At the Francis Crick Memorial Conference back in July the participants signed a Declaration (pdf) affirming that animals are conscious. The key passage reads:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, 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.”

Actually, you’ll notice that that paragraph crams on the brakes an inch short of saying that animals are conscious. It says they have various substrates and that it doesn’t seem to be impossible that they should have ‘affective states’. More boldly it says they have the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours.

We could certainly do with some clarity on this issue – but why are scientists issuing a Declaration? Don’t they just publish papers and leave the results to speak for themselves? There’s a clear intention that the Declaration should have political impact, at least encouraging protection of animals, perhaps lending support to the idea of animal rights, possibly even giving a boost to veganism if we assume Philip Low (Portuguese text) was serious. (In fact I suppose we might have to go further and intervene to prevent carnivores of other species pursuing their traditional diet.)

Whatever we feel about that, it takes us into contentious territory, and I think there are in any case two other factors which make discussion in this area especially complicated. One is that there is a hidden dispute here about standards of proof. At least three standards are, as it were, in play. There’s the ordinary/political standard of proof, which requires something to be shown to be true clearly enough that we believe it and generally expect others to believe it. There’s the scientific standard of proof, which requires more rigorous evidence, reproducibility of results, and endorsement by peer review. Then there’s the philosophical standard of proof, which requires that no rational being who understands the case could possibly think otherwise, which actually makes it tough to prove that animals even exist, never mind what their mental states are. All of these different standards have their place, but discussion of animal consciousness is handicapped by differences and misunderstandings about which to invoke in which contexts.

Animal consciousness is also a peculiarly emotive subject. Our conclusions may be very strongly affected by feelings of empathy, and indeed there is an argument that empathy is an appropriate response.  Although I’ve never heard this particular argument made explicitly, it can be argued legitimately that even if animals are not conscious, we are better people if we let our empathy cause us to believe they are, because empathy is such a vital human quality it even trumps strict truth in this case. It’s better to waste some sympathy on creatures that don’t really deserve it than risk remaining cold to those that do, in other words. At any rate some may feel that those who deny that animals have feelings at all (step forward, Descartes) are deficient in perception or even perhaps in moral sense, a feeling that sceptics on their side are not apt to welcome.

So discussion is potentially difficult, and so it is with all due caution I say I think the Declaration is probably a bad idea overall; and that there are three particular problems with it.

The first problem is that it doesn’t seem well-motivated scientifically, by which I mean it doesn’t seem to be inspired by any definite scientific result. The preliminary passages of the Declaration do allude to various pieces of research, but the basic case is that animals have much of the same brain hardware as human beings, and also exhibit the right sorts of behaviour. We’ve known that for a long time. If some scientific Rubicon has been crossed recently, I missed it and I can’t see it set out here. To make matters worse the Declaration seems to come close to a clunking logical error, along the lines of: other areas than the neocortex are involved in having feelings; animals have those other areas, therefore animals have feelings. That wouldn’t work: you could as well argue that: other organs than the eye are involved in seeing; people whose eyes have been gouged out have those other organs; therefore people whose eyes have been gouged out can see. You can’t really dismiss the neocortex that easily.

The second problem is that we’re not told clearly which animals are conscious, and no allowance is made for different levels of consciousness in different species. On the face of it it seems the claim is that insects are just as conscious as anyone else (so those classic observations of stereotyped behaviour in sphex wasps must somehow have been wrong). In fact Christof Koch seems to be saying everything is conscious. That’s too extreme to be plausible and too vague to be helpful, especially in a context where we’re implicitly thinking about political rights and moral status. This is by no means an academic problem in a world where, for one thing, experimental animals may be sacrificed to help save human lives; if we think all beings have an equal share of consciousness there will certainly be no more animal experiments, and if we get it wrong either way that has serious consequences.

The third problem is that we’re not told what kind of consciousness. The Declaration seems mainly to be about whether animals feel pain, but it makes no distinction between a capacity for suffering and a capacity for rational planning (or indeed self-awareness). These are radically different things, and we might well find it much more likely that animals have the former than the latter.

This is important in two respects. First, if animals have feelings, then we might want to enact laws protecting them from pain; but we won’t feel inclined to give them rights unless we think they have the kind of intentional thought that would allow them to exercise those rights. To have legal rights you need to be the kind of entity that might go to court to enforce them, and presumably the kind of entity which also has duties and gets punished for infractions.  Actually, that’s not quite true; we might still want to give animals the special kind of rights that children or comatose patients have, which need to be exercised on their behalf by others and entail no obligations; but even if we do that it’s important to keep track of what legal/moral status we’re actually awarding.

Second, the presence or absence of rational conscious thought might affect our view of how important feelings are. It might be that some animals can indeed feel pain in a basic way, but that without human-style neocortex-driven awareness their pains are only like dream ones, or like pains we instantly forget (some people take the view that a forgotten agony doesn’t matter; and indeed surgeons use mnestics, which make you forget the pain, almost interchangeably with true anaesthetics, which actually stop you feeling it in the first place). Even if animals feel pain it might still be that their pains are of lesser value or even of no account at all; and the presence or absence of explicitly entertained thoughts, projects and desires might be relevant.

There’s an awful lot more to be said about these issues, quite a lot of it on the Declaration’s side, but that brings me to the overall problem. What is the Declaration for, and what will it be used for? I presume the aspiration is that it will be cited wherever the treatment of animals is an issue. Its function is surely meant to be to give clarity, but to do it by curtailing argument; to end discussion. That’s certainly liable to be the way it is used, at any rate. I don’t like that at all; there are cases where it’s legitimate to try to close down an area of discussion, but I don’t think this is one; the attempt is at best radically premature, at worst profoundly unhelpful. If anything we should be promoting discussion. Wouldn’t it have been better, and more appropriate to Crick’s memory, if the participants in the Conference had, in that spirit, published a list of good questions?


  1. 1. On animal consciousness « Mostly physics says:

    […] Two viewpoints on the recent Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness at the Cosmic Variance and the Conscious entities blogs. […]

  2. 2. scott bakker says:

    I’m beginning to find the whole thing terribly fascinating, especially the way it reveals the moral/political dimensions of knowledge. It’s hard to believe that anyone who has been following the consciousness debate, who has any inkling as to how difficult it is merely to find a consensus definition of ‘consciousness’ as an explanandum, could see this declaration as anything other than a BALD political ploy, one almost entirely disconnected from the issues it claims to ‘resolve.’ We’re not even sure *humans* have consciousness (in any sense most would regard worthy of the name), and these jokers are calling ‘case closed’ on the existence of animal consciousness.

    But it’s actually not all that surprising. Jonathan Haidt’s recent book on moral psychology references and adduces a growing mountain of evidence attesting to his ‘PR department theory’ of moral cognition. The evidence seems to clearly indicate that ‘moral reasoning’ is almost always ‘moral rationalization,’ that, as Hume noted so very long ago, our moral intuitions are in charge, any reasoning to the contrary be damned. Common sense, let alone rational and empirical standards, seem to fly out the window when we attempt to make moral cases, regardless of education or training.

    It’s hard not to see this as something authors will be citing as a classic example in the years to come. I know I certainly will be!

    I’m just finishing Plato’s Camera, and one of the more powerful arguments Churchland raises against traditional, ‘linguaformal’ accounts of human cognition is the ‘great cognitive break’ it presupposes between humans and animals. Indeed, making explicit the continuity of human and animal cognition can be counted as one of the great achievements of cognitive science. But this continuity cuts at least *three* different ways, as opposed to *one* way animal rights proponents would have people believe. Rather than humanizing animals (and so providing analogical grounds for extending paternalistic rights), it could be animalizing humans, undermining morality. Or worse yet, it could be mechanizing both.

    If morality turns out to be a ‘pragmatic fiction,’ then the *interests* of the community would seem to be the final arbiter of who gets rights and who doesn’t, not facts – and certainly not facts that are make-believe!

    I agree with you entirely, Peter. And I do you one better: ‘Good intentioned’ it may be, but the Cambridge Declaration pretty clearly seems to be propaganda of the worst sort, which is to say, the kind that makes a virtue out of *deception* in the pursuit of some moral agenda.

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    This field will never stop surprising me. One day we consider that maybe a photodiode could hold some level of consciousness in the IIT-PHI theory, and the next one we are not so sure if the neighbour’s dog is conscious, but maybe his door bell is.. since it detects the finger pressure and has two states (riiiing and silence), integrates 1-bit info, so it is “slightly” conscious…. oh dear dear, poor us, no no no…

    Could it be that the foundations and principles of the whole thing are anything but that? BTW does anybody know of a textbook or handbook titled “principles of consciousnessology”? I know at least one, for all other disciplines: eg: Principles of Neurology.

  4. 4. Roy Niles says:

    All life forms are conscious of the need to make what for them are the most intelligent choices available to satisfy their current needs and expectations of or for fulfilling them. They are aware, and awareness is what we and they are conscious of.
    Most of us don’t seem to accept that all life forms think. To accept that seems to require acceptance that we’re more similar to other species than different. Yet the differences are, ironically, only in the degrees of similarity.
    Our consciousness has evolved from the place where all life’s awareness began. Did it break away completely at some point and establish itself as somehow profoundly different? Natural selectionists want to think so.
    Self-engineeringists tell us otherwise. We’re generally much smarter than life’s other animals. We’re conscious OF much more, and, in other words, to that extent more conscious.
    The fact that in the end we eat our conscious brethren seems most to bother us on moral grounds. And well it should. But you don’t escape the responsibility for immoral acts – in that somehow you’ve betrayed another’s trust – by pretending that your victims are not conscious. We all betray each other’s trust at some point.
    Cooperatively eating each other to survive is nature’s paradox.

  5. 5. Kar Lee says:

    “If morality turns out to be a ‘pragmatic fiction,’ then the *interests* of the community would seem to be the final arbiter of who gets rights and who doesn’t, not facts – and certainly not facts that are make-believe!”

    How true!

  6. 6. jorge says:

    Peter wrote:
    “surgeons use amnestics, which make you forget the pain, almost interchangeably with true anaesthetics”

    There’s two possibilities here: these drugs deactivate “phenomenal consciousness” temporarily despite the patient being “awake” in some sense (in which case the thing we commonly call consciousness can be strongly correlated to short-term or working memory) OR these patients phenomenally suffer but cannot form memories of the event, thus feel no resentment for the hell they suffered.

    The former is intriguing, the latter is horrific.

    Things like this emphasize why we need a better theory of consciousness.

  7. 7. Darin L. Hammond says:

    An engaging discussion here, and you do well in avoiding the trivialization of the Declaration, which could very well be characterized as silly. I agree with your point that there must be a political agenda in the background, or why would scientists suddenly start making “declarations.” It must be a declaration of a political stance, and in my mind, they trivialize their own argument. I also was engaged by your discussion of levels of intelligence and the problems inherent in such a discussion.

    I wonder if you have considered writings from those who term themselves “cognitive ethologists,” studying animals in the context of the theory of mind. I don’t suggest that people like Mark Bekoff are in the right in advocating the mental qualities of animals, but they have interesting ideas. Most persuasive for me is the study of mirror neurons which were initially located by accident in chimpanzees. The gist is that a chimp in action, grabbing an apple, fired a certain focused area of neurons in the chimp’s brain. When the same chimp simply observed an assistant reaching for an apple, the exact same neural pathways fired. So, the same brain areas were engaged in both acting and observing. Since this discovery they have found the same “mirror neurons” in many animals including humans.

    Many extensions and conclusions have been drawn about what this means for animals, including humans. Your article reminded me of this research as one of the capacities attributed to this area of the brain is empathy. So my question is, if a chimp, or other animal, is capable of empathy (an assumption), would this entitle the animal to the category of “conscious.”

    Cary Wolfe is another interesting thinker in this area (animals and consciousness), though more on a philosophical than scientific level.

    Thank you for an enlightening discussion.

    Darin L. Hammond

  8. 8. Peter says:

    Thanks, Darin. Yes, mirror neurons are interesting – I have touched on them once or twice in the past, but maybe they deserve a fuller discussion in this context. I’ll have a look at Cary Wolfe, too.

  9. 9. john davey says:

    Scott :

    ” We’re not even sure *humans* have consciousness (in any sense most would regard worthy of the name), ”

    Speak for yourself. I ain’t no zombie.

    However, the fact that you refer to it identifies the above claim as a contradiction. Your statement makes clear that you know what it is. Otherwise how do you know to deny it ? And consciousness is identified – currently – for the main part – solely by being conscious.

    It is an irreducible natural phenomenon, and the fact that you can’t “clarify” (i.e reduce) it is irrelevant. You can’t reduce time or space either, but I presume you don’t doubt the existence of those, simply because they can’t be “reduced” to something else.

    Humans are animals with close relatives all over the animal kingdom. Anybody who’s had a pet or a basic understanding of genetics surely can’t doubt that other animals, particularly mammals, must have mental states similar to our own. Contradicting this is ridiculous.

  10. 10. Alabama says:

    Every petowner knows this.

  11. 11. Craig and his critics: Why the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness is more propaganda than science | Uncommon Descent says:

    […] has noticed it. Peter Hankins, over at his blog,, made the same point in a post on the Cambridge Declaration (October 14, 2012): To make matters worse the Declaration seems to […]

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