Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Are Cats Conscious?

I'm not sure what amazes me the most about the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, posted in it's entirety here yesterday - the fact that it took until 2012 for a group of scientists to decide that, yes, it appears that animals (human and non-human animals as they helpfully point out) are conscious after all, something most everybody has known for millennia now, or that the Declaration seems to be entirely untroubled by the lack of a working definition of "consciousness."  Yes, animals are conscious, they declare, but now what does that mean?

It's well known that Buddhist monasteries kept cats for several centuries now.  "The monks of the East and West Halls were having an argument over a cat . . ." a famous koan starts (and ends quite unfortunately for the cat).  Cats were said to be guardians of the dharma, as they hunted the mice that ate the paper scrolls the sutras were printed upon.  Further, Buddhists monks are arguably the most preeminent researchers in the field of subjective consciousness, having spent countless years in observant meditation.  Given that, they probably knew a sentient being when they saw one, so why this argument over a cat (and what were they arguing about)?  Still, a monk had to ask Zen Master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?"

This urban monk keeps two cats (The Adventures of Izzy and Eliot) and while consciousness is difficult to define and harder still to identify, as it's a subjective experience, I, like every pet owner, can clearly see some evidence arguing for personality and for intelligence in my pets.  The two cats clearly have a desire for self-preservation, and if they desire to preserve themselves, it stands to reason that their intelligence will allow for a sense of self, ergo, consciousness.

On the other hand, they clearly have no capacity for language, so one can only wonder what manner of "thought" must pass through their little heads. They get very excited when they see another cat out the window but seem totally uninterested in their own reflections. They seem to have figured out that it's themselves and not another cat that's appearing in the mirror, but their own reflection is far, far less interesting to them than the red dot of a laser pointer crossing the carpet.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, describes his experience with his pet dog George as follows:
It wouldn't be right to say that my relationship with George has revealed the "sagacity" of animals.  Beyond her most basic desires, I don't have the faintest clue what's going on in her head.  (Although I have become convinced that much, beyond basic desires, is going on.)  I'm surprised by her lack of intelligence as often as I'm surprised by her intelligence.  The differences between us are always more present than the similarities.   
And George isn't a kumbaya being who only wants to give and receive affection.  As it turns out, she is a major pain in the ass as awful lot of the time.  She compulsively pleasures herself in front of guests, eats my shoes and my son's toys, is monomaniacally obsessed with squirrel genocide, has the savant-like ability to find her way between the camera lens and the subject of every photo taken in her vicinity, lunges at skateboarders and Hasids, humiliates menstruating women (and is the worst nightmare of menstruating Hasids), backs her flatulent ass into the least interesting person in the room, digs up the freshly planted, scratches the newly bought, licks the about-to-be-served, and occasionally exacts revenge (for what?) by shitting in the house.   
Our various struggles - to communicate, to recognize and accommodate each other's desires, simply to coexist - force me to encounter and interact with something, or rather someone, entirely other.  George can respond to a handful of words (and choose to ignore a slightly larger handful), but our relationship takes place almost entirely outside of language.  She seems to have thoughts and emotions.  Sometimes I think I understand them, but often I don't.  Like a photograph, she cannot say what she lets me see.  She is an embodied secret.  And I must be a photograph to her.
So much more is it for me and the two cats.  They are like an alien intelligence living in my house. Considering that they're two representatives of the same gender of the same species, they each have very different behaviors, which implies that their actions derive more from something that we can call a "personality" rather than mere instinct.  Yet, in their different ways, both seem to crave that which they desire and seem dismayed when their cravings aren't satisfied, the Buddha's very description of dukha, often translated as "suffering."  And if their little minds can create suffering, how can we say they are not conscious?

Conscious or not, though, life is difficult, and it always (always) ends in a manner not of our choosing.  So given this challenge, given this difficulty, regardless of whether they're self or others, whether they're human or non-human, how can we choose to be anything other than kind to all living beings?

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