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If this seems vague to you, you are not alone. Consciousness has been confused for millennia, but because it is an internal, subjective experience, simply trying to describe it can hurt your brain. This leads to what Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness – the secret of why subjective experiences arise from biological processes, such as why you feel like you see a glowing shade of red when light of a certain wavelength hits yours Meets eyeballs. “Why should a rich inner life emerge from physical processing at all?” Chalmers asked in a seminal paper from 1995. “It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”
Back to my kittens: when they hear me open a can of delicious chicken slop and run over and meow, I sometimes imagine a little dialogue going on in their furry heads. Maybe “Eat, yay, Eat, Eat, now!” or maybe “Chicken again ?!” Descartes would call me crazy for thinking so; for him the cats only react to the sound of the can opening and the smell of the mud, all reflex and no higher-order experience.
Modern science has pretty much ruined Descartes’ view. One reason to believe that animals are conscious is that we are animals and are conscious – suggesting that creatures with similar evolutionary histories and brain structures, including all mammals, “feel” in similar ways.
There is also evidence that non-mammals with very different brain structures have conscious selves. In 2012, after a review of research into animal thinking, a group of neuroscientists and others studying cognition published a document stating that animals are conscious. They wrote that “the weight of evidence suggests that humans are not unique when they possess the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” which they believe is likely to be found in “non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including Octopuses, could be found. “So not only is it possible that my kittens will have the subjective experience of being served chicken slop several times a day – it is likely that they will feel something even when we can’t know what it is.
Still, if you have to ask after all of this, I’m not blaming you: Hey Farhad, I’m glad you like your cats, but why does anyone care what’s going on in their minds?
I close with a few thoughts, one more obvious and one less. The obvious reason: awareness is important because it gives ethical and moral status. If we can agree that our dogs and cats are conscious, then it becomes very difficult to argue that pigs and cows and whales and even catfish and chickens are not. However, when all of these living things experience consciousness analogous to ours, it must be concluded that our species is embroiled in a great moral disaster – for in food production facilities around the world we routinely treat nonhuman animals, as Descartes saw them, as numb machines or experience . This view allows us to inflict any torture necessary for productive efficiency.
The other reason to think about a cat’s consciousness is so that we could learn about these other creatures that we now have control over – robots.