The Consciousness of Cats
Look, it’s Sunday morning, and I am not about to attempt a definition of consciousness of my own because that would be like… hard work. So, lazy like Sunday morning, let’s just use this one below as the working one, for the purposes of this morning’s post at least. I’ve lifted it directly from Wikipedia, obviously.
Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
I was lying in bed thinking that, in the current fuss about horse meat in the food chain, do we in the West have a problem with eating animals that we commonly keep as pets – I include horses in this because as anyone has kept a horse can tell you there is plenty of time spent in that mode with them. Then I thought about the animals we have invited into our homes, or at least our lives, and I suppose the driver for the most common of these species was that they served some useful function for man. Cats catch vermin (in theory, some can be most indolent as we know), dogs can protect us, horses used to act as transport and still do in certain cultural rituals (weddings, funerals) and for recreational purposes. So then I was thinking, do we shy away from eating cats, dogs and horses not just because they are pets, but because as we have lived in close proximity with these animals that we have observed aspects of these animals’ consciousness? How much harder it is to eat an animal that you strongly suspect thinks about things. An animal that might, at some cognitive level, have an opinion if you were to entertain the notion of setting about it with a knife and fork…
So, having thought all that, I had to attempt to test the concept of animal consciousness. I can only do that through the observation of my own pets, which to me is preferable to a bunch of animals in a lab and perhaps equally empirically useful on a micro scale. All scientists have to start somewhere – Jean Piaget’s studies of his own children informed his hugely influential theory of child development, Darwin kept chickens or pigeons or something whilst writing the Origin of the Species and there will be many, many more. The first pet that sprang to mind this morning was not the dog, with whom I have the closer relationship, it was in fact the cat. The cat and I are not particularly close; mutual respect might be as far as it goes – after all I mainly buy her food. It is however the children’s father who feeds her the most important meal of the day: breakfast and based on that function I have had a chance to observe her behaviour which is as follows.
The cat likes to break her fast somewhere between 5 and 5.30 a.m. She’s greedy, what can I say? The alarm goes off about 5.30 but often he is up and about before then. The cat has developed a number of behaviours based on what I can only imagine are based on some internal concepts – probably hunger more than being able to tell the time. A hungry cat might miaow, or wait by the bowl, that would be instinct not consciousness. This cat, comes upstairs, walks into the room, walks round the bed ignoring the nearest human which is me, sits round the other side of the bed and miaows. When this does not get an immediate response she starts clawing at the sheet that covers the side of the bed. This more assertive claw-based approach normally gets her breakfast order sorted, pronto.
There are a few aspects of this behaviour that make me think she is actually not merely conditioned as per a Pavlovian dog.
1. She doesn’t always do it (fair enough maybe she’s not always hungry)
2. If the alarm does go off before she’s been in the room, she then acts as an extra get-out-of-bed alarm, miaowing away
3. That she doesn’t go straight to clawing the sheet – she tries the miaow first
None of this is conclusive though, that this particular cat has consciousness, that she is thinking about how to get the same person out of bed to feed her. It could be reasonably argued that she is simply hungry and her behaviour is driven by instinct. However, what utterly confounds this theory is what she does at weekends, when there is no alarm and no-one gets out of bed at 5.30 a.m.
On weekends she does not come in the bedroom at all. Her breakfast is served at the human’s convenience. Sometimes as late as 7.30 a.m.
For me, this knocks the behaviour based on a hunger instinct out of the water.
Whilst writing this I have been thinking too. Do we only notice a form of consciousness in animals that we closely share our lives with? If I was to share my house with a few cows would I notice some form of consciousness in them? I suspect, yes. Certainly cows that are ready to return from the field to the farm to be milked might congregate by the gate. Instinct and classical conditioning – certainly, but if we lived in closer proximity to all manner of beasts I am sure we would notice a deeper consciousness of some kind. The outstanding question for me is whether the cat’s consciousness is developed by living in close contact with humans, or whether it just gives us a better opportunity to notice it?