What Is Human Consciousness?
I know I keep at this topic almost relentlessly and I seem to have to draw it out as I think about it. Today’s thought is brought to you by our cousins.
If human consciousness is to have special meaning, which I do not ascribe to it, we should see some differences between human apes and all other animals. Clearly humans and elephants are not going to be similar in any physical way. Likewise, this is so with most other animals. What are the ways that we are similar though?
- same body plan for many of us
- social creatures
- wake/sleep cycles
- …. well, in fact we seem to have quite a few things in common even though we humans don’t think of things that way very often
When we look at animals that save other animals we see a trend in their behavior. They act in altruistic ways. They react to danger, not out of loyalty to the endangered being, but from some ethical nature. Their reaction requires thought, some level of planning, free will to execute the plan, and the cognitive ability to adapt the plan to achieve a goal.
I can use my dog as an example. He does not like to see animals or people fight. In the dog park, if two dogs face off he will run fast as he can to get in between them and use just enough force to prevent the fight. This has so far only required physical presence and a dominant behavior. He has never attacked any being. He uses minimal action to achieve a goal of his own making…. not rage or fury, but minimal means to achieve the goal.
If dogs and other animals show compassion, altruism, thought, planning, ethics, free will … what is left for us to explain with our big brains?
Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (2012)
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. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
Cambridge University, UK.
Whatever consciousness is, humans are not alone in possessing it.
If I’m right, whatever thoughts are, humans are not alone in possessing them.
If I’m right, whatever morality is, humans are not alone in possessing it.
There are many more videos of animals exhibiting ethical behavior that requires thought and planning etc.
So what is it then that we do with this big brain we have? It would appear that pre-modern humans were conscious and intelligent beings, with ethics and free will. .. the very things which we think make us special. We do not attribute animals with a soul nor think they have some external cause making it look like they think thoughts at all, yet they do think and plan and choose to execute, and modify the plan during execution, to achieve a chosen goal. This flies in the face of Sam Harris’ statements about we humans having no free will. It flies in the face of those claiming ethics come from a deity. It flies in the face of those thinking humans are a special species regarding cognition.
I suggest here that whatever is true for humans regarding consciousness and cognition must also be true for the animal world. The thought that we have a controlling soul is hubris in this light. Deductively then, we can reason that cognition and consciousness is an emergent property of the animal brain.
Do you have any thoughts on this? I would love to know them.