Animals are conscious! In other news, sky is blue, water wet

A reader calls my attention to a Discovery News story which breathlessly declares: 

A prominent group of scientists signs a document stating that animals are just as “conscious and aware” as humans are.  This is a big deal.

Actually, it is not a big deal, nor in any way news, and the really interesting thing about this story is how completely uninteresting it is.  Animals are conscious?  Anyone who has ever owned a pet, or been to the zoo, or indeed just knows what an animal is, knows that.  

OK, almost anyone.  Descartes notoriously denied it, for reasons tied to his brand of dualism.  And perhaps that is one reason someone might think animal consciousness remarkable.  It might be supposed that if you regard the human mind as something immaterial, you have to regard animals as devoid of consciousness, so that evidence of animal consciousness is evidence against the immateriality of the mind and thus a “big deal.”  This is not what the article says, mind you, but it is one way to make sense of why it presents the evidence of animal consciousness as if it were noteworthy.

The trouble is that there is simply no essential connection whatsoever between affirming the immateriality of the human mind and denying that animals are conscious.  Aristotelians, for example, have always insisted both that animals are sentient -- indeed, that is part of what makes them animals in the first place -- and that human intellectual activity is at least partly immaterial (for reasons I’ve discussed in many places, most recently here).  Descartes’ reasons for denying animal consciousness have to do with assumptions peculiar to his own brand of dualism, assumptions Aristotelians reject.  And they have to do especially with assumptions Descartes made about the nature of matter as much or more than they have to do with his assumptions about the nature of mind -- assumptions about matter that materialists (no doubt including at least some among those scientists cited in the Discovery News article) share.

I’ve discussed the modern, post-Cartesian conception of matter and the role it played in generating the so-called “mind-body problem” many times in many places (including hereand here).  The key point for present purposes is that in characterizing matter in purely quantitative, mathematical terms, Descartes left no place in it for qualitative features like color, odor, taste, sound, smell, heat and cold as common sense understands them.  Accordingly, he treated these qualitative features -- as Galileo before him and Locke, Boyle, and countless others after him did -- as entirely mind-dependent, existing only in our conscious experience of the world but not in the world itself.  They are analogous to the redness you see when you literally look at the world through rose-colored glasses -- not really “out there” but only in the eye of the beholder.  What really exists “out there,” on this sort of view, is only color, sound, heart, cold, etc. as redefined in terms of physics -- surface reflectance properties, compression waves, molecular motion, etc.

Now, if these qualitative features as common sense understands them exist only in the mind and not in the material world, it follows that these features cannot themselves be material.  A kind of dualism follows, then, precisely from the conception of matter to which modern philosophers -- including materialists-- are generally committed.  Indeed, as I have also noted before (most recently here), early modern writers like Malebranche and Cudworth saw in this new conception of matter such an argument for dualism, as have contemporary dualists like Richard Swinburne.  The so-called “qualia problem” that contemporary philosophers of mind fret over has (contrary to what some of the materialists among them seem to assume) nothing whatsoever to do with an unwillingness to follow out the implications of modern science, but on the contrary is the inevitable result of the conception of matter to which modern scientists in their philosophical moments have wedded themselves.

In any event, if we say that these qualitative features -- redness, coolness, etc. as we know them from introspection -- exist only in a mind-dependent way, only in conscious experience, that raises the question of what a mind is.  And for Descartes, a mind is just the sort of thing whose existence he is left with when everything else has been doubted away by the end of the first of his Meditations -- the sort of thing which can think to itself “I think, therefore I am,” and which can know that it and its conscious experiences of the world exist even if the external material world itself does not.  

This gives us Descartes’ novel form of dualism.  The human body, as he understood it, is just one entirely mathematically definable bit of the material world among others, entirely devoid of qualitative features and thus of the consciousness that, as he saw it, is presupposed by them.  What makes a human being more than a mere unconscious mechanism is that conjoined with this body is a res cogitans in which alone consciousness resides.  Apart from that, a human being would be no more conscious than a toaster oven, even if it acted like it was conscious -- which is precisely why the post-Cartesian understanding of matter and mind has given rise to the notion of a “zombie,” in the technical sensefamiliar from contemporary philosophy of mind.  This notion of a “zombie” -- and thus the “hard problem of consciousness” which has gotten so much attention in recent years and which many philosophers and scientists falsely suppose is a scientific problem susceptible of a scientific solution -- are artifacts of an entirely philosophical, historically contingent, and eminently challengeable (indeed, I would say clearly false) conception of matter.  

Be that as it may, Descartes’ strange view about animals pretty naturally falls out of this set of assumptions.  If the entire material world, including the human body, is utterly devoid of anything like the qualitative features we know from conscious experience, and consciousness resides only in a res cogitans, then whatever lacks a res cogitanscannot be conscious.  But the mark of a res cogitans is the sort of higher cognitive activity represented by fancy philosophical thoughts like “I think, therefore I am,” and (more generally) expressible in language.  Whatever gives every sign of being devoid of the sort of intellectual activity associated with language accordingly gives every sign of being devoid of consciousness.  Hence we have (again, given the assumptions in question) every reason to conclude that non-human animals are essentially “zombies” -- they act like they are conscious, but they are not.

Now, this crazy outcome is, certainly for us Aristotelians, a clear reductio ad absurdum of the premises that led to it, and just one of the many evidences that the moderns were wrong to abandon the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature (which is, of course, not to say that they were wrong to abandon the erroneous scientific ideas that had gotten entangled with that philosophy of nature).  But there is nevertheless a kind of logic to Descartes’ position.  One sometimes hears stupid remarks about Descartes to the effect that his views about animals reflected mere anthropocentric prejudice or the like.  (See this golden oldie from the long-defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog, wherein I criticized one such attack.)  Descartes was wrong, but no one who shares his basic assumptions about the nature of matter -- which probably includes most contemporary philosophers and scientists, albeit they share those assumptions unreflectively and only in broad outlines (namely Descartes’ emphasis on quantitative and mathematically definable features) rather than in the details (e.g. Descartes’ commitment to plenum theory, which no one accepts any longer) -- has any business dismissing his views out of hand.  For it is precisely those essentially anti-Aristotelian, anti-Scholastic assumptions that led to his bizarre views about animals.  

Another reason some might think animal consciousness is noteworthy is that they might think it supports materialism.  In particular, they might suppose that given that animals are purely material and yet are conscious, that gives us reason to think that the human mind in its entirely is material.  But this is just a non sequitur, and once again presupposes an essentially Cartesian understanding of the relevant issues.  Because he took all consciousness to reside in the res cogitans and regarded the res cogitans as immaterial, Descartes’ position implies that sensation and imagination are immaterial.  Hence if sensation and imagination turn out to be material after all, the post-Cartesian philosopher understandably concludes that the remaining operations of the res cogitans, and higher cognitive activities in particular, might be susceptible of materialist explanation as well.

But the Aristotelian tradition has in the first place always regarded sensation and imagination as corporeal faculties, and as having nothing essentially to do with the reasons why our distinctively intellectual activities are incorporeal.  It is only because they take for granted the desiccated, purely quantitative post-Cartesian conception of matter that contemporary philosophers and scientists regard sensation and imagination as at least philosophically problematic and are impressed by any evidence for the essentially bodily character of sensation and imagination.  The Aristotelian finds himself stifling a yawn.  “Big whoop.  We’ve been saying that for centuries.”

In any event, merely to insinuate that evidence for the corporeal nature of conscious awareness is evidence for the corporeal nature of abstract thought would just be to beg the question against the Aristotelian tradition, which maintains that strictly intellectual activity on the one hand and sensation and imagination on the other differ in kind and not merely degree, so that to establish the corporeal nature of the latter is irrelevant to the question of whether the former is corporeal.  (I’ve addressed this issue many times as well, once again most recently here.)  Hence, to establish that animals have conscious awareness of a sensory and imaginative sort -- something the Aristotelian not only has never denied but has insisted upon -- simply does nothing to show that the distinctively intellectual powers of human beings might be given a materialist explanation.  (Though in fairness, the Discovery News article doesn’t say otherwise.  I’m merely speculating about why anyone might find remarkable the inherently unremarkable claim that non-human animals are conscious.)

So, Discovery News, Discovery Shnews.  For the reallyinteresting developments in animal psychology, you’ve got to rely on The Onion:

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