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Non-human consciousness

  1. Feb 16, 2005 #1
    I wanted to see if any of you had thoughts on the following: our feelings and emotions appear to be markers of old evolutionary imperatives (fight, flee, eat, etc.). The mind/body debate in philosophy got started before evolutionary theory was accepted (Descartes evidently thought animals were automata). Given we now better understand our close relationship with our non-verbal animal cousins, I am persuaded that animals have first-person experiences of a sort, probably much like our more primitive feelings.

    If so, then the “hard problem” can be seen as the challenge of accounting for first-person experience in natural systems more broadly than just the human case; the issue can be seen as distinct from others relating to human intelligence and language.
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  3. Feb 16, 2005 #2


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    Human intelligence and language also find analogs in non-human animals, so I'm not sure there's any more of a split between the study of human and non-human consciousness than there is a split between the study of human and non-human intelligence and language. They are all connected evolutionarily.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2005
  4. Feb 16, 2005 #3
    You're right, of course. Every attribute we have is connected due to our shared lineage. However, I think feelings are first person markers of more primitive adaptations and are likely to be much more closely aligned with animals, compared to language ability for instance.
  5. Feb 18, 2005 #4
    It is very much a feature of the current mind/body debate to avoid "parochialism" --
    the idea that mind/consciousness is purely human. This intorduce the problem of
    relating mental types to physical types without beign overly restirictive of the kind
    of brain/computer that implements mental states, and accounts for the popularity of functionalism (which , according to its critics, is not parochial enough).
  6. Feb 18, 2005 #5
    Thanks. what's interesting to me about animal consciousness, though, is that presumably the cognitive processes are simpler and perhaps less interesting to the computational wing of the functionalist school, and yet (I speculate) the raw experiential qualities of fear, pain, hunger could be very robust.
  7. Feb 18, 2005 #6


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    But having no first person accounts, how would we ever know? It seems to me much of the animal consciousness movement just amounts to declaring them conscious because that seems a humane thing to do.

    Animal problem solving does not prove consciousness. Computers solve problems too, including problems they were not "built to solve".
  8. Feb 18, 2005 #7
    We know about other human minds by analogy with our own. To inform us about animal minds, I think we would proceed by looking at the neural correlates of certain human experiences, and seeing which have close analogues in the neural structures of animals and which don't. I've read some accounts of work in this area, and will come back and post examples when I find them. It was my impression that higher powers of cognition and language are correlated relatively more with our highly developed cortex, whereas emotions and pain are relatively more situated in sub-cortical areas which have changed less in our descent from some common ancestors. But I admit I'm talking without a good knowledge base here - if anyone else can either back this up or refute it, let me know.
  9. Feb 21, 2005 #8
    It's true that most of the so-called "higher powers of cognition" take place primarily in the neocortex. However, I think selfAdjoint has a point. To wonder about whether another species of animal is conscious or not is the same as wondering whether another human is conscious or not. It is an attempt to establish whether that being belongs within your "group". Indeed, you'll notice that most of the animals we are more reluctant to harm or kill (the cuter ones :wink:) are those that have features (specifically, facial features) that resemble our own to some degree or other. We are simply worried about harming something that might conceivably respond the same way a member of our group would.

    To think evolutionarily, isn't there a benefit in recoiling at the thought of harming "one of your own" (at least, for an inherently social animal)?
  10. Feb 22, 2005 #9


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    Yes. It works well within the contex of Paul Maclean's "Triune Brain". Know about it? We have 3 brains: the reptilian complex, limbic system, and of course, our crowning achievement, the neocortex. Emotions emerge from our mamalian vestige, the limbic system, as a survival strategy for protecting the young.
  11. Feb 22, 2005 #10
    Right. From what I've read, the evolutionary grounding of impulses such as cooperation and altruism does indeed start with our original stance toward kin which was then extended to encompass larger social groups. It is natural that we feel less and less of a positive moral imperative in our behavior toward more and more distant species down the ancestral line. Going back to consciousness, it seems logical that the similarity of first-person experience will generally correlate with distance on the family tree as well. However, breaking things down one level further, my particular point is that some of the most robust and compelling first-person experiences (emotion, pain) may be ones which have changesd relatively less as we diverged from some of our cousins.
  12. Feb 22, 2005 #11
    Thanks for the reminder about MacLean. It is what was in my mind but I couldn't place it.
  13. Feb 24, 2005 #12
    Hi Steve,
    If all we have is a first person experience (1PE) which we consider consciousness, and from it we infer others' 1PE, I have no doubt that my dog is as conscious as I am. I've been observing his behaviour for many hours for many years and can't think otherwise. However, I think I doubt that he is conscious of being conscious.
    Don't know if this is of any help.
  14. Feb 24, 2005 #13
    Thanks antfm. It is often pointed out that we must be cautious about the possibility that we are inappropriately "anthropomorphizing" when we infer things from our observations of animal behavior. Finding the neural correlates of consciousness and then seeing which structures are common with animals will put this on firmer footing. With that said, I tend to agree with you in thinking that the first person experience of higher mammals has much in common with our own conscious experience, although introspective or reflective self-consciousness may be unique to us.
  15. Feb 24, 2005 #14
    I understand the objection, Steve. That is a problem that we are always going to encounter. Since if 1PE is our only basic ground we have always to make inferences, and this should be so even to assign consciousness to anybody different from oneself (at least until neural correlates were clearly proved to mean consciousness).
    When I say I've no doubt that my dog is conscious, I know I'm just exposing a personal belief or whatever. But it's not but a raw way to say that I infer that he experiences, that he enjoys and he suffers (appart from all human connotations of these words), so he has some kind of consciousness. But considering that just as an hypothesis (and I hope not a far fetched one), I think it might be helpful to enlarge the field of research in consciousness,
    and consider it as a more general phenomenon in nature, one spreading from simpler to more complex forms, and related also to the evolution of living beings, which I thought was in the origin of your thread.

    Two more points: if you search the web for "pain in fishes" for instance, you'll find some research articles about animal consciousness (sorry I haven't got the links).
    Second, I am sure that my dog has dreams. But, dogs appart, just from human dreams I think we should also try to understand consciousness not just as the waking state experience.

    Sorry if this sounds too folky philosophy. I'll try to improve.
  16. Feb 24, 2005 #15
    Thanks for mentioning this -- that was one my intended points, which I sort of got away from.
  17. Mar 7, 2005 #16

    I think most would agree that all forms of life have consciousness with varying degrees of self awareness. Looking at the Earth from a holistic point of view, the Earth is a big ball of rock that has come alive and started thinking. With this in mind one has to ask if inanimate objects such as rocks and water have consciousness. It is not such an odd idea that is very old and has been picked up by the new age movement.
  18. Mar 31, 2005 #17
    FYI, as a follow-up, I wanted to mention that the journal Consciousess and Cognition has a new special issue on the Neurobiology of Animal Consciousness. Just what the doctor ordered! I have just read the introductory article by Bernard Baars so far. Here's the abstract:

    The evidence for human-like subjective experience seems compelling for mammals; less so for non-mammals, but less research has been done on those. Cheers, - Steve
    P.S. Here is the link to the journal's site.
  19. Mar 31, 2005 #18
    Thanks for the information, Steve. Very interesting link.
    I keep thinking that approaches to consciousness in animals could give us some better understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness in general. But, consciousness is, still, a term too loaded with human connotations. We seem to have some difficulties to isolate the notion of subjective experience from the accompanying features of it in the human case (those that you, for instance, have characterized as reflective consciousness, etc).
    If, us, human being, are basically that property of subjective experience, though highly evolved or entangled with cognitive faculties, it is difficult to think that, being that property somehow 'available' in nature, it is not present in other animals.
    But, up to where could we track back that property of subjective experience in animals? What kind of brains or nervous systems can hold it? Where does it just seem to dissolve in pure action-reaction with environment?
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