Consciousness and Conscience

By Ephrat Livni, originally published at Quartz.

The more we learn about animals, the more their consciousness weighs on the human conscience. On July 7, 2012, cognitive scientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists attending a conference on consciousness “in human and non-human animals” signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness (pdf). It recognizes that, despite having very different brains and body structures, other species think, feel, and experience life in much the same way humans do. The evolutionary bases for sensation and emotions appear to have arisen in early insects and crustaceans, the scientists said. They declared the following:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

The scientific evidence of animal cognition puts humans in an awkward position. If nonhumans can think and feel and suffer pain, we ought to reconsider how we treat other creatures because the treatment reflects on us.

Perhaps because of the manner in which we kill and consume them, the lobster is a frequent subject of ethical debates about animal consciousness. When writer David Foster Wallace attended the Maine Lobster Festival back in 2004 (pdf), he found the matter of how we treat the giant sea insects impossible to ignore.

The lobster, after all, is our evolutionary elder. Lobster-like crustaceans have existed about 360 million years. That a lobster feels pain is evidenced by the fact that it won’t relax when boiled alive. Even in death, its carcass yields no flesh without a fight.

The anecdotal evidence is also backed by science. In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology electrically shocked crabs that entered two darkened rooms in a lit lab. The crabs, related to lobsters, avoided the dark rooms in subsequent tests—an indication that they had felt pain and preferred to not feel it again.

But what does it mean to be in pain—or just to be—when you are an ancient crustacean, with claws and a shell and a totally different kind of brain? Animal rights activists, scientists, writers, lawmakers, and philosophers are all trying to figure this out.

To change the way we treat animals, we may first have to change the entire way we conceive of humans’ position in the world. The term “speciesism” was coined by writer and animal rights activist Richard Ryder in the 1970s. He argued in The Guardian in 2005 that the only moral position a human can hold is belief in equality of all species. Any being that feels pain, which is every live being he says, deserves humane treatment. Ryder wrote:

[Speciesism is] like racism or sexism, a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences. Since Darwin we have known we are human animals related to all the other animals through evolution; how, then, can we justify our almost total oppression of all the other species? All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animals scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves.

Humans, then, need to stop thinking the world revolves around them and consider the scientific evidence that people, here 300,000 years, are new to the Earth. Life has existed 3.5 billion years at least. What’s more, we’re not even necessarily the most advanced creatures on the planet—just the most powerful.

This article was originally published at Quartz and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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2 Responses to Consciousness and Conscience

  1. swami bv tripurari

    To take it a step further and in doing so to contradict the article, it is worth noting that the complexity of the human brain is thought to be why the neurological seat of consciousness has been hard to locate, but the same measure of complexity does not exist in less complex forms of life where we also see consciousness. So not only is consciousness present in other species or all species for that matter, furthermore it is not something that arises out of the brain or is brain-dependent other than in terms of the brain being part of its material interface tool.

  2. If I am understanding correctly, the Vedic version affords a way to reconcile the primary role of consciousness with the materialists’ notion that “mind is what brain does.” We shouldn’t let ourselves make the Christian mistake and presume a “god of the gaps” whose role diminishes with new scientific understandings. Fortunately, we don’t need to make that mistake with the Vedas as a our guide.

    Modern scientific theories rarely if ever distinguish between mind, intelligence, and consciousness. The Vedic literatures, however, do so — and, in doing so, give us room to reserve as primary the role of consciousness, since as devotees we can accept that mind and intelligence are not spirit, but in fact are subtle material phenomena.

    As such, there is no philosophical objection to the idea that with sufficient knowledge and power, scientists could create an “artificial intelligence” even with “artificial mind.” The catch, however, is that this artificial creation would be the equivalent of a self-driving car, operating without a driver. Meanwhile, consciousness in the material world is covered by mind, intelligence, and the gross elements, but it is separate from those subtle and gross elements.

    One flaw in the article’s presentation is that it makes absolute what is relative. We understand that not only do cows and whales and cats and dogs have consciousness; so too do fruits and vegetables. Unless we subsist on fruit that has dropped from trees, we must kill and eat in order to live. Even then, when we eat fruit we prevent new fruit life from emerging. So, where is the dividing line between edible and inedible? Such becomes an arbitrary choice. Yet we as devotees are lovers of divinity, not haters of meat. We are simply happy to draw the dividing line where Krishna divides it. Here, we have an advantage not available to science.

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