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Are Animals Conscious?

Updated on September 6, 2014
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Introduction

According to neuroscientists, memory and perception are at the heart of intelligence. Brain size is one factor in determining an organism’s intelligence, the brain-body ratio another. Elephants and whales have a brain larger than a human’s, but their brain-to-body ratio is relatively small. Some smaller monkeys have ratios larger than a human’s, but the overall size of their brain is much smaller. Dolphins are the only other life forms on the planet known to have a similar brain size, complexity, and ratio to that of a human’s. As a matter of fact, a dolphin’s brain is more convoluted around the cerebral cortex. Does this mean they could be more intelligent, perhaps in a different way? All scientists know for certain is more convolution denotes more behavioral complexity. Dolphins do exhibit signs of acquired learning, social acculturation, cooperation with others, and supportive behavior, in particular with other species in distress. In the future, we may develop a method of communicating with them. How might people react if found their level of intelligence is comparable to ours? Perhaps certain unnamed nations would have a reason to remain in denial.

The same could be said for factory farmers since they would never admit animals have feelings in any manner similar to ours. One conundrum is an avid animal lover that is not a vegetarian. A vegetarian considers animal lovers that eat meat hypocrites since they are aware of an animal’s feelings first hand. In defense of non-vegetarians, they are no different from the leopard that runs down a gazelle for dinner. Since our bodies are built to digest both, there should be nothing wrong with following our own instincts. Factory farms, on the other hand, are a different story, and their methods are well in line with animal cruelty.

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Relative Consciousness

“When we look at a rock what we are seeing is not the rock, but the effect of the rock upon us”—Bertrand Russell[i]

Consciousness is relative to the individual living being. Evolution plays a role in the amount or type of consciousness one might have in contrast to another, but consciousness is akin to simple awareness. How aware a species is determines how it communicates and, perhaps, how intelligent it is.

A dog displays a certain level of awareness. A human does too though different from that of a dog. For people, the degrees of problem solving, moral reasoning, and emotion are all on different conscious levels than those of a dog. This does not suggest a dog fails to exhibit any of the preceding attributes, only the level it experiences them on is different from that of a human’s. A dog relies more on instinct, a human more on reasoning. Evolutionary development is the primary determinable factor in the type of consciousness an animal harbors but is not indicative of the lack or possession of it.

Could a dog exhibit a lesser developed sense of morality than that of a human but a sense nonetheless? Certain species of dog act different from others. Some breeds are considered more aggressive though, in most instances, through no fault of their own since they were bred that way. Does that constitute a different level of morals, or are the animals acting on predetermined genetic instinct? Do some animals have a choice in whether or not to attack an innocent person, such as a helpless child? Are fear and poor training potential barriers for the inability of some animals to reason? One thing we do know, some people have a drastically misguided moral compass compared to that of an animal’s, and we have the luxury of evolved reasoning.

If an animal attacks out of fear, is that a conscious or instinctual act? What is instinct? Humans harbor many instincts similar to those of other animals, such as the drive to reproduce or tendency to kill for territorial reasons. The decision of a sociopath to murder for pleasure is one exception exclusive to human beings. Other instincts are underlying and sometimes pertain to the sexes. Human males tend to have a lesser degree of control when it comes to reproduction. Females harbor an innate ability to parent and nurture. While there are interchangeable exceptions and without trying to stereotype, these are the usual nature of things.

Instincts sometimes are confused with actions of free will, moral reasoning, or antisocial behavior. Perhaps at one time, such feelings were instinctive. Over time, humans evolved until instinctive response meshed with moral reasoning. Awareness of legal consequences resulting from nefarious behavior became another deterrent to antisocial behavior. The development of feelings and emotions encouraged one to empathize with others.

Evolution brought humanity out of the predominantly instinctual mode and, as a result, provided us with the ability to regard the moral consequences of behavior. It fine-tuned the primitive, animalistic drive yet retained the ability for one to have such uncontrollable feelings and tendencies, sometimes as a result of chemical imbalances. The ability for humans to reason elevated with each step of the evolutionary process. Other animals developed different faculties, so their standards of reason and morality are somewhat hampered compared to ours. Evidence of some level of morality can be found in pets that have evolved and adjusted to live with their human owners. They are taught and trained to exhibit select moral attributes. Some were bred either in or out of them during the transformation from wolf to dog, others they harbored innately, and still others they acquired on their own.

Consciousness is relative to where a particular species ranks on the evolutionary ladder, depending on their individual levels of intelligence. Within a particular species, the level of consciousness and intelligence can relate to various environmental factors. No black or white answers exist to determine if a particular species is conscious, only commonsense intuitions. Since evolution is a valid theory, one could infer all living beings have some degree of consciousness. If not, at what point did we acquire it? Was there some miraculous moment in the past when our ancestors suddenly became conscious or aware?

[i] Handcock, Mike. What If You Were God (quoting Bertrand Russell). Ellerslie NZ: Rock Your Life Publishing, 2010.

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Biological Intelligence

“It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.”—Arthur C. Clarke[i]

Webster defines intelligence as, "The capacity to know; knowledge imparted or acquired.”[ii]

Are humans the singular species on the planet worthy of being considered intelligent? What does it mean to be so? The definition of intelligence is arbitrary, open to a multitude of various interpretations.

Undoubtedly, there are countless human beings roaming the planet regarded as unintelligent. They may harbor a certain level of intelligence; just not exhibit any meaningful intellect. There are those not considered smart in any sense of the word’s definition.

Some people consider themselves more intelligent than others, but all demonstrate some form of intelligence because they are Homo sapiens.

As the great Qui-Gon Jinn once said, “The ability to speak does not make one intelligent.”[iii] But neither should the inability. Since an infant is unable to communicate its needs or wants, does that mean it has no way of gaining intelligence?

Are individuals with significant forms of autism non-conscious or unintelligent because they are unable to communicate their needs and desires? Modern studies with various interactive communication devices are proving those with autism are only unable to express or communicate their desires and interests. They are trapped within their own minds yet think and reason the same as everyone else. In many cases, they are more intelligent than the average person. The way their brain is structured prevents them from expressing their thoughts and feelings in a manner consistent with conventional definitions of intelligence. Some cases of autism prove we are unable to comprehend just what it means to be conscious or intelligent.

All forms of life exhibit a certain level of consciousness and intelligence. We view ours as more valid since we are the one species on the planet able to relay feelings, fears, and desires to others. Just because an animal squeezed into a pen at a factory farm is unable to broadcast the pain and suffering it endures should take nothing away from the fact it still experiences it.

Perceived consciousness is relative to the individual being. Evolution plays a significant role in determining the type of consciousness and level of intelligence a species is capable of harboring, but all species exhibit them. All forms of life have a particular level of relative consciousness because they are alive. Ants may not be the brightest creatures on the planet, though certainly the most abundant, but consider their organizational skills. These creatures work together toward a mutual goal of joint survival.

Instinct may be a different degree of intelligence, not something separate from it. It is a lesser degree of consciousness but a degree nonetheless. Individual living cells throughout the human body display a very basic level of awareness, which combine to incorporate the collective. They perpetuate throughout the body and follow orders provided by the more complex organism. They perform directed tasks and have a particular order in which they carry them out. A cell is not aware of its place in the Universe, nor realizes it exists. It displays only a very simple level of awareness, perhaps unworthy of the most basic definition of the word.

An advanced alien civilization might compare their intelligence to ours the same way we compare our own to a dog or cat. Perhaps the first civilization in the Universe to arise is so advanced, they view us the same way we do insects. The same could be said by our successors billions of years from now. They may argue we had no right considering ourselves intelligent in any manner whatsoever.

Though intelligence and consciousness are relative, they should not be considered any less relevant from one being to the next. We are all connected, and we all share a common ancestor.

[i] Fenster, Bob. Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race. Kansas City: McMeel Publishing, 2000, p. 208.

[ii] New Webster’s Expanded Dictionary, 2005. “Intelligence,” p. 148.

[iii] Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Lucas, George, Lucasfilm Ltd., 1999.

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Perceived Reality

“All that you see or seem, is but a dream within a dream”—Edgar Allen Poe[i]

An ant may not perceive reality in the same manner as a human yet perceives the same collective reality as every other organism on the planet. An ant processes information in a different way, but the information perceived by both ant and human remains the same. A crumb of food, for example, may taste and smell different to the ant but remains the same piece of food within this three-dimensional plane of existence.

Reality may be relative, not only to the individual species but to the individual within a particular species. However, there are certain concrete realities that are not relative, death being the most significant.

Humans throughout the world perceive their surroundings in a unique way from one person to the next. Reality is subject to an individual’s perspective, cultural or religious background, geographic location, ability to perceive and process information, and so on.

Perception of local events is a relative view, exclusive to the extent of ignorance. Though an alien civilization millions of light years away is unaware of events transpiring on Earth, they still occur during the same collective moment within this collective, three-dimensional reality. Causal or not, elsewhere or local, this logical fact is irrefutable.

Imagine an alien civilization somewhere in the Universe that developed along a similar evolutionary path as humanity but well beyond human appearance and technology. Would their evolutionary development and perspective of reality make ours look inconsequential or plain wrong? The chances are remote, but anything is possible given the number of star systems in the Universe and coinciding, geophysical circumstances. After all, asteroid impacts with Earth and other planets throughout the galaxy permitted the exchange of similar developing microorganisms. Though most evolutionary biologists dismiss such possibilities altogether, a handful believes most intelligent life will be humanoid and carbon-based. Others contend no complex life of any form exists anywhere else in the Universe but here on Earth. Arguments like that might cause some to wonder if complex life exists on this planet.

An alien’s experience of reality will be different from that of a human’s but remains the same collective reality throughout this observable dimension. Their level of technology and physical makeup permit them to perceive existence in a unique manner to those on Earth. The mastery of sciences for which we can only dream allows them to perceive the Universe in a different light. In their eyes, humans might appear as a lesser being, perhaps similar to how we compare ourselves to either chimps or insects. That might be offensive to civilized society, but they may be equally offended by any comparison of us to them.

Perceived reality is different from one creature to the next yet remains the same collective reality throughout this dimension. Only the experience of reality is subject to perspective and biological makeup, not physical reality itself.

Consider, for instance, a human being born with limited brain function and mobility. His mind is unable to process information of the outside world in virtually any manner whatsoever. Not only was he born deaf and blind but paralyzed from the neck down, yet he physiologically is alive. Machines assist his biological processes. The boy ages, his body processes food, and his heart pumps blood. The exclusive sense of feeling he has is from the neck up. Most would argue he remains an individual living being, distinct from anyone else and eligible for the same intrinsic rights.

Without conscious reflection of the outside world, the boy is unable to develop what we consider a personality. Personality defines who one is, what he thinks, what memories he has, and what makes him distinct. Others may relate to him as being an individual because they know his name and who his parents are. They retain identifiable markers of who he is, yet he does not. His family creates a sense of labeled identity, which he is unable to do for himself.

Without sensory input from his perspective, the boy is unable to realize he exists. He remains a complex biological organism that perpetuates but one lacking the self-knowledge to realize he is alive. Most religions would argue he has a soul but in the same breath argue against any animal having the same.

A chimpanzee or dolphin appears more conscious and “alive” than the boy. Your dog or cat also appears more aware. So after contemplating the previous argument, assuming any idea of an immortal soul is valid, why should such a thing remain exclusive to human beings?

Animals are conscious, have feelings and memories, and may reason, if only in their own, unique way. Each one perceives reality in a different manner, depending on the species and among individual animals of the same type. Some call an animal’s method of reasoning nothing more than instinct. But if the soul does exist as a natural phenomenon and quantum function, then all living beings would harbor one. It would not be something spiritual, but something natural.

Are human beings egotistical enough to believe no other species on the planet is capable of performing a non-instinctive act? Are people too caught up in religious doctrine or scientism to believe otherwise? A multitude of research suggests other animals are able to perform non-instinctive acts similar to those performed by human beings. Who has the right to say the ability to reason determines whether a creature has a soul anyway, even if the concept is purely mythical?

A human perceives reality on a different level than does a dolphin. Is a person more intelligent because she walks and it swims? Are people smarter because dolphins are unable to communicate with us, or are they more intelligent in some respects because we are unable to understand them? Are humans the exclusive conscious beings on the planet because we are more aware of our place in the Universe? Perhaps more conscious of their surroundings is the only fair argument. We have evolved to comprehend certain concepts other animals have not. Perhaps an alien civilization significantly more advanced than we would view us in much the same manner.

[i] Poe, Edgar Allen, “Dream Within A Dream.” Flag of Our Union. (March 31, 1849): Stanza 2, Lines 23, 24.

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The Origin Of Consciousness

"All too rarely do I find colleagues who will assent to the proposition (which I find irresistible) that the very ground-rules of science, its concern only for public knowledge, preclude its finding an explanation for my consciousness, the one phenomenon of which I am absolutely certain. Mostly they admit indeed that it will be a tough job, but like to believe that in due course the relationship of consciousness to brain activity will be made clear, and the ghost in the machine exorcised."—Sir Brian Pippard[i]

Webster defines consciousness as, “The state of being conscious; knowledge of one's own existence, condition, sensations, mental operations, acts, etc.”[ii]

Marian Stamp Dawkins, author of Through Our Eyes Only? wrote, “…consciousness still remains an intractable and even embarrassing problem for biologists. It is embarrassing because it does not seem to fit into their usual evolutionary framework. It makes them feel uncomfortable, awkward, so much so that they will sometimes deny that it is a scientific problem at all, saying instead that consciousness cannot be studied scientifically and so cannot pose a problem for any scientific theory.”[iii]

Of all the questions science hopes to answer, the phenomenon of consciousness and the mind may be the most difficult to assess. As the evolution of ideas forced physicists to adopt new ways of thinking to answer questions of the quantum Universe, it will force biologists to reconsider matters of consciousness. Such radical ideas may answer questions of the sixth sense since everyone uses only a small portion of their brain. Various organizations are working on aspects of extrasensory perception for everyday applications, and the technology does work. In the future, communication between people will utilize a similar function.

All biologists and behavioral scientists should reconsider their traditional, deep-rooted beliefs and accept the fact, like human beings, animals too harbor a unique mind and consciousness. Until science proves otherwise, what could be wrong with giving them the benefit of the doubt since some evidence complies with the idea? Is it a moral dilemma killing them for food would weigh heavily on one’s own conscious?

All puns aside, the main point to consider is, through evolution, consciousness did not appear out of thin air or at some magical moment in our ancestral family tree. Our minds acquired more complexity during evolution. It evolved, as our ancestors did from single-celled organisms, until Homo sapiens appeared. Consciousness gains complexity as organisms evolve but is always present in one form or another. Therefore, a certain level should remain present in all living beings. The next chapter expands on this idea at length.

Energy is present throughout the entire Universe and manifests itself in many forms. Life is one of those forms, the conscious embodiment allowing the Universe to reflect upon itself. It is a direct part of the physical Universe in the form of carbon. Earth houses carbon-based life forms in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Only does the complex, biological structure of the brain trick people into believing they are rare and unique.

[i] Pippard, Sir Brian, “Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man.” Nature Magazine, (1992): pg 357.

[ii] New Webster’s Expanded Dictionary, 2005. “Consciousness,” p. 54.

[iii] Dawkins, Marian Stamp. Through Our Eyes Only?: The Search for Animal Consciousness. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1993, p. 7.

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