Friday, July 5, 2013
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness
My daughter has been very good at a lot of things and one of those things was civilizing hamsters. Her first and best subject was Snuffles, a pocket-sized rodent the color of a calico cat. Whenever she reached her hand into his realm he would instantly climb on board. Her favorite trick was to come downstairs in her long nightshirt when a guest was in the living room. She would stand there smiling and, after a dramatic pause, Snuffles would hoist his head out of her shirt pocket and present himself to the assembly.
One day he hoisted himself too far, and fell headlong to the hardwood floor. Snuffles began shrieking wildly in what I took to be the hamster version of profanity and then he stood up on his hind legs and reached his forepaws towards his savior.
I am well aware of the anthropomorphizing in my account, so I won’t push it. I will say that this behavior seems so obviously to indicate pain, fear, and a desire for comfort, that the burden of proof is heavily on the side of anyone who would argue that the animal lacked conscious awareness.
Snuffles might be pleased to know that his consciousness has now been endorsed by an authoritative body. Bonnie Chojnacki alerts us to the event at the IPSA Research Committee 12 Facebook page. Here is the story from io9:
An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. But will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?
I have to say that I find the science in the Declaration to be underwhelming and occasionally philosophically confused. Consider this bit:
Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex.
All of that is wonderful, but how, exactly, does it amount to an “observation” of “evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness”? Consciousness is, famously, private in the most fundamental way. It is directly observable only in the first person. I infer it in you and vice versa by way of analogy. I figure that you scream when you hit your head for the same reason that I do. The same reasoning is extended to animals by anyone who has seen a hamster fall out of a pocket.
The neurophysiological arguments in the Declaration may be understood as one more analogy. I have this set of cognitive microcircuitries and I am conscious; my friend’s parakeet Hertzl had the former, therefore he had the latter. Okay, but it’s still just another analogy. It might add a lot if not for the fact that a very large portion of my microcircuitries underwrite phenomena that occur below the level of consciousness.
We are still largely dependent here on common sense, which is in many cases the only guide we have. Until we have some idea of how the physics gives rise to the phenomenon of consciousness, we haven’t got much further than that.
I think we need an evolutionary account of consciousness. Our awareness is one of the most mysterious and wonderful things that we have ever observed in nature. It would be very odd indeed if it were not selected for. Something about consciousness provides organisms with a hitherto unavailable flexibility in their behavior. Pursuing the problem in that light, we might be able to better guess which organisms are good candidates for sentient beings. Then the neurophysiological substrates of consciousness could be identified as targets of selection.
All that said, I am also rather skeptical of such a declaration in the first place. The declaration is political in intent. I doubt very much whether it will have any effect on how we treat animals, but it is surely supposed to have such an effect. It is not clear to me that the scientific status of the signatories or the fact that it was “The declaration was signed in the presence of Stephen Hawking,” has any more political significance than the fact that “the signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes”. Scientific authority is not political authority.
Likewise, the fact that a lot of scientists signed the Declaration has no scientific significance. Science is not decided by vote and consensus has no scientific weight. So while I share the scientific opinion of the signatories that very many animals are conscious and I share their political opinion that we ought to care about how we treat animals, I think that such a declaration confuses these issues.