It has been about ten years (July 7th, 2012) since Philip Low published the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness with contributions from Christof Koch, Bruno van Swinderen, David Edelman, Diana Reiss, and Jaak Panksepp, all well-known cognitive neuroscientists in academic circles and among ordinary people. It seems that a long time has passed since this declaration, but in truth, it is more relevant now than ever before and will be for a long time to come. The Declaration of these scientists presented on the occasion of the first edition of the Francis Crick Memorial Conference, was signed in the presence of the well-known English scientist Stephen Hawking, the great theorist of black holes and the origin of the universe and who soon unfortunately die at the age of 76 years old. It is important to note that the Memorial also included the well-known scientist Francis Crick who together with James Watson, both Nobel prize winners, decoded the chain of our DNA, one of the most important and revolutionary discoveries of the last century. Crick, Searle, Griffin and others, were the greatest researchers of the last century who were interested in the problem, or rather the dilemma, of consciousness and have asked themselves the question of whether or not animals possess it.
After so many years and research on this subject, the ideas are now clearer and without a shadow of a doubt it can be said that all animals possess the property of consciousness. All animals can experience consciousness at different levels. But what does it mean at different levels? It means that since consciousness is a causal product of the brain and that all animals possess a brain, they too can have consciousness. This had to be obvious from the beginning of time, but the reality is that centuries had to pass to accept this reality.
Men never wanted to admit that an animal is like everyone else and therefore assumed that only humans possess consciousness that we often like to confuse with the soul and feelings with the heart sensibility. The soul is a religious concept, a belief and should not be confused with consciousness and as for the heart, it has no feelings, those ripen from the brain; the heart is an involuntary and autonomous striated muscle of our body over which we have, among other things, no control. It was not thought that animals had a consciousness because it had always been thought that a causal power for this faculty resided only and solely in the higher cortical areas therefore only in the human ones. The truth is that even sub-cortical structures can cause consciousness and animals, even reptiles are in possession of these functional structures. For example, animals also experience emotions which are fundamental states of consciousness, the area in charge of this function is the amygdala, a subcortical structure, such as the septum, reticular formation, thalamus etc. In essence, the fact that humans have always believed that we possess an inner and subjective consciousness has always dominated our way of thinking, the truth is that even animals, even if at different quantitative and non-qualitative levels, possess their own inner life.
A moral problem
Why did man not want to admit that animals have consciousness? The answer is very simple because admitting it means raising a moral problem that men have been shunning for millennia. We, humans, have no problem treating the inanimate objects that surround us to our liking and this is often natural but we feel differently when we deal with living beings because we consider them conscious. Although we must not forget that in our history horrible and despicable events have occurred in which we have treated human beings as if they were not humans and did not have consciousness. It was the case when centuries ago Western settlers in the Americas exterminated the indigenous people, in North America almost all of them, or the case when the Nazi-fascists exterminated six million Jews in the Shoah, even if they were human beings like everyone else. Why did this atrocity happen? An atrocity that we can consider the most devastating of humanity. It was not only a banality of the evil, as Hannah Arendt argued, but also something else, that is, a powerful doctrinal superstructure that moment by moment, uninterruptedly for years a political and military system, in the specific case that of Nazi Germany, led the Germans to consider the "different" as if they were animals without consciousness and therefore with which one could do everything, especially eliminate them systematically, without raising moral problems to the executioners and the indifferent.
When the Nazis exterminated the Jews and other groups, they did not see any moral issues, on the contrary, they believed that it was morally right to do so. But in this regard, it would be too easy to shift all the responsibility on to Hitler and partly on to Mussolini his ally, but on a large part of the Nazi German people and on a large part of the Italian fascist people, with only one difference that is Hitler was regularly elected by the Germans, while Mussolini took the power with a sort of coup d'état.
Are living beings all conscious at the same level?
This is one of the fundamental points on which to reflect with regards to the Cambridge Declaration that living beings are all conscious at the same level. In this list, the participants included all mammals, birds, invertebrates and even insects. Now the question is, are all living beings really conscious at the same level? For example, can one consider the causal power of a parrot's consciousness, even if this animal proves to be very intelligent, with the causal power of human consciousness? I would say no and I would also say that the comparison between the parrot with man is improper. Then not all humans are conscious in the same way, especially quantitatively. There are also different levels of consciousness among humans and in other living species. This is not an ideological statement, but derives from the fact that consciousness is an intrinsically subjective psychological function, despite being caused by the nervous substrate of individuals belonging to a same species. If consciousness were an objective reality and empirically demonstrable, this could be discussed, but if not, the argument has to be immediately closed. What we can be sure of this is that no one for now seems to know what consciousness really is, for the simple fact that we still do not know how our brain works or even that of animals, in their irreducible entirety.
The octopus was not mentioned in this article, but in the Cambridge Declaration, it is argued that this animal can feel, like many other animals, a state of consciousness and therefore possesses nerve circuits similar to those of other more evolved animals, including humans. No one denies this, all animals, even the less evolved ones and with a very primitive central nervous system, can experience states of consciousness, but the point is that they can feel it and even manifest it, only according to their species-specific characteristics. For example, the horse, which is a mammal, like us humans, can experience a state of consciousness typical of the horse, not of another animal, the same for the hamster or a giraffe, etc. In essence, if consciousness is an ontological category of the mental and that occurs in the physical, that is, on the brain, it is necessary to specify each time which brain we are talking about and not put everything in the same basket. All mental processes are part of the natural and experiential history of every individual to whatever species it belongs. There is an evolutionary continuity between species, this is true, but continuity does not mean "homologation". In conclusion, the Cambridge Declaration is all very well to raise a moral stop to the extermination of domestic and wild animals, but not to conform animal consciousness with human ones or vice versa. In the second case, it would be even worse.
Hannah Arendt. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York, Viking Press.
John Searle. 1997. The mystery of Consciousness. New York, New York Review of Books.
Donald Griffin. 2001. Animal minds: Beyond cognition to consciousness. Chicago, Chicago University Press.
Christof Koch, 2004. The quest for consciousness: a neurobiological approach. San Francisco, CA., W.H. Freeman & Co.
Angelo Tartabini. 2021. La coscienza negli animali. Milano, Mimesis Edizioni.