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.That animals have conscious states is not a new hypothesis. What's new - and surprising - is the claim that they're conscious to the same degree humans are. I say it's a surprising claim because nothing in the article really supports it.
While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it's the open acknowledgement that's the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it's no longer something we can ignore.
What's also very interesting about the declaration is the group's acknowledgement that consciousness can emerge in those animals that are very much unlike humans, including those that evolved along different evolutionary tracks, namely birds and some encephalopods.
"The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states," they write. "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, say the signatories, the scientific evidence is increasingly indicating that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
How do these scientists know that animals don't experience the world in a manner similar to that of humans who are sleepwalking or under anesthesia? Humans in this state are aware of their environment and interact with it, but they're not fully conscious of it. Perhaps animal consciousness is similar.
Or how do we know that animals aren't conscious in the same way that a zombie is conscious? A zombie could have all the sensory inputs that a normal person has and display all the same behavioral outputs but still not be self-aware, or understand, or doubt, or believe, or have any of the first person experiences that humans have. They're simply flesh and blood robots. Nothing in the story explains why these scientists have ruled this possibility out.
In any case, consciousness continues to be a fascinating impediment to materialists who wish to reduce the world to nothing but matter and energy. Consciousness, whether human or animal, vigorously resists these kinds of reductionistic explanations, which suggests, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our science.