Your Burger Is Conscious. Yum.

I’ve been mainlining G.H. Mead lately (because balancing school assignments doesn’t seem to be my forté this term), which is an … interesting experience. One of the things that strikes me as odd, though, is his repeated insistence that humans are the only reflective creatures.

He fully admits intelligence, but not consciousness. Since his lifetime, though, there’s been quite a bit of empirical evidence that suggests that many animals (especially primates and other mammals) are self-aware, or plan somewhat abstractly for the future.

Yet you’ll see this presumption a lot of times – that animals are *different*. I had one acquaintance react rather violently when I suggested that humans are “animals”. (Primates, for some reason, didn’t bother him.)

Obviously, the presumption is that “other” is of lower status or importance. You even see this in discussions of welfare or insurance rates; it’s a discussion of how someone of lower status (or percieved worth) gets more. The discussion is always, though, that something should be removed from the other… not that more should be added to the self. (e.g. if your garbageperson has better insurance than you, most people complain about the garbageperson’s insurance, not their own.)

I suspect that this has something to do with people’s abilities to empathize and model the “other” within themselves. I see my dogs act (IMHO) purposefully and intentionally. This indicates some self-awareness to me… but another person’s perception might be that it’s all reflexive, or that I’m projecting qualities on them.

It’s a quandry that Mead (at least, as far as I’ve read so far) does not even seem to address. He claims that animals cannot learn in the same ways that we do; I respecfully disagree. There are quite a few cases where animals seem to learn – and even teach – with full motivations. But it could still be projection or true learning. Either case may be true; without verbal communication it’s impossible to be sure. Given a level of sophistication, it’d be hard even with verbal communication; sociopaths can manage to act as if they care about others, even though this ability is inherently damaged in them.

So I tend to presume that animals – especially those I can discern intentionality for – are just as conscious as I. Whereas people who need to use animals functionally – as objects – tend to not see the intentionality and consciousness that I do.

And that leads us to some uncomfortable conclusions, doesn’t it?

Anyone want a hamburger?

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One Comment

  1. Brother OMi
    November 8, 2008

    I find that a good number of animals are conscious which is why i don’t have any pets. I don’t think I would like it if someone took me out of my natural habitat and tried to make me adjust to their habitat. makes no sense.

    then again, all of us assume that we know what animals think.

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