Are non-human animals conscious?

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Are non-human animals conscious?


Are non-human animals conscious? Well, maybe. In investigating animal consciousness the null position is that they are not. Therefore, to answer the question we must either prove that they are, or provide an alternative explanation for evidence suggesting animal consciousness. Of course, this depends on what consciousness is.

The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness can be defined as being aware to one's surroundings and identity. But such a definition is unable to encompass the entirety of the concept, so it is better to describe the forms in which consciousness comes and avoid what Dennett has called the 'heartbreak of premature definition'. We can be 'consciously aware' of a pain or a bird flying past. Both are sensed by unconscious, physiological mechanisms, interpreted, and are presented to our consciousness. We might suddenly remember a past memory. We can consciously think about a problem and work out the solution, or we might find that the answer to yesterday's problem suddenly appears in our consciousness. Our consciousness can also reach higher planes, as when we wonder what consciousness is. On these occasions we are aware not just of ourselves and of the world but also our place in it. This self-awareness is perhaps the most crucial part of human consciousness, since if we are aware of ourselves then we can be aware of other minds. This is one way that our consciousness can reach out and effect other individuals.


Conscious acts can incorporate an understanding of cause and effect, for example fashioning a tool to solve a problem requires an understanding of 'how things work'. This can include knowledge of object properties (including object permanence), of relationships between objects, how to achieve modifications and how things are constructed.

Conscious animals show an understanding of other people. We assume that other individuals, like ourselves, are animate causal agents with minds, and treat them as having mental states - beliefs, feelings, intentions, and so on. Furthermore this 'works' in the sense that on the basis of what we think other people are thinking we can predict what they are going to do - not all the time, but much better than just guessing (2). An individual that acts as if other individuals have mental states is said to have a theory of mind; when I assume you have particular thoughts and fears I am using my theory of mind. Theory of mind is more complicated than it might appear at first. It includes the ability to hold in memory two sets of mutually conflicting information at the same time (this is where autistic children fail). In normal life, seeing is believing. However, strictly speaking, there is an intervening step: if we know that someone has seen an event, we deduce that they know it happened. An autistic child is perfectly able to say what someone else can see, but fails tasks that require an understanding of what someone else knows - knowledge that results from what the person has been able to see. A hairline distinction maybe! But for example, say an autistic child moved a coin placed, by an absent adult, in a red box into a green one. The child would know that the coin began in the red box and is now in the green one, but when asked where the adult will look for it the child will reply "in the green box" - it is unable to hold the conflicting thought that the adult might not know that the coin had been moved. The child failed to understand false belief ('she believes that X, whereas I believe that X is false'). Two different types of understanding are involved here - an ability to understand another individual's visual perspective (which an autistic child can do) and the ability to understand their knowledge and mental perspective (which they cannot). Only the latter uses theory of mindHowHiiiii, and without it intentional acts to deceive or teach other individuals are impossible.

Here we need to define intentionality. Intentionality can exist on several levels and only Dennett's second-order intentionality requires a theory of mind. For example, (second-order) intentional deception can be expressed 'I want him to think X' (i.e. mentally representing another's mental state) when 'X is not the case'. In the case of (second-order) intentional teaching, the actor thinks 'X will be useful for him to know'.

Conscious acts can therefore include (second-order) intentional attempts to deceive or to teach, as well as use of objects. If a conscious act is intentional it must be made with full knowledge of the possible consequences. In other words consciousness must be able to imagine, or simulate, various different actions and make assumptions about their outcomes. Craik (1943) suggested that the function of conscious thought was testing out plans of action before embarking on them (2). The brain is thus seen to act as a prediction machine, rather like a giant Turing machine and conscious thought, thinking, as mental simulation of possible outcomes of intentional actions. This idea, that the brain is a biological machine that can solve problems by computation, has been the view of the brain that has dominated cognitive psychology and neuroscience since 1960.

These three are the components of insight: understanding the mechanics of cause and effect; understanding what others know, think, or feel; and being able to plan or simulate actions without carrying them out. And they are necessary in order to solve problems by thinking.


Thinking is an important part of consciousness, if thinking involves simulating or computing outcomes without performing them. For example, to deceive intentionally requires the ability to hold at one time databases of mutually conflicting information. Thinking could therefore be used to imagine future possible realities of the world in general, as well as current variations from truth in other individuals.

At its lowest level thinking could involve mental concatenation of disparate facts. That is, the concatenating of knowledge learnt in previous circumstances in order to deal with a third, novel circumstance. Problem-solving (for example making generalisations in order to solve problems quicker) is another type of thinking. However, abstract thinking - for example, abstract generalisations - making connections between unrelated concepts or items is a crucial aspect of thinking, and evidence of high intelligence. And of course, applying abstract names to objects is part of the development of language.

This discussion has identified some aspects of consciousness, defining some phenomena that are characteristic of conscious animals and which therefore could be tested for. Consciousness implies, above all, self-awareness. From this, it follows that conscious acts must be made with awareness of consequences to the self and to other beings, because of theory of mind. Conscious thoughts can involve abstract generalisations. These are only characteristics of consciousness, they do not define it and might be present or absent in different conscious beings. For example, no-one would suggest that an autistic child was not conscious. Having discussed aspects of consciousness, it is important to consider also its function and how it might have first arisen.
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Metaphysical/Non-adaptive Argument:

Some people think that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. That is, it 'sits above' observable events, without interfering. As such it is not part of the mechanism for controlling behaviour: it has no direct, detectable effect, for example a testable increase in an animal's inclusive fitness. By this token, any animal could be conscious and we would not know it because we would be unable to test for it. And this same reasoning applies to humans, as we are animals. I know that I am conscious, but I have no reason to believe that any other ...

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