Absence of Evidence, or Evidence of Absence; A paper on Animal Consciousness

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Absence of Evidence, or Evidence of Absence?

A paper on Animal Consciousness

Consciousness is a difficult term to grasp; so much so, that many scientists will not even attempt to define the term, much less search for it’s evidence. Most however, do agree that consciousness must include certain aspects; specifically cognition, self-awareness, memory, and abstract thought.

Lesley J. Rogers describes consciousness as, “related to awareness, intelligence, and complex cognition, as well as language. Consciousness may be manifested in self-awareness, awareness of others, intentional behavior, including intentional communication, deception of others, and in the ability to make mental and symbolic representations (13).”

There is no question that humans carry these attributes, but what about animals? Some philosophers, including Descartes, claimed that while humans are conscious, animals are like machines, with no thought process or sentience. Others claim that animals are very capable of consciousness, and that we just have not had the capabilities to test the aspects of it through the scientific method. As Donald R. Griffin expressed:

Conscious thinking may well be a core function of central nervous systems. For conscious animals enjoy the advantage of being able to think about alternative actions and select behavior they believe will get them what they want or help them avoid what they dislike or fear. Of course human consciousness is astronomically more complex and versatile than any conceivable animal thinking, but the basic question addressed…is whether the difference is qualitative and absolute, or whether animals are conscious even though the content of their consciousness is undoubtedly limited and very likely quite different of ours. (3)

This paper will look at what evidence there is that may imply that some, if not all, vertebrate animals may have the capacity for conscious thinking. Cognition, for example is something that animals may require in order to adapt to their changing environments so quickly. Cognition is an animal’s ability to make a decision by evaluating or processing current information based on some representation of prior experience (Kamil in Pepperberg 127). Some animal studies, such as Franci...

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...th other animals, because we do not share the same forms of communication. We can not ask what other animals are thinking, what they want or feel, or even determine if they have a sense of self. What is known right now is that we do not know, but that is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume animal consciousness does not or can not exist. Until further observations or tests can be developed that will start to lead man to a closer understanding of the animal mind, it is important to remember that absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence.

Works Cited

Griffin, Donald R. Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Patterson, Francine, and Eugene Linden. The Education of Koko. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Pepperberg, Irene. The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities

of Grey Parrots. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Rogers, Lesley J. Minds of Their Own. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Wynne, Clive D.L. Animal Cognition. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.

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