Are animals more conscious than we are?
On rabbit experience
I recently bought a house on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where the sparse soil leads to gangly trees. In my new lawn regularly play a family of rabbits. Their play is deliberative, funny, and athletic, as two will approach and then hop high past one another, as if on springs.
The classic Darwinian take is that such rabbits are merely fleshy vehicles for passing along their genes. Seen as biological robots, their cognition is essentially in service to this, and so must necessarily be algorithmic, and limited. All to say they are generally assumed to have lesser forms of consciousness. Given some sort of “conscious-o-meter” it would light up bright for humans, but dimly for rabbits.
Is this true? Is it really the right way of conceptualizing their inner state, their own intrinsic perspective? Perhaps consciousness doesn’t come in degrees at all. For consider the many humans born lacking what we would call the classic sort of “rational cognition” most of us just happen to be endowed with. I remember some years ago in the subway of New York City watching a towering man with Down’s syndrome be led around, oh so lovingly, by his small elderly father, whose face was etched with groves worn by more than one lifetime.
The giant with Down’s was swaying, smiling, laughing, but also suddenly startled, reassured, grasping at his father, happy to be on the subway, leering, kind, sweet and gentle in his repetition of movements. All emotions that I too felt, but the iron grip of my prefrontal cortex would never left me show it. The way his father swayed with him gave me a sweet hurt. Most of my subway experience in New York was me seeing too much, and having to look away, or else I would weep, for it is easy to make me cry with such things.
Some people may be unable to articulate their inner life, but is there any doubt they feel intense, recognizable emotions? Does not water for them taste as it does to us, does not touch reassure, does not heat burn and ice freeze, do not their emotions swell and slosh within them?
In this, we are all of us brothers. Our prized cognition is not necessary for intense conscious experiences. In fact, it may hinder it. That iron prefrontal cortex inhibits the rest of the brain, suppressing emotion and sensation. So perhaps their consciousness is all the more. I knew a brilliant mathematician who once wondered aloud to me if anyone else saw the world in gray.
Consider again the rabbits playing. Not machines following genetic programs dully and lifelessly, but whipped by wild emotions more intense than our own. Leap! Leap! Leap! What is it like to feel a constant buffeting of fear at the sight of a shadow, to feel bursting love at the haunches of your child hopping in front of you, to feel uncontrollable provocation when the other sex appears silhouetted in the bushes?
In this then, I am the opposite of Descartes. It is man who is the machine.