56. They Feel Therefore They Are (09/2012)
In July 2012 a significant group of prominent scientists signed ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’ in which they are openly proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. How can it be that this fact has apparently not occurred to the majority in the human race? And how will we react when ‘they’ discover that many animal species are more conscious, more aware, more evolved, and more adapted than we are, and that we have found no way of trying to understand or learn from them?
The implications of this scientific acknowledgement are far reaching. We can assume that until now these (and other) scientists did not support the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. The majority of people who have anything to do with animals automatically perceive their sentience. But we bizarrely require verification from scientists, the gods of the destructive western cultural phenomenon, before we are willing to truly believe it. Although action is required in the light of the declaration it is highly unlikely to occur in any significant way because of the potential impact on our own sacred lifestyles.
The next logical step would be for governments to declare that animals are indeed sentient and therefore no longer considered ‘property’. This would mean, in effect, that animals could no longer be used for our pleasure in any way from vivisection to veal. As many countries are still grappling with the idea of human rights it seems unlikely that animals will be conceded consciousness in that realm.
Certain species are already regarded by many to be more conscious than others. We have attributed ‘mind’ to dogs and cats as they are regarded as companions, while other primates are obviously akin to man. Animals raised for food such as sheep and chickens are often seen purely in physical terms and routinely treated like objects. Elephants are known to grieve the death of a family member, and cows mourn the abduction of their calves; dolphins play joyfully in the waves, and pigs take pleasure in mud. But these expressions of emotion have always been conveniently described as ‘behaviour’ which makes them more like instinct than feeling, reaction rather than consciousness.
Research shows that it is easier for people to eat an animal that they have decided has no mind, or one they haven’t met before or seen in a form resembling an animal. Sometimes individual animals of a species normally considered to be food are given names because they have been raised as pets, and this makes it difficult for their human caretakers to slaughter and eat them. Animals given names are attributed a greater degree of consciousness.
Familiarity and recognition command a certain respect. Anyone who sees ‘the other’ and recalls the golden rule ‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’ would naturally avoid doing harm. By failing to notice, one lingers in the shadows of life, allowing untold suffering.
A conscious creature imbued with beauty and grace can inspire admiration or destruction. One person will take a photo while another will take a life. Behind the wheel one driver will smash a tortoise crossing the road as easily as another will give way.
So although we are capable of expanding and understanding consciousness we are also given the choice of how to use it.