The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

On July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviours in human and non-human animals. This gathering, the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, led to a declaration on the agreed understanding of those present about what modern science concludes in regard to the experience of other animals.

The Declaration was signed by the participants at the conference in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK.

The Declaration states:

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Simply put, this declaration suggests that science is increasingly led to conclude that many, if not most, non-human animals share with us the capacity to experience the world as subjective participants – that is they, like us, are conscious.

Now, many people tend to see non-human animals as somehow unconscious or unfeeling beings, perhaps even as lesser beings in every way that counts. Why that might be probably depends on the person. Some would have it so on the basis of religious ideas about the world, others contend that we can do more with our bigger brains – we are smarter. Indeed, there are many scientists who would disagree with the declaration above.

But when it comes to this matter of subjective participation I think we should be guided by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who observed of other animals “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

In this we can see a resonance with the Cambridge Declaration. Humans are clearly smarter than other animals by our measure of smartness, but when it comes to being alive in the world what is the difference that we can point to? I submit that as the distinguished members of that conference observe, mammals, birds and many other animals have all the nervous machinery to be conscious, to feel themselves to be alive. When it comes to feeling in this way, it seems there really is little difference at all.

Other animals may not ponder upon their purpose or be aware of themselves in quite the same way we are, but in the moment what can we say of their ability to sense and make intentional choices? Do they feel pain, can they experience happiness and sadness, can they perceive fear and uncertainty? And in having these feelings, can they make choices about how to behave in response?

The evidence increasingly supports the idea that yes, the animals we farm for our food experience their lot in very similar ways to us. The trend in the research, in the philosophy and in intuitive everyday common-sense leads us to this conclusion.

Jeremy Bentham’s question has been answered in the affirmative. They do suffer. When we see videos of pigs struggling to escape the pen in which they will be gassed, or lie in their own filth with the light of madness in their eyes, or squeal with pain as they are manhandled to their death, we should accept that what is happening for them is almost certainly what we might feel in the same circumstances.

And it’s a simple step from there to ask of ourselves one simple question. Is the experience of flavour and texture on our tastebuds worth that kind of suffering? Were we to learn of some persons in some remote and wild place who had taken a group of five year old children, penned them away from the sun and the wind, fed them to fatten them and then slaughtered them one by one at the age of eight to supply the tables of the happy gourmands of this wild place, we should feel rightly appalled, disgusted and outraged. What horror and revulsion might we feel at learning of this awful thing? Yet when it is pigs that suffer so, we turn away with hardly a thought because the ‘fun in eating’ transcends such considerations.

Do you really believe that?

Over 5 million pigs are killed every year in Australia.

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