I've recently been debating consciousness with someone who believes that consciousness is a luxury
enjoyed exclusively by Homo Sapiens. The last time we spoke, he said, "The sky is blue. Arguing that
the sky is NOT blue...is a waste of time."
We know that the sky is NOT blue from the cat or dog's point of view. The sky is blue from the point of
view of an able human being. Does our own perception of the sky make the statement "The sky is
blue" true? What happens when the next evolutionary twig of humanity perceives the sky as a colour
which does not exist in our spectrum? How true will our statement be then?
I ask this question because, if we can understand how some 'truths' are essentially a matter of
perspective, perhaps the statement, "Tiny life forms do not possess consciousness" might be
explained better in terms of perspective rather than truth.
As far as animal consciousness goes, until we can teach one to speak, we probably won't know for
sure; but to maintain that animals are not conscious and only humans are seems extremely
unreasonable to me. Let us assume that consciousness, whether we are materialists or not, is at
least generated by the brain. The other alternative, that there is a consciousness "stuff" floating in
some other universe, somehow connected to our brain, has so many problems that I won't even
consider it here. So, given either a strong or weaker materialist assumption, that the brain is the
cause of consciousness in some as-yet unknown manner, what do we see in animals? We see, in the
higher apes, virtually identical genetics and neuroanatomy to the human. All the structures are there,
and there is even strong debate about whether apes have some sort of language.
Do you know about the mirror test? If you paint a spot on the head of a chimpanzee and put it in front
of a mirror, what will it do? If it has had any experience with mirrors, it will reach for its ownhead. So
will gorillas and orangutans. So, oddly enough, will elephants (I don't remember about dolphins).
Monkeys, no matter their experience with mirrors, attackthe image. What do we conclude from this?
Well, monkeys don't see themselves with a spot, they see another monkey, so if they have
self-consciousness, it is very primitive. But I just don't see another explanation for the phenomenon
with apes and elephants except that they're self-conscious, especially given the results with monkeys.
It's clear that they see and recognize that there is another animal's image, and the apes can make the
jump to self — the monkeys cannot. The apes (and elephant) have enough of all the neuroanatomy in
all the right places. So it's a function of both structure and amount, it seems.
What then do we say about monkeys, dogs, rats, etc.? They've got the neural structures, but they
won't pass the mirror test. Are they a) conscious, b) self-conscious? The problem with asking and
attempting to answer this question is that we're just not clear as to what those terms would mean at
that level. Let's ask instead, "Do they have mind?", leaving out the question of consciousness for the
time being (but there are philosophers who deny that one can have the former without the latter —
Searle, for example — and he has some good arguments on this point). Well, how do we determine
this? They have, or seem to exhibit, emotions, feelings. They remember, they plan, to some extent,
and recently some lab stuck electrodes in rats' brains and saw the same kinds of discharges in the
same places when they were asleep as when they were awake and running mazes. Were they
dreaming about the mazes? Given all this and the same basic neural structures that we have, just a
lot smaller, it seems to me very hard to deny mind in mammals, at least. They can internalize and
internally manipulate representations of the environment; that seems like the rudiments of mind to
me, at any rate. I won't even touch comparing this with computers, all right? I think there are
differences, and AI people would deny it, and I don't want to write another essay about it.
What about insects, worms, plants, amoebas, etc.? Well, sorry, but I just don't think they've got it. Not
enough, and not the right structures. I think (for reasons I just won't elaborate on here) that mind goes
down to somewhere in the birds, then stops. Where consciousness stops, I won't even speculate (but
I'll say certainly not lower than that); let's just assume for the sake of argument that they're coexistent,
but that consciousness is not always self-consciousness. Yes, that leaves the rest of the animal (and
plant) kingdoms as very complex machines... well, where would you have the machines start? Do you
think that amoebas have mind? Based on what principles?
Now to the second part of your question. I'm sure you can see the outline of my answer at this point.
Do apes see the sky as blue? Well, it seems virtually certain that they seeit, i.e., they're conscious of
it. Blue? First, given the rest of this, what does that matter, so long as we are reasonably certain that
they see? Second, given similar neuroanatomy, receptor composition and structure, etc., yes, they
see the sky as blue — or, more accurately, they see whatever they understand the sky to be (not
"sky" as we understand it) as blue. Do dogs see the sky as blue? Well, given that they have a
primitive consciousness, they see the sky. Dogs, as I recall, don't have as many cones as we do, and
how they're distributed I don't know, so I don't know if they see blue. But I think it's likely that they see
the sky, but they don't see oursky, they see a dog's sky. What's that? I don't know; when we put in
the genes for big enough brains and ask (and you think we won't?), we'll know something about it. but
still not what stupid dogs see. You might take a look at the classic article by Nagel "What is it like to
be a bat?" (1974).
When you start talking of "truths" as a matter of perspective, you get into very tricky ground. Is it true
that we see the sky as blue? Yes, whether you're a man, an alien, or whatever, it's true (normally)
that humans see the sky as blue. Isthe sky blue? The problem with asking that is not merely that it is
unclear what you mean by "is", but, I think, that the question is just not formulated well. But there's a
lot of debate on this point. You might look at "Epiphenomenal qualia" by Jackson (1982) and the (still
ongoing!) debate about Mary, raised in a black and white world, who knowseverything about color,
and the question whether she gets to know anything else when she steps into a colored world. A
nasty problem. But when you make a statement like, "amoebas don't possess consciousness" you
are (I believe) asking a question like "do humans see?", and the answer is, I'm claiming, ultimately
available, given more science than we know at this point (I'm certainly not claiming my argument
above is decisive). That is, I do not think that question involves perspective, as asking about what
kindof sky a stupid dog sees does, although the former question may be unanswerable. You're
getting into some very complicated epistemological issues, which I just can't do justice to here, but
the above is the condensed version.
Steven Ravett Brown