Are animals conscious?

It’s a question I get asked frequently- how conscious do I think our animals are? And it’s not an easy question to answer, especially if you don’t subscribe to areligious interpretation. Ask some someone 100 years ago and they would have replied that the body needs a “vital force”, some mysterious power flowing through its sinews to animate it; you’ve only got to look at the Frankenstein story to see how people thought. 50 years ago, scientists would have very ponderously claimed that language was essential to consciousness- if you can’t think in terms of words, then you can’t think!

Thankfully things have moved on, and we now have a pretty general, but useful, definition of consciousness

“What it feels like to be something”. In that sense a table doesn’t feel like anything, but humans very definitely have an idea of what it feels like to be human, or a bat has an idea of what it means to be a bat.

But what about other animals? Clearly they can’t directly tell us, but experiments with chimpanzees have clearly revealed the presence of an inner life that has been relayed through sign language. And our cats and dogs are equally as clearly not just dumb zombies blindly responding to their environment; they carry a sense of what means to be a cat or a dog between their ears.

So where on the scale of virus to human does something become conscious? It seems to be an emergent property of the complexity of a processing system. For instance, birds diverged in evolution some time ago from us, but have recognisably similar parts of the brain. It’s reasonable to think they have a consciousness, especially in the corvid (crow) family.

However, the octopus is VERY different to us; in fact it’s closer to sponges. With three hearts, eight tentacles and a brain that is distributed through those tentacles there are significant changes in the way it processes information. But anyone who has been involved with these creatures would say that they are conscious; they’re not dumb zombies but very sophisticated creatures capable of complex reactions and decision making.

The dog and the octopus are a fabulous example of “convergent evolution”- having split in evolutionary terms millions of years ago they are now comparable in terms of consciousness. However the octopus consciousness is very alien to the dog consciousness. Whilst we struggle to see the world through a dog’s eyes, we have no concept of what it would be like to be an octopus.

So in answer to the title of this bog, yes, I do think our pets have consciousness, and I think the degree consciousness is related to the complexity of their brains. The black and white split between consciousness and unconsciousness doesn’t exist: there is a sliding grey scale. In addition, there are different type of consciousness, some un-understandable to us. As a result we need to be sensitive when dealing with animals- until proven otherwise we should assume a consciousness. Ultimately a consciousness is required to perceive pain and to suffer, so we should err on the side of caution with regards to reducing animal suffering. So in conclusion, don’t boil live lobsters!