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. 


  1. Since we already have a number of laws designed to help prevent animal abuse, it would be interesting to know what new achievement those who signed this declaration hoped to accomplish. Is the goal to give animals protections equal to those humans have? Basing legislation off of perceived levels of consciousness could also have interesting implications for other debates, such as those surrounding end of life care and fetal pain. I wonder which ranks higher - an elderly person deemed not to have a lower level of consciousness than the average person or an octopus deemed to have a high level of consciousness?

  2. I suspect that the agenda of the Declaration is to increase protection for animals; however, it may be that some of the signers want to establish a moral equality between human beings and other creatures.

    It does seem to me that someone who wants to defend animal rights would have a hard time defending abortion, at least after a very early stage.

    I am not at all sure how they will come down on the octopi v. elderly question.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard. I appreciate you taking the time to answer. The idea of moral equality between people and animals is an interesting one. You wouldn't really want to use someone/thing that was morally equal to you as food. But what if something was on it's way to being morally equal and not there yet? How about something just a little less developed than that? Is it even moral to eat plants if they have the potential to evolve into something more sentient or even moral?

  4. Miranda: thanks for the provocative comments. You raise two questions. One is whether we could eat or otherwise exploit animals if they were morally equal to us. The answer, as I see it, is no but they aren't. If we really believed that dolphins were as intelligent and as emotionally sophisticated as we are, then it would be immoral to eat them. It may be immoral anyway, for the same reason that we have laws against cruelty to dogs. I side with Aristotle on this one. Human beings are at least animals but we are more than animals, so moral equality with non-human animals is not coherent.

    The second question is whether a likely evolutionary trajectory has moral significance. It seems clear that it does not. In the first place, we have no way of knowing what whither the evolutionary trajectory of any species is heading. In the second place, evolution is something that happens to populations of organisms over time, not to individual organisms. Humanity will doubtlessly evolve over time, but I won't. If I can demand some measure of dignity and rights, it is because of what I am; what my descendants will be is not morally relevant.

  5. I agree with your first answer.

    Regarding your second: As I understand it (my understanding may well be wrong) animals, including humans, are in a state of constant evolution. Every generation is a little bit different from the last. People are, for instance, said to be getting taller. Meanwhile our brains are shrinking and various other changes are taking place. So if we change from generation to generation, and each generation back is a little bit different - and if we believe at some point, what we evolved from was something somewhat more like an ape and that further down along the line we evolved from some sort of single-celled organism - at what point did our ancestors become creatures that it would be immoral to kill and why would it be moral to kill those creatures' fathers?

  6. First some clarification: individual organisms change over time but they do not evolve. Populations of organisms are subject to evolution, as you say. Slight changes may occur from one generation to the next. It is not the case, however, that all populations are constantly changing. If selection pressure for a certain form is strong and stable over time, the species may remain the same with very little change. Ants have been pretty much the same for about 40 million years, if I have that right.

    Apes and monkeys have rudimentary capacities for moral consciousness. An individual of one species will share with a con-specific partner when the latter can observe the former's possession of food, but not when the former can eat unobserved. A lot of human morality works just that way. Some animals have fairly robust capacities for reciprocity. If vampire bat A shares blood with B, A will expect B to return the favor. If B cheats, A will refuse to share with her in the future.

    At some point in our evolutionary history, we human beings developed a strong sense of "we-ness", as Michael Tomasello calls it. When we are walking together and you pause, I pause to wait for you. Chimpanzees don't do that.

    Likewise, we developed a strong sense of mutual obligations and hence of moral responsibility. This surely didn't happen all at once, but it may have happened rather quickly (over a few tens of thousands of years). Cooperation is strongly selected for.

    This is how we became the kind of creature that can recognize an obligation not to cheat, lie, steal, or murder. The foundation of natural right, as I understand it, is the capacity of each human being for moral responsibility and the recognition of the same in other human beings.

    Now: why don't we give dogs the vote or allow them standing to sue in court? Because they don't have the capacity to join with us in that kind of community. I believe that we have some moral obligations toward our canine friends because they are sentient creatures with a profound capacity for loyalty. We don't have the same moral obligations towards them as we have toward other human beings. When and if they acquire the same moral capacities that we have, then we will have to give them social security numbers and register them to vote.

    That is like saying that my descendants may someday have gills. That doesn't mean that it's okay to throw me out of the boat. I'll drown. It's possible that, someday, human beings will have lost the capacity for moral responsibility. At that point we will be just animals. We are more than just animals just now.

  7. ps. It seems to me that Locke's reflections on maturity are relevant here. Children do not enjoy the same liberties as adults because they are not yet capable of exercising such liberties. They are, however, fully human even if some of their human powers are still latent, just as the eye is fully capable of sight even when the eyelids are closed. Okay, that was Aristotle.

    The common ancestor of human beings, chimpanzees, and gorillas did not possess the capacity for full human liberty in some latent sense. That creature could have evolved in many different directions and could have evolved many different capacities, which is precisely what happened. Only one of the branches of our family tree produced fully enabled moral capacity.

  8. Thank you again for taking the time to answer. I appreciate the clarification and apologize for misunderstanding the concept.

  9. Miranda: I am not sure you misunderstood anything. I just wanted to lay out the issues for anyone following this thread. I am as always indebted to you for raising very good questions.