Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bekoff and Dawkins on animal consciousness

Here is another post that I originally made on a discussion thread in the Facebook group Reducing wild-animal suffering. It's in reply to two articles: (1) "Dawkins' Dangerous Idea: We Really Don't Know If Animals Are Conscious" by Marc Bekoff, and (2) "Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters" by Marian Stamp Dawkins.


Thanks for sharing the pieces by Bekoff and Dawkins. I admire both of those authors, and I can definitely see where both sides are coming from.

I think the most important distinction that needs to be made is between “certainty” in science and “certainty” in ethics. Dawkins is right that science should remain skeptical of animal consciousness and that we should seek out proof independent of existing assumptions. Scientists don't like to stamp a statement as "true" until they're really sure about it from lots of angles.

But while Dawkins is correct that we don't know "for certain" whether animals are conscious, this statement is misleading to many laypeople who assume that she must mean the odds are around 50%. I don't know what she thinks the odds actually are, but I would give above a 90% chance of chicken consciousness and above, say, 93% for pig consciousness. With odds like that, it's best to say that the case is proved or else the public will misunderstand. Many people are not motivated by less than absolute certainty, and I think Bekoff is right that emphasizing scientific doubt is going to hurt animals on average. (Just look at what talking about uncertainty does for the global-warming debate.)

Now, Dawkins is totally correct that we don't understand exactly why animals are conscious. Indeed, we don't even know why people are conscious. What exactly does being conscious allow you to do that you can't do if you're not conscious? As blindsight shows, you can walk and avoid objects without being conscious of them. And as Libet's famous free-will studies showed, you can decide to move your hand half a second before you become conscious of your choice. If we ourselves didn't experience our consciousness through our own minds, then we would definitely have scientific doubts about whether people are conscious, too.

There are lots of excellent studies demonstrating sophisticated, self-reflective behavior in animals that Bekoff and others take to imply consciousness, and indeed these are excellent pieces of evidence. However, they are not conclusive proof of consciousness because we can't even prove that humans are conscious using such tests at the present time. (In the future, once we really understand how consciousness works in the brain, we should be able to assess consciousness just by looking at the brain itself. But that is a long way off.)

So I think arguably the strongest reason we should believe animals are conscious is that they're close to us on the evolutionary tree, and their brain structures are remarkably similar. In "New evidence of animal consciousness" (2004), Donald R. Griffin and Gayle B. Speck note that "the search for neural correlates of consciousness has not found any consciousness-producing structure or process that is limited to human brains" (p. 1). And in "Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being" (2012), Kent C. Berridge and Morten L. Kringelbach comment:
Progress has been facilitated by the recognition that hedonic brain mechanisms are largely shared between humans and other mammals, allowing application of conclusions from animal studies to a better understanding of human pleasures. […] 
Some might be surprised by high similarity across species, or by substantial subcortical contributions, at least if one thinks of pleasure as uniquely human and as emerging only at the top of the brain. The neural similarity indicates an early phylogenetic appearance of neural circuits for pleasure and a conservation of those circuits, including deep brain circuits, in the elaboration of later species, including humans.
There must be dozens of other papers that could be quoted in a similar fashion. Based on this, a probability for mammal and bird consciousness as low as 50% is completely unreasonable, IMHO.

Now, what about the effort that Dawkins proposes: Making people care about animals for human-welfare reasons? If we could press a button to do this, I'd be in favor of it. But when we're parceling out our scarce resources for helping animals, I think this undertaking should go pretty low on the priority list. It's great if we can help animals in the short term in this way, but if we're going to prevent future humans from multiplying wild-animal suffering into the galaxy or simulating vast numbers of suffering sub-human minds to make a profit, we had better make sure our descendants actually care about animals. The situations that cause harm to animals in the future may well benefit humans at that point -- we have no idea.

Finally, I did like this statement from Dawkins, as quoted in Bekoff's article: " ... it is much, much better for animals if we remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] ... Militantly agnostic if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number of species have some sort of conscious experiences ... For all we know, many animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones, also have conscious experiences." (p. 177) This is how I feel about insects. They easily may not be conscious (I'd give a ~55% probability that they are not), but we should actively consider the implications if they are conscious because of their great numbers. It's totally appropriate to talk about probabilities and expected values in the right context, but my complaint to Dawkins is that among the general public, the language of uncertainty makes people confused and less motivated.

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