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Woke or Awakened?

Martin LeFevre: The mystery of consciousness is as old as there have been people conscious that they were conscious. However most people, including philosophers and scientists, don’t know what they mean by consciousness. The confusion is compounded when speculating on whether animals other than humans are conscious.

The term consciousness can refer to anything from sentient creatures like humans, to ‘higher’ mammals such as elephants and orcas, to the awareness that may pervade all life and the universe as a whole.

Buddhists ascribe sentience to all animals, and say even lower forms of life are sentient. Scientifically and philosophically however, sentience refers to being conscious that one is a conscious being. Traditionally, it’s referred to as self-awareness — awareness of self, as distinguished from self-knowing.

Given this definition, humans are almost certainly the only sentient animals on this planet. That doesn’t mean that other animals don’t have consciousness, just that they don’t have awareness of self.

Clearly, to have awareness of self a creature has to have constructed a self, or at minimum possess an image of oneself as a distinct individual.

The mirror test is perhaps the best indicator of self-awareness in this rudimentary sense. The experiment involves placing a mirror before a captive chimpanzee or other animal in such a way that it becomes accustomed to its reflection. After some days, the experimenter then paints a large red dot on the forehead of the chimp while it’s asleep — a process requiring mild anesthesia!

When the chimp awakens and sees its reflection in the mirror, it will touch and study the dot, thus indicating it has an image of itself stored in memory that does not conform to the image now being reflected in the mirror.

Not all primates indicate this basic level of self-awareness, but neither do human babies. At some early point in our development however, we form an image of ourselves. Unlike chimps, that image becomes more and more complex, entrenched and detrimental to our development as human beings. We assume it has independent reality, and call it ‘me.’

We thus get stuck in images of ourselves and others, which prevent direct perception and insight and are always of the moment. The ruts of images deepen and eventually stultify the brain.

Would we say that the chimp, because it has rudimentary awareness of itself, has an inner life? Of course not. An inner life pertains to subjective experiencing, the capacity to ask questions about existence, consciousness and transcendence.

All humans have this capacity, though few develop it throughout their lives. To ascribe it to even the smartest animals on earth does not fit the evidence or common sense, which doesn’t make man special.

Therefore it’s seriously silly to say, as someone recently wrote in a piece in the national media, “Before my kitties arrived in my home, I rarely had occasion to consider the inner lives of nonhumans.” He doubled down: “Does my cat even understand that she is — does she, in the way René Descartes conceived it, possess knowledge of a self?”

No, our cats or dogs do not “possess knowledge of a self,” because they neither are possessed by a self nor do they possess knowledge about the self. That isn’t to say animals are “automata,” as Descartes conceived them, “essentially mindless machines.”

In short, because even the smartest animals, such as orcas or crows, don’t have the illusory subjective experience of a separate self, it does not make them devoid of consciousness.

No matter what philosophers of consciousness say, consciousness is not just a “felt quality.” Cats, dogs and many other animals have limbic systems much like ours, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they feel and suffer as we humans do, much less “feel what it’s like to see the sun set or smell the rain on a spring morning.”

The misguided intention in recent decades is to erase the distinction between humans and other animals. Doing so has taken us further from self-understanding, and done nothing to diminish the “great moral catastrophe of routinely treating nonhuman animals as Descartes saw them, as machines without feeling or experience.”

Rather than speculate about the inner lives of cats or dogs, isn’t the way ahead to tend to our own inner lives? People who speculate on the inner lives of animals, or worry about the future ethical treatment of robots that will have ‘sentience,’ don’t perceive the human crisis, much less how our minds have generated it.

Awakening to the dream of thought-based consciousness is analogous to awakening from sleep as one is dreaming. One feels, as one is dreaming, that the dream is reality. At the moment of awakening, one realizes the dream wasn’t real.

Similarly, in a state of heightened awareness, there is a spontaneous quieting of thought and silence of mind, one realizes that consciousness as we know it is dream, based on separation and symbol.

The higher state of awareness produces the same feeling about ‘normal’ consciousness that waking up from a dream produces about sleeping consciousness. In both cases, one was asleep, and for a timeless period at least, one awakens.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.