Know They're Alive
Have you ever tried hunting pigeons? It is remarkably easy. Pigeons are not gifted with much in the way of intelligence. One way to hunt pigeons is to put out something in an open space which looks a bit like a pigeon, load your rifle, and wait. After a while, a pigeon flying overhead might spot your decoy, and come in to land. Where one pigeon is, there might be food for another. You then shoot this pigeon. You then walk over to it, and prop it up, perhaps putting a stick under its head, if it still has a head. You then walk away again and wait. After a while, another pigeon may land next to your decoy and its dead fellow. Where two pigeons are, food is even more likely to be found. The fact that you initial decoy was almost flat, totally static, and not even quite the right colour did not stop it from working. The fact that the first pigeon to land is not standing on its feet, is also static, and has half a head and a big red patch, doesn’t seem to bother the second pigeon. This can go on for some while, until you have had enough. Pigeons, it seems, have a lot of difficulty noticing whether other pigeons are dead or alive.
Some might argue that hunting pigeons in this way is cruel. How can it be? If a pigeon is not scared off by the sight of twenty dead pigeons around it, and instead just looks around for the food it was expecting, and the next instant it is dead, how did it suffer? If there was no suffering, how can there be cruelty? There is no cruelty, because pigeons don’t know that they’re alive.
Is it possible to be cruel to a pencil? If I shout at one, and threaten to snap it in two, and then carry out my threat, would you be horrified at my cruelty? I suspect not. May I suggest that the reason that you would not be horrified, is that you believe that the pencil was incapable of suffering. The pencil didn’t know it was a pencil. The pencil didn’t even know it existed. I am not cruel for treating a pencil this way, though I am possibly a bit odd.
To suffer, one must be conscious. I know that I am alive, and I know that I have the capacity for suffering. As I type this now, my back is killing me. A pigeon is not conscious, and therefore cannot suffer.
You may now find yourself thinking “How does this chap know that pigeons are not conscious?” I know, because I have worked it out.
Consciousness is a complicated thing, which must have evolved. You may feel that there is something divine about the nature of consciousness, and that consciousness is something special, unlike hands, or livers, or ferns, which evolved, but a creation somehow separate from evolution. If you believe in gods, then I dare say that my arguments will not reach you, no matter how great their force. If however, you are not committed to the idea of gods and the like, and believe that we humans evolved, then I hope that you will follow my argument and understand it. If we evolved, then our brains evolved. Consciousness is created by our brains, and therefore it evolved. If it evolved, it must have been advantageous for humans to evolve it.
An animal could survive purely by following instinct. It seems that this is what insects do. It is possible to catch an insect in a behavioural loop. I have seen this demonstrated. A hunting wasp returned to its burrow with a dead locust. It brought the locust to the entrance of the burrow, put the locust down, removed the stone from the top of the burrow, and then checked inside the burrow to make sure that the burrow was empty (they always check inside, because in the past, those who didn’t check didn’t pass on so many genes, because sometimes some other creature was in the burrow, and it ate the wasp’s prey instead of the wasp’s larvae). The experimenter then picked up the locust and moved it a few inches away from the burrow. The wasp finished its quick check, and popped out of the burrow, and flew around to find the locust, and brought it to the burrow’s entrance. It then checked inside the burrow, and the locust was moved again, behind its back. No matter how many times the wasp checked the burrow, it would always check again, as its instincts programmed it to. It had no memory of checking. Indeed, while it was checking, it didn’t know what it was doing or why. Nature never needed to create a wasp which understood why it checked the burrow, so it didn’t.
However, as creatures become more complicated, and their brains become more intelligent, this acting on fixed instinct may become a drawback. Perhaps some creatures would do better if they evolved the ability to over-ride the urges of their instincts, and were instead able to come up with behaviours which were not in-born.
Humans are conscious. I’m sure I don’t have to argue this point very fiercely. I am conscious, and you claim to believe that you are conscious. Certainly humans in the world I know behave in ways that they cannot possibly have evolved to behave in. There were no video recorders in the Pleistocene and yet some gifted humans are able to operate these machines; there were no internet dating agencies, and yet today many people use these; there were no parachuting schools, and yet people today instruct their bodies to throw themselves out into the void, thousands of feet above the ground. This shows a tremendous faith in the technology of parachutes. It seems that we are able to transcend our instincts.
It is this ability which I think is key to consciousness. If we were conscious, but every decision we made followed pre-programmed instinct, then what would the function of consciousness be? Our behaviour would still be a slave to instinct, and yet we would have a totally superfluous consciousness which allowed us to be aware of this slavery. Our consciousness would be a passenger in our body, not a driver. Brain activity is very costly. Brain tissue takes twenty times as much energy to run as other tissues of the body such as muscle. Nature would not have evolved a human consciousness if this did not have a benefit greater than the cost of running it.
If you were designing a creature, then you might build in a safety feature which stopped it from hurling itself out of a moving aeroplane at thirty thousand feet. However, a human may find himself as the possessor of a correctly-packed and harnessed parachute, and of the knowledge of how to use it. He may consider that people will be very impressed to learn that he has done a parachute jump, and that his status will rise accordingly. He may then make the decision to jump. In order to do this, he has to over-ride the instinct which tells him that falling from a great height is best avoided. With his knowledge of what parachutes are, and of how they work, and his ability to predict the likely outcome of his jumping, he jumps.
Would you lend your chainsaw to a total imbecile? Would you encourage your children to play with things they didn’t understand, like acids and electrical power cables? If you were designing a creature, would you give it the ability to over-ride good sensible instincts, when that creature is not intelligent enough to guess the likely outcomes of these over-rides? I think not.
Evolution is a very long-term process. What matters in the life of a creature is not the outcome of one individual decision, but the total of the outcomes of all its decisions. We all make mistakes in our lives, but most of the decisions we make are pretty good. My argument is this: only if a creature is so very intelligent that it can consistently come up with better decisions than instinct alone would provide, will it evolve a consciousness. Humans are so very unusually intelligent, that, as adults at least, whenever they choose to over-ride instinct, more often than not, the decision they make is better than the one which the primal urges of Nature suggested. This way, we are able to become computer-programmers, telesales managers, and sky-divers. By the same logic, nothing as stupid as a pigeon can be conscious. If a pigeon evolved a consciousness, then it would be a danger to itself. It would be far better off following instinct.
One argument sometimes given to suggest that creatures must be conscious, is that they respond to stimuli, signal emotion, and express complicated behaviours. A computer responds to the stimuli of key-board inputs and mouse movements. By the same argument a computer must be conscious because it reacts. A burglar alarm senses movement and makes a loud noise, but this does not mean that it is yelling out of consciously-experienced alarm. A rabbit will thump the ground as an alarm when it senses a predator. This does not mean that it is conscious. Many machines and animals can express apparently complicated behaviours, but no matter how complicated a behaviour is, consciousness is not needed. If a creature has an awful lot of instincts, then it can behave in a very complicated way, without the need for consciousness.
Fortunately for my argument, it is the case that you and everyone else has personal experience of a time when they were not conscious. We were all once newly-born babies. A new-born baby is as conscious as a typical animal i.e. not at all. Do you remember being born? No one does. None of us was conscious then. When you were three days old, and your body sensed that it was a bit cold, did you think through all the possible things you could do, and then, based on a prediction of you mother’s probable response to your crying, decide to cry? No you didn’t. Your infant self just responded to the sensor reports of coldness by crying. Babies act on instinct. Babies are capable of complicated behaviour, but this does not require them to be conscious. A conscious baby might do something stupid like decide to be stoic. A baby acting on instinct will not make such a dangerous mistake.
I can think of two possible objections to my baby-argument. I shall deal with them now. The first is to suggest that babies are not all the same, and that since they do not all behave identically, they must be using their minds to influence their behaviours. True, not all babies are the same, and they do have a sort of a personality, right from the start. This, though, is because not all babies have the same genes, and they are not all born into the same environment. The genes make their instincts, and they react to their surroundings, and to the chemicals within them. Just as people don’t all look exactly the same, babies do not all behave the same. However, may I point out that people do all look pretty similar. We almost all have two legs, two arms which bend in the middle, one nose, and hair in funny clumps. Similarly, babies do all behave in basically the same way. The brain of a new-born baby is far smaller than that of an adult. It can grow the bits of the brain which provide a consciousness later, along with the bits that know how to walk.
The second counter-argument I have come across comes from people who say that they can remember being born, and that they did this when a hypnotist “took them back” to the time of their birth. Yes, people do “remember” being born, when under hypnosis. However, they also “remember” being the Queen of Sheba, or Tina Turner, or a Haddock, depending on the whim of the hypnotist. Under hypnotism, one can “remember” anything which one is capable of imagining. These people are not recalling their moment of birth - they are simply imagining it. The power of suggestion.
So, I am confident that a pigeon is not conscious. I cannot be cruel to a pigeon, because the pigeon doesn’t know that it is alive. I can be cruel to a human, because a human does know. Where does the line get drawn between these two? I am not entirely sure.
Can one be cruel to a dog? Dogs are fairly intelligent, and can be trained to do simple tasks which they wouldn’t need to do in the wild, such as hop up into the back of a car. Also, dogs dream. Given these clues, it is possible that a dog is conscious, although I doubt it. I’m certain that they are not conscious in the way humans are conscious. They cannot be trained to do anything which contradicts their basic instincts. Even so, I would be uncomfortable to see someone torturing a dog.
There is no reason to suppose that consciousness is an all-or-nothing state of affairs. Scientists have carried out many experiments and observations on apes, to see how aware they are of themselves and others. One test involves sedating an animal, then putting a blob of mud on its face, and leaving it to wake up in a room with a mirror in it. A chimpanzee will awaken, see its reflection, and after a short while work out that the ape it sees is just a reflection of itself, and not another ape at all. Not long after, it will notice the mud, and scratch it off. Gorillas and orang-utans take ages to get round to scratching off the mud, and they do this in a rather uncertain manner. No monkey has ever passed this test.
We must remember that we are not fully conscious. We think of ourselves as fully conscious, but in fact we are not. We only have conscious access to a tiny amount of what our brains are doing. We cannot regulate our heartbeat with ease and at will. An ability to do this would be dangerous. We might experiment with inadvisable heart rhythms and kill ourselves. Nature does not trust us to regulate our hearts, and so we cannot (much). If I stand talking to you, and hold my hands behind my back, it is possible that without my knowledge one of my fingers could end up in the flame of a candle. The next thing I would know would be that I had whipped my hand away from the danger. My conscious mind was never engaged. Nature did not allow me to consider the possibility of leaving my finger in the flame. I acted purely on instinct, and as a result, a great deal faster and more reliably than I would have if consciousness ruled my every action. Also, our brains make sense of the input from our eyes, without anyone’s ever having to go to seeing-school. When I write this, I do not know how I retrieve the correct word I’m after from my memory banks. Somehow the word somehow was provided for me by a sub-conscious system. When I run up a flight of steps, my conscious mind is likely to be occupied in thinking about what I’m going to do when I get to the top. My feet are moving to the instructions of my auto-pilot.
Humans are not fully conscious, so it is possible that creatures that are fairly intelligent have access to some, but less, of what their brains are up to. I’m fairly confident that chimpanzees are conscious to some extent. Nature has allowed them the choice of over-riding some of their instincts, but not enough for them to try sky-diving.