To start off, I’m really happy with how this series came out, and all of the interest it’s garnered in the topic. The time has come, however, to wrap up my writings on consciousness in cephalopods (for the moment, at least.)
In the first three parts of this series (found here, here, and here) I threw a lot of facts out at you. At the end of it all, I’m left with the impression that what’s unique about the argument for the possibility of cephalopod consciousness is, like the arguments for the possibility of various types of conscioussness in many animals, are easily rejected on philosophical or ideological grounds. Importantly, all of the arguments for “cephalopod consciousness” are actually arguments for the possibility that cephalopods might be consciousness – this is something I’ve tried to emphasize throughout. Because these arguments are based on behaviors that are somewhat poorly studied, and have even more poorly studied neural correlates, all the arguments from analogy in the world will have a hard time conclusively confirming or disproving the existence of consciousness in cephalopods, at until the neural basis of consciousness is closer to being solved (assuming, of course, that it can be solved – we’re all materialists here, right?)
As a scientist, I find that two questions are important in this problem.
The first question: Do cephalopods have consciousness, and what are its characteristics? This is a very difficult question to answer. In fact, I remain unconvinced of any answer to this question. They types of experiments that we would need to answer this question have mostly not been done yet. It seems to early to claim a positive answer to this question, but the evidence so far is too suggestive to claim a negative answer to this question. As an insightful commentators on the first post said, it appears that the most scientifically valid answer in this case is “I don’t know.”
The second question is less direct, but more important: Is it possible that cephalopods have consciousness? Phrased another, perhaps more relevant way: Is it likely enough that cephalopods have consciousness to make it worth further study? To this, I can more assuredly say “yes.” Cephalopods have many of the complex behaviors and cognitive abilities that lead us to suspect various levels consciousness in other animals (and in some cases, to do the difficult experiments that are needed to find more direct evidence of this consciousness.) There is definitely a possibility for cephalopod consciousness.
The mild publicity that this series has garnered is heartening, but also a bit frustrating. Several people have linked to me or quoted me and said something like “Cephalopods really are conscious!” (to be fair, many more have accurately represented my position and phrases.) To set the record straight, the arguments I’ve covered are arguments for the possibility of cephalopod consciousness, not for its existence per se. The most important conclusion I have to make about the topic (given my brief period of involvement with it) is that it’s a horrendously complicated question, and one that probably has no simple or easy answer. Even if we could validly say “cephalopods are conscious” it would be difficult to tell what this meant without further clarification of the various states of cephalopod consciousness and their analogs (if any) in mammals (notably, humans.) This sophistication in our ability to study neural and behavioral phenomena is a long way off.
I’d like to add that I don’t believe this is problematic to the ethics of using animals. The uncertainty of the conscious status of cephalopods (or any animal) should not bear heavily on our ethics regarding that animal. Strictly speaking, the conscious status of every organism but myself is somewhat ambiguous to me, as I don’t have direct access to anybody else’s thoughts, experiences, or impressions. However, it does not make sense that I could violently assault some animal (a human, a dog, or a cephalopod) in a way that would cause great pain and suffering if done to myself, and then claim in my defense that there’s no way to prove that the other organism is conscious enough to perceive and suffer from the harm I’ve inflicted on it. Ethical treatment cannot be reserved for those organisms whose consciousness we can prove beyond doubt, because this would exclude every organism besides one’s self. Thus, if there is a reason to suspect that an organism is conscious in any way (that is, has some sort of awareness of its environment and itself that, presumably, could be pleasant or unpleasant) it deserves ethical consideration.
I’d also like to announce that, because this topic seems to be very popular as well as very difficult, I’m working on a series of interviews with researchers who study consciousness in animals (including cephalopods.) I’ve often felt, while writing this series, that I do not have the background to give much insight into the problem, so I decided that it would be best to solicit the insight of some experts in the area! Look for the posts around October; until then, I’ll be taking on other topics.
Finally, I’d like to thank everybody who left a comment on these articles or linked to them – it feels very good to write something that people like, and even better to write something that they can have a well-written, involved disagreement with.
Thanks for reading!