Meandering thoughts on animal consciousness, and what I think about it

Warning: this one meanders and is a bit long, and touches on the recently released Declaration on Consciousness. This might be an odd blog to read, as I explore my own feelings and thoughts on the matter-- touching lightly on what society as a whole, will have to do when animals are granted a form of personhood. This is merely my exploration of this subject, and I am in no way judging anyone aside from myself.
If I asked, “Do cats have feelings?” Anyone who has ever been owned by a cat would say, “Well, yeah! They're selfish buggers too, and independent, sorta irritating, but damn, they're cute when they play with string!”

If I asked, “Does a dog have emotions?” Anyone who's ever had a dog will agree they do, indeed feel. They anticipate play when you have their ball, or rope; dogs get excited when they see the leash, to take a walk; I've even had dogs that would dance in circles of happiness, tails wagging so hard their entire back ends were moving, when I said, “Come on, let's go for a ride!”

Pigs are smart-- the farm variety, I don't have any experience with the pet size, but I'd guess they are, too; some people say smarter than dogs. Now, for some dogs, this isn't much to say, I realise, but pigs have some smarts. They make their own beds, and have this oddly human way of leaning up on the fences of their sties and watching the world. I don't even make my own bed, with any regularity-- at least, not until I'm getting ready to sleep in it again.

The great apes take care of each other, in their family units. The larger females even broker peace between feuding male members. They fashion and use tools. They mind each others' offspring, fight against predators together, and bond by grooming each other and even hugs.

Magpies and ravens fashion tools, as well. They can unlock cages and solve puzzles. Parrots can learn to talk, and seem to have some handle on their limited vocabulary, something like a 5 year old kid, I think.

Elephants care for each other and mourn their dead. They can paint, play and use their trunks like hands.

Dolphins can actually talk to each other! They have this weirdly specific language that they use amongst themselves, and from what I understand the “words” change when they see/interact with dolphins that aren't part of their pod-- say meeting another pod in passing, or during mating season. I can't remember the specifics, but thought the talking was amazing. They can also work together, co-ordinated efforts—to protect the pod, and take down predators.

What do all of these animals have in common?

They are generally thought, by humans, to have some sense of emotions, or feelings. Over the years we've anthropomophised animals, in a way, but we've seen the ways in which apes, or elephants, interact with one another, and know they must feel something akin to our own emotions and feelings. They communicate with one another in their own way, too.

Usually it is the cute and fuzzy (kittens, puppies, ducks, owls, monkeys, bears) or oddly adorable animals (like the platypus or kiwi, or that blue-footed booby) that get the “humanity” treatment. We see they're cute, we want to hug them and pet them, and keep them; they aren't scary to look at [unless they're eating, but we won't look then] and they don't look the slightest bit dangerous, so they must have feelings! We really like those animals, and so they must have emotions and maybe some thoughts in their heads! We think of them as adorable, furry children, babies almost. It's like that little girl in that old Tom and Jerry cartoon that dresses Tom up and makes him drink castor oil-- he's cute, she wants to play baby with him, it doesn't matter that he'd rather be dead than in a baby bonnet.

But what about octopuses? Actually, octopuses might have more mentally going on than a cat! They plan ahead, use coconuts as temporary housing, and can get into and out of very small, locked spaces, just because “what's in there, anyway?” [An article that pointed me in the direction I'm going is here]

I've talked before about whether or not a robot could be a person; how if you have that inner spark that tells you that you are you, if you feel that you are a singular I, separate from others, then you're a person. It's a very simple guideline, I understand, but the reason I keep it so simple, is that there is still so much we don't know about consciousness, and why we have it-- or think we have it. So, I thought it was better to reduce it to the most simple, and also most inclusive, definition that I could-- this way I'm not leaving anyone off who might be an AI and only programmed to wash dishes, but dreams of owning a garden some day-- well, you get the idea.

I suppose it should come as no real surprise that I've been thinking a lot about animal consciousness lately. The middle of August I first started seeing a reference to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. [I did some digging this morning, and found that the writer was Philip Low; editors were Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch.] I couldn't find a definitive list of signers, but it was signed at the Francis CrickMemorial Conference in early July, and the participants of said conference signed the Declaration.

This Declaration states, that the undersigned “declare the following: 'The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.'” 

The beginning of the document opens with a quick explanation of what the scientists meant. Getting through the medi-speak they're saying that at one time science thought that in order to have higher thought and emotions (affective states), you had to have the higher brain-- what we call our frontal cortex, our “frontal lobes”, where we think that we think. It is the main part of the brain* that lights up in humans when we're doing “in our own head” stuff. Most animals don't have one, or don't have enough of one that we'd think it does any good, and as science couldn't ask the dog, “Hey, what do you think of your mother?” science didn't know if animals could think at all.

The science of the mind, and brain, is new, as the Declaration addresses; we're still figuring out how much we don't know, and the field is growing exponentially all the time. Once we thought that only the pre-frontal cortex was needed for “I-thinking”; now we know that the brain works better than that, and more inclusively. We still aren't sure where emotions come from, and only have a bare understanding of how they light up the brain. (Emotions are called affective states and neurological substrates are the ability to think in terms of "I", in the Declaration.)

However, we do know and have proved many times that some animals have a sense of self; this is the mirror test. I know you've all seen or heard of it; an animal is given a mirror to interact with and then later sedated. While sedated the researchers place a spot of paint on the animals' face. When it wakes up and goes to play with the mirror again, how it reacts to that spot of paint is a pretty good indicator of whether that animal knows it is reflected in the mirror, or thinks it is another animal.

Apes know the spot is on their faces-- they touch the spot using the mirror to find it-- just like a human would. Elephants do, too. Many mammals do-- so long as the test is done in a way they can be properly tested. That's the hardest part, really, trying to test animals who don't have “hands” or functional hands (like the elephant trunk)... how will it act when it sees that spot, and will it peck the mirror, or use its' paw to wipe the spot itself?What does it mean when the animal just starts grooming? There are a lot of questions still to be answered.

I know that the scientists who study neuroscience and the “cognitive” neurosciences (and all of the ones who study the brains and how we actually think) try all the time to come up with new ways to make the tests fair. What's the point of doing the tests if you know the animal can't actually pass or fail on its' own? That isn't science, at least not real science [It might pass for science to the ID crowd, but they don't count here.]

So, that brings me to the things I've been pondering for a couple weeks now.

In no particular order, I wonder, if animals have consciousness: 1- should we recognise them as persons and protect them under the 14th Amendment, or the UN's Declaration of Human Rights? 2- isn't it immoral then, to eat and wear mammals and birds and their “by-products”? 3-Is it immoral, then, to keep pets? 4- If animals have feelings, and some consciousness, are they also sentient? There are a few more floating around, but they're all connected.

I can't answer all of these questions; and that bothers me on a deep, fundamental level. That's why I've been thinking about them for so long! I read about the Declaration at least as early as the 15th of August, and now, nearly a month later, and I'm still pondering these questions. I can only imagine what the scientists themselves have been going through, thinking about these deeply spiritual and scientific questions.

On the question of consciousness and self-awarenes alone there are potentially earth-shaking answers. An answer to the affirmative would mean a lot of changes for a lot of people. We would have to stop wearing leather, or find a way to justify using the cow after it died of old age. We would have to stop eating red meat altogether, as well as pork and fowl. No more fried calamari, or octopus sushi (which for the record I find revolting!). No more feather pillows, or down comforters or coats-- unless, again, we could justify using those things after the chickens and ducks died of old age.

For myself, and I won't even speak of the entire household, this would be an adjustment. I do not eat red meat or pork; I do eat chicken and turkey and some fish. I have in the past enjoyed venison, rabbit and alligator on occasion, but don't eat them now. I eat dairy, and love cheese and yoghurt. I love honey, although admittedly insects weren't included in the Declaration.

I wear leather shoes, sometimes (most of them are “pleather”) and I own a couple leather purses. I have a leather bomber jacket around here somewhere, I think-- I may have finally gotten rid of it, it's ancient, I bought it when I was 15!

I have three cats, and I love dogs too! I'd have a pet penguin if I could, and love to feed the birds in our yard. Pets make life a joy; even just watching the fish and shrimp swim in the aquarium we have is calming and enjoyable to me.

I decided to meander through the questions today. It goes a little long, but not enough to divide it, in my opinion.

1- Should we recognise “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses” as persons and protect them under the 14th Amendment or the UN's Declaration of Human Rights?
[This one has the sub-question of: should we change it to declaration of Person's rights? Or Human and Non-Human rights? I won't go into those much, but I included them here to show my thinking on it.]

So, if animals are, indeed cognizant, if they can feel and think and plan, and are Persons, whether the government sees them that way, then I need to do so. Because it is, and would be, the right thing to do.

This is where this question gets difficult, and where I'm having trouble. Not with the idea of person-hood, or the bestowing of person-ness on animals, but knowing what has gone on in the past when the paradigm has changed and new types of persons were given rights. I guess I'm saying, I know what kind of trouble this will stir up.

For many years, although the law of the country said that African-Americans were protected under the law, they couldn't be enslaved, they could vote and were citizens (13, 14, 15 Amendments) they were still treated as less-than. The era of Jim Crow, poll taxes and intimidation is barely behind us-- and in some places still here! Even if the law said these things could not happen, they did. Texas today must submit all redistricting for voting districts to the federal government (as do several other southern states) to prevent a return of gerrymandering the AA voice out of government.

If we're still trying to fix the fuck ups from slavery ending almost 150 years ago, if we're still trying to equalise race and gender and sexual orientation, how in the hell can we work it out to include non-human animals who have cognition?!

We as humans can't even agree on what a person really is, I know. There are some who think fertilised ovum are persons, but not the woman carrying it around in her body; there are some who think brain-dead humans laying in a persistent vegetative state are persons and must be kept “alive”, even if they had previously expressed the wish not to be “plugged in” to life support.

However, the answer, for myself is, yes, if animals are cogent, if they feel and think and have emotions (called neurological substrates in the Declaration of Consciousness), then Yes, I have to treat them with the same respect I would give another human person, and work to provide equal protection under the law, just like I do for the LGBT community.

This question is a sort of “if-then”, I suppose. If animals have consciousness then yes, protect them. So far, we see that scientists have declared that they believe and recognise the consciousness they have, the least I can do is accept the scientific research thus far and recognise that animals feel emotions, too.

2- Isn't it immoral then, to eat and wear mammals and birds and their “by-products”?

Simply put, yes, it would be immoral to eat a conscious and emotion-having being who thinks in terms of I, unless it became moral to eat humans-- and that's just a weird thought to me. This one is hard for me, only in that I enjoy chicken and turkey. I admit it, selfishly, I like chicken nuggets and roasted turkey at Thanksgiving-- and any other part of the year that I'm in the mood for it. I love a juicy turkey burger right off the grill, smothered in pickle relish!

I do enjoy fish, so I could change over to getting all of my meat-protein from fish; I would need to incorporate more beans and Quinton, and other grains and legumes to get the right mix, but I could probably do it. I was a vegetarian for several years, and ate a lot of Morning Star and Bocca meat substitutes, so when I wanted chicken nuggets I could always eat the soy ones (they're pretty good, too!) I also love tofu, so I could get by without meat and eat quite healthy. I'd miss the roasted turkey though. I know I would.

The adjustment for me wouldn't be too earth-shattering, really. For people like my Dad and husband, though, never eating cow again would be really difficult for them. I rarely make red meat, maybe once a week-- this is only because my husband is anaemic (like me!) and won't eat enough veggies and beans to help keep his levels high enough. I did get him to take his supplement, though, so that helps. Additionally, he just really likes beef-- most people do; beef has a nice mouth feel, and tastes pretty good.**

Science and food production are already collaborating on a good tasting meat substitute for chicken. If we recognise animals as persons, then we would have to ramp up meat substitutes for beef as well-- this would be skirting the moral lines, I know; I also know that a lot of people have no idea how to cook anything besides meat, potato and veg here in the US. There would have to be a wide-scale education about cooking good, non-conscious animal based proteins as well as how to make lentils, legumes and beans taste like something other than boring-yuck.

This doesn't even get into the fact that everyone with a brain knows that someone, somewhere would have a restaurant dedicated to serving animals, no matter their protected state. There are some now, today, that serve roasted panda, and tiger, so why would that change if we promoted animals to the person-level? As long as there is a lot of money involved, people will do it; as long as people have a lot of money, they will do whatever they want. It's stupid, selfish and cruel, but it's humans, and most of the time, we suck.

As for the leather and feathers, that part gets a little sticky.

Some humans are squeamish about using cadavers for anything other than burying them in a sealed, cemented vault. Other people couldn't care less about what that body does after it is dead. Some of us support organ and tissue donations; other people feel it is against their religion. Some of us want to be cremated, or thrown into a hole without all the chemicals, and as an afterthought, throw some Irish whiskey on our remains before you dump the ashes-- other people need to know/believe that their families will have huge, lavish funerals and processionals for the now dead body they currently possess.

However we look at death, and the disposal of our remains, most people will admit that cadaver research at medical universities and research facilities, as well as organ donations do wonderful things for people personally, as well as research that will or has already, been a benefit to the human race as a whole.

I'm of the school of thought that says when I die, and my brain function ceases, I no longer need this meat-sack I'm walking around in. I don't need it for anything! I will be dead. Dead people don't need bodies. Donate everything that can be donated; and then, cremate me, throw some whiskey on the ashes during the wake-- try not to tip over the ashes, OK? Don't want a cat shitting in them, it'd be kinda, well, never mind, it'd actually be pretty hilarious! I'd almost wish to be here, watching as a ghost to witness that "scandal"!

As you can see, I'm not very reverent with the whole “dead body” thing. So, if it was found that human leather was perfect for, say making children's shoes, or were the perfect protective material for astronaut boots (yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, just bear with me), I'd be perfectly fine allowing myself, and my loved one's corpses to be used for that. Just give me back enough to cremate, or plant in a biodegradable casket when you're done. I already plan to donate my eyes, for crying out loud, my tendons, heart, kidneys you name it, so what's a little skin, too?*** If my husband wants to, I don't even care if he keeps my skull. In fact, it'd be pretty cool, from a Pagan perspective, “So and So is going to keep my skull and turn it into a scrying device/drinking cup/etc after I die.” I don't think he will, though... he's not Pagan, and he probably thinks that's morbid. I wonder if he'd let me keep his.....

I could, therefore, justify and be OK with, in a moral way, using animal products from a deceased cow or chicken or duck. At least the leather and feathers part; if animals are conscious, then I'm not so sure about the gelatin part, though.

The reason I'm iffy on gelatin, apart from the fact I think jello is revolting, is that it's made from boiling down the bones, hooves and connective tissues of animals, usually pigs, cows and horses but can be from just about any animal, after they're rendered from the plants. This gets the collagen out, and when it's powdered can be used for all sorts of things. Logically speaking, if the cow is a person, then using gelatin would be akin to cannibalism; the way I see it, if the animal is an animal-person, then cooking down their bones to get collagen would be the same as cooking down a human-person for collagen.

If the gelatin is only made with fish, and non-person-animals, then I guess it'd be OK, too. Otherwise, if we keeping making it with mammal parts, we will have to include human parts-- I see that as fair and it would make sense not to waste the human bones. Or, no animal-based gelatin. Lucky for all you jello lovers out there, there is a vegan substitute called agar-agar (a kind of seaweed), or you can use pectin (a fruit gelatin) or even guar gum.

3-Is it immoral, then, to keep pets? [Sub-question: should we just free them all?!]

I think, yes, as long as you're not abusing them it's moral to keep pets. Of course, PETA would disagree with me; I don't give a shit what PETA thinks. I think they're terrorists; they don't give a shit what I think, either.

Domestic pets, especially, can't all make it on their own; if we let them go out into the wild, they would die. Or, if they're like my cat, Boo, they'd hang out on the porch, and sun themselves in the yard, and them come in for dinner. We have domesticated cats and dogs and some birds, and to let them “free” is to sentence them to death; this isn't right!

When you get a pet from where ever you get one, you're promising to take care of him/her. Not as long as it's cheap and easy, but always, until they die! They can't speak for themselves, so we speak for them, we protect them, house them, feed them and make sure they are happy and comfortable into their old age. This is why people who abuse animals are jailed-- they've broken the compact, acted with cruelty and galling hatred toward “our” animals. Humans, at least here in the US and Europe, tend to see cats and dogs, and some other animals, as collectively our pets. To treat them in any way badly causes anger-- and rightly so.

Because we've had this compact for a very long time with these beasties, I think it's OK to continue to keep them. I never thought having a pet monkey was OK, and I wonder what in the hell people are thinking when they get other exotic pets like lions-- but small ones like hedgehogs and lizards, I am OK with, too. [Yes, here in Arizona, hedgehogs are exotic pets! So although I want one very badly, I do not have one of those cute little hairbrushes with legs.]

Of course, we would have to strengthen laws to prevent over-breeding, abuse, animal fights, and racing. I have always found horse and dog racing to be cruel, so I would be thrilled to pieces if they were outlawed. Same for the barbaric so-called sports of bull-riding and bull-fighting! While I know I'm not alone, I also realise there are millions of people who disagree with me on these issues.

For some parts of the world this would cause a lot of problems... just look at the Kentucky Derby, Belmon and Preakness Stakes here in the States! Horse racing is a huge thing in Britain, too. There are greyhound tracks all over and you can't swing a broom without running into someone selling puppies they bred themselves!

There would be a huge readjustment, but I think we could do it. Animals could be bred carefully, keeping the health of the mother in mind. I think riding horses would be all right, so long as you're not teaching them to dance, or do that weird high-step thing (the training for these things causes pain and discomfort to the animal, some times crippling them).

We human-animals would have to relearn our collective empathy for our non-human-animals. We forget, some times, that we share the planet with them, that we shared our evolution with them, they are our cousins.

4- If animals have feelings, and some consciousness, are they also sentient?

This one probably should have been answered first. The answer, is I don't know.

If you've read my blog much, you know I explored my feelings and thoughts on AI sentience, and accept that not only it is possible, it's going to happen, and humanity needs to be ready to recognise these AI/robots as persons, protecting them just like any other person. Indulge me, as I quote myself

If a computer program gains that self-awareness, knows it is, really Is, then yes, I think it is alive. To me, it doesn't matter what shape the machine would be in, person-ness doesn't have to be shaped like a humanoid. We treat our animal companions, our pets, like family members. We mourn them when they die, we play with them, laugh at them, enjoy and treasure them; we anthropomorphise them-- they are not humanoid, and yet we treat them as sentient beings. Why would a machine be any different?” [Emphasis and Italics added, link to that blog is here]

Let's change that up, just a little, “If a non-human animal gains that self-awareness, knows it is, really Is, then yes, I think it is a person. To me, it doesn't matter what shape the animal would be in, person-ness doesn't have to be shaped like a humanoid. We already treat our animal companions, our pets, like family members. We mourn them when they die, we play with them, laugh at them, enjoy and treasure them; we anthropomorphise them-- they are not humanoid, and yet we treat them as sentient beings. Why would any other mammal be any different?”

I went on to say I have no idea where emotions come from, and said that cats and dogs lack self-awareness. I said that I knew animals have emotions, and act on them. Only a little time has passed, and here I am, correcting myself with science: cats and dogs might just have self-awareness to go with their emotions. Isn't science fantastic! I would rather be corrected, than spend my life being wrong!

Being a person, it's not a physical state so much as a chemical one. The best of our knowing tells us that consciousness is a chemical state, just like sleeping, and the urges fish have to school. Humans are animals, even though we like to pretend we're better than them-- and if we're really honest with ourselves, we have all behaved in ways that animals would never behave. Cats and dogs really are better than some people.

We know, so far, through science that animals are capable of emotions that can be detected, and are located in their brain scans-- just like humans. We can see animals acting in co-operative ways, creating tools for each themselves, and using the tools of others, communicating and collaborating-- just like humans. We can see animals teaching each other things they have learned-- just like humans. We see animals making actions that show indication of future thinking and planning-- just like humans. Because of these reasons, and so many more, it stands to reason that animals can also attain that chemical state of being a person. They can, and are, able to know something of the world around them in more terms than eat, procreate, fight, run. They feel, and some of them know who they are in mirrors.

This blog doesn't completely answer any of these questions, because answering one makes another ten grow! Such is the nature of discussions like this, there never is an end to the questions, and I do believe that is as it should be: we should never stop asking, seeking, wondering. I'll keep pondering this, even though I've just about come to a conclusion. I want to make the right decisions for myself and for my family. I want to teach my kids the right way to interact with the world, and to recognise science and truth, and incorporate those things into their lives. I want to know that I was the best human-animal I could be. I want know that I have treated the Earth, who is our Mother, with respect, as well as all of her children.

I never touched on the religious aspects and fallout; the reactions from farmers who raise animals for food and food-stuffs. I never touched on how we decide what pets are OK, and what aren't, or what animals could be still used for food-stuff [the morality of a conscious cow and getting milk from them]. I avoided the legal arguments, as well as the legislative. I also never really talked about the actuality of person-ness existing in animals.

These weren't really left “for another time” so much as left as an admittance that there are still so many things we don't know, understand or have any way to comprehend. When we figure it out then it will be easier to answer those questions. Some of them I might go back and answer later, when I have one. Most of them with join the above questions and be kicked to death, flipped over, moulded, folded, kneaded, deep-fried and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. But never left alone, and always pondered. As deeply as I can ponder them.

I don't know if person-ness can be answered in one meandering post of a few thousand words. I don't think I want it to be; I want it to be a long, drawn out discussion where we dig into what those words and ideas mean, and how we can implement them in our lives-- and the lives of all people. I don't know if there is any one, good reason, any one way to explain and describe person-ness. I'm glad of that, because it opens the way for all kinds of person-expression, it allows the person to explain their own person-ness, to be themselves, fully.

I'm really trying to explain and describe the definition of life, and I know it isn't easy to do.

I can just say for myself, that I'm going to seriously consider transitioning to a vegetarian diet, and stop eating chicken and turkey. I'm going to give some serious planning to menus and cooking to make it possible, and take classes and learn everything I can about it. If chickens are conscious, then there is a very good chance they will, or already have, a sense of self that is as equally valid as my own. That sense of self, that “I” makes them a person. I don't want to eat a person.

*We also know, now, that isn't not just the front of the brain, but other bits, that “light up” in an MRI as well. For many years, science and conventional wisdom said that being in our heads, meant being behind our forehead. Think for a second, when we tap our heads, “I'm thinking” or “She's a moron” or “He's crazy!” we tap the forehead or temples-- right? It sounds silly, but when we think, we imagine, or feel that we are Us behind our foreheads.

**While I do not eat pork or any red meats-- I have an allergy to them that makes me violently ill-- I used to eat beef and used to enjoy it. I know that a properly prepared porterhouse is one of life's joys! At least, it is, if you know it won't make you ill. Knowing it will make you sick, tends to heighten the nausea, so forgive me if I don't want to try your lovely steak, thanks for the offer.

***I am a donor; if necessary I'd be a living donor and give my liver lobe, or a kidney. I don't have any problem considering such things. When you donate “all tissues and organs” some times those tissues are connective, and some times, it's skin for skin grafts. So, technically, I'm already signed up to give someone my skin. I do hope they don't mind freckles...


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