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Getting inside animals' heads
04 June 2005
Simon Blackburn

IT IS almost impossible to look into the eyes of a dog without wondering what it is thinking. And if you take it for a walk, there will be more to wonder at: what the bizarre things it sniffs actually smell like, or how the dog hears or sees the world.

But perhaps you can never know. Our sense of being shut out of the animal's mind was brilliantly expressed by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his famous 1974 essay "What is it like to be a bat?" Nagel was a pessimist; he believed that a kind of cognitive curtain lay between our minds and animal minds. Furthermore, he thought increasing scientific knowledge of the neurophysiology or behavioural repertoire of bats, or dogs, would not raise that curtain but leave us wondering what it was that the neurophysiology gave rise to, or what thoughts or sensations the behaviour expressed. Other pessimists have speculated that we are not evolutionarily adapted to penetrate the minds of other species: it is knowledge reserved for God and angels, and, in their own case, dogs and bats.

The trouble is that such ignorance leaves us not knowing how to treat animals either. If their minds are empty, so they perceive nothing, know nothing and feel nothing, then it doesn't matter very much how we treat them. But if their minds are not empty, then we ought to adjust our behaviour around the actual way they think, feel and suffer. At the furthest limit, if some of them have minds very like ours, then elementary decency requires that we treat them very much like one of us, and the fact that we do not becomes a scandal.

We tend to interpret animal life by using our imaginations, and that way lies the fantasy of anthropomorphism. How would you like it if you were hunted, imprisoned, experimented upon, battery-farmed or led to an abattoir? This is the thought that has empathetic children and adults weeping when Bambi loses its mother, and it is the question, often aggressively posed and repeated, that enlists and inflames animal rights activists.

But if there is no reason for attributing minds substantially like ours to animals, the question may be as inappropriate as trying to deter the woodcutter by asking how he would like to be sawn in half. Anthropomorphism can even be dangerous, as optimists find when their faithful, grateful, friendly snakes, tigers or alligators punish their hubris by trying to attack them.

Neurophysiology does help. But neurophysiological information needs interpretation, and there's the rub. If we use it to find out about an aspect of consciousness in another species, we need to be confident that the neurophysiological mechanism that subserves a conscious process in us does the same in the other species. Similarly, to deny a conscious process, we need equal confidence that other neurophysiological mechanisms might not be subserving it.

Neither inference is beyond question, for as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asked in a similar context: how can we generalise the one case so irresponsibly? Here the case is the human one, and generalising to the rest of the animal world seems at best uncertain.

Animal worlds

Unbridled anthropomorphism is wrong, but so, surely, is total scepticism. Perhaps we can best understand animal consciousness, and also that of other people and even ourselves, not by thinking in terms of a hidden, glassy, theatre somewhere inside the head, but by looking at the animal's world: its responses, its activities, what is salient to it and what has no effect.

After all, it is not introspection that tells us who or what we are, but the ability to locate ourselves properly in our own Lebenswelt, or lived world. This is the import of Jean-Paul Sartre's dictum that consciousness is empty. It is not, as behaviourism would have it, that consciousness does not exist, but neither is it the kind of "thing" we naively think it to be.

To know what it is like to be a bat, then, is to know enough about echolocation and other features of bat life to build up a convincing picture of what perceptions, discriminations and "saliences" this way of life would involve, and what not. This approach may make some thinkers nervous, for it suggests that the observant shepherd knows more of what it is like to be a sheepdog than the laboratory scientist does.

However, that may be right, and it may do something to reconcile us to the feeling Nagel voiced, that we cannot imagine an animal's life "from the inside". For the inability to imagine something does not imply ignorance. Imagination is just the wrong instrument to bring to bear.

Animal perception has been extensively studied, but other functions of consciousness remain elusive. These include "higher-order thought", such as awareness of one's own states, self-consciousness in general, and especially the capacity to plan, remember the past, and to feel more than the simplest emotions. The observant ploughman and poet Robert Burns said of the mouse whose nest he disturbed that, despite the disruption, it was blessed compared to him, since "the present only toucheth thee".

Perhaps he was right, and in so far as he was, this should curb our sentimentality: Bambi's situation is bad, but not as bad as if it had a rich store of memories and a head full of new fears, or dashed hopes and expectations. There can only be so much distress in animals whose lives are confined to a succession of present-tense snapshots of the world. But that is not much of an excuse, given that some animals can both remember and anticipate, and in any event, sheer pain seems bad enough without either. Burns remains compassionate, if not sentimental: we would do well to follow him, both for the sake of animals and of ourselves.

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