Photo of three dolphins jumping through waves in the Gulf of Mexico

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

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.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible?

Now, at last, science has come around on the question of animal consciousness, and there is no remaining reason not to view animals as our distant equals. This leads me to two questions: Firstly, how deep into the countless forms of life on this planet does consciousness go? And secondly, what is it like to live in a world of abundant consciousness?

The Cambridge Declaration mentions mammals, birds, and cephalopods as three classes of animals that exhibit enough sentient and sapient behavior to be considered “conscious”. But there are over a hundred other classes in the taxonomic kingdom Animalia. Are they not conscious? Or, perhaps, are they simply too distant from our experience for us to judge? And, if we cannot accurately judge, is it right for us to automatically assume they do not possess consciousness?

Then, there is the possibility—still incredible to science—of consciousness beyond animals. Is a plant conscious? A sunflower turns to seek the sun; a vine reaches out for a nearby wall; a buried seed somehow is aware of the changing weather above the earth, and knows roughly when to germinate. Plants possess some discernable sentience; is it crazy to assume that we can perceive only a fraction of their capacity? Gardeners have a maxim that talking to plants helps them to grow. As far as I know, it is unproven, but from time to time, I have spoken to the plants in my garden. They are excellent listeners.

So here is a scenario to try on: what if much, if not all, of the life on this planet is just as conscious as human beings? For one thing, the world suddenly appears a far richer and more wondrous place. Moreover, humanity seems a lot less lonely. Our experience of the environment—which we have regarded as a thing separate from ourselves—becomes much more intimate and inclusive. The ecological destruction we have inflicted on this planet over the last four thousand years, via our technological impositions on its natural equilibriums, starts to look more and more like a violation of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

There’s a curious moral shift: the expansion of justice to how we treat all other living things. Is this an attitude worth adopting? I am inclined to think it may be. And I have no doubt that, were we to truly adopt it en masse, it would effect a tremendous shift in how we conduct our technological development. It is perhaps comparable to climbing out of Aba’s pit, which isolates humanity from the outside world.

With that, I shall conclude, and hand the microphone to you. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on this matter. Is there value in a worldview of abundant consciousness? How would it change your experience?

Postscript: For further reading on animal consciousness, I recommend two pieces. Firstly, the splendid essay “One of Us” by John Jeremiah Sullivan in Lapham’s Quarterly, which describes the shifting human view of animal consciousness from prehistory, through classical, medieval, and Renaissance civilization, up to our modern era. Secondly, philosopher Thomas Nagel’s thought-provoking piece “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”—probably the most influential modern discussion of what consciousness is, and how hard it is to understand another being’s consciousness. I found most of Nagel’s piece here on Google Books.

Photo at top by Carey Akin on Flickr, released and reused under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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