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Scientists Are Rethinking Animal Cognition (theatlantic.com)
159 points by jdnier 38 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 116 comments



It surprises me that people could claim that the inverse would ever be true. As in, why would the default be to assume that animals are not conscious? Claiming that consciousness is unique to humans seems like quite a high-horse proposition for us to make about our species.

The question as to how far down consciousness goes is still a matter of debate. The idea that consciousness goes all the way down, i.e. to rocks et al. is called panpsychism in philosophy. I don't think that's likely, since our best bet is that consciousness is maybe/probably an emergent property of information processing in the brain. How complex that information processing has to be to result in consciousness is an interesting proposition, and could be hard to determine given the subjective nature consciousness to begin with.

Still though, I can't imagine experiencing consciousness, responding to stimuli the way I respond to stimuli, and thinking that animals/bugs that also respond to stimuli in the same manner as we do are not conscious. The fact that this assumption has permeated culture throughout history seems like a very obnoxious oversight and has probably led morally sane people to enact morally insane abuses towards animals and I think that is a shame.


> It surprises me that people could claim that the inverse would ever be true. As in, why would the default be to assume that animals are not conscious?

It's known as motivated reasoning. Specimens of our species are not known for disinterested rationality. We have deep interests in doing things to animals that animal cognition could make more unpleasant or expensive. An ancestor without this talent would have been less likely to become an ancestor. Think of how much tougher it would be to put a spear into a boar if you thought it was as sentient as your mother. You'd still do it if you were hungry enough but would pay a greater price.


To the contrary, we (as a society) do worse things to animals when we aren't able to actually see it happening. If I were a boar, I'd rather have lived a natural life and suffered a tragic end than have been born and die in brutal slavery. Working in a factory farm setting is known to have a negative affect on the psyche [1]. The small-time farmer who just ships live animals off and the butcher who is cutting up an already-dead animal don't have this problem. To me, this signals that we do in fact see cognition in these animals, and ignoring it causes us to ignore that cognition in humans.

[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/108602660933816...


True. Factory farming and lately laser guided bombs are good ways to hide the dirty details from most people.


Well, laser guided bombs have replaced the need for carpet-bombing a city, so that seems like a net improvement.


I think the closer you are to the actual killing of animals, the more you tend to revere them, if anything.

From my viewpoint, our current views on the killing of animals are as much a reflection of our cultural fear of death as anything.

Death used to be an ever-present part of life. Killing an animal was viewed as taking the life of something else to prolong your own. And all to often, people would die in horrific ways anyway.

Now, death is a thing we try to hide away and not talk about. So we also hide away the killing of animals for meat. Death is a taboo in our society in some ways.


> I think the closer you are to the actual killing of animals, the more you tend to revere them, if anything.

This is clearly not the case, else nobody would be willing to work for a factory farm.

The opposite appears to be true. People become desensitized - at least the ones who can handle the initial shock. Also, in some regions of the world (and in developed countries), generations have grown up with a company mentality and seem incapable of considering things from any other perspective.


Its different when you are slaughtering animals endlessly as a job versus hunting for food. The former will make you a morbid psychopath. The latter will give you reverence for the animal and the hunt and your position in it.


I don't disagree. However, I would argue that there are vastly fewer food hunters than factory farm workers.


I think the closer you are to the actual killing of animals, the more you tend to revere them, if anything.

As someone who has recently joined that club, I agree. I have been hunting for years but this year I killed my first deer. The whole process changed something inside of me.

Because of my actions, this gentle creature went from breathing, living and doing whatever it wanted to being food.

While I was aiming my shot, she turned her head towards me and looked at me. I can clearly remember seeing her blink.

I put the arrow through her heart and lungs. I dragged her out of the woods. I gutted her and hung her up. I packed her body in ice.

These were things that I had seen done before but never did myself.

As I was field dressing the body, I looked at her and apologized, then I thanked her for providing healthy meat to feed my family.

In my mind, it changed venison from butcher paper wrapped meat that was leaner than beef into the flesh of an animal that was killed.

I don't know what she thought but I think she was, on some level, self aware.


Though, interestingly, animism seems to be more popular among cultures that live closer to the "I need to put this spear into this boar" end of the lifestyle spectrum. Meanwhile Rene Descartes, who probably wouldn't have had much trouble surviving as a vegetarian, was the one who was doing. . . interesting. . . things to dogs in order to prove a point.

Not sure exactly what that implies, but it would seem to suggest that it's hard to wrap these sorts things up with a bow.


True, in a hunter-gatherer recognition of animal cognition would improve their chances of success. "I'm getting thirsty, maybe the boar is too, let's lay for it near the water hole." Maybe labeling it "other" is enough without labeling it "inferior".


Bingo.

There is also the simple, brutal reality of the food chain.

Being most aware and capable, also means seeing all of that, where the lesser beings are, and treating the world with respect.

Should anyway. Our nature easily demonstrates otherwise.

Animals are a lot like us. Simpler mostly.


Though I understand what you mean by simpler, I would remind you that every living creature is adapted to its ecological niche, and that entails a baffling complexity that we, humans, can hardly grasp.

Animals are a lot like us.


They have different trade-offs. We're physically weak and fragile for our size. Long life and decent endurance and stupid smart, but crappy high infant mortality rates (before modern medicine), prone to food borne illnesses, sensitive to climate, have to cook our food, etc. My dog and cat and chickens are made of tougher stuff than me.


People are soft as hell these days. Humans are not sensitive to climate any more than most animals are. We dont need to cook our food either. Physically we are not weak, we are the only animal that can throw a stone and also climb a tree. I agree with you about the infant mortality though.


It can be amazing to watch them exercize peak form.


Right on. Agreed.


[flagged]


It's not a "cult", it's a religion with some 4-5 million adherents.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

But please, continue dismissing millions of people's beliefs as "paranoia".


It's not paranoia, but given the number of small organisms that die inside and on your body every day, it doesn't really make much sense, either.

OTOH, large numbers of people can absolutely exhibit collective paranoia. How many subscribe to Alex Jones?


If you take, for the sake of argument, that the cycle of samsara is a real thing, then it makes plenty of sense: Suffering may be inescapable, but a virtuous person would still seek to avoid causing it to others as much as possible. The more you avoid causing, the more virtuous you are.

It frankly seems no more or less odd to me than any other form of religious asceticism. From a purely practical perspective, sweeping the ground in front of you is probably not any more of a nuisance than the vow of silence that some Christian monks and nuns take. I'd personally find it to be less of one.


I find this whole argument entirely specious. If one causes suffering to others merely by existing, clearly suicide or donation of ones body as food to the hungry predators is the quickest way to salvation..


Wait..So it's confirmed? I swear I had no idea, and had no clue on what I was supposed to Google to find it.

Interesting.

But I'm not budging on the paranoia statement. If your beliefs make you worry about killing random things you can't even see, say "bye" to any semblance of good mental health.


Too many people who aren't "paranoid" about killing little insects even sweep the murder of humans under the rug. We also have no real answer to the fact that in a century, there might be no more insects, with all the further extinction of other species that'll entail. e.g. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19129378

Even when we're extremely selfish and petty, if we take too much effort to take care of ourselves, that's generally fine, as long as it's legal and not too annoying -- but when others worry "too much" about yet others, and change their own behaviour accordingly, they can't possibly have "any semblance of good mental health"? Come on..

The insects at least actually exist, what of caring about random people that don't even exist yet, wouldn't that be even crazier?

> Well, suppose that we believe what we are taught. It follows that if there are dollars to be made, you destroy the environment. The reason is elementary. The people who are going to be harmed by this are your grandchildren, and they don't have any votes in the market. Their interests are worth zero. Anybody that pays attention to their grandchildren's interests is being irrational, because what you're supposed to do is maximize your own interests, measured by wealth, right now. Nothing else matters. So destroying the environment and militarizing outer space are rational policies, but within a framework of institutional lunacy. If you accept the institutional lunacy, then the policies are rational.

-- Noam Chomsky


The Jains are discussed early in the Atlantic article under discussion.


Didn't see that, even though I read it.

In fact looks like my browser scrolled right past 3-4 paragraphs.

Now that I look, there was a stupid advert that pushed the content up and out of the way. Way to make a site, guys.


> Think of how much tougher it would be to put a spear into a boar if you thought it was as sentient as your mother.

I wouldn't put a spear into a boar, but from a detached and clinical perspective I don't see why its sentience would make a difference. Advanced societies like China, the Europeans and the United States don't generally have any problem fielding an aggressive expeditionary army of people nominally willing to kill sentient humans, so I suspect the blocks are more economic and cultural norms than innate.

It also seems plausible that time and breeding has equipped a large number of people with limited emotions precisely so they can stab things without worrying too much about the philosophical aspects.


It takes a great deal of training to turn the average person into a willing and able killer, and during every war on record there have been significant propaganda efforts (or religious indoctrination) to make sure the enemy is seen as less than human.

Furthermore, the soldiers who serve in the armies of the nations you mention who actually have to do any killing often end up with PTSD and sky-high suicide rates.

Humans may be more naturally hesitant to kill their fellow human beings than you think.


Panpsychism is pretty clearly not true even in animals. Many insect minds seem to act like finite state machines, and some can even be forced into an infinite loop, like the golden digger wasp, which will repeat the same three actions forever if you move its prey as it checks its nest for invaders: https://youtu.be/YNvi_j2z96w


Haha this is so interesting. Is this a phenomenology that has been studied or has been classified? I assume the wasp will continue infinitely, at least, until some other stimuli takes greater precedence, like getting tired for example.

I don't know if I personally believe this is a good argument against panpsychism. The wasp may have a fractionally sized working memory in comparison to ours, yet still be conscious. I find it unlikely that panpsychism is realistic; rocks don't have nervous systems, for example, so the likelihood of them having the sensory peripherals necessary for creating experiences is unlikely in my perspective. As far as the wasp goes, I'm probably agnostic as to the answer to that.


If the panpsychist believes that a rock experiences consciousness, then I doubt a particularly predictable insect would be especially persuasive against his position.


This doesn't prove that there's nothing that it's like to be an insect. Consciousness doesn't guarantee any kind of external behavior.


I think that you probably cut pretty close to the crux of the matter right there at the end.

It's a popular viewpoint because, from an ethical perspective, it's extremely convenient to hold. It limits your exposure to the sorts of tricky and uncomfortable questions that got me kicked out of Sunday school at a young age.


I mean, really, if we contemporary humans are still very capable of considering other humans less-than, it's no surprise that we're capable of much worse concerning animals.


But, it does seem that as a whole we are getting better.


'Consciousness', as a word denoting a concept, has at least two problems: firstly, it means different things to different people and in different circumstances; secondly, it is often assumed to be a binary attribute, rather than a continuum.


I once read something about flies exhibiting signs of consciousness. It made some sense to me; you try and swat them, they fly off in a direction of their choosing.

It crossed my mind recently in respect to AI consciousness, that all animals appear to be conscious at least to an extent - there aren't any that appear to be zombies I can think of, maybe they all got killed off. It made me wonder if consciousness as we know it, rather than requiring some step change for AI, is simply an inevitable outcome of sufficient processing, information storage, evolution and maybe some other factors. And therefore very much a continuum.

IDK.


Indeed - you only have to watch infants grow up to see them moving through the continuum, and something analogous probably happened in the evolution of our various hominin ancestors.

In the former case, and probably the latter, there is a definite acceleration when they begin to appreciate the power of language.


These two issues can, and do, apply to a raft of words.

This hasn’t stopped anyone, on the whole, from investigating and debating the problems and concepts of the fields.


That is true, but it also often leads to an increase in unproductive noise and diversion, such as the suggestion that there is a definition of consciousness that rocks can meet.


The main reason we have often assumed that animals lack consciousness is that animals appear to lack language. And language is an integral part of how humans think. How would you "think" without language? It's not clear.

Perhaps animals think without language and experience a state that could be termed consciousness despite not having language. Sure, why not? But my point is that there is at least some grounds for this "high-horse proposition" because there is at least one important dimension along which humans differ from all other known animals.


So, in music there’s the concept of vocalization. Literally conveying emotion without formed words or formal specifics.

Anecdotally, I definitely am thinking first and later applying words to the underlying concept. It takes practice, but it is possible to introduce a lag, of sorts.

Further, the best hunters, I’ve heard, are the most empathic. All the better to manipulate prey.

Even more, my cat is very expressive despite not having English. I can even identify patterns in his speech that clearly repeat for similar reasons. I spook him, there’s a meow for that. He’s hungry, there’s a meow for that. He’s tried and I’ve ignored 2 attempts of his to ask me for something and he’s pathetically resigned to his fate, there’s a meow for that. (Gets me every time)


A language is just a system of symbols intended to represent objects and things. Any thinking creature must have some system of representing real objects with some abstraction in its brain. Language is only a question of scale.

You can also think without words. You do that any time you visualize something. Imagine an apple floating in an empty black space. Just reading these words probably put that image in your head. Now turn the apple around, look at it from all sides, above and below. I can definitely give you directions on what to do, but I have no idea how to think that visualization in words.


> A language is just a system of symbols intended to represent objects and things.

This isn't what I meant, or what is generally meant, by language.

Humans are distinguished by our ability to generate and understand novel sentences. This isn't a question of scale -- it's not a question of the number of things we have names for. It's a question of the ability to create and understand sentences that have never been created before. No other animal does this, as far as we know.

> You can also think without words. You do that any time you visualize something.

I'm not sure I can visualize something without naming it or describing it.


Say you're drawing a picture, paying attention to what looks good or not and making small corrections. You're thinking in terms of the picture, not in terms of a language.

Say you're playing basketball. You're thinking in terms of the ball, the net, the other players, and so on, not thinking in terms of a language.

I can imagine that (for example) a bird building its nest finds itself in a similar situation. It's thinking in terms of the nest -- what shaped sticks to gather and where to place them -- even though it doesn't have any capacity for language.


Birds have a pretty large capacity for language. It may even be more complex than ours especially in corvids. We don't know enough.


My point didn't have anything to do with birds in particular. You can think about a cat planning how to pounce on a bird instead if you want. The pouncing cat is thinking in terms of its body, the space around it, and the movement of the bird, without really involving language.


A lot of it might be Christianity and related religions. The bible teaches that people have spirits that are part of God, which animals do not have.

Other cultures with different spiritual beliefs often much more commonly attribute more complex thoughts and feelings to non-human animals...


> since our best bet is that consciousness is maybe/probably an emergent property of information processing in the brain

Only if approached from a materialist perspective. The thing about consciousness -- which is to say the experience of being that people believe separates them from, say, a brick -- is that it can only be verified subjectively. I have consciousness because I experience it, I only assume other human beings have consciousness because they are like me, but I have no way of proving that they are not just sufficiently complicated automatons pretending to be human.


> I only assume other human beings have consciousness because they are like me, but I have no way of proving that they are not just sufficiently complicated automatons pretending to be human.

The materialist(?) view that consciousness is entirely contained within the "material things" seems pretty clean and consistent. If you're experiencing consciousness, and I seem to be experiencing consciousness, and our brains - to the best we can tell - are essentially the same "sufficiently complicated automatons", then you can assume I'm experiencing consciousness too.


The problem with that view is that it assumes consciousness is correlated with mind. It may seem reasonable that, since I have consciousness and a mind, and you have a mind, I can assume you have consciousness, but there is no way to prove this. Does someone with Down Syndrome, who has a less functional mind than you or I, correspondingly have less consciousness? Perhaps, but we have no way of knowing.


I think this is a good point. It's not popular in the ultra-secular tech world, but materialism is not necessarily the only explanation of consciousness, there is very serious non-materialist philosophy. Personally I think Materialism is incoherent -- Daniel Dennett is sort of its logical extension: he argues that consciousness is a myth, a "folk psychology" that doesn't exist, since only material things exist. So we falsely believe that we are conscious. This seems patently absurd to me, but I'm not sure what the right answer is.


> The question as to how far down consciousness goes is still a matter of debate.

I don't think it goes 'all the way down'. In order to have consciousness we need a few ingredients: one of them is learning, another is having a task to accomplish - like finding food and fending predators. Another important characteristic is evolution and its requirement, self replication - without evolution there is no way to get to consciousness. That would restrict the places where it can apply, but notably it can apply to AI agents living in virtual worlds just as well as it applies to humans and animals.

In my view consciousness is that which protects the genes and the body (life and procreation). In the case of AI agents, genes could be related to architecture and hyper-parameters, and procreation could be an evolutionary algorithm. It's a simple and concrete definition which also asserts a purpose - the purpose of consciousness is to exist and to multiply.


One should err on the side of caution and assume consciousness for sake of ethical decision-making, whenever possible.

That said, it's incredibly presumptuous to assume everything has consciousness just because you do. We are not all alike. You might have had a fever when you were young, and your consciousness emerged because of that fever. And people who didn't have that fever, don't have consciousness. A pretty silly possibility, but no sillier than "consciousness emerges from sufficiently many interacting neurons". Right now we basically have no clue, and it's arrogant to pretend otherwise.

To all the virtue-signallers in this thread talking about how cruel it is to kill animals, I would say: what's your stance on late-term abortion? Funny how a lot of the people who claim to believe cockroaches have consciousness, actually think it's virtuous to support killing unborn children.


> To all the virtue-signallers in this thread talking about how cruel it is to kill animals, I would say: what's your stance on late-term abortion? Funny how a lot of the people who claim to believe cockroaches have consciousness, actually think it's virtuous to support killing unborn children.

this is not necessarily as hard of a moral conundrum as it seems. some people draw a distinction between deliberately killing a being that can survive on its own and withdrawing support that a being requires to live. this is somewhat analogous to the trolley problem: is it worse to kill than to allow to die?


Thanks, when you put it that way, it's not as clear-cut as I thought.


Isn't it, though?

By that same logic, I can walk into a hospital, go to someone on life support who can't currently "survive on their own", and unplug their systems, thus "withdrawing the support they require to live". If they die, is it really any different from killing them any other way?

To make the analogy even more accurate, let's say you are in a coma and will come out of it in 9 months. You can't survive without support now, but we know for a fact that you will come out of the coma after the 9 months have passed and will then be able to do so. Is it fine for me to shut down your life support half way through?


Good point. To make it closer to leetcrew's point, we could further imagine that while I'm lying in bed in the 9-month coma, you're the one paying my medical bills, and it's almost driving you bankrupt. Or: you need a heart transplant or you will die, and my heart is the only viable candidate.


to clarify, by "withdrawing support" I meant withdrawing support that you personally are providing, not just running around yanking ladders out from under people.

in the specific case of pregnancy, the support is given at significant personal cost and risk, which is not captured in either of your analogies.


Fair enough, let's assume that in the previous analogy I am actually the parent footing the hospital bill. If I know for certain that you are going to recover, and I can afford it, but decide to let you die anyway, is that really significantly better?

However, I do acknowledge that there are exceptional circumstances, such as the birth posing a health risk to the mother, both mother and child being likely to die if delivery is attempted, etc. That would be the case of "not being able to afford it" in my analogy, or the significant personal risk you mention (at least I assume that's what you mean, as normal pregnancy is nowhere near a significant risk, with the current maternal death rate being 1 in 10,000). In those cases, I'd be willing to agree with you.


It's less that they think it's virtuous or support killing unborn children, and more that they believe a woman's right to choose to do so trumps the rights of those unborn children to be born.


> responding to stimuli the way I respond to stimuli

I still think I'm conscious, but this “Diagram of All Space and Time” by Carl Sagan suggests the stimuli available to us is small, alarmingly small, and perhaps nothing to boast about really. (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18658357)

One comment says, "What humans can directly experience is of course small compared to the “all time” and “all space” and it would be invisible without the logaritmic scales used." (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18662841)


My cat is clearly conscious. Dumb, but conscious.


>our best bet is that consciousness is maybe/probably an emergent property of information processing in the brain

I'd loosen up that and say 'neuron-like structures' instead of brain.


I'd ignore the neurons and focus on the information processing aspect. There's nothing we know so far suggesting that it's not possible to replicate all the computations the brain is doing in a non-neural, or even "non-material" structure.

(Non-material in the sense where water flowing downhill vs. CPU computing gradient descent is material vs. non-material computation.)


I’m not sure emergent phenomena and “rocks are conscious” are the only two options. You can imagine, for instance, an underlying and fundamental “ether” or force of consciousness which, by chance and evolution, animal brains are somehow able to exploit. Distinguishing it from an emergent phenomena would be difficult but I don’t think impossible.


There is also the need to understand the underlying goal of cells. Like is it simply "throw enough neurons in a substance and they start questioning the universe", or what?


The entire trend of research in animal consciousness over the last 300 years has always been “animals turn out to be more conscious than we think”.

If you look at how the London Zoo treated animals in the mid 1800’s, you’ll see how even the most scientifically advanced group (at the time) that was working with animals could have been so cruel without realizing it.

Sometimes it unnerves me that we’ll realize 100 years from now that animals were more conscious than even we me imagined possible and our treatment now of them (specifically livestock) is was really really bad.


Same argument can be made for how humans have and still do treat other humans who they decided to label sub-human and thereby less worthy of living a suffering-free existence. The trend is when humans have too much power over literally anything, they almost always tend to abuse it.


As recently as the 1980s, doctors did not provide anesthesia to infants undergoing surgery. They thought infants' pain response was just a "reflex", not a conscious experience of pain.

https://www.livescience.com/28848-babies-have-consciousness....


My understanding is that that was in part due to the difficulty of providing the right dosage that would provide pain relief without causing harm. Source: dad was an anesthesiologist.


Male genital mutilation is still practiced in some countries in this manner.


That's gruesome.


Yeah it basically comes down to— we don’t believe they have consciousness because they can’t make us believe it.


I like to follow the principle "when in doubt, be kind."


> The entire trend of research in animal consciousness over the last 300 years has always been “animals turn out to be more conscious than we think”.

To be fair, a lot of the changes have been motivated by a parallel trend of "it's actually not OK to make living creatures suffer". There were plenty of things in the not-too-distant past (public executions / torture in the middle ages, Roman circuses) which were perpetrated on clearly sentient creatures, as much for entertainment as anything.


Yeah, my wife studied animal science in undergrad and is now getting a graduate degree in animal behavior and welfare. Oddly enough she wasn't vegetarian but talking to her made me go real vegetarian real fast (and I'm almost vegan, I'm currently phasing out cheese and I've cream). My guess is that whenever we get lab grown meat and we don't "need" animal agriculture anymore people will start to realize how bad the current practices can be.


What's really interesting is that even plants have more awareness of the world around them than we like to give them credit for. So if we are to assume that plants can suffer similarly to how we do, how does that change our relationship to them?

If you extend the concept further and just assume that everything has some experience of reality, whether you can relate to it or not, what does that tell us about how we ought to behave?


> Then Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ("shedding," as he called it finely, "the green blood of the silent animals"), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called "Why should Salt suffer?" and there was more trouble.

~ GCK - The Napoleon of Notting Hill https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20058/20058-h/20058-h.htm


First, setting the stage: https://yourveganfallacyis.com/en/plants-are-alive

Second, assuming for example that molecules have some experience of reality, and we just don't "relate" to the air around us, I am going to assume we will continue breathing.


I disagree with the link's assessment.

> Plants lack nerves, let alone a central nervous system, and cannot feel pain or respond to circumstances in any deliberate way (not to be confused with the non-conscious reactions they do have).

The argument is circular. Plants cannot act in a deliberate way because they are not conscious and are not conscious because they cannot act deliberately. From a pure materialist perspective, the human mind is just as reactionary in its behavior as a plant, born of a combination of genetics and external stimuli. That it is sufficiently complex enough to obscure the direct relationships from our understanding is irrelevant.

We have very little understanding of a plant's experience of the universe, it may well be that they experience suffering through some mechanism other than having a central nervous system, it just isn't the same experience as our own forms of suffering. This whole thread is about how things different from ourselves can never the less experience the world similarly, why would we think this stops at animal life?

> Second, assuming for example that molecules have some experience of reality, and we just don't "relate" to the air around us, I am going to assume we will continue breathing.

Not an unreasonable position. The question is, why is this ok? I don't think it is one people should just write off and not think about, even though their conclusion will probably be the same as yours. In general, I think it is a trap to allow yourself to say "well, this is where the line is, because of X" and not also question your assumptions about X and, in particular, why X matters.

Why do people draw the line at sentience when it comes to what we can and cannot do to another entity? Why is sentience important? Why not simply draw the line at being human, or go the other direction and draw it at all life? On what axis are these two choices and why did we pick that one? Why is feeling pain important? Is it ok to kill someone afflicted anhidrosis?

I don't believe there are easy answers to these questions, or even necessarily answers at all if you insist on some kind of empirical and well defined rule, which is also why I think they're important to ask ourselves.


I eat plants because it's the best balance of survival and how much suffering I cause. If one day we invent an affordable pill not made of plants that fulfills my biological needs, and its production causes less suffering than eating plants, sign me up.

Then let's suppose this pill is a mash of different rocks (which we have to extract from the earth with all its consequences) but then we invent nano bots that change my organic needs to be fulfilled by the energy of the sun, then sign me up for that too.


The whole plant argument is commonly used by meat eaters in denial as some type of catastrophic excuse. "Its all bad man!! No solution to what Im currently doing!" Really irritates me to see such petty denial of their poor virtue.


Using this argument as a justification for eating meat is silly, since meat animals must also eat plants and therefore more plants are consumed per calorie when you eat meat than when you don't. To argue that if plants suffer then eating meat is no worse is to argue that increased suffering is no worse than decreased suffering simply because suffering still exists.


Makes isolated tribes looks like advanced civilizations


also slavery was still legal in the US in the mid 1800s


Go vegan :)


I recently slaughtered and butchered two young pigs as an exercise in getting closer to my food sources and an experiment in economy. The situation was six pigs in a trailer, and our task was to shoot two of our choosing.

When the first pig was shot, he fell and lurched for a bit while blood spewed. The rest of the pigs were alarmed by the noise and the human in the small trailer. One pig came to investigate the dying pig. Quickly it went back to eating with the others.

I mentioned this to the farmer and he said the pigs seem to understand fear of death but not death itself.

Each year I get closer and closer to the idea that humans are shockingly not that different from other animals, but this set my idea back a bit. Of course, elephants are a counter-example to this behavior with their apparent mourning of the dead, so that has to be considered too.


Next step is going to India and yelling at children to stitch faster? Then you can justify wearing cheap clothes :D

Possibly the pigs are just traumatized. Read Frankl's "Search for Meaning" to get a perspective on how even educated and highly civilized human beings can become insensitive towards death and dead bodies.


This remembered me a story someone told in Reddit months ago, which may or may not be true:

Said guy had a wild hog family persistently ruining his crops, until he decided to camp and shoot them. When the family finally arrived, he aimed and shot the first in the head. The other hogs became curious, but continued eating while their relative lay bleeding right there. He shot another with the same effect, but missed a third shot, which hit a metal container and scared the bejesus of the remaining hogs, which fled. He was curious about why they were more scared from a loud noise that their brothers' heads mysteriously exploding.


It's unclear what point you're trying to make here and whether you understood my story. I have already read Frankl, but thank you for the suggestion anyway. Everyone should read it.


God I hate articles that start with five pages of fluff. I don't care what the weather was like. I don't care what you did with your shoes. I don't care what the expression on your contacts face was when he greeted you.


To each their own, but I appreciated the cultural knowledge of the Jains, a group I wasn't familiar with before this, and it dovetails with the topic quite well.


It's funny how animal cognition and animal welfare tend to be conflated. We are projecting our own empathy in a very irrational way. E.g. eating dogs is being frowned upon in large parts of the world because our empathy gets in the way. Even though it is a perfectly good source of protein. However, We eat pork and beef without much guilt even even though especially pigs are apparently quite smart compared to e.g. a purse sized dog with a brain the size of a pea. It's completely irrational. Cuddly-ness rather than cognition seems to be what drives our empathy.

If you think about it, everything that lives (cognitive or not) also dies. Mostly this happens of natural causes and a lot of that involves being eaten by something else or if you lucky enough to avoid that by dying some long and painful death because of some disease, parasites, or accident. Natural death is mostly not very pleasant and typically really nasty even.

So considering that, I feel quite OK about eating animals. The alternative of not eating them means that they would not have lived at all or that they would have died a nasty "natural" death. So, I'm not saving them from some terrible fate by not eating them.

Arguably, it's the opposite (or it can be). If we stop eating meat, there are entire species of farm animals that will likely go extinct because they only exist because we breed them. So, we stop the cruelty of killing them that hurts our feelings but we instead wipe out their existence. Not that I'm advertising animal cruelty but I'd say modern responsible farming produces good quality lives for the animals and good quality meat when we end them in a way that is comparatively quick and painless to what nature has to offer. I enjoy eating meat but am aware that eating a bit less is probably good for me.


I agree, this topic needs to be decomposed much further for people to have a productive discussion on it.

Some extra decompositions:

> So considering that, I feel quite OK about eating animals. The alternative of not eating them means that they would not have lived at all or that they would have died a nasty "natural" death. So, I'm not saving them from some terrible fate by not eating them.

That works out for small-scale farming, but most of our meat is factory-farmed. While the death itself may be quick, their lives are living hell. Nature doesn't get that cruel, on that scale. So we need to separate out death from life and suffering here.

> If we stop eating meat, there are entire species of farm animals that will likely go extinct because they only exist because we breed them.

The question is, why do we care about that? Evolutionary speaking, individuals rarely care about species; it's hard enough to get humans to recognize the concept of their species, and I sincerely doubt a cow or a pig is aware or interested in the fate of their own kind in general. Survival of animal species is something we value, for reasons ranging from emotional (nature is prettier with more stuff in it) to practical (genetic diversity). But I can't imagine a chicken being grateful for living in a cage on farm, because it lets chickens exist at all.

Not judging any positions here; I just wish this topic was debated in a more structured way, with all the important aspects stated in isolation, and then related to each other.


Agreed, not a big fan of industrial meat production. And not just because the quality is less.

I don't have a strong opinion on whether it is good or bad for farm animal species to exist at all but I do find the contradiction interesting.


Are all the things being called "consciousness" in this article really even the same?

Whatever problems of Julian Jaynes' theory, we know that there are schizophrenics who often hear voices and be commanded by voices. Are they "not self-conscious" by the various other measures involved - ie, the mirror test and such.

A lot of this article revolves around how much self-awareness is required by moral impulses to keep someone from eating an animal. The thing is, if basic self-awareness exists in nearly all creatures, then it means predators have eating these animals anyway and human evolved omnivore, I don't see the problem hear. Tell me this one is so special I shouldn't eat it and I might agree, tell all animals and I'll say you're calling for humans to outside the order that all other animals are in.


If you are looking for a moral/ethical imperative to stop eating animals, then the IPCC report covers enough of the carbon and ecological costs of animal agriculture that it is something that you should quit.

If you are looking for an expansion of "The Subject" of ethics, if you will, then that's something you have to do for yourself. To consider non-human animals for consumption regardless of the ecological externalities is an ethical choice, not an ethical demand. I have expanded my personal considerations ethically to include other life on this planet, as their success is required for my continued survival.


If you are looking for a moral/ethical imperative to stop eating animals, then the IPCC report covers enough of the carbon and ecological costs of animal agriculture that it is something that you should quit.

I wasn't looking but thanks. I mean, I'd say global warming can only be overcome by society-wide political action, not by individual choices. Collective action forcing different consumption patterns are the only way sorts of problems like this have ever been solved in the past.


And that's going to require a cultural change - a cultural change that will be far easier without tons of people supporting the current state of the agricultural industries.

Society-wide political action is definitely what is needed, and being generally supportive of vegetarianism/veganism, and pressuring politicians to do the same, is an important part of that process.


I feel the consequences are a bit different. If you have ethical reasons, then no meat is ok. If you have ecological reason, a little bit (especially gras-fed or similar) seems ok (the only question is how much).


Cattle, in particular are raised and harvested in far more humane conditions than in a state of nature. My friends raise cattle and pride themselves on giving them a happy healthy life until they are sent off to the stockyards. In contrast I just watched a video about two hunters freeing a buck that was entangled in the horns of another buck which was dead. The other buck had died from coyotes eating it, starting on its hind legs and hind end, in what must have been a gruesome, prolonged death. In the past I've seen animals which lie down to give birth killed the same way by coyotes.


I've also seen slaughterhouse videos depicting the most gruesome, heinous abuses inflicted upon livestock animals (beating them, stabbings, repeated shocking with obviously higher voltages than mere prods — often in front of their peers, who are queued for the same fate).

I applaud your friends for their endeavor, but the fact that some in the livestock industry behave ethically doesn't change a whit the parts that don't.

That nature, in its perpetual state of "kill or starve", behaves so callously is utterly irrelevant to how we can and should behave given our demonstrated capabilities and generally self-congratulatory "My gosh, aren't we the best thing that's ever happened?!" attitude.


And the number of livestock with shitty factory lives is multiple orders of magnitude greater than the number on happy animal friendly farms.


Cattle raised on small boutique farms represent a tiny fraction of the livestock raised for beef, most of which endure some truly horrific treatment.

Watch the film Earthlings if you're interested in knowing the truth.

https://vimeo.com/209647801


I don't think the article is prescribing a particular moral position. It is saying, though, if you believe your choices are predicated on animals not being conscious, and therefore suffering no harm whatever your actions, perhaps your own moral system requires that you behave differently. This is the case even if lions continue eating zebras.


Oh, the problem isn't the article arguing an ethical position.

It's more the article is exploring a bunch of different concepts with all of them labeled "consciousness". I mean, would a "philosophical zombie" pass the mirror test? Does that even matter?


> would a "philosophical zombie" pass the mirror test?

Since a philosophical zombie's behavior is, by definition, indistinguishable from that of a conscious person's, yes, such a thing would pass the mirror test. As well as any other test of consciousness based on observable behavior that we could devise. IMO that's a reductio ad absurdum of the concept of a philosophical zombie.

I agree that a lot of different concepts can get lumped under the label "consciousness", and that there is a wide spectrum of capabilities involved, not just a binary thing that's either there or not there. If the question is whether or not an animal is suffering, I'm going to go with observable behavior over theoretical concepts.


I think the underlying point remains how do we feel about this. What I like, is the evidence-based models which point to higher cognition aren't now observational by anthropomorphism, but are founded on an experiment: I construct a situation which demands a higher order thinking function, and I put an animal into a test, and I observe sequences of actions, which demand indirect cognition, operating on future state, or about the self, and image of self, or cognition of the projection of "what it would look like if I could see it, from the other side" type models

So the ethics has been there forever, but what is newer (I do not say new, because people did experiment before. They are just really well formed experiments now), is a constructed model based on better than belief: its based on experiment.

The other side of the coin, is that some purely observational behaviour in higher primates now has to got back into the ethical pot: If we know chimps can do higher abstract reasoning, and we also observe chimps kill and eat the young from 'other' tribes, what do we now think about that killing and eating?


Some things like that certain animals like dogs don't learn/plan by imagination never made sense to me.

When I want to teach a dog something, I treat him like a problem-solving agent. I pose the task as a solveable problem to him, like "touch stick to get food", and he will "compute" the necessary actions to touch the stick.

Also they always said dogs/animals don't do impulse control, while dogs clearly display a range of that trait.


I heard something retold recently in this space that was very interesting about a distinctive feature for humans. And that is the ability to make a vow. That would be a pretty interesting topic to see how animals can communicate understanding of the far future and what not.


Sounds like a good thing for someone who wants you to take a vow to say.


Maybe, but the interesting thing is that I think it identifies not just a difference of degree but of kind. For instance animals can use tools and build things and communicate and recognize self and so forth, where in each case humans dominate in the vast separation of degree we have taken each. I can’t think of any analogue where a vow would be a difference in degree to something. Maybe it’s along the ideas of abstract thought. I don’t know.


Jainisms logo makes it a barrier to entry for many in the West. I'm surprised they don't rebrand. For me consciousness means more about actually making a choice. You can be aware but unconscious. I guess this is where 'woke' comes from. Choice is a byproduct of your moral framework and if this is dictated to you then maybe you are not conscious? There are stages of awareness. You can pluck a string at it will vibrate. Arrange several in accordance with each other and you have an instrument. We ourselves are like instruments in that respect. You press our keys (senses) and things start to vibrate and reverberate. (yup i'm ripping Diderot). But I do feel strongly that all thought is just a diff between world states. I don't find anything particular profound about it. Western religions deprive animals of consciousness to feel better about eating them.


> Jainisms logo makes it a barrier to entry for many in the West.

Are people confused about this statement? See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika -

"The swastika is a geometrical figure and an ancient religious icon in the cultures of Eurasia, used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions. In the Western world, it was a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck until the 1930s, when it became a feature of Nazi symbolism as an emblem of Aryan race identity and, as a result, was stigmatized by association with ideas of racism and antisemitism."


2020 Neo-nazi Goals: Turn Google logo(or anything they don't like) into a symbol of hate speech and everyone just goes with it since they can't think further than "bad man do x, x bad"




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