I’ve been a vegetarian for half of my life. In high school I cut out red meat in response to an increasingly sensitive stomach that didn’t seem to appreciate what I was feeding it, but I didn’t fully commit to vegetarianism until the day I ordered a lobster. The restaurant brought the thing to me whole, along with various tools to start cracking it open. The waitress showed me how to pull it in half, separating the meatiest part, the tail, from the intestines and torso. While I had eaten my fair share of lobster and crab legs in life without thinking twice, this was different. I couldn’t bring myself to smash this creature’s exoskeleton and suck out its flesh. Obviously it was beyond feeling any pain, but I looked around at the tank of lobsters scuttling around in the middle of the restaurant, their claws rubber-banded closed. I thought about the massive pot of boiling water that I knew was steaming away in the kitchen, ready to receive them. Only recently have scientists confirmed that crabs and lobsters do indeed feel pain, but even back then it seemed impossible for them not to. That sealed it for me — I became a vegetarian not because it was better for my gut, but because it was better for my conscience. Now, an international group of scientists has publicly agreed — not just about animals’ capacity to feel pain, but their capacity for conscious awareness.
A group of scientists have signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which supports the notion that animals are just as conscious as humans are. The scientists who signed the Declaration include neuroscientists and cognitive scientists who attended the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals. Stephen Hawking spoke at the conference last year, and was present for the signing.
The Declaration doesn’t apply to all animals — anticipating, I’m sure, a “fleas aren’t as conscious as humans!” type of response. The animals specifically mentioned in the declaration include all mammals, birds, cephalopods, and “many other creatures.” The declaration states that the “absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states.” In other words, animals whose brains work differently than human brains and who have evolved differently can be conscious, which means, among other things, that they can feel rewarding and punishing internal states and act intentionally. Some even seem to exhibit a sense of self, such as magpies, primates, dolphins, and elephants, who can recognize themselves in a mirror.
Back in the days of Descartes and Locke, philosophers pondered the relationship between the brain and consciousness, and whether consciousness is essentially a sum of neuro-mechanical parts and functions. Researchers today still ask the same questions, which underscores just how complicated the brain — and not just the human brain — is. The idea that animals may not just have a sense of their surroundings, but an actual sense of self is potentially paradigm shifting, and among other things opens the door even wider to discussions of consciousness or sentience in AI and robots.
But pretty soon, robots may be able to sign their own Declaration of Consciousness, in which case we may have no choice but to believe them.