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?

  1. Mammals
  2. same body plan for many of us
  3. social creatures
  4. wake/sleep cycles
  5. …. 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.


  1. Yes I have some thoughts on it.
    To start, it’s a great post and great videos to support it. I think what humans want to call thoughts or intuition, we call instinct in other non human animals, while it boils down to the same thing.
    On consciousness, I think there is a universal consciousness, the I want to live is true for all animals, so to think us special is hubris.
    On free will, I think we stand on opposite poles and I hope you will be able to persuade to see it differently.

    • We do seem to agree on most things but free will. I’m working on that convincing part… it’s complicated as it requires understanding what thought is. I’m taking the tack of subtle hints. Yesterday’s challenge was one of them.

      In the videos, you’ll notice that the animals executed a plan to achieve a goal, modified the plan to use only the minimum needed force, and acted freely, not simply from loyalty or acting to protect what they might consider their own. Free will demands these capabilities even if we’re not able to act on it physically. Where non-ape animals demonstrate free will, it is deductive to say we use it also.

      That said, free will happens in the brain, acting on it is secondary. I’ll leave it there for now… working on how to explain thoughts cogently so that others will understand.

      • It’s just human ignorance and arrogance to think that non-human animals do not posses reason or do not behave rationally.

        • I agree completely… and apparently so does my dog. The cat still won’t talk to me… it’s a long story, don’t ask.

      • Do you think by an animal acting in some way, it is displaying free will or acting as it would? I mean a cat hunting as a cat would is that free will or just catty behaviour?

        I agree convincing is the complicated part. Cognizing or thinking may or may not be related to free will.

        We are in agreement that the source of all action is the brain, so if free will is to exist anywhere, it must be intuited through our brain, which is the cognizing faculty. I will be patient, I like how you are developing this matter though.

        • Thanks for your kind words. It is a tough slog trying to explain what is in my vision so simple a thing as to be beautiful.

          Yes, animals do have free will. We think of free will in a top-down manner and this complicates things. It’s like saying the Egyptian pyramids are so big and perfectly formed they can’t have been made by mere humans. Consciousness *IS* free will… in a rough and sordid manner of speaking.

          Without consciousness you are not free/able to choose an action. An earthworm is not conscious that we know of. It reacts to sensory data. This is all it does that we can tell or know of.

          One can argue that a lion does the same but on a grander scale. That would require the lion to treat all things the same but because they do not it is clear that thought happens inside a lion’s brain. This makes a lion free to choose its actions. A lion has free will. A lion has consciousness.

          DEFINITION: To properly understand the definition of consciousness, three principal meanings have been developed and it is critical to distinguish them. Firstly, consciousness can be defined as the waking state. This essentially means that to be conscious, one needs to be awake, aroused, alert or vigilant. The stages of consciousness can range from wakefulness, to sleep to coma even. Secondly, consciousness is defined as experience, a far more subjective approach. This notion suggests that consciousness is the content of experience from one moment to another. Consciousness is highly personal, involving a conscious subject with a limited point of view. Thirdly, consciousness can be defined as the mind. Any mental state with a propositional content is considered conscious. Thus this includes beliefs, fears, hopes, intentions, expectations and desires

          When we understand that free will is not some magic thing, rather it is the state of being able to choose, we can understand that it is inherent to consciousness, and aspect of it and not some separate thing. Try to name a conscious being who cannot demonstrate the ability to appear to have free will. Leave out the one definition that allows for comas.

          This is the crux of Harris’ argument… that we don’t choose. We do choose, but the view of this is clouded by surrounding events by our cause/effect brains. We assume there is a cause when there is no need to. Cogito ergo sum. We act because of thought. Our actions do not rely solely on surrounding events, and we need not act to have free will. That is unless you think Steven Hawking has no free will etc. (in my context, not the ‘we have no free will’ context)

          Our thoughts are roughly bounded by all previous experience, sensory data, memories, and combinations of these and activity in our brain. A dream remembered counts as previously gained knowledge. If every seeming free will decision is based on these things (as they must be) it can be confused as reaction rather than choice.

          That one geology book at 9 years old is not what causes us to think of what kind of rocks a mountain is made of, but it gives us enough information to form the question which then gives us cause for action. The question itself was the act of free will, followed by the action to find the answer.

          Breaking that down even further, we can see that modelling our environs in our mind requires that we know or make assumptions about the attributes of all the objects given us by sensory data. Not every human reacts this way not even those that know about geology, so it is not a result of having the knowledge. It is the choice to fully model the environment by determining the more fine grained aspects of each constituent object. This is a choice, not a necessity.

          I need to write this up in another post… came out fairly straight.

          • Thanks for your elaborate response.
            You say an earth responds to sensory data, how is this different from what we do?

            Aren’t you confounding matters when you say consciousness is free will, two things that as far as I can tell haven’t been either properly defined or explained?

            Try to name a conscious being who cannot demonstrate the ability to appear to have free will

            I think this is the crux of the argument. It is not they are free, it is the appearance of freedom an illusion that we as organic machines posses and nothing more. That is how i see it, I could be wrong.

            I think our models of the environment are not because we are free, but because each of us experiences the things around us distinctively. It is not choice, I don’t choose to see a purple flower, the flower appears to me as purple and this is not a judgement of truth or false but a representation of what I sense.

            • We can choose not to react to our environment the same way every time… and in this we differ from the earthworm.

              I am not combining the two things, they are the same thing. The way that we perceive has confused things. You can’t conceive of free will without having it. Even the decision that we don’t have free will is a demonstration that you do have it…. you use it to make the decision.

              Free will is not defined by body, not defined by ability to act in the physical world, not defined by any outward sign. It is defined by the ability to choose. By choosing to think that we have no free will, you have demonstrated that you do. Free will does not require a physical environment. When you mix it with a physical environment it can/will appear that choices are merely reactions. Because we live in a physical existence it is difficult to separate the two so choice looks like reaction when it really is not.

              You cannot say what it is that drives someone to study AI and subsequently free will… there is no single path to that point. Looking at the past and saying that this drove us to act as we do is like believing horoscopes. We make decisions based on the information that we have… which is all past experience etc. My point here is that we can’t make choices on any other basis so it will look like we were pushed to act as we do when this is not so.

              Most humans have similar personal values so we act in similar ways often enough. This does not mean that no choices were involved. Free will necessitates the ability to choose. The argument here is whether we choose or not. I challenge you to go through a day without making a choice and in that day analyzing every choice you make, why you made it, how you made it.

              • I disagree on not choosing to react to our environment. The only time you will ignore something in your environment is when whatever it is doesn’t affect you directly or doesn’t bother you, it ain’t a question of choice.

                I don’t agree that consciousness and free will are the same thing. As far as I know, the statement ” I think” only means am conscious. It doesn’t give me anything else about this being that thinks and therefore to say that free will and consciousness is the same thing, to me appears to be confounding matters.

                I agree free will is defined as ability to choose, and usually this choices result in an action one way or the other and it is this choice that I say we don’t have. It is this that I asked you to show me, at what point does the cause-effect continuum not affect human brains. If you are saying free will doesn’t require a physical environment, are you going to the direction of metaphysics, beyond the physical to explain free will or what do you mean?

                Actually it ain’t believing in horoscopes. My village friend who hasn’t heard of AI wouldn’t even have such a discussion so that the decision to study AI can be mapped to see how we got there. My desire to study consciousness can be linked directly to wanting to understand it better after having conversations on consciousness, the human mind and related areas of study and not act of free will.

                We are in agreement as to what the argument is about, that is, whether we choose. I posit that we don’t. We act as we do based on our temperament [which we are born with] our training and our environment. So the challenge for you would be to provide an example of a purely free action not based on any of the three things have mentioned and also that doesn’t violate the cause- effect continuum.

                • Beautifully put. I can’t say I’ll have that answer in the next 15 minutes, because the one I want to use needs polishing a bit.

    • talesfromthelou
    • June 6th, 2013

    Great post, great subject. Do animals have consciousness ? Does the earth move around the sun ?

    • The aim is to begin thinking that consciousness is not outside the brain, and not completely something emergent from the big human brain. It’s something much more simple, much more robust.

        • talesfromthelou
        • June 6th, 2013

        Perhaps quantum theory will shine a light on it.

        • No, it is much simpler than that. It seems complex but it is not, at least how I understand it. It seems overly complex because you are thinking about how we think with the very thing that you think with. That makes it difficult.

  2. Indeed. It seems that connection to animals such as dogs is based on survival instincts, and it seems appropriate that they would have some connection to our survival as we are responsible for domesticating them. Like an evolutionary connection. With us, we seek to have bonding experiences with others, which seems to give us dopamine hits and other “good feelings” as a result of having belonging needs met. I suppose some of it is how we connect to others. Watching primates in the huge enclosures at zoos seems to be more how we connect than how dogs do. Good post.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Part of the point was that these animals did not act on behalf of known individuals, but in reaction to a situation and with compassion for unknown individuals in need of help.

      • Yes, and that is true compassion. I learn a lot from my dog. Thanks for this post.

        • Thank you for your kind words!

  3. Wow. You went and met McSlutty behind my back. You fucking piece of shit worthless dick mother fucker. Fuck you and her. I thought both of you were my friends. I loved you both with my whole heart and you just shit on me. You have been shitting on me all along. What a low life you are.

    • Technically, while it looks like all of that is true… I have an alibi which is air tight. I’d let it out of the bag and tell you but then it would no longer be air tight. In line with your comments, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a threesome is off the table … for now. You know I love you but sometimes I forget just how possessive and jealous you can be. Can you forgive me this one more time? I promise I won’t flirt with other women in the future when you are not present… really, I promise!

      • Did you enjoy your rampage earlier? Did you get the last laugh?

  4. I hate you.

    • I have no idea why you are on a rant at me or in my blog. Apparently this is aimed at DeathHandOf… perhaps you could take this to their blog?

        • DeathHandOf
        • June 9th, 2013

        Nope. We are talking to you.
        And I am responding to this.
        “Technically, while it looks like all of that is true… I have an alibi which is air tight. I’d let it out of the bag and tell you but then it would no longer be air tight. In line with your comments, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a threesome is off the table … for now. You know I love you but sometimes I forget just how possessive and jealous you can be. Can you forgive me this one more time? I promise I won’t flirt with other women in the future when you are not present… really, I promise!”

        • Apparently sarcasm is not easily expressed in mere words. I replied with sarcasm because I have no idea who you are talking to or about. Yours was one of the most random things I’ve come across and I had considered that it might be meant as a random thing but was not sure if maybe just mistakenly posted. So, I went for the humor option.

  5. Rampage…why that’s MY specialty. Time for a demonstration. See you soon Mike/Brad/Jwow/X-man

    You were warned. Now a lesson…

  6. Sweet you,

    I’ve an award for you, for the person who you are and the things you share with the world

    Thank you for that..

    Namasté, Summer

    • Thank you Summer for such a unique and heartfelt award, and no less so for your kind words. Given some of what I write and write about I’m quite honored to be thought of in this way. Thank you very much.

      • You’re so welcome. And thank yourself for all the things you share : ) Have a peaceful day

  1. June 10th, 2013
  2. September 24th, 2014
    Trackback from : digital playground account

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