Animal Consciousness: The Latest ‘Science’ Magic Show

On April 19, the “New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness” was announced to some fanfare.

Mark your calendars because the Declaration was hailed as a momentous change in our thinking about animals. Science says so! Forty scientists signed the Declaration! More scientists’ signatures are coming in! NBC News and MSN, among other media, are breathless with excitement, hailing the Declaration as a “turning point.” The enthusiasm should be somewhat dampened by the endorsement coming from fraudster Samuel Bankman-Fried’s Effective Altruism Forum. Oh well, this is a serious matter, and you can’t always choose your friends. We would be “irresponsible to ignore widespread consciousness” across the animal world, we are told, and an endorsement is an endorsement, even if it comes from the grossly irresponsible.

Before we all jump on board the showboat, has there been some breakthrough in consciousness that would cause us to re-evaluate our relationship with living nature? Well, not really. To the contrary, the Declaration was the latest example of a political cause masquerading as science.

It came as news to me that we have been ignoring the issue of animal consciousness, whether responsibly or not. To the contrary, we’ve been thinking about the matter arguably ever since Aristotle. We don’t have to go back that far. In 1978, Donald R Griffin, who had done pioneering work on bat echolocation, was addressing whether animals think and have conscious awareness.[1] He concluded that they probably do.

Prior to that, Thomas Nagel was posing the question “What is it like to be a bat?”[2] Like Griffin, Nagel thought that a bat probably has conscious experience, even if it was nigh impossible to answer what it would be “like to be a bat.” Not to toot my own horn, my own scientific work has centered on the “swarm intelligence” of social insect colonies, and the remarkable “fluid brains” that make them seemingly intelligent. [3] So, I label myself as someone who’s very open to the idea that consciousness exists in creatures other than ourselves. I’m just not sure how you approach the matter scientifically.

The Declaration really broke no new ground on that question. To understand why, I need to drag you, dear reader, through a primer on the problem of consciousness, which—along with intentionality—sits at the core of the so-called mind-body problem (MBP).[4]

The MBP is a problem because to this day we have not settled on a good resolution for it. Indeed, there may even be no solution possible. To quote Thomas Nagel:2

Without consciousness, the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.            [emphasis added]

Nagel’s despair stems from consciousness being an utterly intractable scientific matter. Science, to be science, should have some grounding in objective reality. There can be a science of the electron, for example, because the electron has an objective reality. Rational models can be formulated to explain it. We can do experiments with it. We can predict that an electron on Earth should behave the same way as an electron on Jupiter, in the Sun and in a galactic black hole. These are testable statements. In short, the electron meets all the criteria for being amenable to scientific inquiry.

Consciousness, in contrast, is idiosyncratic and subjective.

Only I can confidently say that I am a conscious being because only I enjoy the subjective experience of my own consciousness. I cannot say with the same certainty that other people are conscious beings for the same reason others cannot say it of my own consciousness. This inability to directly observe consciousness in others nullifies any attempt to study consciousness scientifically. To take Nagel’s point, it is entirely possible that an individual bat has consciousness, but its conscious experience is also idiosyncratic to the bat and is utterly inaccessible to me or, for that matter, to other bats. This is as true in 2024 as it was in 1974, and as it was in 324 BC.

Science can sidle into the picture through what psychologists call a theory of mind (ToM). A ToM is not a theory in the same sense as, say, a theory of the electron. Rather, a ToM emerges from interpretations of signals humans are always sharing with one another in the forms of language, tone of voice, posture, facial expression, and many others. From those signals, we create a hypothesis for the workings of the mind of another person: a theory of mind.

A theory of mind is not so much a theory of consciousness, however, as it is a theory of cognition. The ability to perceive, say, the sky as blue rests upon a sensory and neural infrastructure that scientists can access. We can measure the activities of the eyes and the transmission of signals to the brain and even infer ways these are assembled into a coherent visual picture of the world. We can do the same with the putative cognition of other animals, even distantly related ones. Bats, for example, see with their ears, that is to say bats rely on a form of auditory vision, which uses sound to navigate their worlds as carefully as we do using light.[5] We know this because auditory cognition is as amenable to scientific inquiry as visual cognition is. We can see how bats’ ears and brains assemble a coherent picture of their world. Even so, consciousness remains inscrutable. We can, with some difficulty, imagine what it is like to be a bat, but we cannot experience ourselves what it is like. Only an individual bat can do that.

This is the case, such as it is, for animal consciousness.

The event that launched the Declaration featured the work of several cognitive scientists who explored cognition in creatures as diverse as reptiles, amphibians, fish, squid, octopus, insects, and crabs. As a science, the work presented was indeed fascinating, but it remained embedded in a long tradition of exploring the various modes of cognition that open animals’ “windows on the world.”[6] As fascinating as the work presented was, however, there was no philosophical breakthrough that would have elevated consciousness from speculation to science. Fifty years later, Nagel’s intractable problem of consciousness still stands.

There’s also a trap lurking in the coupling of cognition to theories of mind and, therefore, consciousness. To an extent, all living things are cognitive beings. If cognition is the window to consciousness, then consciousness could logically be found wherever life was to be found. Not only animals but also plants, cells, microbial mats, social insect colonies, ecosystems, and even the Earth itself could be conscious. If they were, though, the ToM that we could infer would be so alien to our own as to be utterly inaccessible. A reasonable case can be made, for example, for a sort of “swarm cognition” operating in social insect colonies. What would a termite colony’s ToM be? What would a termite colony’s putative conscious experience be? It may be there, but this is an invitation to plunge down a rabbit hole.

With due apologies to dragging the reader through this primer on consciousness, we may now return to the question: what motivated the Declaration on Animal Consciousness? The scientific veneer aside, the Declaration is a work of pure advocacy, not science. That forty scientists signed the declaration does not change that.

Advocacy in favor of what? Several related programs based in New York University’s (NYU) Department of Environmental Studies led the Declaration and the event that promoted it. These include the Mind, Ethics, and Policy Program, the Wild Animal Welfare Program, and Wild Animal Studies. Two additional NYU programs co-sponsored the launch event: the Center for Bioethics, and the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. Also contributing was the Brooks Institute.

A common theme runs through all these organizations: in the words of the Brooks Institute, to bring about a “paradigm shift” in our understanding of animal rights and rights for nature. I wish to be clear. As an academic matter, this is a perfectly legitimate area of inquiry. I’m unpersuaded, however, that there is a valid scientific case for a radical transformation in our understanding of human rights, property rights, and their foundation. I’m persuaded even less when the paradigm shift is justified by a flimsy appeal to the science of consciousness – which I have argued is immune to scientific inquiry. In short, the Declaration’s aim is not to announce a breakthrough in animal consciousness but to advance a political agenda: to confer moral status to animals—and nature broadly—so that they may be granted rights that are equivalent to or greater than the rights of humans. The NYU Animal Studies’ MOTH project states this quite explicitly: rights are “more than human rights.”

Such scientific masquerades are common in our hyper-politicized world, unfortunately. Climate change and gender identity, for example, are political causes that cannot advance through persuasion and logic. The fallback for their advocates—and for a host of other dubious political causes—is deflection and sleight-of-hand through flimsy appeals to scientific authority. We can now add animal consciousness to the science magic show.

[1] Griffin, D. R. (1976). The Question of Animal Awareness. Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience. New York, Rockefeller University Press.
Griffin, D. R. (1984). Animal thinking. American Scientist 72: 456-464.

[2] Nagel, T. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review 83(4): 435-450.

[3] Turner, J. S. (2011). Termites as models of swarm cognition. Swarm Intelligence 5(1): 19-43.
Turner, J. S. (2019). Homeostasis as a fundamental principle for a coherent theory of brains. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 374(1774): 20180373.

[4] Rowlands, M. (2009). The Mind–Body Problem. Encyclopedia of Consciousness. W. P. Banks. Oxford, Academic Press: 43-55.

[5] E.g. Bruns, V. and E. Schmieszek (1980). Cochlear innervation in the greater horseshoe bat: demonstration of an acoustic fovea. Hearing research 3(1): 27-43.

[6] Schmidt-Nielsen, K. (1981). New windows on the world: Sensory modalities beyond human perception. Advances in Physiological Science 20: 1-14.

Image by Jared Gould — Text to Image


  • J. Scott Turner

    J Scott Turner is Emeritus Professor of Biology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of The Extended Organism: the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press), and Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017, HarperOne). He is presently Director of Science Programs at the National Association of Scholars.

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2 thoughts on “Animal Consciousness: The Latest ‘Science’ Magic Show

  1. The author’s belittling of the political maneuvering by those who want to assign consciousness to animals is understandable, and indeed, scientifically he stands on ground that is — if not definitively firm — at least (for now) defendable. However, behind the politicking he criticizes there is a worldview that is not without value. I believe that within this worldview, many wish to grant consciousness to animals (and other living beings) as a way to prevail upon the rest of us to treat them with more regard than we do in our current moment. That is, to treat them with respect for the fact that they — just like us — value their own lives and comfort the way we do ours, and have evolved amazing ways to further their own interests. In other words, these scientists are promoting a respect for life, and for the commonalities and linkages shared by all of planetary life.

    However, ascribing consciousness to other beings is not a necessary condition for having regard for them. The unexamined assumption here is that consciousness presumes a certain level of intelligence, and that intelligence is the quality which sets the value of being. By granting them consciousness, then (it is thought) we might lift them from their status of mere automatons (explicitly and monstrously assigned to them by Descartes), and assign a value to them that demands ethical consideration.

    But the problem is not that we haven’t granted the quality of consciousness to non-human beings, but rather that our culture is so anthropocentric that we tread heavily on other beings because they are not us. Anthropocentrism can be seen as a collective form of narcissism, as it makes all who are not-us potential instruments for our use. It blinds us to the fact that there is intrinsic value and worth in a life, even if it isn’t a life like ours.

    Instead of ascribing consciousness to non-humans, maybe we should more deeply consider the ethical implications of being in relationship with creatures who have their own aims, and who know and feel in ways we cannot fathom. And who knows, that inquiry might lead us toward treating each other a little better as well.

  2. I got to thinking about music. One could have a science of measuring rhythm, tones, harmonics, etc. But none of that substitutes for the experience, the consciousness of the music. Or maybe the mathematics of celestial spheres conjoined the two. I’m not that bright. So, perhaps these are separate endeavors — the world “outside” our minds, and the experience of those “inside” our minds (ie. consciousness). Maybe the theory of mind (as scientific measurement) is a category mistake when applied to the experience I have. Your thoughts?

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