two of six common states a
Sentient being
can appear in (others doesn't have physical bodies). While the main cause of
mind to appear in human form is emotion of desire or attachment, for animals it
is confusion or stupidity. While we usually can spot the basic emotions like
desire, aversion and fear on higher animals like mammals and birds, we lack
the ability to recognize these right away on simpler ones, like insect. As far
as Buddhist teachings go, pretty much all of the animal kingdom is considered
sentient. There is not very clear stance on microbes and artificial 'life'.

bratwurst wrote:The lack of a rigorous, generally agreed-upon definition of
"consciousness" might hinder constructive discussion, to some extent.

True, for same reason Buddhism isn't generally considered by science. It's
something that is experienced by everybody, yet it isn't part of the outer
objectively provable world.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby aging.child » Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:56 pm UTC

So Clumpy, who do you think has consciousness?

I believe that God gave humans consciousness to comply with the "you are made in my image" thing. And I'm alright with saying that consciousness derives from the systems that I think God created, for the same reason that I believe in evolution (God created a system of evolution so he would eventually get humans). So God created a system (or a system exists) of chemicals and hormones and neural pathways, so that eventually he would get consciousness. I just don't understand why he would allow any other animals to gain consciousness, because this would hinder their survival. They would be better off with just the holy spirit/forces of the universe/instincts/mechanisms guiding them.

And I agree with bratwurst, this would be easier with a strict definintion of consciousness to go off of.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby negatron » Mon Mar 02, 2009 4:36 am UTC

aging.child wrote:I believe that God gave humans consciousness to comply with the "you are made in my image" thing.

I believe our ancestors were teletubbies, unfortunately I cannot substantiate the logic behind that idea therefore such a belief is inconsequential to any discussion within anthropology, or any discussion about anything for that matter.

aging.child wrote:I just don't understand why he would allow any other animals to gain consciousness, because this would hinder their survival.

If "god created a system (or a system exists) of chemicals and hormones and neural pathways, so that eventually he would get consciousness", which animals also have, you cannot necessarily, by your own logic, exclude animals from consciousness.

You could certainly explain that away with "god thinks we're really awesome and logic is unnecessary because that's how god likes it", to which, rest assured, I would be unwilling to respond.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Izawwlgood » Mon Mar 02, 2009 4:52 am UTC

As it has been discussed earlier on this fora;
What is consciousness? If your definition is 'passing the mirror test' then sure, we'll have to start apologizing for deforestation and polluting the oceans. If your definition is 'preparation for the future and remembering the past' then we're really going to have to expand our care. Tool use? Manipulation of environment? Medicine? Animals do some cool stuff.

We're still the purveyors and masters of this cool planet.

I'm going to go with 'Being aware of being aware', and afaik, it's still just us humans.

So swat those mosquito's, even if they were advanced philosophers and guardians of the galactic core, they annoy the fuck out of me and will pay for their incessant bloodsucking. Much like Philosophy Students (snicker).
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Mon Mar 02, 2009 5:02 am UTC

aging.child wrote:So Clumpy, who do you think has consciousness?

. . . I just don't understand why he would allow any other animals to gain consciousness, because this would hinder their survival. They would be better off with just the holy spirit/forces of the universe/instincts/mechanisms guiding them. . .


Note that "consciousness" is a different term than "sentience," an ability to perceive ambiguity and subjectivity that I'm not positive nonhuman animals have, and I'm certain some don't. Whether or not animals can have opinions and morals, or demonstrate wisdom and judgment is a different debate.

Some animals definitely demonstrate consciousness - perceptions, emotions, thoughts, pattern recognition, etc. Some animals are more "programmed" than "acting agents" - witness the way an insect goes right back to its existing path a dozen times after being disturbed. Still, I think anybody who has spent time around varying animals would deny that many of them demonstrate qualities of consciousness.

I'm not sure how consciousness would impede survival for nonhuman animals. Animals have different qualities and personalities, and demonstrate emotions like jealousy, anger, frustration and even shame.

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby poxic » Mon Mar 02, 2009 5:05 am UTC

negatron wrote:stuff

We're debating consciousness, however we understand it.

I'm of two minds, more or less. One is the purely scientific, evidence-based, strange-loop line of reasoning that I find so fascinating. The other is the sum (and reduction) of all I've learned in my peripatetic spiritual ways, through fundamentialist Christianity to shamanism and onward into traditions I haven't yet learned well, but read about whenever I can. I rather like the shamanic line of thought, that we're each made of countless little lines of mini-consciousness, temporarily bound together in a commitment to being a human. (I'm paraphrasing rather badly.) It sits more or less comfortably beside the fact of being made of many cells, each powered by its own mechanically-evolved will to survive.

I've come to understand myself more deeply, from a purely physical perspective, the more I learn about biochemistry and physics and, to some extent, psychiatry. I get that I'm a machine, one made of billions of tiny machines working in concert to keep me going as long as they can. These machines started some three or four billion years ago (a HELLUVA long period of time) as simple chains of self-replicating molecules which had to compete for access to the raw materials they needed to keep replicating. Being merely an incidental product of the cold, uncaring universe does nothing to diminish my wonder at being alive. If anything, that knowledge only sharpens the edge of my awareness, making me more grateful than before for the gift of consciousness.*

Over time, I'm learning about lots of different spiritual practices and beliefs. I feel a resonance with the shamanic idea that the universe-as-a-whole is a total being, including maybe some existence outside of the universe itself. We are merely tiny, tiny, tiny parts of the whole, functioning as assemblages of even tinier parts working together. When we die, that universe-being wants to gather our memories, our experiences to itself, to help it understand what it feels like to be conscious within this universe-being. It is, perhaps, trying to understand itself by understanding its parts. This is maybe a cold and uncaring view of a universe-god, but still one that I can use to frame my life as a temporary, divine adventure.

And that's really what I'm after, I guess. Whether the universe is just a dead, cold pile of matter, or a living, cold web of connections, my place remains firm. I am here for no other reason than to be here, to be myself, now, and only now. Should anything at all come later, great. I don't expect it. I do expect that the thirteen-odd billion years that came before me can teach me about how the countless trillions of years will feel after me -- like a blip in time, like no time at all in fact. This is also fascinating.

* edited out. It's here.


Edit for Clumpy's post:
I'm not sure how consciousness would impede survival for nonhuman animals.

I believe that the whole point of evolving consciousness is to enhance survival. A tiny insect only responds to a few different inputs, ignoring the rest. The larger the animal, the more different inputs it will have to respond to, because its own personal survival becomes an imperative. (Insects have thousands of offspring, only a few of which need to survive. Mammals have only a few offspring, most of which must survive, comparatively.)

There are so many decisions to make for a mammal, compared to (say) a mosquito, that the decision tree becomes huge and unwieldy. It's far simpler to jump up a level and view the tree as a general trend: does this potential action make me feel good or feel bad? As long as the underlying wiring can be read mostly reliably by the overlying statistics-gathering intelligence, good decisions can be made and the animal can keep surviving.

We seem to have an extra layer of higher cognition compared to mammals without a neocortex. Compared to those who do have one, ours is a thicker and more complex top layer. We can form more abstract thoughts, based on more wiring available to monitor lower-level patterns. I suspect that this also dumbs us down a bit, as my friend Catherine also believes, since we're further away from our base data and so lose touch with it more easily. (Compare how much more information most animals gather from smell than we do. There is evidence that we do, in fact, gather this information, but aren't conscious of it. I'm trying to find a reference to the doctor who, for a couple of weeks after an amphetamine overdose, could identify his patients by their smell as they approached his office. Once found, will be posted.)
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Clumpy » Mon Mar 02, 2009 6:12 am UTC

Pretty good analysis, poxic. And I forgot about the whole neocortex thing :).

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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Izawwlgood » Mon Mar 02, 2009 6:42 am UTC

I believe it's possible to point to a number of reasons why humans being not only conscience but sentient came about as a survival mechanism. That does not explain it or reduce it, merely provides it some logical framework. We are what we are because our ancestors operated under pressures and left us, the best fit for surviving on planet earth.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby poxic » Mon Mar 02, 2009 7:22 am UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:We are what we are because our ancestors operated under pressures and left us, the best fit for surviving on planet earth.

... in our particular niche.

We can't and won't survive deep under the sea, but there are amazing organisms which do just that. We maybe think we're superior because we can control so much of our environment, but we're starting to see evidence that we're poisoning our own wells, so to speak. And we're unable to stop ourselves from doing so, because pretty much every human is focused on the survival (and comfort) of the individual, not of the species. This might be our undoing.

If humans live for only 100,000 years but attain such amazing heights of intellect and art (values not shared by pretty much any other animal anywhere), are we "better" than the deep sea protozoa who remain populous and barely changed for millions of years? Or billions? Which is the more successful species? Why? Why does it give me a headache to ask these questions? Why do I ask them anyway, willing myself to look at the conflicting ideas I wish I would ignore? Is this a symptom of humanity's drive to understand the unknown, the very property that has both saved and might destroy us?

Intellectual exercises are fun. And they hurt. Ow.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby SlyReaper » Mon Mar 02, 2009 11:58 am UTC

Do we even have a firm definition of "consciousness"? If we're talking about self-awareness, then a great many animals have this. Even my dog is self-aware (aware of his own stomache at the very least).
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Izawwlgood » Mon Mar 02, 2009 1:59 pm UTC

Please read above. Your dog is not self aware.
@poxic: humans particular niche is anything above sea level. We are wider spread then any other free existing organism and that is certainly only due to our big brains and the intellect that rides with it. Our ability to subsequentially manage our surroundings will certainly determine whether or not we continue to stand at the top of the the food chain, of that We are in full agreement, but I believe that because of how mch we have achieved in the last, say, 10,000 years, that yes, we are indeed superior organisms to everything else on the planet. Note, inferior does not imply unneccesary; as the finest creation this planet has produced, that tasks us with it's protection, and i'd agree we're currently failing.
But my point is, man and our intellect and our very unique consciousness and sentience is unique to man, and as such, the most useful adaptation for surviving on Earth, in say, 99% of it's dry environs.

Oh but re: human selfishness: I'd have to look over my animal behavior textbook, but I'm pretty sure there are no examples of altruism in even the most vegetarian apes. Humans are greedy selfish bastards, but no other species makes large contributions to charities anonymously.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Mon Mar 02, 2009 2:15 pm UTC

aging.child wrote:Maybe I should have defined "human" emotions a little better. I meant that certain emotions we know arise from hormones, chemical imbalances, and the like, like anxiety for example. We share those emotions, or rather, reactions, with animals. Others, like embarrassment, seem to be uniquely human, and honestly wouldn't help us if we were trying to survive.

So, many christians can accept systems like weather or plant life being governed by the holy spirit. I am amazed at the complexity of animal behavior and animal processes, but I can still believe that they don't need to be governed by a consciousness. It is simply the same system that governs the weather and plants. One could of course argue that humans are just part of this system, and that everything we thought was consciousness is really just the affect of different hormones, ions, and chemicals in our body. But that disturbs us, so even the non-religious folk have given us a concept called "consciousness", which makes us feel better.

I guess I'm not good with the spectrum idea. It's either all animals are governed by the forces of the universe, just like weather, gravity, etc., or every animal has a consciousness.


Hormones do not exclude the possibility of free will... they can make you active, depressed, horny, emotional; but you can still make conscious choices. Being hungry compels you to eat, but you choose to eat, or to fast, or to eat when you're not even hungry. Claiming 'non-religious folk' use the 'concept called "conciousness"' to make themselves feel better is not at all fair. It is used to describe something altogether different to the effects of hormones and chemicals.

Further, just because you imagine that embarrassment wouldn't help us to survive, doesn't mean it's true. Loudmouths get their heads busted, and a little humility can do wonders for one's life expectancy. I would wager all social animals experience embarrassment (by social, I mean in the literal sense. Not in the metaphorical sense we use when we refer to bees as social insects- they are in fact asocial, where social interactions between them don't matter in the slightest), by virtue that it is an emotion that stems anti-social behaviour and therefore improves productive relations within the group.

If animals don't have a consciousness, then the Holy Spirit is doing an awesome job of imitating one on their behalf.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Izawwlgood » Mon Mar 02, 2009 3:55 pm UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:If animals don't have a consciousness, then the Holy Spirit is doing an awesome job of imitating one on their behalf.


Can you elaborate? I'm not remotely convinced.
There are many studies that show some very advanced social cognitive attributes in animals, ranging from detailed communication of physical concepts in Dolphins (They can apparently communicate how to solve puzzles to out of sitepod mates), high order, shared problem solving in Ravens (Ravens will distract targets, observe subjects, observe other Ravens, and work as a team to procure food), the mirror test in a variety of mammals, 'culture' in primates (Different bands of the same species will use different tools differently), and most awesomely and sobering, a sense of 'fairness' in many primates (Give Chimp A a prize for accomplishing a task, but Chimp B a crappier prize, and Chimp B will go [apeshit] crazy with rage).

But frankly, in years of Animal Behavior classes, I'm pretty convinced none of them are on the fence about whether or not animals are sentient
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby setzer777 » Mon Mar 02, 2009 4:13 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:@poxic: humans particular niche is anything above sea level. We are wider spread then any other free existing organism and that is certainly only due to our big brains and the intellect that rides with it. Our ability to subsequentially manage our surroundings will certainly determine whether or not we continue to stand at the top of the the food chain, of that We are in full agreement, but I believe that because of how mch we have achieved in the last, say, 10,000 years, that yes, we are indeed superior organisms to everything else on the planet.


I'm not certain we're the best fit at surviving compared to everything above sea-level. From what I understand certain microorganisms are far superior at that, and would prove much more difficult to extinct than humanity. So are we superior? Well, we're superior at intentionally manipulating the environment around us, but whether or not that translates into some sort of general superiority is entirely subjective.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Mon Mar 02, 2009 4:51 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
Pez Dispens3r wrote:If animals don't have a consciousness, then the Holy Spirit is doing an awesome job of imitating one on their behalf.


Can you elaborate? I'm not remotely convinced.
There are many studies that show some very advanced social cognitive attributes in animals, ranging from detailed communication of physical concepts in Dolphins (They can apparently communicate how to solve puzzles to out of sitepod mates), high order, shared problem solving in Ravens (Ravens will distract targets, observe subjects, observe other Ravens, and work as a team to procure food), the mirror test in a variety of mammals, 'culture' in primates (Different bands of the same species will use different tools differently), and most awesomely and sobering, a sense of 'fairness' in many primates (Give Chimp A a prize for accomplishing a task, but Chimp B a crappier prize, and Chimp B will go [apeshit] crazy with rage).

But frankly, in years of Animal Behavior classes, I'm pretty convinced none of them are on the fence about whether or not animals are sentient


Well, that one line statement was written in the context of assuming animal consciousness as given, and arguing that god isn't behind it.

That asides, your post is a little confusing. You're saying that despite studies confirming intelligent behaviour in animals, you don't think this confirms they have consciousness? Do we simply have very different definitions of consciousness? As far as altruism, I heard of a study where mice were given a feeder, and if they took food from it it shocked another mouse they could see. They worked out that eating from it caused the other mouse pain, and stopped eating from it. I wish I had the faintest idea where I read about it, so I could find the source. I'm hoping someone else did and can point it out to me. In any event I'm certain animals have enough awareness that we can deem it 'consciousness'. I don't think there's anything humans have that is exclusive to humans, although we have many things that are much more developed than in animals.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Izawwlgood » Mon Mar 02, 2009 5:29 pm UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:Well, that one line statement was written in the context of assuming animal consciousness as given, and arguing that god isn't behind it.


I must have missed when you brought God into this argument. I'm going to express the opinion that God has nothing to do with consciousness/sentience, and agree do simply disagree with your sentiments on the manner.
EDIT: I'm not sure if I'm misreading your quote... My sentiment stands!

Pez Dispens3r wrote:You're saying that despite studies confirming intelligent behaviour in animals, you don't think this confirms they have consciousness? Do we simply have very different definitions of consciousness?


To define the difference, just so we're on the same page, sentience is the state of being self-aware, or, being aware of being aware, and consciousness, is the state of simply being aware. I *think* I have those correct, but am open to being corrected, and will check the wiki for more.

I think we likely do have different definitions of consciousness, but to clarify: Despite numerous studies finding often surprisingly HIGH degrees of intelligent behavior in animals, animals, AFAI believe and know, and AFAI believe scientists to believe and know, do not exhibit or possess sentience. Intelligent behavior != sentience. All intelligent behavior in animals that I've read about can be attributed to survival adaptations, and again, AFAIB, so can our sentience.

Pez Dispens3r wrote:As far as altruism and some cool stuff about mice


I'd be interested in seeing the study, but my skeptical first response is the mice were able to extrapolate (a sign of intelligence) that if they had the ability to harm another mouse by doing action A, that the other mouse was capable of harming them just as easily, and thus, they should avoid such action to avoid incurring the harm associated with action A. Self-preservation != altruism. Even studies on many presumably altruistic HUMAN behaviors show that they increase the genetic fitness of the subject, and are therefor, not altruistic. But to clarify again, altruism isn't the tried and final line for sentience. Many a sentient human exhibit zero altruistic tendencies.

Pez Dispens3r wrote:I don't think there's anything humans have that is exclusive to humans, although we have many things that are much more developed than in animals.


I disagree. Humans have a good deal cognitive adaptations that separate us from other animals. There's a rather large difference between a species of primates variation on tool use (do we use the leaves as a sponge, or do we use the bark as a sponge? Do we use a twig to probe termite mounds, or do we use a stem? Do we wash at the river, or do we scrape ourselves with sand?), and the human ability to specifically think of specific time (No primate to date AFAIK has been able to communicate "I did this four days ago" or "In three days, I will goto the park", it's always "I did this a while ago/recently" or "Soon, I will goto the park"), or our ability to communicate abstractions (highly communicative species are capable of conveying the notion of number/type/place ["Four fish ahead!"] with striking accuracy, but no communicative species have shown conveyance or possession of justice [See previous example of Chimp fairness, Chimp A will never say "What, Chimp B got a crappy prize and I got a great one! Unfair, I refuse my prize until Chimp B gets his due!"]).

I believe, like everyone on this thread, that humans are an animal. We are simply mammals that evolved sentience as a means for survival, and everything you see that we have accomplished on this crazy planet is a by product of that evolutionary imperative. But we certainly possess quite a bit of brain function that is exclusive to us.

@Setzer: Hardiness and adaptability are certainly traits to measure success, and humans are very very very squishy. But we're very prolific, and just because we're poisoning our planet doesn't mean we're genetically inferior. We haven't seen any deep sea organisms or cockroaches competing with us yet, and while I anxiously await the invertebrate uprising, it's not likely soon coming.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby negatron » Mon Mar 02, 2009 6:00 pm UTC

Pez Dispens3r wrote:Hormones do not exclude the possibility of free will

As it's been said about free will - you're free to do what you want, but you're not free to choose what you want.

If free will means the ability to epiphenomenize over the physiological processes that generate your state of mind, then indeed, no such thing exists.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby setzer777 » Mon Mar 02, 2009 6:44 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:@Setzer: Hardiness and adaptability are certainly traits to measure success, and humans are very very very squishy. But we're very prolific, and just because we're poisoning our planet doesn't mean we're genetically inferior. We haven't seen any deep sea organisms or cockroaches competing with us yet, and while I anxiously await the invertebrate uprising, it's not likely soon coming.


I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "competing with us" in this context. Humanity isn't affecting their resources enough to threaten them, so competition doesn't really come into it (indeed, many have adapted to actually survive inside human bodies). In terms of survival I was just saying that there a lot more plausible occurrences that could extinct humanity than occurrences that could extinct certain microorganisms. Superiority in the survival sense doesn't have to include the ability to control your environment or wipe out/dominate other organisms.
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Re: Do animals have consciousness?

Postby Faranya » Mon Mar 02, 2009 7:14 pm UTC

Now, are we speaking on sentience? Because my understanding of that term is the ability to suffer pain or enjoy pleasure. And I doubt much of an arguement can arise from "Can animals feel pain?"

Or are we speaking of a consciousness, of an ability to think beyond simple mechanical tasks. A dolphin can solve a puzzle, an octopus can open a jar, but those are just simple mechanical extensions. Can a dolphin compose a puzzle? Could an octopus design a jar? That is a question that really strains the subject. A mouse can be taught to hit a lever and get food, or to run through a maze, but could it think through complex situations without coaching?

If you leave a ladder on the floor to an open topped cage, will it figure out that the ladder is the key to its escape and prop it up? Or will it run over top of it over and over again?

The ability to follow instructions hardly speaks to me of a real consciousness. Do A, get B, it is the natural reaction, their instinct. Unless you want to suggest that instinct is consciousness, I would have to assert that most animals do not have conscious thought.

That is not to say it is impossible. We evolved conscious thought, they can to. We could find an ape tomorrow capable of philosophizing his existence in a cage, to speak of boredom and the implications of, and it would not surprise me in the least. But to my own knowledge, such an animal has not been found, but I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.

As to whether or not to eat those animals who may have consciousness, when they can offer to me an arguement themselves against me eating them, I will reconsider it.
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