Are Animals Conscious? Term Paper

Pages: 5 (1642 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 4  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Psychology

¶ … Animals Conscious?

Evaluating Animal Consciousness

Before taking a position on the longstanding, controversial issue as to whether or not animals truly possess consciousness and whether or not this concept even applies to them, it first becomes necessary to examine both contemporary and historical models addressing this topic. Prior to the 20th century, it was fairly common for scientists, psychologists and other academics to conduct empirical studies regarding the nature and merits of consciousness, most of which revolved about the idea that consciousness indicated an organizational complexity for representatives of a particular species. Around the turn of the century, however, consciousness was greatly devalued as a component for individuals and regarded as a somewhat useless by-product of normal brain activity. Historic notions of consciousness regarded it as an unchanging entity that required a subject that was distinct from its environment. More recent research in this field, however, views consciousness as a highly mutable entity, emerging from youth to thrive during midlife and decline in latter life, ultimately reflecting thoughts and feelings of one's surroundings. This evolution of the conception of consciousness goes from a behaviorism-based model to a dynamic perception which, when examined in relationship to literature presented during the last 20 years, proves that certain animals do possess consciousness that is not dissimilar to that of humans.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Term Paper on Are Animals Conscious? Assignment

A brief analysis of the history of the study of consciousness reveals that the principle problem associated with animal consciousness actually has to do with language. Martin Schonfeld has found that biases related to the proving or disproving of consciousness actually relate to what the word itself means, as determined by its definition in "what language one speaks" (Schonfeld 2). Conventional behaviorism models of consciousness were related to English definitions about "an Ego and its dealings" in which an individual ego and personality is necessary for consciousness -- which was difficult to fathom and therefore rejected by many scientists (Schonfeld 2). However, the definition of terms such as consciousness, awareness, and sentient in languages outside of Anglo-Saxon ones, such as those throughout Europe and Asia, are dynamic in nature, prone to notions of evolution and mutability, and present a number of alternate definitions outside of the limited duality of English -- which views consciousness as a human-centered "I" and its surroundings. Therefore, depending on the connotations of the idea of consciousness, it "arises organically and naturally" in Eurasian languages (Schoenfeld 2).

Despite the somewhat subjective nature of the language in which one considers the meaning of consciousness, it is highly important in establishing whether or not there is animal consciousness to confirm the fact that consciousness does exist within humans. Even those who widely dispute the notions of animal consciousness, such as Dennett, will readily quickly confirm the fact that in contemporary times, consciousness in humans is generally acknowledged and does "not require absolute, Cartesian certainty that our fellow human beings are conscious" (Dennett 16). As such, it is extremely interesting to note the fundamental similarities between humans and animals, in both behaviors, cognition, and their processes, that is also extremely suggestive of animal consciousness. This is particularly true of mammals, which share many similarities in their "anatomy, physiology, neurochemistry and electrical activity" (Baars 6) with humans. The primary differences between humans and mammals, of course, is the degree of the operations performed with those processes, which are significantly more complex in humans than in their animal counterparts. Due to these points in common between the nature and function of the brains and the behavior of humans and animals, scientists have concluded that "…in the last seventy years of cumulative research on the brain basis of consciousness we have found no convincing evidence for an essential difference between humans and other mammals in regard to the existence of waking alertness and perceptual consciousness" (Baars 7)

There is a fair amount of evidence to demonstrate the plausibility of these claims. Consciousness is generally defined as a "state of awareness" that requires a subject "aware of itself and its environment" (Schonfeld 1). Schonfeld argues that there are both external and internal manifestations of consciousness. The latter have historically proven difficult to quantify on the basis of empirical evidence. The former, however, have a number of tangible representations found in nature, (and involving mammals in particular) that help to prove that animal consciousness does exist. These demonstrations of external aspects of consciousness involve "communication, tools, learning, and the…enforcement of values" (Schonfeld 1). These traits were demonstrated by a group of monkeys on an islet in Asia by a particular scientist. The monkeys studied learned to clean their food by washing it in the water. Initially, just one monkey began this process, yet through communication and learning, all of the monkeys eventually adopted these measures. Furthermore, the monkeys later on demonstrated a preference for doing so in the ocean as opposed to in saltwater rivers. The scientist studying this phenomenon, Kinji Imanishi, believed that these aspects of learning, communication and using a crude form of a tool (water) indicated that the monkeys had formed a culture, which "challenged the belief that cultures are only a human phenomenon" (Schonfeld 3) and alludes to the fact that they indeed possessed consciousness.

With all of the varying languages, connotations, and aspects of the idea of consciousness, it is difficult to limit this idea to just one particular definition. An examination of consciousness as an operational definition of consciousness, which involves a simple awareness of events going on, also confirms that animals have this capacity. For people, "the standard observational index of consciousness is "accurate, verifiable report" (Baars 8). In this respect consciousness is defined as a state of being contrasted with that of sleep and which requires a cognizance of one's surroundings. Animals (mammals in particular and even some that are not mammals), most definitely possess this capacity. One of the notions that supports this fact is that animals themselves do sleep -- which of course implies that when they are awake they are involved in a state of consciousness. This aspect of behaviorism, however, is easily seen in a simple observation of animals. There is an aspect of consciousness that implies paying attention to observable or perceptible events. As such, it is possible for one to become distracted when one is conscious (which happens to people all the time). Baars reports that this same phenomenon happens to animals who "routinely "catch each other unawares" during…moments of distraction" and that "many predatation strategies are based on prey distractibility"(Baars 9). This fact, when considered in conjunction with other aspects of observable consciousness such as positioning one's senses to points "of stimulation," which occurs both within humans and animals, provides convincing evidence to a consciousness shared by both.

Ultimately, it is the predatory nature of animals, and their needs of satisfying their desires -- to eat, shelter and protect themselves from harm -- that ultimately attests to their consciousness. If consciousness ultimately requires a mutability as part of its definition, animals adhere to this definition by demonstrating their own mutability. There are countless examples of this fact, such as the ability of herons to bait minnows which are then eaten, or for chimpanzees to remember the location of specific tools used to crack nuts for consumption, as well as for monkeys and apes to communicate with one another via a sophisticated series of alarms that inform group members of the presence of prey. There can be no disputing the notion that "many animals adapt their behavior to the challenges they face either under natural conditions or in laboratory experiments" (Griffin 10-11). This facet of adaptation is one of the principle characteristics of Darwin's theory of evolution, and is also important to contemporary definitions of consciousness -- which include the fact that consciousness evolves through the varying stages of life. and,… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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