Animal Consciousness: Have we made progress in understanding it?

Dr. Colin Allen


In 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, drafted and signed by several prominent scientists, concluded, "the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” This can be seen as progress since the days when a reviewer of Animal Minds (Griffin 1994), Donald Griffin’s third book on the topic of animal consciousness, could dismiss the book as the work of a “sentimental softy” (Cronin 1992). Part of the problem of assessing progress concerns the “we” of the title: philosophers, psychologists, ethologists, neuroscientists, and pet owners all bring different sensitivities and different definitions of “consciousness” to the question, leading them to different assessments of the evidence. A reviewer of Griffin’s first book on the topic, The Question of Animal Awareness (Griffin 1976), put the problem this way: "If not the pet owner, then, whom is Griffin trying to convince? The lack of clear answer is perhaps a root of troubles in this essay” (Hailman 1978). In this talk it will not be possible for me to cover all the evidence behind the Cambridge Declaration, but I will survey some of the behavioral and neurological evidence spanning areas such as trace conditioning, episodic memory, and animal suffering, and I will describe how this evidence carries different weights for the scientists and philosophers interested in understanding animal consciousness.


Allen's main areas of research concern the philosophical foundations of cognitive science and neuroscience. He is particularly interested in the scientific study of cognition in nonhuman animals and computers, and he has published widely on topics in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, and artificial intelligence. He also has several projects in the area of humanities computing. He is a faculty affiliate of Pitt's Digital Studies & Methods program and of the CMU/PItt Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition.

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