Why Do Scientists Keep Denying the Consciousness of Animals?


Why is it that philosophers and scientists go through all kinds of excuses and hesitations when it comes to admitting the animals have a consciousness? There are many reasons for this, some of them are much better than others.

There is no doubt that this issue involves many sentiments and non-critical anthropomorphism factor into the analysis, but they ought to be avoided when describing behaviors of nonhuman animals. We have all heard people who say that their houseplants enjoy Mozart, or that their dog listens to college football games. These folks are probably mistaken. And we see scientists making these kinds of mistakes as well.

Views of Early Darwinians of Animal Mental States

In fact, several early Darwinians were quite guilty of this. Since Darwin’s opponents often point out the moral and mental between animals and people as a rejection of evolution, many of his original followers attempted to play down such differences by repeating stories they heard about the self-sacrifice of chickens and the nobility of canines.

The British psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan was quite dismayed by this attribution of human like mental states to animals, and he attempted to stop it. In 1894, Morgan attempted to lay down this law:

In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale.

Basis used to Deny the Consciousness of Animals

“Higher” as it is used here actually means “humanlike,” as it was used during the nineteenth century. Successive generations of psychologists embraced this dictum as a fundamental law called Morgan’s Canon. It is often looked upon as a special case of Occam’s Razor, which is the principle that people should not make up entities unless one is needed. If we adopt this view, then we must to deny any mental events of animals at every step, in the name of parsimony.

While this might seem reasonable, there’s a big flaw here. Because humans have mental events, we all know that these things exist in the universe. Denying them to the animals of the world does not save anything at all. We will have the exact same number of entities regardless of what we decide about the minds of animals.

Why that Basis is Hypocrisy

So Occam’s Razor actually provides no support for Morgan’s Canon. In fact, many animal rights philosophers believe that Occam’s Razor supports their side of the argument. They point out that  if we are going to invoke desires, intentions, beliefs, and other mental activities to account for our own actions, then we must refer to the behavior of other animals in the same terms whenever we can, also in the name of parsimony.

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