The Mystery Of Consciousness
The mystery of consciousness is as old as there have been people conscious that they were conscious. However most people, including philosophers and scientists, don’t know what they mean by consciousness. That confusion is compounded when speculating on whether animals other than humans are conscious.
The term consciousness can refer to anything from sentient creatures like humans, to higher mammals such as elephants and orcas, to the awareness that to mystics pervades all life and the universe as a whole.
Buddhists ascribe sentience to all animals, and say even lower forms of life are sentient. Scientifically and philosophically however, sentience refers to being conscious that one is a conscious being.
Given this definition, clearly humans are the only sentient animals on this planet. That doesn’t mean that other animals don’t have any consciousness, just that they don’t have a self, and the capacity for self-knowing.
Clearly, to have a self a creature has to have constructed a self, or at minimum possess an image of oneself as a distinct individual.
The mirror test is perhaps the best indicator of self-awareness in this rudimentary sense. The experiment involves placing a mirror before a captive chimpanzee or other animal in such a way that it becomes accustomed to its reflection. After some days, the experimenter then paints a large red dot on the forehead of the chimp (a process requiring a mild anesthesia with chimps.
When the chimp awakens and sees its reflection in the mirror, it will pause, touch and study the dot, thus indicating it has, at minimum, an image of itself stored in memory that does not conform to the image now being reflected in the mirror.
Not all primates indicate this basic level of self-awareness, but neither do human babies. At some early point in our development however, we form an image of ourselves. Unlike chimps, that image becomes more and more complex, entrenched and detrimental to our development as human beings. We assume it has independent reality, and call it ‘me.’
We thus get stuck in images of ourselves and others, which prevent direct perception and insight, which are always of the moment. Burrowed images deepen into ruts in the brain, eventually stultifying the brain and contributing to cognitive decline, and perhaps even dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Serious thinkers wouldn’t say that the chimp, because it has rudimentary awareness of itself as an individual, has an inner life. An inner life involves asking questions about existence, consciousness and transcendence.
All humans have this capacity, though few develop it throughout their lives. It’s something most people stop doing when they leave adolescence unfortunately.
To ascribe inner questioning to even the smartest animals on earth is absurd. Yesterday I saw a photo of a pod of Orcas trapped together in a small opening in the Arctic ice. Did they think, “How did we get into this mess? Was it those damn humans generating global warming?”
Therefore it’s very silly to say, “Before my kitties arrived in my home, I rarely had occasion to consider the inner lives of nonhumans.”
The writer goes on to ask, “Does my cat even understand that she is — does she, in the way René Descartes conceived it, possess knowledge of a self?”
No, our cats and dogs do not “possess knowledge of a self,” because they don’t have brains capable of constructing a self out of images, memories and experiences. That isn’t to say animals are ‘automata,’ as Descartes believed, “essentially mindless machines.”
In short, because even the smartest animals, such as orcas, probably lack the subjective experience of a separate self does not make them devoid of consciousness.
On the other hand, it’s the height of anthropomorphizing, not to mention reductio ad absurdum, to maintain there is “reason to suspect animals possess consciousness because we are animals and we possess consciousness.”
Cosmic consciousness pervades all life, but only humans can grow into fully conscious beings. At present however, we’re stuck in the old, dead consciousness of man.
Cats, dogs and many other animals have limbic systems much like ours, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they suffer from a self as we humans do, or that they feel what it’s like to see the sun set or smell the rain on a spring morning.
The misguided intention of scientists and philosophers in recent decades is to blur the distinction between humans and other animals. Doing so has taken us further from self-understanding, and has added to man’s disharmony with the other animals with which we humans share the earth.
Rather than speculating about the inner lives of cats or dogs, isn’t the way ahead to tend to our own inner lives? For people who speculate on the inner lives of animals, or worry about the future ethical treatment of robots that will purportedly have consciousness, have no insight into their own minds and the human crisis of consciousness.
So how are we humans different from other animals? What is the single factor that allows us to exercise such destructive power over them?
Consciousness as we know it is a dream generated by so-called higher thought. It is based on separation and symbol, from which it is difficult to awaken, requiring diligent awareness and questioning.
Awakening from the dream of thought-based consciousness is analogous to awakening from sleep as one is dreaming. One feels, as one is dreaming, that the dream is reality. At the moment of awakening, one realizes the dream wasn’t real.
When one is in a state of heightened awareness, there is a spontaneous quieting of thought and silence of mind. That state, while fully awake, produces the same feeling about ‘normal’ consciousness that waking from a dream produces about sleeping consciousness. In both cases, one was asleep, and for a moment at least, one awakens.
These aren’t just philosophical musings. If we cannot make the transition to full consciousness, the crisis of consciousness shared by everyone in the world will only intensify and endarken the human mind and heart for at least the foreseeable future.
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