Our consciousness presents one of the fundamental questions to Science, religion and philosophy that is still waiting to be answered. As of present day there is no clear general agreement as to what its purpose for us as a species that possesses it is, what it is, how it can be measured, and what extent is present in other living species. This notorious ambiguity however has made it a fascinating subject for us to creative art forms to try to perceive. A number of books and films in particular have engaged the issue by envisioning other minds such as those of other life forms such as aliens and beings with artificial intelligence creating a representation of consciousness as obvious and intimate, as well as unknown and unnerving. Taken all together, they form an interesting reflection of the cognitive sciences and its effort towards perceiving other forms of consciousness of other living beings. In this book ‘Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?’ Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal presents an extensive overview of the cognitive revolution that eroded or disproved many of our old assumptions regarding consciousness.
One of the main arguments is that consciousness is still too often seen as a uniquely human trait; an idea that can be traced back to old religious and philosophical theories on the soul which have been carried over into modernity by philosophers such as Rene Descartes. This claim to a soul or special mental quality, even to this day, often has the implicit assumption that our consciousness is a reflection of something higher. At the very least it lets us believe that the grand mysteries of the universe are eventually within our grasp. Perhaps the creation of consciousness is part of that great vision of human destiny, which would explain why we are more likely to attribute consciousness to our own creations, than to those that are already around us. Nevertheless, this need for human-ness parallels the insistence to keep consciousness within the realm of humanity. For Frans de Waal, this not only poses an unfair challenge for other species that lack this quality but it also greatly stifles our research into consciousness; “Although we cannot directly measure consciousness, other species show evidence of having precisely those capacities traditionally viewed as its indicators. To maintain that they possess these capacities in the absence of consciousness introduces an unnecessary dichotomy. It suggests that they do what we do but in fundamentally different ways. From an evolutionary standpoint, this sounds illogical. And logic is one of those other capacities we pride ourselves on.” Indeed, many of the indicators of what was believed to be our unique consciousness, such as using tools, using logic and reasoning to solve new problems, self-awareness, mental time travel, and even empathy and basic signs of morality, have now been observed and documented in various animals. The common response to this has been to just raise the bar for what it means to have consciousness, but this constant redefining of our specialness has led to many scientists believing that our human uniqueness is not so much a valid hypothesis, but more like a dogmatic principle to be defended at all costs. And yet, it is important to push beyond these biases for multiple reasons.
First, it pushes the boundaries of our scientific knowledge and methodology. Before we even begin to answer the grand questions surrounding consciousness there’s still significant progress to be made in how we should study it; how should we conduct experiments? What do we test for? How do we perceive and interpret results? Frans de Waal emphasizes that for now, the goal is modest; We wish to pinpoint mental processes by measuring observable outcomes. He feels we are too obsessed with the pinnacles of cognition, and that instead of aiming for grandiose claims about consciousness we should adopt a bottom-up, evolutionary approach and begin by uncovering the building-blocks of this strange phenomenon. This may not be as exciting, but it does open a door to some fascinating questions like did consciousness evolve at a later stage with a narrow distribution? Or is it an older, more broadly shared trait? Did it evolve from one common ancestor? Or did it arise multiple times like winged flight, which evolved independently in dinosaurs, bats, insects, and birds? If so, what other qualities could it hold? Questions like these also have ethical implications. Frans de Waal observed that the more researchers in his field learned about the minds of animals, the more concerned they became with their wellbeing. But the undeniable elephant in the room is animal agriculture. Okja is one of the few fictional films to really portray this industry and reveals how much there is at stake morally with the question of animals being conscious or just soulless machines.
Ultimately, moving away from our human-centric approach to consciousness will help us to better understand other species in their own self-centered, subjective worlds, which will eventually give us a better sense of our own place in evolution. But this requires us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our biases, our fears, and our comfort. It requires us to be truly empathic. True empathy is not self-focused but other-oriented. Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are. We are only beginning to understand consciousness. Most of the frontier still lies ahead. But if we’re really willing to venture into it, then, who knows, someday we might just find what is as of yet beyond our imagination.