Animal Consciousness: What Matters and Why

FOR Social Research, volume on the conference, In The Company of Animals,
Daniel C. Dennett
Animal Consciousness: What Matters and Why

Are animals conscious? The way we are? Which species, and why? What is it like to be a bat, a rat, a vulture, a whale?

But perhaps we really don't want to know the answers to these questions. We should not despise the desire to be kept in ignorance--aren't there many facts about yourself and your loved ones that you would wisely choose not to know? Speaking for myself, I am sure that I would go to some lengths to prevent myself from learning all the secrets of those around me--whom they found disgusting, whom they secretly adored, what crimes and follies they had committed, or thought I had committed! Learning all these facts would destroy my composure, cripple my attitude towards those around me. Perhaps learning too much about our animal cousins would have a similarly poisonous effect on our relations with them. But if so, then let's make a frank declaration to that effect and drop the topic, instead of pursuing any further the pathetic course many are now embarked upon.

For current thinking about animal consciousness is a mess. Hidden and not so hidden agendas distort discussion and impede research. A kind of comic relief can be found--if you go in for bitter irony--by turning to the "history of the history" of the controversies. I am not known for my spirited defenses of René Descartes, but I find I have to sympathize with an honest scientist who was apparently the first victim of the wild misrepresentations of the lunatic fringe of the animal rights movement. Animal rights activists such as Peter Singer and Mary Midgley have recently helped spread the myth that Descartes was a callous vivisector, completely indifferent to animal suffering because of his view that animals (unlike people) were mere automata. As Justin Leiber (1988) has pointed out, in an astringent re-examination of the supposed evidence for this, "There is simply not a line in Descartes to suggest that he thought we are free to smash animals at will or free to do so because their behavior can be explained mechanically." Moreover, the favorite authority of Descartes's accusors, Montaigne, on whom both Singer and Midgley also uncritically rely, was a gullible romantic of breathtaking ignorance, eager to take the most fanciful folktales of animal mentality at face value, and not at all interested in finding out, as Descartes himself was, how animals actually work!

(The whole paper is now available in Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren, Essays on Designing Minds, MIT Press and Penguin, 1998.)