Yesterday on Twitter Robert Long asked me how I, as an illusionist, feel about the recent surge in work on animal sentience, such as that being done under the umbrella of Jonathan Birch’s Foundations of Animal Sentience project.
The short answer is: enthusiastic and optimistic. It’s great to see this work. It should shake up our anthropocentric assumptions, both theoretical and ethical, and give us a much better understanding the diversity and complexity of the minds of the creatures with whom we share this planet. The bulk of the experimental work being done will be useful regardless of whether one takes a realist or illusionist view of the metaphysics of consciousness.
Having said that, I do often feel uneasy at the way the debate about animal sentience is framed. I’ll illustrate my unease with a little story.
Imagine you go to a conference on animal life. Everyone there is debating furiously about which animals are really alive. Most are convinced that mammals are alive, but there is deep disagreement about whether birds, reptiles, cephalopods, and insects are, and only a few brave souls are prepared to argue that flatworms are alive.
You are puzzled at first, but then you realize that what they mean by ‘life’ is different from what you mean. They do not think of life as a loosely defined cluster of biological functions, such as growth, perception, metabolism, and reproduction. They think of life as an extra feature — an essence or spirit — which can’t be defined in functional terms and can’t be directly detected.
Most of them agree that this feature is closely associated with the biological functions you think define life, and some even think it is identical with some cluster of them, but they they can’t decide which biological processes are the best indicators of its presence. They cite vast quantities of experimental work on life in animals, but it all concerns the presence of some biological function or other, and since there is no agreement about which function is the best indicator of life, none of it is decisive. What one theorist regards as definitive evidence of the presence of life another dismisses as a confounder.
You tentatively suggest that life is nothing more than a cluster of biological processes and that the extra feature the participants are looking for is illusory, but everyone stares at you with incomprehension. Some declare that that you’re a monster for denying that animals are alive.
Now you know how I feel about work on animal sentience.