By Paul Woodward
To ask whether animals have consciousness is often turned into a question about if and how they think.
That creatures as small as a fruit fly do indeed exhibit evidence of sophisticated cognitive processes is intriguing, but the question that engages philosophers and scientists less than what the brains of other creatures compute is the seemingly imponderable question of what they feel.
The experience of feeling — whether it is ones own feelings or the feelings of others — is the preeminent concern of humans in general when it comes to the question of consciousness.
Consider this imaginary scenario: You are about to undergo surgery and the anesthesiologist tells you that with newly approved drugs it is no longer necessary to be fully anesthetized and you have a choice of drugs.
One drug blocks feelings. Your body will become numb. You will feel neither pain nor fear but you will be able to talk to the surgeon and understand what she is telling you as the procedure progresses.
An alternative drug paralyses the body and blocks discursive thought but you will feel everything. You will feel pain and most likely terror but none of these feelings will provoke thoughts and neither within your mind nor through speech will you be able to articulate anything. Because your cognitive processes have been shut down in this way, once the drug has worn off you will have no decipherable memory of what occurred.
Basically, with one drug you will feel nothing but remember everything and with the other you will feel everything but remember nothing.
That’s not much of a choice since the preeminent concern of just about anyone receiving surgery is that during the procedure they will feel nothing.
I’m calling this an imaginary scenario, but the chances are that a lot of people who have faced surgery will have entertained this very idea: what if the effect of the anesthetic is merely that it causes paralysis and that you end up feeling everything?
That possibility isn’t just the product of fearful imagination; it’s a reality and it has a name: “anesthesia awareness” — something that an estimated one or two per thousand patients experience every year in the United States. And while it’s an issue that understandably concerns patients and doctors, it points to an underlying fact about the nature of consciousness.
What matters is what we feel. Our ability to reflect on our feelings, to have memories, engage in analysis, and even the experience of self-identity — all of this is secondary to the primary experience of feeling.
Needless to say, life demands that we cultivate the ability to marginalize our own feelings, to recognize their transience, understand they can be misleading, and to cultivate the ability to endure unpleasant feelings. Yet none of this negates the fact that life as it is felt, almost always trumpsthought — the stuff which in many ways and much of the time is little more than the effervescence of consciousness.
What do non-human animals feel?
Neuroscientists have no doubt accumulated useful data that will lead towards scientific answers to that question, but a non-scientific answer is readily available.
Our capacity to experience empathy is not the ability to engage in emotional conjecture. We do not posit the feelings of others and on that basis draw logical conclusions about their nature. To have empathy is to recognize the feelings of others directly. It is a kind of sixth sense. Moreover, as every pet owner can attest, this feeling-attunement is a faculty not limited to humans. Indeed, it seems possible that human beings with their cognitively cluttered consciousness, may have a tendency to often become empathically impaired. Ideation crowds out sensation.
If they had the thoughts to articulate what they daily observe, the question might be reversed as animals asked of us: are you really conscious? Could a creature that causes so much harm to its fellows and to the environment on which all life depends truly be more conscious than all others, or is it, as all the evidence suggests, mired in a collective and highly destructive state of unconsciousness?
First published at War in Context