This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
Thank you for everything you do, in the philosophical and apologetic area for us. I'm writing to you because recently I was debating with a friend of mine about consciousness, and the implications of such concept in our life. I argued that from his line of thinking (which is evolutionism) consciousness isn't a trait that you can acquired through darwinian evolutive methods. (such as Descent with modifications, adaptive radiation etc.) But he went ahead and stood firm that animals do have states of consciousness and that really left me shocked, that he would go so far as to affirm such statement.
Later on, I started researching about that topic, and I found myself in a very hard situation. I know it's almost impossible for us to actually know if consciousness is fully developed in something out of the human species, for consciousness is the state of being aware of something within ourselves and therefore of our surroundings. But what I found was that neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp with the help of others as well published the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which was witnessed by physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawkings. This declaration proposed the fact, as being of scientific nature, that animals have in fact states of consciousness such as ours. and the implications of that to me are immense. I haven't had the time to read such declaration, but I have researched all around the internet and in different scientific papers, and most definitely, that Declaration has had it's impact in the scientific community. I also started looking for about that topic in your webpage ReasonableFaith.org to see if you had addressed the matter at some point in your carreer.
The reading that more resemble my question is the response of Dr. Michael Murray, in Q/A #355 where the Theme is Animal Pain Re-Visited. but the arguments that Dr. Murray presents in his work don't really convince me, of being in the "counter-argumentative level" for the Declaration that was Published in the 2012. Could you please help me get out of this storm that I've walked into.
P.S. So you understand my problem with that, I'll give you an example of one of the first implications that came into my mind when I read this. If animals do have the same states of consciousness as we do, that animals have the same value and importance, biologically speaking, than us. Thus the creationist theory that Genesis 1 is the most plausible beginning for the existence of the universe and everything in it falls, because it has been "found", and agreed by, famous scientists that animals have states of consciousness just like us. so the distinction God draws between us and animals is exactly our conscious state, because we have parts of our being that are intrinsically bound to the meta-physical realm. plus those parts of us are generally traits that can be found within God Himself. So the simple fact that Scientist have made this declaration, and have circumscribed the conscious state to a Region in the Pre-Frontal Cortex, to me it seems that it's Evidence enough to counter-argue the creationist theories.
Anticipated Thanks and just so you know, I'm not leaving my faith because of this. it's just that in this area I couldn't debate with scientist, much less with my friends because I haven't found evidence against it. Thanks Again Dr. Craig.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Your question is a timely one, Joshua, as just a couple of weeks ago I received an email from Michael Murray with the subject line “May be of interest to you” on this very topic. Attached was an article from the latest issue of Nature Reviews: Neuroscience entitled “Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Progress and Problems,” by a team of brain scientists. The article reviews the current status of research into the neural correlates of consciousness, or, as they put it, “the minimum neural mechanisms sufficient for any one specific conscious percept [experience].”
It’s noteworthy that they are not investigating the minimum neural mechanisms sufficient for self-consciousness. In my previous Questions of the Week on this subject, I noted that there is no evidence that animals other than the higher primates have a consciousness of self that enables them to think I myself am in pain. That has huge implications for the problem of animal suffering and so-called natural evil. For even though animals may have an awareness of pain (are conscious), they are not aware that they themselves are in pain (are not self-conscious) and so do not suffer as we do.
Similarly, the concerns expressed in your question arise only if animals have self-consciousness. I was puzzled by how troubled you seem to be at the notion that some animals are conscious. Mere consciousness or sentience does not suffice to make an organism a moral agent. It is a non-sequitur to conclude that because a dog feels an itch in his leg “animals do have the same states of consciousness as we do.” So you are quite mistaken when you assert “the distinction God draws between us and animals is exactly our conscious state.” No, the distinction is that we are free, self-conscious agents, not merely sentient organisms. You have nothing to fear theologically from recognizing that animals are conscious. And that is all that the Cambridge Declaration affirms.
Now in the above-mentioned article Christof Koch et al. are trying to assess the minimum neural mechanisms sufficient for consciousness. They explain:
Being conscious means that one is having an experience — the subjective, phenomenal ‘what it is like’ to see an image, hear a sound, think a thought or feel an emotion. Although our waking experiences usually refer to the external world, we continue to be conscious when we day-dream and during those periods of sleep when we dream. Consciousness only vanishes during dreamless sleep or under general anaesthesia when, from our own intrinsic perspective, everything disappears and we experience nothing.
They’re concerned, then, with a pretty minimal level of awareness, different from experiencing nothing at all.
The long and the short of their article is that there is a “hot zone” in the human brain in the posterior cerebral cortex where the best anatomical candidates for the neural correlates of consciousness (whether general consciousness or content-specific consciousness) are located.
In a box labeled “Hard Cases and Hard Calls,” they mention some of the cases in which it is difficult to determine if a person is conscious, for example, cases of persons who are behaviorally unresponsive due to brain lesions or whose brains have only a few isolated areas of activity as a result of severe brain damage, cases involving sleepwalkers who display complex behavior but lack any recollection of dreams, cases of epileptics who during seizures exhibit automatic behaviors, cases of patients who are in immobilized states, cases of newborn infants, who have immature brains, and so on. Then comes this very interesting paragraph:
Assessing consciousness is even more problematic in non-human animals. It is likely that mammals that share many behavioural traits with humans, and have brains organized in a similar manner to human brains, are conscious. Indeed, in laboratory settings used to study the neural correlates of consciousness in humans, macaque monkeys act very similarly to humans, including signalling when they do not see a stimulus under blindsight conditions. However, in species that are more distant from humans in evolutionary and neural terms, the question of whether they are conscious becomes more difficult. Birds, fish, cephalopods and insects are capable of sophisticated, learned, non-stereotyped behaviours that are typically associated with consciousness in humans. Although their nervous systems may be smaller and organized differently, they are still very complex. For example, bee brains contain close to 1 million nerve cells packed up to ten times more densely than in the neocortex and assembled in non-linear feedback circuits. Yet humans can perform complex behaviours in a seemingly non-conscious manner, such as detecting the meaning of words, doing simple arithmetic or typing rapidly, and highly complex structures in the human brain, such as the cerebellum, do not contribute to consciousness. Thus, when a bee chooses a branch point marked by red in a maze, we do not know if it does so consciously, as humans might do under such circumstances, or by following an unconscious programme.
Despite their complex behavior many animals may not even be conscious! Neuro-science is in a state of uncertainty concerning this question. Koch and his colleagues conclude their article with the caution: “Further progress . . . will require, in addition to empirical work, testable theories that address in a principled manner what consciousness is and what is required of its physical substrate.”
I suspect that what is driving the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness is not neuro-science but ethics, a concern for the ethical treatment of animals. Lacking God as a foundation for objective moral values and duties, the naturalist must find something in animals themselves to warrant their ethical treatment. That will be their awareness of pain. As you yourself put it: “If animals do have the same state of consciousness as we do, that animals have the same value and importance, biologically speaking, than us.” This naturalistic attempt to ground ethical treatment of animals is doomed to failure, however, since not all animals are sentient--not to speak of rainforests and oceans! A sound environmental ethic, including the ethical treatment of animals, will be grounded in the creation mandate given by God to man to steward the Earth as God’s good gift. When we pollute the seas, despoil the forests, and abuse animals, we violate the moral duties God has laid upon us. In order to justify the ethical treatment of animals, we don’t need to think of them as Bambi and Thumper.