On consciousness and character assassination

Happiness is a warm puppy as a writing companion.
Happiness is a warm puppy as a writing companion.

In a recent discussion about dogs as writing companions, I stated that of our dogs Miles was the perfect canine writing partner and Reese was the proverbial trainwreck, sending me off the rails every time he burst into the office and dolphin-poked me with his clammy nose. Since that post, Reese has mysteriously emerged as a routine writing sidekick without peer.

Whaddya mean, I've been replaced?
Whaddya mean, I’ve been replaced?

Instead of ramming through the cracked door (my personal writing Cone of Silence, and yes mine is a joke too), Reese began to appear stealthily. I didn’t notice his presence until he was circling to curl beside me or stretching out behind the office chair; unobtrusive but within attention distance. He remains as long as I do, sometimes hours at a stretch, and happily accepts the occasional head scratch or belly rub as Miles did. Miles, meanwhile, has begun taking his daytime naps on the more comfortable human bed.

As dogs go, I believe Reese to be pretty keen, but he has certainly not developed the ability to read (or has he?). Did he somehow finally grasp, after 11 years, that I dread sudden contact from behind, especially when said contact feels like a dead fish? Did he understand that I had sullied his reputation as an otherwise steadfast companion? Could he be the first pet to sue its owner for libel? Just how deep does his, and the sentience of other animals, run?

The idea that only humans are conscious was popularized by René Descartes in a time when people didn’t think that other animals could think, and because the animals couldn’t think, according to Descartes’ own declaration, they weren’t (conscious). In the 1600s, of course, few households included pets, and people weren’t getting grants to probe human psychology, let alone the behavior of “lesser” animals. Cripes, it took Science until just a few years ago to officially declare—in The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness—that mammals, birds and other animals are, indeed, conscious.

This snow shovel theft was a conscious act, and the ensuing chase was just what Reese wanted.
This snow shovel theft was a conscious act, and the ensuing chase was just what Reese wanted.

Not that anyone who spends substantial time with nonhuman animals needed a herd of PhDs to confirm their cognizance. The dogs remind me of their consciousness every waking minute. One thing they fortunately aren’t aware of is how many of their brethren lost their lives so Science could prove that animals experience pain, possess emotional feelings, and share other characteristics of consciousness.

The consideration of animal consciousness is no longer the mind-blowing risk it once was, although there are still too many who take the biblical explanation of “dominion” a tad literally and dismiss Science as propaganda no matter how obvious the evidence. What may be surprising is the breadth of animals—including invertebrates—that demonstrate awareness.

I recently had an opportunity to read an advanced copy of Sy Montgomery’s delightful The Soul of an Octopus, which is scheduled for release on May 12. Montgomery is a naturalist and writer perhaps best known for her memoir The Good Good Pig and the Orion Magazine article “Deep Intellect,” in which she first explored the mind of an octopus and the bond she felt with a particular cephalopod named Athena.

Wyatt through the office window; 'Captivity is Consciousness.'
Wyatt through the office window; ‘Captivity is Consciousness.’

An octopus may seem an odd creature in which to explore consciousness, and yet Montgomery conveys a remarkable intelligence and sense of being supported by ongoing research and increasingly accessible amateur observations (the octopus has a devoted cult following). Octopuses—not octopi, Montgomery reminds us—demonstrate individual personality traits (playfulness, shyness, irritability) and problem-solving skills among other indicators of consciousness.

Although consciousness is at least partially subjective, one critical component is a sense of self. Montgomery points out that many otherwise learned people still believe this is a characteristic lacked by nonhuman animals, and she cites a Tufts University professor who argued in a book that if these animals possessed a sense of self, dogs would free themselves from tangled leashes and dolphins would liberate themselves from tuna nets. By the same logic, Montgomery counters, people who stay in abusive relationships must not possess consciousness.

We often—and often mistakenly—project our sense of the world onto animals and hold them up to our own invented standards. But animals experience the world differently than we do; consider canines’ keen sense of smell, bats’ astounding echolocation, and octopuses’ perceptive touch. In observing a particular octopus at the New England Aquarium, Montgomery is also introduced to a neighboring sea star, a brainless creature that seems to exhibit curiosity and desire; she quietly, and without over-anthropomorphizing, leaves us to question whether our definition of consciousness is inclusive enough. The Soul of an Octopus is one of those works that makes you hope we can save the planet if for no other reason than to preserve the wondrous beasts we are fortunate enough to share it with.

“Irrespective of our conscious convictions, each one of us, without exception, being a particle of the general mass, is somewhere attached to, colored by, or even undermined by the spirit which goes through the mass,” wrote Carl Jung, who had the hindsight edge over Descartes. “Freedom stretches only as far as the limits of our consciousness.”

Though I am a firm believer in his consciousness, Reese’s sudden transition from serial startler to peaceful writing buddy remains puzzling. I’ve ruled out reading, but I’m not going to leave him alone with the computer anymore, and I’m moving the Jack London stories to a higher shelf just in case.

Reese questions this aspen's self-awareness.
Reese questions this aspen’s self-awareness.

6 thoughts on “On consciousness and character assassination

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  1. This brought me face to face with my prejudices. Dogs, cats, horses, pigs etc having consciousness, no problem. It was the octopus that made me stop.Thanks for the recommendation.

    Maybe Reese has just finally worked out that this is a way to have your company. Or could he be telepathetically plugged into you and receiving your stories through being in close proximity?

    I have just read H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. Put it on your list.


    1. It’s funny that you mentioned “H is for Hawk,” because I just came across that at a bookstore the other day and thought, “This looks interesting; need to add it to the list.” Glad to hear a first-hand recommendation!

      Before I read “The Soul of an Octopus,” I felt what you described. But boy, do octopuses seem wonderfully complex and individual creatures. Although if my idea of consciousness keeps expanding, being a vegetarian (albeit one who occasionally eats eggs and frequently kills spiders and other bugs that invade the house) is not going to be enough; I’ll have to become Buddhist/vegan.


      1. Ah serendipity. I have another book about birds that I love, Corvus by Esther Woolfson. I too am a vegetarian, of the ovo lacto variety, though obviously MasterB is a died in the wool carnivore. I shall look out for the Octopus oeuvre.


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