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Do animals experience emotions? Do they think? Do they have a life story? These are all questions that as of late, researchers have been deeply investigating. As a pet owner, I have bonded with multiple animals throughout the years and I would have to answer “yes” to all three of these questions simply based on feedback I receive from the animals I encounter. There’s no doubt that a significant bond is formed between you and your pet as you get to know each other, just like in human-to-human relationships. As you spend more time with your pet, you feel as though you are getting to know them better and they know you. As we spend more and more time with them, we form a sense of a personality for that animal and can list detailed character traits that make them uniquely them. Have you ever wondered if the animal has a sense of self, similar to what we have of it? What is it like to have a conscious experience as that animal?
Today, the topic of animal consciousness is highly debated and at the forefront of discussions over animal cruelty rights and ethical business practices, which is why I feel this is an urgent matter to discuss. Consciousness itself is a complex topic, not easily defined. However, in PHI: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, Giulio Tononi formulated a clear understanding to help define consciousness with what is referred to as “PHI”. Tononi explains PHI as being “integrated information is the information generated by a system above its parts, where the parts are those that, taken independently, generate the most information”. Translating into layman’s terms, the consciousness that is PHI is measured by multiple signals and experiences culminating into one whole subjective conscious experience. Now if an animal indeed has consciousness, just like humans have a consciousness, these creatures deserve validity and some rights. So, what is it that determines consciousness? The American philosopher Thomas Nagel’s view on the topic is expressed in “What is it Like to Be A Bat?”. Nagel believed that all animals share a “subjective character of experience”. Nagel said that an animal is conscious ‘if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism — something it is like for the organism’. In other words, an animal shall be deemed a conscious being if it can experience a subjective reality that is uniquely theirs. With that being said, I think it’s important to attempt to put yourself in the consciousness of another being before you can even begin to make decisions that will affect that animal.
If you have a pet, surely you have witnessed the animal bark or meow and kick their legs as if they are running while they are asleep. Animals sleep, and when they sleep, they dream about things similar to you and I. MIT studies show that not only do animals dream of catching their prey and other primal desires, but they also play-back memories and work through problems while dreaming. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers report that animals have complex dreams and can retain and recall long sequences of events while they are asleep. This shows an extreme indication of intelligence and valuable life. MIT researchers have contributed to this study and demonstrated that animals are capable of re-evaluating their experiences when they are not in the midst of them. Researches looked at the firing patterns of a collection of individual cells to determine the content of rats’ dreams. We now “know that they are in fact dreaming and their dreams are connected to actual experiences”. In Sy Montgomery’s, The Soul of an Octopus, the author, and a colleague witness a sight few get the chance to see. They witnessed an eel deep in sleep, dreaming away. What was so fascinating for Montgomery to witness was the voltmeter flashes coming from the eel as it was in a deep dream state. Even the animals that are hard to catch a glimpse of having intense dreams much as we do.
For example, pigs are fascinating beings- really quite smart and emotional. To possess intelligence and build upon past experiences to solve problems and experience emotions, consciousness must be present. The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy has conducted multiple studies focusing on the perspective-taking of pigs. Throughout the general comparative literature and across a variety of species, perspective-taking has been associated with several other cognitive capacities, including self-awareness, the theory of mind, intentional deception and empathy. Even the most basic forms, attention to visual cues and visual perspective-taking, require taking a stance other than one’s own and usually using that information to one’s advantage. The studies highlight that pigs exhibit complex abilities to utilize and manipulate conspecifics to their advantage in social foraging situations. In a protocol requiring pigs to forage in pairs for hidden food, when one pig was informed as to the location of the food and the other was naïve to the information. The uninformed pig was able to exploit the knowledge of the informed pig by following him to the food source and displacing him, thus reducing the time it took for the naïve pig to find food on his own. Moreover, exploited pigs altered their behavior in response to this exploitation in competitive foraging trials; foraging behavior of individuals who were previously exploited changed to match the circumstances and to decrease the chances of being exploited. For instance, subordinates were more likely to show food-directed behavior when the chances of arriving at the food ahead of their exploiters were high. In a similar study, subordinates increased their foraging speed to stay ahead of exploiters. A sign of consciousness and self-awareness, this proves the pigs’ ability to put their consciousness in another’s perspective, as well as viewing itself as a separate being from the other pigs, to solve problems faced.
Now think for a moment what it would be like to have a conscious experience as a pig in a factory farm. Not being able to walk because your living conditions prohibit you from standing, being conscious of your babies being ripped away from you minutes after birth, feeling helpless and being aware of your impending death as all of your friends are slaughtered before your eyes. Simply by acknowledging the existence and legitimacy of another being as having a unique experience different from your own, will make us question how we live our lives and our effects on others.
This makes me wonder if the longstanding denial of animal consciousness is tied to the meat and dairy industry and its control and mistreatment of animals. If the majority does not give thought to the experience of the animal it will soon eat, then there is no moral guilt for the harm of an innocent being. For the past hundred years, factory farming animals for food have become normalized and expected to be a part of an American’s diet. Meat consumption on the mass scale is a recent adoption to the American lifestyle, and within this short amount of time, we seemed to have lost our connection to animal species other than ourselves and viewing farm animals more like objects with no value or life.
There are some psychological reasons to expect why we might neglect this problem. We tend to be most motivated to help when we can empathize with a specific living being, and when we feel personally responsible for alleviating their suffering. But these motivating factors are absent for factory farming. The problem of factory farming is somewhat concealed, affects many anonymous lives, and is something which no single person feels big responsibility for. People can be biased against taking the suffering of animals seriously, known as “speciesism”. There is experimental evidence that people think of animals as having far fewer mental capacities than they do. Perhaps the bias is due to the widespread acceptance of meat consumption and farming practices. For someone who chooses to consume meat, acknowledging the harm this causes is likely to be emotionally difficult. Realizing you are directly tied the loss of thousands of innocent lives is a hard bite to swallow. This means that they may have a strong incentive to turn a blind eye and find ways to convince themselves that the problem is not so big after all.
To combat this growing issue of factory farming and general animal cruelty, we need to begin to place our consciousness in the perspective of these farm animals. See life from their eyes, because there’s no ethical way to deny the pain and suffering these animals endure for the momentary pleasure of our taste buds or to be hung up as a trophy on the walls. All animals- humans, eels, pigs and everyone else, are valuable to the life of this planet. Once we become aware of the potential consciousness of another being’s experience, ethics becomes a conscious consideration. Consideration for all life, as each form of life, as Nagel put it, is a “subjective character of experience’, which collectively forms the universal conscious experience. I ask that when you make decisions that affect other beings, put yourself in their shoes. By projecting into the consciousness of another animal, you can connect and understand life much easier.
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