This summer, a group of scientists at a conference on “Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals” issued a statement (PDF) declaring:
Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
In other words, research shows that animals are more conscious of their experiences than was previously thought. Granted, these scientists weren’t the first to acknowledge animal consciousness, and whether animals are truly “conscious and aware to the degree that humans are” (emphasis mine), as one commentator claimed, seems to remain an open question.
In any case, is animal consciousness really “a big deal,” and a fact that challenges the widely held “belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world”? Does it prove that the human mind is merely material?
Edward Feser says no and blames Descartes for the confusion:
It might be supposed that if you regard the human mind as something immaterial, you have to regard animals as devoid of consciousness, so that evidence of animal consciousness is evidence against the immateriality of the mind and thus a “big deal.”
. . . There is simply no essential connection whatsoever between affirming the immateriality of the human mind and denying that animals are conscious. Aristotelians, for example, have always insisted both that animals are sentient — indeed, that is part of what makes them animals in the first place — and that human intellectual activity is at least partly immaterial (for reasons I’ve discussed in many places, most recently here). Descartes’ reasons for denying animal consciousness have to do with assumptions peculiar to his own brand of dualism, assumptions Aristotelians reject. And they have to do especially with assumptions Descartes made about the nature of matter as much or more than they have to do with his assumptions about the nature of mind — assumptions about matter that materialists (no doubt including at least some among those scientists [who signed the statement]) share.
To read Feser’s full argument, which is difficult to excerpt but easy to follow, go here.