If this strikes you as vague, you’re not alone. Consciousness has been puzzled over for millenniums, but because it is an internal, subjective experience, merely trying to describe it can hurt your brain. This gets to what Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness — the mystery over why subjective experience arises out of biological processes, like why when light of a specific wavelength hits your eyeballs you experience the feeling of seeing a shade of vivid red. “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” Chalmers asked in a seminal 1995 paper. “It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”
Getting back to my kitties: When they hear me pop open a can of yummy chicken slop and come running and meowing, I sometimes imagine a little dialogue playing out in their furry heads. Perhaps “Food, yay, food, food, now!” or maybe “Chicken, again?!” Descartes would call me crazy for thinking this; to him, the cats are only responding to the sound of the opening can and the smell of the slop, all reflex and no higher-order experience.
Modern scholarship has pretty much undone Descartes’s view. One reason to suspect animals possess consciousness is that we are animals and we possess consciousness — suggesting that creatures with similar evolutionary histories and brain structures, including all mammals, “feel” in similar ways.
There is also evidence that non-mammalian creatures with quite different brain structures possess a conscious self. In 2012, after reviewing research on how animals think, a group of neuroscientists and others who study cognition put out a document declaring animals to be conscious. They wrote that the “weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” which they said could likely be found in “nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” It is not only possible, then, that my kittens feel the subjective experience of being served chicken slop several times a day — it might be likely that they feel something, even if we have no way of knowing what it is.
Still, I don’t blame you if after all this you’re left asking, Hey Farhad, I’m glad you like your cats but why does it matter to anyone what’s playing out in their heads?
I’ll end with a couple thoughts, one slightly obvious and one less so. The obvious reason: Consciousness matters because it confers ethical and moral status. If we agree that our dogs and cats are conscious, then it becomes very difficult to argue that pigs and cows and whales and even catfish and chickens are not. Yet if all these creatures experience consciousness analogous to ours then one has to conclude that our species is engaged in a great moral catastrophe — because in food production facilities all over the world, we routinely treat nonhuman animals as Descartes saw them, as machines without feeling or experience. This view lets us inflict any torture necessary for productive efficiency.
The other reason to contemplate a cat’s consciousness is that we might learn something about those other creatures over which we now hold dominion — robots.
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