What are animals conscious of?

(ed.)
Columbia Press (2012)
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Abstract

There is little doubt that animals are ―conscious‖. Animals hunt prey, escape predators, explore new environments, eat, mate, learn, feel, and so forth. If one defines consciousness as being aware of external events and experiencing mental states such as sensations and emotions (Natsoulas, 1978), then gorillas, dogs, bears, horses, pigs, pheasants, cats, rabbits, snakes, magpies, wolves, elephants, and lions, to name a few creatures, clearly qualify. The contentious issue rather is: Do these animals know that they are perceiving an external environment and experiencing internal events? Are animals self-conscious? Recent attempts at understanding animal consciousness (e.g., Edelman & Seth, 2009) agree that non-human animals most probably possess ―primary‖ (or ―minimal‖) consciousness. But these views also argue that unlike humans animals lack many (but not all) elements that make up higher-order consciousness—the capacity to self-reflect on the contents of primary consciousness. In this chapter I will aim at offering a more elaborate picture of this position. I will present detailed information on what is meant by ―higher-order consciousness‖—i.e., selfawareness. I will suggest that some dimensions of self-awareness (e.g., self-recognition, metacognition, mental time travel) may be observed in several animals, but that numerous additional aspects (e.g., self-rumination, emotion awareness) seem to be absent. Some other self-related processes, such as Theory-of Mind, have been identified in animals, but not as the full-fledged versions found in humans. I will postulate that these differences in levels of selfawareness between humans and animals may be attributable to one distinctive feature of human experience: the ability to engage in inner speech.

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Alain Morin
Mount Royal University