Animal consciousness revisited

I’ve started going along to the PESGB’s Wednesday lectures. Oral comprehension is something I’m trying to get better at (I don’t know whether it’s an attention problem or a processing problem, probably both), but the chats in the bar afterward are a suitable reward, so I’ve resolved to make a habit of it.

Last week the PESGB had Ian Ground along to talk to us about non-human consciousness. The essence of his paper was along similar lines to a blog post I wrote in my first term of the EdD, which I am rather proud of, looking back. I feel like I was more prolific, more eloquent and more confident back then. Maybe it’s nothing to get depressed about – I suspect it’s largely because I was less likely to see one thing as being connected to everything else; a position that makes it bloody hard to encapsulate your response to something in a blog post.

Truth be told, I’ve revisited old blog posts a lot more then I’ve written new ones in the past year. I’ve found my earlier posts to be indispensable in building my research proposal and ethics application, and I need to continue capturing my thoughts as I go, or they’ll get forgotten. Someone tweeted Hugh Kearn’s ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students’ earlier today. Kearns writes: ‘The words you write might never make it into your final thesis, but they will be the grandparents of the ones that do.’ Everyone says how important it is to keep writing, and I know this to be true. So this is me, back at the keyboard, writing about what makes us human…

(‘but what has this to do with your thesis?’, I hear you cry. Possibly nothing, possibly everything. We’ll see.)

Ian opened his paper by reminding us that ‘philosophical and scientific inquiry into the nature of mind has generally proceeded as if we humans were the only minded species.’ We are obsessed with our own minds – on personal, cultural/societal and species levels – but spend comparably little energy considering other kinds of mind. Ian feels that Wittgenstein’s philosophical framework allows us more flexibility in this sense (I don’t know much about that, but I’ve just ordered a book on it).

The most important point I took away from Ian’s lecture was that language is the crucial difference between humans and other animals, and it is the way our language constrains our thinking that makes it difficult for us to conceptualise non-human minds. This is along the same lines as what I thought three years ago:

For me, what makes us distinctly human (from a human perspective, of course) is not so much about free will as about language. Essentially, this paper [Buchanan 1998] is about investigating matters of free will and choice among our fellow human beings. Having a common means of communication – language – enables us to investigate matters of free will and choice more deeply than we would be able to with, say, a tree frog. So, we can go beyond observing and counting in order to make predictions, and start eliciting narratives that make explicit what is going on for people and enable us to develop a deeper understanding of the situation – and its significance. Other animals – and plants too – have their own means of communicating with one another, but it makes perfect sense that the greater the commonality in our communication, the more nuanced and delicate our awareness can become. This idea has been touched upon in readings for both units so far; in terms of what it is possible to know, and in terms of academic (and other) discourse(s).
November 24, 2013

But there was more in Ian’s paper that was of interest, some of which resonated with my recent writing on entheogens (psychedelic plant medicines) and the window they provide into other states of consciousness. In the Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes at length about the inadequacy of language for representing the full spectrum of our experience. In the discussion after Ian’s lecture, Richard Marshall argued that thought without language does exist – a position that Ian seemed skeptical about, despite having quoted John Searle on the unnaturalness of language. I wholeheartedly agreed with Richard (on this point only). Just because we can’t put something – an action, an experience, a view – into words, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and isn’t important. In fact, I feel the opposite may be true – we place too much importance, perhaps, on the things that can be put into words. This is apparent when one considers how we assess university teaching; through written, reflective accounts of it. Even when assessment incorporates observation of the act of teaching (notably absent from the highest accolade of the National Teaching Fellowship), the observation only acquires validity in being formatted into a written report.

Through his experience with mescaline, Huxley learned how psychedelics confront us with the ineffable. Many psychonauts have experienced a frustrated desire to translate these experiences into words, as if they have no meaning or permanence otherwise. Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a remarkably successful attempt at translation, but I’m not sure how intelligible it would be to someone who hadn’t had a similar experience. In his final work of fiction – The Island – Huxley weaves the entheogenic experience into an account of an imagined utopian civilisation. In explaining the role of sacred plant medicines in social life, a central character in the novel challenges his guest’s assumptions, explaining that the brain transmits rather than produces consciousness. I think this idea is highly relevant to a consideration of the consciousness of non-human animals.

An explanatory anecdote: My two-year-old cocker spaniel is very beautiful and relatively well-behaved, but I struggle to understand his behaviour at times. Over the last few months he developed what I experienced as an annoying habit of stealing another dog’s ball (or a child’s toy, or someone’s sock), refusing to drop it on command and running in the other direction when I tried to chase him. For me, this wasn’t funny – I often found it embarrassing and stressful.

I have found, like others, that microdosing with entheogens loosens the ‘human’ and/or linguistic constraints on my thinking. The first time Indy’s ball-stealing coincided with a microdosing day, I had a flash of understanding – I knew what the ‘game’ was in his mind; i.e. what he ‘wanted’ me to do and what would lead to him dropping the ball. I’ll try to explain what I did. Rather than running towards him, I sprinted – very fast – around him in a long, wide arc, projecting a feeling of joyous playfulness. His eyes lit up. He scuttered a little to one side, and then to the other. He hunched his shoulders and stuck his neck out. I opened my arms wide, and advanced towards him with my feet wide too, making a wall with my body and my mind (I don’t know how else to describe this). And he dropped the ball and sat back on his haunches!

I feel that this example resonates with Huxley’s position (supported by modern neuroimaging studies) that psychedelics open up the brain to areas that are usually silent, allowing thoughts and sensations to be transmitted that reach beyond everyday human experience and language and in that sense are less exclusively human; more animalistic.

Another connection with entheogens arose in what Ian said about humans drawing a distinction between ourselves and the world, and his suggestion that animal consciousness may not include such a distinction. Much has been written about the ego-dissolving effects of certain plant medicines, and it has been suggested that realising that we are part of the world rather than separate from it, is a higher way of thinking (Huxley declines to use the word ‘enlightened’ as others, e.g. Tim Leary, have done).

In my 2013 blog post I picked up on the concept of free will – as a potential defining characteristic of humanity – and argued that our capacity for making moral choices (if that is what we are doing) is a characteristic that has presumably, along with our other characteristics, evolved over time, and the commonality of convergent evolution suggests that we are unlikely to be the only beings with this characteristic.

In From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (2002), Roy Bhaskar posits that man is essentially God, and to gain our freedom we must realise this; that we are God, and we are already absolutely free. Being God is not as easy as it sounds; it also entails taking a stance of unconditional love for ourselves, other beings and the environment we inhabit; a state of ‘non-judgemental observation combined with engaged (but unattached) activity in the world’ (p.xi). Bhaskar implies, I think, that our godliness in this respect – our capacity for making moral choices – is what sets us apart from other animals.

While Kant (in the Critique of Practical Reason, 1788) argues that it is impossible to prove that we have free will, Sacks (in The Dignity of Difference, 2002) argues that we have to assume we do, as it would be intolerable to have no sense of responsibility for how our lives turn out.  The debate seems to hinge on whether free will, or lack of it, is the illusion.

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